Interview with James Bharataputra, SJ
Father James, first tell us about your name. Was it always James Bharataputra?
No. I was known as I.S.S.James – short for Irudayam Singarayar Sebastian James. When I became a naturalized citizen of Indonesia in 1989, I came to be known as James Bharataputra.
You have completed 50 years as a Jesuit missionary in Indonesia, right?
On 18 May 2022 I completed the 50th year of my missionary life in Indonesia. This year, 2022, is my Golden Jubilee Year as a missionary in Indonesia; for it was on 18 May 1972 I landed in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra Province of the Republic of Indonesia. Archbishop A.H. van den Huruk OFM Cap. of Medan archdiocese wanted someone to serve the Tamil Catholic community of Indian emigrants in the island of Sumatra, which belongs to Indonesia. Since at that time I belonged to the Hong Kong Jesuit province, the then Hong Kong Provincial, Fr Fergus Cronin SJ, lent me to Medan archdiocese.
But you are from Tamil Nadu, India, aren’t you?
Yes. My parents had no children for ten years after their marriage. I came to know later that my mother had made a private vow to offer me back to God, because I was the fruit of her unwavering faith and unrelenting prayers and penance for ten years. A girl child was born after me. My parents were ready to offer us both to God’s service. My sister became a nun.
You joined the Madurai Jesuit province first, didn’t you? How did you come to belong to Hong Kong Mission?
Some of the American Jesuit missionaries working in Batticalo Mission in Sri Lanka came to do their tertianship at La Providence, Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India. A few of these Jesuits used to come to Michaelpatnam, my native village in Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu, in order to learn Tamil. Our parish too was run by the Jesuits. During my high school days at St. Mary’s, Dindigul I had the privilege of teaching Tamil to two American Jesuits who were working in Sri Lanka – Frs Moran and Miller. My interactions with them made me dream of working as a missionary in Sri Lanka. But unfortunately the political situation in Sri Lanka those days prevented me from realizing that dream. So I joined the Madurai Jesuit province.
This year, 2022, is my Golden Jubilee Year as a missionary in Indonesia; for it was on 18 May 1972 I landed in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra Province of the Republic of Indonesia.
In 1963 when I did my philosophy at Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur, Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, one of my classmates was Jeffrey Colond, a Singaporean Jesuit Scholastic. He belonged to the Hong Kong Mission. The Irish Province had adopted the Hong Kong Mission, which included Malaysia. The Mission needed Tamil-speaking missionaries to serve the Tamils in the Malaysian region. I offered myself to serve there for the Hong Kong Mission. After much correspondence between my Superiors, I got the approval of the then General, Fr Pedro Arrupe, to join the Hong Kong Mission and serve in Malaysia.
But the Government of Malaysia refused to renew my visa. My Superior in Hong Kong decided to send me to Indonesia to do my theological studies at Kolese Ignatius in Jogjakarta in December 1967 with the hope that things would change and that I could be brought back to Malaysia after my ordination. But God seemed to have a different plan. In August 1968 I had the opportunity to visit Medan during my holidays in December 1968. Archbishop van den Hurk OFM Cap, of Medan, who had been looking for a Tamil-speaking priest for some time, asked me if I was willing to come and serve the small Tamil community in his archdiocese. Since I could not get back to Malaysia, my superior in Hong Kong was ready to send me to Indonesia soon after my ordination and pastoral year. This is how I landed here in 1972.
You have completed 50 years as a Jesuit missionary. Of these how many years have you spent in Indonesia?
Forty six years! I am in awful wonder at the way God’s loving providence has led me to this mission land, to grow and bear fruit. I am also amazed at the great trust my Jesuit superiors had in me. They allowed me to labour alone all these years, serving the local Church, the archdiocese of Medan. Now for the past 22 years I remain at the Marian Shrine of Graha Maria Annai Velankanni, Tanjung Selamat, Medan. This is my 17th year as its Rector.
Since I could not get back to Malaysia, my superior in Hong Kong was ready to send me to Indonesia soon after my ordination and pastoral year. This is how I landed here in 1972.
Before you built the Shrine, did any contribution give you joy and satisfaction?
Seeing that one of the main causes why they remained poor was lack of proper education, I launched an educational project. I put up a primary school on an empty land in their village. The land belonged to the archdiocese. I named it Karya Dharma. My aim was to provide an opportunity to children from economically poorer families and the school drop-outs. God blessed my initiative and thanks to Karya Dharma, hundreds of poor children completed their primary education during the past three decades. Many of them have now become graduates. I feel gratified to see among the Tamil Catholics here a considerable number of graduates, holding good positions in business and in white-collar jobs today. The people appreciated my initiative and were very cooperative. This was my Palm Sunday. But soon came the Good Friday.
As a missionary in a foreign country, did you have any difficult, painful experiences?
Of course, I did. In the late 1970s I started a project to bring a radical change in the life of people in a village called kampung Kristen (Christian village). For more than three generations they had lived as a secluded Tamil community that lived on the charity of Dutch missionaries. They owned no property. They were afflicted by poverty, alcoholism, petty quarrels, and a deep-rooted inferiority complex. I tried to get them to interact and mingle with other communities. But instead of being grateful they became angry and opposed my ideas. I had to face a lot of opposition, betrayal, and mental suffering. My inner suffering and frustrations led to a period of depression. My very vocation and missionary life were threatened. That was my Good Friday.
The highlight of your years here has been this Marian Shrine, which seems to be an architectural masterpiece. How did it come about?
I wanted Mary to perform miracles here in Medan as she has been performing at Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, India for more than three centuries by drawing people from all walks of life and helping them know her son Jesus. I know that every shrine that draws pilgrims from all walks of life does two things. It helps them encounter God. At the same time it reminds the pilgrims that they are all children of one God, whatever may be their religious faith. It teaches them to respect and love one another as brothers and sisters as they are all children of the same Father in Heaven. Therefore the barriers that keep us divided disappear in a shrine. It helps them exclaim, with the psalmist, “How beautiful it is to live as brothers and sisters in the Lord’s house on earth!”
How did you actually realize your dream of building a Marian shrine in Indonesia? How much did it cost?
That was a time when the Indonesian national economy was very unstable. But I am a man of faith and faith makes you dream dreams. I didn’t think of the cost and how I will get the money I needed for the shrine. I began with what I had. Then the generosity of Marian devotees saw to everything. Hundreds and hundreds of Marian devotees kept sending me generous donations. Many wanted to remain anonymous. Eventually it cost more than four billion Rupiah (equivalent to US $ 500,000).
From where did you get the ideas about the structure and the design of the Shrine?
From my dreams. I believe God was telling me such details through my dreams. At times I used to wake up from my dreams and jot down some of the details of my dream lest I forget them. I do not know how to describe this extraordinary spiritual experience by which I felt that it was God who was dictating his plan for this Shrine in detail as I was proceeding with the construction.
You must have received a lot of praise from several people for this Shrine. Do you remember any appreciative remark in particular?
My friend and companion, late Fr Ignatius Jesudasan, SJ, a thinker, writer and Gandhian, wrote, “The imposingly impressive Marian shrine would serve as a crowning celebration of Fr James’ four decades-long missionary dream and experience in Indonesia. Its whole architectural design is supposed to reflect St. Ignatius’s dream-like contemplation in his Spiritual Exercises on the mystery of Incarnation. It is artistically represented here, as in medieval cathedrals, through paintings and statues. Indo-Saracenic in architectural style, the Shrine combines social utility as a community hall at its basement, worship and adoration on the middle floor, and artistic contemplation of religio-historical mysteries on the top floor. Since the Shrine draws pilgrims of all faiths, Fr. James Bharataputra has contributed his share to Indonesia’s religio-cultural diversity and tourism. His life has become a blessing to many people.”
I wanted Mary to perform miracles here in Medan as she has been performing at Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, India for more than three centuries by drawing people from all walks of life and helping them know her son Jesus.
The Archbishop of Medan wrote, “Fr James has been working in Indonesia for 50 long years giving his life and energy to our Archdiocese. The pinnacle of his work is the establishment of the Archdiocesan Pilgrimage Centre known as the Marian Shrine of Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni in Medan.”
Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, former Superior General of Jesuits, wrote: “You could see how wonderfully and uniquely God has been leading you all these years of your missionary life in Malaysia and Indonesia… Placing yourself unreservedly in God’s hands, you have achieved things beyond your imagination… You constructed a shrine to Our Lady, Annai Velanganni, to spread the devotion among the Tamil Catholics in Indonesia. It is a cause of great satisfaction that now, as the Rector of this Shrine, you see thousands flock to receive our Mother’s favours and profit from her powerful intercession.”
In a review of my autobiography in the Indonesian language, Fr Sindhnata, SJ, a journalist and a prolific writer in Indonesia, wrote: “The majesty and beauty of the shrine are the embodiments of the inculturation process between his native land, Tamil Nadu, and the land of Sumatra. The shrine has become a place where heaven and earth meet – where the divine and the human embrace each other – where God wants to meet his people, irrespective of race, creed, and language.”