Hopes and Concerns in Sri Lanka on the Eve of Pope Francis’ Visit

Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu

On the eve of Pope Francis’ 13-15 January visit to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka with its 21 million people, known as ‘the pearl of the Indian Ocean”, I asked Hector Welgampola a veteran Catholic journalist about the significance of Francis's visit to this majority Buddhist country, with sizeable Hindu and Muslim communities, where Christians (most of them Catholics) are a tiny minority of 1.5 million faithful. 

Hector Welgamola, a Sri Lankan journalist, was editor of the island’s Catholic weeklies from 1972-87, and afterwards served for fourteen years as editor-in-chief of UCA News, the main Catholic news agency in Asia. In this interview, we talk about the situation in Church and State as Francis comes to canonize the country’s first saint and pray for reconciliation among its inhabitants after a 30-year war between the Government forces and the Tamil Tigers, which ended brutally with the latter’s defeat in May 2009. That conflict left some 100,000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and many open wounds especially in the north where Francis will go to pray at the famous Marian Shrine at Madhu for reconciliation among all Sri Lanka's communities, to dry tears, and maybe even to weep.

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What is the significance of Pope Francis’s visit to Sri Lanka?

Asian Church traditions of Eucharistic worship, Marian devotion and loyalty to the papacy have been a much cherished faith heirloom of Sri Lanka’s Catholics.

Hence, the three papal visits to the country are precious landmarks in our recent Church history.By the first papal visit in 1970 Pope Paul VI gave a moral boost to the Catholic community bruised by the government takeover of Catholic schools.On his 1995 visit, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Joseph Vaz, who had revived the Catholic faith banned by Dutch colonizers.

The 2015 visit of Pope Francis is eagerly awaited because of the scheduled canonization of Vaz as the country’s first saint. Catholics hope the event could promote catechesis and evangelization just as visit of the Fatima Pilgrim Virgin statue did in 1951. The fame of Pope Francis’ people-friendly style has generated further hope that his visit would be more a pastoral event than a papal pageant. The Assisi link between the Vaz asceticism and the Bergoglio lifestyle is seen as a setting for a new Epiphany.

It’s twenty years since John Paul II’s came here. What has changed in the Church and State since then? What’s the situation today?

The two-decade gap between the visits of John Paul II and Francis has seen more than a generational change. Apart from changes in leadership and pastoral cadres, the Sri Lankan Church has seen the rise of a new generation of theologically-literate, though socially-fractured, laity. In addition to the impact of socio-economic inequalities and consumerism sharpened by a secularized educational system, the ethnic war left Church and Nation wounded and divided.

The civil war has ended but the wounds are still open. Pope Francis is going to pray at the Marian shrine at Madhu, in what was the war zone? How significant is this? What do you hope he will say there?

In such a scenario, the Holy Father’s decision to pray at the Madhu Marian Shrine is the most hope-inspiring feature of his visit. Madhu, the country’s revered Marian shrine, is the spiritual refuge of both Sinhala Catholics and Tamil Catholics, in whose homeland the ancient shrine was nurtured by a priest of Father Vaz’ pastoral team. The pilgrim shrine, which Father Vaz named three centuries ago as one of the country’s eight key mission stations, has sustained Catholics through many calamities, personal and collective. Having survived the ravages of the recent ethnic war, it has reemerged as a symbol of hope for the country’s Catholics. But for political reasons, this symbol of Father Vaz’ apostolic ministry would have been the appropriate religious venue for his canonization. While wishing that the Holy Father had more time to reach out to people of the war-ravaged North, I hope he will speak up for social justice and peace as well as for people’s right to equality as citizens, and not for mere tolerance as residents in a military-occupied territory.

Do you expect a strong call for reconciliation from the Pope at Madhu, and what would that mean for the people, the Church and the State?

The war and the war psychosis have scarred many Catholics of both Sinhala and Tamil communities. Some Church leaders tried to identify with their respective communities; others hid their heads in the sands of time, while very few dared to take a prophetic reconciliatory stand. A small number of laypeople, clergy and religious continue to persist in a Christian witness to justice and peace. I hope the Holy Father will applaud and encourage the Christian witness of courageous promoters of justice and hold them up as an example to those lacking in prophetic leadership.

He should urge rulers to leave people free to initiate reconciliation based on justice, and the effective restoration of the rule of law and democratic process. He would do well to exhort all levels of the country’s leadership to genuine public service free of corruption, nepotism and self-aggrandizement. And if the papal visit to Madhu is to be a credible pastoral outreach to the people of the North, the Holy Father’s entourage must be comprised of pastors and not politicians, with assistance from civilian police, not the military.

As leader of the worldwide Church, the Holy Father would be well aware of the local Church’s difficult role as a multiethnic community in an ethnically polarized society. In such a scenario he would appreciate the “little flock’s” need for reliance on the Gospel message, not human expediency, as the guide in championing the cause of the grieving minorities without unduly alienating the historically aggrieved majority. The “little flock” should be challenged by Pope Francis’ oft-articulated preference for a Church bruised in the service of God’s poor to a Church cocooned in State-ensured comfort.

Since the Sri Lankan Church has both Sinhalese and Tamil members among the bishops, clergy, religious and laity, has the political situation undermined the Church’s unity in the island?

 Sri Lanka is home to four ethnic groups: Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers (who trace their ancestry to Portuguese and Dutch colonizers) and Muslims. While each of the country’s other main religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) has a specific ethnic base, Christianity is the only religion with followers among Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers. As such, Christians have been blessed with the opportunity to play a unitive role in the country. But that blessing was not always optimized during the 30-year ethnic war. And Churches need to prelude efforts toward ethnic reconciliation with a mission of self-healing. Parishes, dioceses and religious movements need to rebond resisting tendencies to splinter on ethnic or ethno-biased lines.

Of the country’s 12 Catholic dioceses, 8 are in predominantly Sinhala areas and 4 are in predominantly Tamil areas. Mostly native clergy and Religious serve these dioceses, each headed by a native bishop of the diocese’s major ethnic community. The episcopal conference led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, a Sinhala, comprises 14 other bishops: seven Sinhala ordinaries and four Tamil ordinaries. Two of Colombo’s three auxiliaries are Sinhala, while the third is Tamil. The Catholic community’s multi-ethnic character remains a grace still underutilized in the service of a nation threatened by divisiveness.

What is the relationship between the Church and State in Sri Lanka today?

Traditionally, Sri Lanka’s Church leaders have eschewed divisive politics and dealt with the State mainly in matters that concern people’s welfare such as education and child care, health care, family welfare and the public good. Although Church leaders occasionally spoke out on issues such as human rights including workers’ welfare, lay organizations and lay apostolates were the normally preferred actors in relations with the State.

In more recent times, however, the growing involvement of Buddhist monks in political matters seemed to encourage Church persons to directly involve with the political sphere, much to the distress of laity. Catholics abhor clergy and hierarchy moves to act hand-in-glove with politicians of whatever party. Sri Lankan Church leaders could learn much from the Gospel-based path the Holy Father took in Church-State relations as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

What is the relationship between Christians and Buddhists in the country today?

 Relations among Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus have been quite positive at people level, in spite of the ethnic war’s insidious spillover. However, already weak interchurch relations have been affected by alleged inroads made by some Fundamentalist groups, which in turn boomerang on Catholics’ relations with Buddhists and Hindus.

Such problems were aggravated by alleged state patronage for an urban Buddhist militancy kindled by the post-war ethnic euphoria. Some extremist groups spread religious hatred, desecrated and burned churches and religious shrines. While genuine religious leaders of both sectors acted with calm and fostered interreligious amity, maintaining sanity among some lay followers was no easy task. A recent tie-up between the small group of militant Buddhist monks in the country and Myanmar’s Wirathu group has fed on media publicity.

A symbolic interreligious amity continues to be evidenced by the interreligious forum known as the Congress of Religions. A very positive interreligious gesture marking all three papal visits to Sri Lanka was the active participation of Buddhist monks and Buddhist artists in planning designs or decor for papal pavilions. A Buddhist artist has already sculpted a bust of Pope Francis and is reportedly working on another larger sculpture to be presented to the Holy Father during his visit. Such is the public goodwill to the charismatic pope.

Some Catholics called for postponement of the Pope’s visit because of the decision to hold the election on the eve of his arrival. Are there risks attached to Francis’ visit because of the election?

Catholics welcomed with great joy the prospect of Father Vaz being canonized by Pope Francis. For three centuries, they had yearned for this holiest day in the history of the local Catholic Church. But just as they regretted disruption of this year’s Christmas season by election campaigns, they were distressed to see the spiritual preparation for the canonization being dissipated by countrywide bitter political rivalry.

Since Sri Lanka is noted for greater incidence of post-election violence, local Catholics fear for the safety and life of the Holy Father. That is why a few concerned groups, including bishops, clergy and laity proposed that the papal visit and the canonization be postponed. They were confident that, if such a request were made, the non-pompous pope would agree to such a rescheduling to facilitate optimum spiritual benefit from the canonization and his pastoral visit.

According to political analysts, several factors may have contributed toward the advancing of the presidential election, which was not due for another two years. The country’s aggravating economic crisis is likely to deepen with the impact of an upcoming UN inquiry on war crimes. Analysts also claimed that anticipatory presentation of a people-friendly budget and the pageantry of the papal visit had been seen as a salutary environment for electoral victory. More importantly, the counsel of astrologers to the President has been reported as a vital factor in scheduling the election for “the auspicious date” Jan. 8! But things didn’t work out that way.

Moreover, it should be said that both presidential candidates gave a commitment to ensure that peace would prevail after the election.

How do the people of Sri Lanka and the island’s Catholics view Pope Francis? What is it in him that most resonates with them?

Very much like the rest of the world, Sri Lanka too has been carried away by the Bergoglio phenomenon. Pope Francis’ simple lifestyle and dislike for pomp and pageantry have endeared him to native Sri Lankans, a nation that still cherishes Gandhian simplicity and the Asian predilection for equanimity. Amid all their fears, they pray for his safety and look to his visit as a Spirit-led blessing. 

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