As the second most visited tourist destination in Indonesia, Yogyakarta is probably best known for its food, culture, and overwhelmingly kind people – all of which I’ve written about. However, it’s also actually home to some of the best destinations for Catholic travel in Indonesia, albeit Catholicism only being the second largest religion in the area.
I recently went on a Catholic pilgrimage trip in Yogyakarta to celebrate Mother Mary and during the trip, I discovered some really interesting sites in the region that travelers – Catholic or non-Catholic – should visit to get a better understanding of how the people of Yogyakarta practice their religion, combining their Javanese traditions and the Roman Catholic traditions at the same time.
Here are 4 Catholic sites you need to check out (and meditate at, if you’re Catholic) in Yogyakarta!
1. Gereja Katolik Candi Hati Kudus Yesus Ganjuran, Bantul – Home of Javanese Jesus and Mother Mary
Located at Bantul, near the epicenter of the 2006 earthquake that struck Yogyakarta, this church is one of the most popular ones among Indonesian Catholics for several reasons.
For one, the big church building itself was the only building that completely collapsed during the earthquake while the rest of the church complex remained pretty much intact. What’s crazier was that the only victim found inside the church was a man preparing for mass who got hit by the tabernacle.
However, aside from this dark yet somewhat miraculous story from the church, the one thing that really made the church popular is the temple building located within the church complex which is home to a statue bearing the Javanese interpretation of Jesus.
The temple and the platform right in front of it is where Catholics usually pray and meditate at. This is mainly because of that Javanese interpretation of Jesus. You see, we’re all so used to the Jewish or white interpretation and frankly, at times, that version of Jesus can be hard to relate to because He doesn’t look like someone most Indonesians would know. This artist named Iko then decided to carve out a statue depicting Jesus as a Javanese king sitting on his throne, a figure more familiar to more Indonesians and he then placed it inside this replica of the Prambanan temple. What’s super cool is the philosophy behind it: the marble for the statue was taken from the north of Yogyakarta and the statue faced south, depicting the Javanese philosophy of harmony between north and south
When I saw that statue for the first time, I cried and couldn’t stop crying because I think that was the time that I felt God was most real and most familiar. And somehow, I found it so easy to rest my mind and meditate there even though I’m usually thinking about a million things a minute.
If you’re Catholic, you can also have a private prayer session inside that temple replica. All you have to do is queue by sitting on the platform on which the temple stands and wait until everyone who’s sat there before you has got their turn. Worshipers traditionally make their way up and down the temple without ever turning their back on that statue.
Other highlights at the church complex include its Stations of the Cross carved on the complex walls, the Marian grotto which has a statue of Javanese Queen Mary holding baby Jesus, a private bathing room with holy water, an adoration chapel, intricate wiring arrangements to place candles, and taps where holy water flows from.
My favorite part though, is this little gift shop next to the temple replica which sells everything a Catholic would need as well as some snacks and drinks. Although it seems like just another gift shop, this one’s actually pretty special because however much you spend here will be given to the orphanage run by nuns behind this temple complex. You can also visit the orphanage if you want to – just make sure to call first or meet with a nun running it who sometimes roams around the church complex. What’s crazy is that the items are seriously cheap yet somewhat unique. The Catholic jewelry were especially so pretty and different compared to the jewelry I’ve seen elsewhere so make sure to stop by the gift shop if you’re at Ganjuran.
Gereja Katolik Candi Hati Kudus Yesus Ganjuran | Jl. Ganjuran, Sumbermulyo, Bambang Lipuro, Bantul, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta | (+62 274) 367154 | Open 24 hours | Parking Rp3.000, Free entrance, but do make donations at boxes around the church complex
2. Gereja Salib Suci Gunung Sempu, Bantul – Home of the Absolutely Quiet Marian Grotto
If you’re the type who wants absolute silence when you pray or meditate, then you’re going to love this place. Gereja Salib Suci Gunung Sempu is literally so remote that one wrong turn we made in the attempt to find this place led us to the middle of an eerily quiet Christian graveyard surrounded by tall, dark trees. Located in the middle of a village near the woods at Bantul, it was quite difficult to find the site without Google Maps. It was only when we got close to the place that we found signs saying “Gereja Peziarahan” or Pilgrimage Church leading to the church complex. What’s interesting is that the church is located right across a mosque – a beautiful symbol of what religious tolerance in Indonesia should be like!
Once we got there, we still had to climb some uphill road and stairs to finally get to the grotto. What’s really special was that alongside this uphill stretch of road, rocks carved with the Stations of the Cross were placed – perhaps to give worshipers doing the Stations of the Cross a taste of how Jesus had to climb Golgotha.
After climbing the first set of stairs, the first thing you’ll see is a well called Jacob’s Well which is a source of holy water that’s never stopped being there, even during dry seasons. What’s cool is that you don’t need to flex your muscles to pull the bucket from the bottom of the well (which, mind you, is a hell of a long way down), but locals or previous visitors have done the heavy work and you only need to get water from the bucket next to the well for a taste of the holy water.
Behind the well is the main church building which had no walls and no chairs save for plastic chairs stacked neatly on one side. To the left of the well is one more set of staircase leading to the grotto.
What’s really special about the grotto’s location is that it’s within this garden that seemed to be a replica of Eden with its wrought iron gates at the bottom of the staircase and stone cherubs at the top. In the iron-fenced garden itself, you’ll find – along with the Marian grotto – a huge Cross and a marble replica of the Pieta.
Catholics can also pray in front of the Cross or the Pieta. Wherever you choose to pray or meditate at, one thing you’ll feel is the absolute silence of the area aside from twittering birds in the distance. For real, it was one of the most amazing places to pray at due to how remote it is. Also, if you happen to arrive there near sunset time, you’ll feel the wind pick up and get colder as the sky grows darker since the church complex is near a mountain. It was the stronger cold breeze in that silence that made praying there felt so calming for me, though I’m aware how it may feel eerie for some to be praying in such silence surrounded by woods and dark iron fences.
Also, don’t be alarmed if you open your eyes after praying during the sunset and find a huge black shadow behind the Mother Mary statue in the grotto. That’s just because the lights at the grotto come from beneath the statue, hence the seemingly looming shadows. I’m not gonna lie, I was freaked out at first when I saw that shadow – especially given how silent, cold, and remote the area was.
Gereja Salib Suci | Jl. Rakai Hino, Tamantirto, Kasihan, Bantul, Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta (use Google Maps if you want to get here or you’ll most likely get lost, I kid you not!) | Open 24 hours | Pay as you wish for parking at one of the boxes at the bottom of the first staircase
3. Gua Maria Sendang Jatiningsih, Kulon Progo – Home of Mother Mary by the River
It took about 2 hours to get to the grotto from Yogyakarta. Although it’s located in the middle of a village in Kulon Progo, it has a huge parking lot for buses which makes it a popular stop for Catholic pilgrimage tour groups and hence, a lot less quiet than the previous two grottos I’ve talked about. However, the place is still quite special.
Once you’ve parked, you have to find the unmarked entrance on the right side of Aloysius Hall, then descend some stairs and walk past the construction for a chapel to get to the Marian Grotto which has a wide platform with squat chairs in front of it for worshipers to pray at.
The grotto and its platform is also surrounded by open prayer halls where tour groups usually pray and though it’s nice to hear these groups chant prayers you think about in your head, it’s not so nice when they finish praying earlier than you and then start chattering behind you.
However, it is when the tour groups finally leave and the place quiets down that you’ll find what’s special about it. You see, the grotto actually faces a huge, rushing river and when it gets more silent, you’ll hear the thunderous rush of the river that’s right behind you and seems so close. It felt like a pretty close representation of life when it gets tough – it’s like the rushing river of problems ready to drown you is so close and you just have to keep praying that it won’t touch you and drown you.
I guess that’s what a lot of people felt when they come here too and perhaps a lot of people prayed during some of their hard times at the grotto because near the grotto is a board filled with typed and handwritten notes thanking God for prayers at the place that were granted.
Also, in case you’re wondering whether you can get close to that rushing river, you actually can! Behind the grotto, there are plenty of stairs heading down towards the river bank that you can descend if you want to. Perhaps prayer meetings were held on that river bank, I’m not so sure.
Outside of the grotto complex, there are several souvenir shops lining the parking lot area selling a variety of Catholic items. A special item you can find here is a titanium bracelet with the inscription of the Our Father prayer in Bahasa Indonesia on it for only IDR60.000! It’s usually not on display though so you’re going to have to ask the vendors for it.
Gua Maria Sendang Jatiningsih| Sumberarum, Moyudan, Sleman Regency, Special Region of Yogyakarta | Open 24 hours | Pay for parking as much as you wish to one of the men with the box and umbrella at the parking lot
4. Gua Maria Sendangsono, Kulon Progo – Largest Grotto Complex in Yogyakarta
To be blunt, this is perhaps the most “touristy” – if you will – Marian grotto complex in Yogyakarta because it’s also the largest one here. The complex somewhat looks like Hong Kong or Singapore during the age of pirates and trade with its stone walls and pointed red roofs and is super duper huge!
To get to the complex itself, you need to first climb an uphill asphalt road lined with souvenir shops and food stalls, turn right, walk past some more food stalls until you finally get to the entrance of the complex. Yes, there’s so many food stalls here, there’s no way you’d get hungry leaving the complex. Visitors can enter through two entrances: the first leads you through the Stations of the Cross first before getting to the grotto and the other towards the taps of holy water in front of the grotto. It’s clear that this complex is meant for large pilgrimage tour groups since there were hexagonal seats on the bank of the river in front of the holy water taps for large tour groups to sit and pray at.
My mom and I went through the entrance leading to the taps of holy water which you can use to wash your face before praying at the grotto. We also brought flowers bought at one of the stalls there to lay at the grotto since it was the last stop of our personal pilgrimage in Yogyakarta.
Once we went past the holy water and climbed up more stairs to get to the grotto, we discovered that the area surrounding the grotto is actually quite small. Worshipers can pick up plastic squat chairs for their seats during prayer.
Since the area surrounding the grotto is not spacious and there are numerous worshipers and tourists alike, it was definitely super difficult to focus and pray there. People were milling about, snapping photos of the Mother Mary statue, calling their friends for good spots, burning incense candles – basically making a lot of noise. In my head, I laughed so hard because it was so funny that God would put this as my last stop, as if saying to me “yeah, Mary, this is the stuff you deal with on a daily basis, the noise and chaos and everything, now I challenge you to find peace here like you would outside.”
Seriously, it wasn’t easy to pray there that when I finally got to the last decade of the Rosary, I said “Hallelujah” in my head. The challenge was indeed to find peace there, amid all the noise.
There’s actually a chapel for large tour groups above the grotto but I guess it’s not the same as praying at a real grotto because visitors flock the grotto with their loud mouths anyway.
Once you’re done praying there, you can actually escape the noise by walking past the less crowded Stations of the Cross on the way to the exit. There are also old women at the exit selling some homemade food if you’re hungry so make sure to get some if you’re starving (AND DON’T BARGAIN! My gosh, it ticks me off the most when people who can afford Starbucks daily bargain in buying these women’s food!)
Gua Maria Sendangsono | Banjaroyo, Kalibawang, Kulon Progo Regency, Special Region of Yogyakarta | Open 24 hours
In retrospect, these 4 sites I visited actually represented the full spectrum of Catholicism practice in Indonesia. From finding that realness of Jesus to the calming peace, the desperate clinging to prayers at dark times, and the presence of God in the chaos – these are emotions I’ve felt in various times as a Catholic in Indonesia. That’s why I think that visiting these sites can allow anyone to understand a bit more about how the Indonesians, particularly Javanese understand and practice the religion of Roman Catholicism in their lives.
I’m seriously looking forward to come back to Yogyakarta to do another pilgrimage trip like this and dig a little deeper into understanding Javanese Catholicism. If you have recommendations on other Catholic sites to visit in Yogyakarta, do let me know in the comments for my next trip!