The pro-democracy activist who became a priest
Politics never fulfilled Stefanus Hendrianto but he has found his calling in spirituality.
Jesuit Father Stefanus Hendrianto. (Photo supplied)
Stefanus Hendrianto, 45, was among the ranks of students involved in the pro-democracymovement in Indonesia in 1998 that finally brought down the authoritarian Suharto regime after 31 years of iron-fisted rule.
He was a law student at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and went to Jakarta to join other students in the anti-Suharto protests.
The series of rallies were marred by bloody incidents in which several students were shot dead, some kidnapped and disappeared before Suharto finally stepped down on May 22 of that year.
Hendrianto, known as Hendri Kuok among his peers, was one of the leaders of a revolutionary party, the Democratic People Party, which was founded in 1996 and became the main opposition to the Suharto regime.
Shortly after Suharto’s fall, which heralded the beginning of the reform era, he chose to seclude himself from activism and continue his law studies abroad.
That decision would lead him to a completely different way of life — the life of a priest.
Father Hendrianto — as he is now known — was ordained a priest with 21 others on June 8 this year in Portland, Oregon, and belongs to Jesuits West, which encompasses the Pacific coast states plus Alaska and Hawaii.
He described the change in his way of life as “a mystery” and completely unplanned.
“When I was a child and lived in Indonesia, my intention was not at all to become a priest,” he told ucanews.com.
The younger Hendrianto chose to pursue a master’s degree in law at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, while his fellow activists chose to walk the political path.
After earning his degree, he returned to Indonesia and worked as a legal assistant for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its Jakarta office.
Desiring a more meaningful life, he took a doctorate program at the University of Washington Law School in Seattle.
There, he said, his life’s journey changed, especially after his interaction with Catholic youths from other universities in the city.
“They helped me a lot in shaping my faith and ultimately led me to the priesthood,” he said.
Father Hendrianto said that the seed of a priesthood vocation grew stronger when he became active in a Newman Center run by the Dominicans.
“The activities at the center foster the seeds of vocation, through discussion or spiritual activities,” he said.
Fascinated by Jesuits
Father Hendrianto said that although the Order of Preachers or Dominicans played a significant role in his life, he was more attracted to joining the Society of Jesus.
It happened after the Dominicans one day invited Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, then the president of Gonzaga University, Washington, to give a lecture on Catholic faith and political philosophy.
Father Hendrianto said he was very impressed with Father Spitzer’s lecture, which he called “very fascinating.”
“At that time, I thought, if I wanted to become a priest, it should be like Father Spitzer,” he said.
It was not his first encounter with the Jesuits, however. While in Indonesia, he often spent time in parishes served by Jesuits.
“While I was still studying at Gajah Mada University, I always attended Sunday Mass at Sanatha Dharma University’s chapel served, which was served by Jesuits,” he said.
After moving to Jakarta, he also attended Masses at Jakarta Cathedral, which was also served by Jesuits.
In 2009, upon the completion of his doctorate program, Hendrianto entered the Jesuit novitiate in the United States.
Later, in 2016, he studied philosophy at Loyola University, Chicago and also enrolled at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, where he earned Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees.
He also taught at the law school and political science department at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college in Silicon Valley, and worked at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, where he wrote and researched at its Kellogg Institute for International Studies.
One of his monumental works as a scholar was “Law and Politics of Constitutional Courts: Indonesia and the Search for Judicial Heroes,” which was published last year by Routledge and widely discussed, including in Indonesia.
The book was also debated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in Jakarta on July 25, which he also attended.
Follow St. Ignatius’ path
Looking back on what he did as a student-activist, Father Hendrianto said it was part of the process as a young man, who was both “idealistic and naive.”
As a young man, he felt the calling to change the world by joining the student political movement, but it did not address his spiritual quest.
“My experience as a student activist did not help me spiritually. My heart was filled with revenge, anger and bitterness,” he said
“All of these things made my life empty. In principle, my soul was like being in a dry, barren and waterless field.”
He said although he became a Jesuit quite late compared to others, he has discovered that Ignatian spirituality answers what he had been searching for in life.
He even found a similarity between himself and Ignatius of Loyola.
“If you look at the life experience of St. Ignatius of Loyola, he also decided late to become a priest and then established the Society of Jesus.”
“He also had to go back to school and learn Latin together with the younger ones. I am also more or less the same and study philosophy with undergraduate students,” he said.
“I am proud because it means that I am walking his path.”