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Father Tissa: the great communicator

Remembering a man of immense faith and convictions

  • Stefan Gigacz, Melbourne
  • International
  • January 22, 2013
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I first met Fr Tissa Balasuriya in 1988 at a Bangkok training session, organised by the International YCW, which dealt – very appropriately – with “Faith and Action”.

By then, he was already very well known in Asia and indeed around the world as a leading theologian of the developing world and a social activist.

He played a founding role in the establishment of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) and was its first coordinator in Asia from 1976 to 1986.

Earlier in Colombo in 1971, Fr Tissa had founded the Centre for Society and Religion, whose very name sums up Tissa's lifelong concern for the Church to address social issues. 

As a seminarian, he studied in Rome where he was ordained in 1952. There he first heard and met Fr Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, which was then at the zenith of its influence.

Clearly, Fr Tissa was earmarked for bigger things and it is no surprise that he became founder Registrar at Aquinas University College of which he would become rector from 1964-71.

As Asia Human Rights Commission director, Basil Fernando has written, Fr Tissa “began his career as a conservative priest growing under the tutelage of the then well renowned Fr. Peter Pillai”. 

“(He) responded to the social changes that were taking place in Sri Lanka and began to call upon the Catholic Church to understand these changes positively and not to take a reactionary stance.”

Vatican II also clearly marked him deeply as did contact with a new generation of students of the 1960s and 70s.

This led him to involvement with the International Movement for Catholic Students (IMCS) of which he became Asian chaplain from 1969-79. It was a significant transition from involvement with a formal Church institution (Aquinas) towards a movement of lay people.

However, Fr Tissa also saw the need for new Church institutions, particularly in Asia. And he was among those who welcomed and worked with the emerging Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC). 

Not everyone agreed with him, however, and indeed it was difficult to listen to him at times. As a “westerner”, I found his analysis of the role of ex-colonial powers disconcerting and challenging. However, he was equally if not even more critical of Asian elites and I remember him in 1988 pointing out that India had as many people living a first world standard of living as Germany.

As an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, he evidently had a deep vocation to the mother of Jesus. But he rebelled against the image of a passive Mary. In his book “Mary and Human Liberation” he sought to present her as the Mary of the Magnificat, who worshipped a God who exalted the humble and cast the mighty from their thrones. 

Trouble was to come from an unexpected quarter, however, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith began an investigation into the book, particularly in relation to Fr Tissa's critique of the doctrine of original sin, which he felt had been distorted from the original context in which it was formulated by St Augustine.

While he felt he was ready to face up to the theological arguments, he was shocked by the way in which the CDF handled his case.

“After having given  all my life to the cause of the Church, I am  perturbed  that the  CDF  should  take such unilateral and unjust action concerning my book and condemn me, without due process, as if I had defected from  the faith of the Catholic Church,” he wrote after Pope John Paul II announced his excommunication.

At that time I was studying canon law and a friend of Fr Tissa asked me to look at the case. I looked up the procedure in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and was disturbed to be unable to find any justification there for the procedure followed by the CDF.

I thought there must somewhere be a special law outside the Code that governed the operation of the CDF and I spent several weeks in the European summer of 1997 combing the canon law library at Louvain-la-Neuve searching for such a law or decree. I found nothing. It was clear that the CDF process was uncanonical, and in my opinion, invalid.

This led Basil Fernando, myself and several other to launch an appeal to Pope John Paul II on Tissa's behalf.

The only response we received was when the CDF on 29 June 1997 – seven months after he had been excommunicated on 8 December 1996 – adopted a new set of Regulations for doctrinal examination, which in effect retroactively legitimized the procedure that the Congregation had used. 

Still, Fr Tissa was not looking to prolong the dispute and the excommunication was lifted several months later after he signed Paul VI's 1968 Profession of Faith together with a letter of compromise.

Later, he said he had come to regard the experience as an “in-communication” rather than an “ex-communication”.

It is perhaps a fitting epitaph for a man who strived to stay in communication with God, the Church and people.

Stefan Gigacz is a journalist and author who is currently researching his PhD at MCD University of Divinity in Melbourne

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