PAY It Forward, a movie that made $9.6 million in the United States on its opening weekend in 2000, holds meaning for Fr Thomas Ismoyo that cannot be measured in dollars.
It describes how he lives his life as a priest.
Fr Thomas, an Indonesian priest living in Brisbane while he studies at the Queensland University of Technology, celebrates his 10th anniversary of ordination later this year.
He referred to Pay It Forward in describing the way he lives priesthood.
“Pay it forward” is a term for receiving an act of kindness from one person and then passing on that kindness to someone else.
“Priesthood is about love,” Fr Thomas said.
“God loves you and, since He loves you, He provides everything that you need – not abundantly, but enough for you to share with others, for you to share in your life.
“And priesthood is a way of life that I can share totally to others … so it is about love that I receive and love that I share …
“You know the movie titled Pay It Forward, so I try to ‘pay it forward’ to serve God by serving others.
“That is maybe the quality of my vocation; I don’t dream a lot and think about all the technical terms but I think that is the essence.
“God is love and we receive His love abundantly, and this priesthood is a way of life for me to pay it forward to others and give the glory to God …
“The key point is ‘pay it forward’ with what you receive from God.”
Fr Thomas, 38, began “paying it forward” from a young age, starting as an altar boy at his parish in Jakarta, Indonesia.
He and his older siblings, a brother and three sisters, were encouraged to live their faith by their parents, both of whom converted from Islam.
His father, Laurentius, became a Catholic in junior high school, inspired by one of the religious brothers who was teaching him, and Fr Thomas’ mother, Maria, converted when she and his father married.
“My family was a very devout, active Catholic family. We went to the church every week,” Fr Thomas said.
“My big brother was a member of the young adult Catholic ministry; number-two was a reader; number-three was a member of the Legion of Mary; number-four was an organist and is still serving as an organist; and I was one of the altar servers.
“So I grew up in the tradition of a Catholic family; our wellbeing would be threatened if we didn’t go to the church,” he laughs at the memory of it.
Sometimes serving as an altar boy at weekday Masses, he noticed the happiness of the Jesuit priests there “and sometimes I ended up having a meal in the presbytery with them and with the seminarians”.
He said he came to know many priests who were “very friendly, very diligent and very warm, and they attracted me (to the priesthood)”.
“I went to the minor seminary first, when I was 15, and then I joined the major seminary afterwards,” he said.
“And, maybe it was just the way that God shows me, because God has loved me so much …
“In my reflection, God has loved me so much. He loved my family.
“He provided many ways to help my family to overcome their situation, because we were very poor at some point.
“My dad decided to take early retirement from the Air Force and we were very poor but he was helped by a Jesuit priest who offered him a job, and from that moment my family wellbeing has been looked after well, because my dad got a job.
“And one of my key reflections at this time was, ‘If God loves me so much, in what way can I repay His love’.
“’Maybe by becoming a priest it can kind of show God, ‘Thank you, God, for loving me so much; I want to repay your love by giving up my whole life to the Church’’.
“And today I feel happiness and joy.”
Fr Thomas said serving as a priest “is a way of life in which I share my life, my whole life, with others”.
“Even though I have many weaknesses and frailties, but I think it is the best way for me to share my love and life to others like that,” he said.
“By becoming a priest, I can relate with many persons in every circumstance of their life – from giving birth, baptisms; until they’re weak and terminally ill, with the anointing of the sick.
“I can experience the moments of life which are very important for them.
“For me, it is just like God calls me to be with them.
“Sometimes I can’t help them but sometimes just to be with them it will maybe relieve some tension and some grief by offering God’s love and … just to show God is with them …
“So, what sustains me as a priest? I think that God loves me … and it is not about me, my calling is not about me.
“I think I experience God’s providence up until now and I believe He will always pour out this blessing upon me.
“So it is not only about myself doing something or myself striving for everything that I want; it is about God’s love, His love that always shows me the way.”
Ordained for the Archdiocese of Jakarta in 2010, Fr Thomas served in parish ministry for a few years before his archbishop asked him to take on further study which led to him graduating from the University of Indonesia with a master’s degree in Management Studies.
The archbishop then appointed him director of the diocese’s pastoral centre which offered formation in pastoral ministries.
Two years on, following a new offer from the archbishop Fr Thomas headed off to Brisbane for doctoral studies in Human Resource Management at QUT.
Fr Thomas lives at Wynberg, the residence of Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and, apart from when COVID-19 restrictions are in place, celebrates Masses in the St Stephen’s Cathedral parish and twice a week at QUT.
“So I live with the Archbishop, and the cathedral dean and the associate priest, Fr Anthony (Mellor) and Fr Odinaka (Nwadike), and they asked me to help at the cathedral as well in a limited ministry,” he said.
“I also celebrate the Mass for the students and the staff (at QUT) in a very small chapel with probably around six to 10 people who turn up, and it is a good thing because it is a very international university.
“In the chapel with the Indonesian priest, there is one Aussie, one Indian, two Brazilians, … there’s a very United Nations chapel there, so I’m happy with that.”
It’s a bit like being at Wynberg, his home away from home.
“Here at Wynberg, we live as two Aussies, one Nigerian, one Asian, and sometimes we have guests from Africa, sometimes we have guests from India so this experience of a multicultural Church is a gift that we can learn from each other about our custom, our tradition, but we are united with the same Church,” Fr Thomas said.
“It is a very multicultural Church in Australia.
“Maybe in one church we can hear people speaking in maybe eight languages.”
Fr Thomas is enjoying the multicultural experience.
“We don’t have that in Indonesia – about the diversity, about unity in diversity,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve learnt most … and it is a gift for the Church in Brisbane, not only for the congregation but also for the priest as well.
“It is a very good thing that I learn from the Church in Australia … In the cathedral, for example, more than 50 per cent of the attendance are Asian and South Americans.
“It contributes to the life of the Church.”
It all adds up to an experience that has him loving Australia “in many ways”.
“I love the traffic; the traffic is so good … and light,” he said.
“Have you ever driven in Indonesia?
“I have a friend from Chicago who visited me in Indonesia and when he accompanied me driving in Indonesia he said, ‘Thomas, if you can drive here, you can drive all over the world …’
“So Australia’s fun like that – light traffic, and then we can walk to the park, jogging, and fresh air … because it is not a country; it’s a continent, very wide.
“I love Australia, and I will be back some day in the future … because I am finishing my studies in maybe May next year and I will go back to Indonesia.
“But then I’m happy to visit Australia again.”