After years of persistence, Papuan island in Indonesia gets first native bishop

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

After many years of insistence, the Catholics of Irian Jaya, the part of the island of Papua belonging to Indonesia, have finally managed to fulfill an old desire: to have an indigenous bishop at the head of the pastoral ministries of their province. Last month, the Vatican appointed 61-year-old priest Yanuarius Theofilus Matopai You to the post, replacing Franciscan prelate Leo Laba Ladjar.

It should be remembered that 70 percent of the 4.5 million inhabitants of Irian Jaya profess Christianity, of which 675,000 follow the precepts of the Holy See. If we add the 90,000 Catholics in the eastern half of the island, in the independent state of Papua New Guinea, we have a total of almost 800,000 believers.

In the case of the Diocese of Jayapura, the oldest of the five existing in Irian Jaya, the appeal to the Vatican was supported by Indonesian bishops of the most diverse origins and ethnicities. In the diocese of Timika, this appeal was reinforced after the death, in 2019, of the prelate John Philip Saklil, born in Irian Jaya but with family roots in the Moluccas. Appointed by Pope John Paul II, Saklil, despite not being considered a native bishop, always had the support of the local population, as he openly opposed the Indonesian corporations that unrestrainedly exploited the natural resources of their land. Local Catholics now hope the new bishop will follow in Saklil’s footsteps.

Ordained a priest in 1991, after completing four years of training at the Fajar Timur Institute of Philosophy and Theology, where he currently serves as president, Yanuarius Theofilus Matopai You holds a doctorate in anthropology and has served Papuan Catholics in different parishes. His appointment also demonstrates the recognition on the part of the highest ecclesiastical authority of the maturity of the Faith of a people who embraced Christianity just over a century ago. This is if we speak in official terms as there were once attempts at evangelization by the chaplains who accompanied the Portuguese merchants present on those coasts since the beginning of the 16th century.

Officially, Papua was discovered in 1526 by Captain Jorge de Meneses. Amazed by the flowers and plants that he had never heard of, by the fabulous animals “that seem to have come out of books that describe distant and fantastic places” and by the natives stuck in ancient times “with archaic customs and rituals,” the navigator confessed in his diary: “Despite cursing the incessant rains that have driven us from our course, I give thanks to Providence, since if it weren’t for It, I would never have reached this land.”

A few paragraphs later, he added: “Our chaplain tried to understand their religion and my men showed them some tools they had never seen before, as they still use bones and stones.” Jorge de Meneses showed willingness that “perhaps, in the future” all those people will be part of the Crown’s domains and “our priests will spread the true Faith among them.” He then elaborates on the locals, based on information provided by the Malay sailors in his crew: “It seems they call the people of this archipelago Papua, which means ‘crimped’. I suppose they’re called that because of their hair. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to venture out into the island and must make do with small expeditions along the coast. I hope the weather improves soon and we can leave this archipelago to do our duty. I will never forget these lands and, from now on, I call this place the Island of Papua.”

Despite these records, the Catholic mission in Papua officially began in 1894 with the arrival of two Jesuits in the area now known as Fakfak. Early on, the territory came under the control of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) who, in the early 1900s, sent a group of religious to the area, which shortly afterwards, Franciscan missionaries joined. In 1949, with the establishment of the Apostolic Prefecture of Hollandia, the future diocese of Jayapura, the Catholic Church was structured.

However, the fact that there was no indigenous bishop there worried the Papuans, who have always been victims of violence, intimidation, poverty and discrimination. In vain they sought some kind of recognition, “difficult to obtain from the authorities.” Their only hope was the Catholic Church. However, for many the faith was “close, but far away.” They did not feel the closeness of the Indonesian prelates appointed there, and in 2021, they even cast a vote of no confidence, extending to the Indonesian Episcopal Conference itself. They demanded the presence of native bishops “who knew the geographical, anthropological and social dynamics of the Papuans.”

Now that wish has become a reality. The appointment of Bishop Matopai You is a strong sign of the Catholic Church; a measure “that will help to restore the confidence of local believers in the clergy.” However, this does not mean that Papuan Catholics advocate any sort of separatist policy. They simply want a Catholic Church “increasingly rooted in Papuan culture” and expect from its top local leader “understanding of the current situation and of the just social claims.”

(Photo credit: Joaquim Magalhães de Castro)