Christ calls, Asians respond

Lent series 2024

Sri Lanka

Beating cancer helps Sri Lankan Buddhist woman find faith

By Quintus Colombage

March 20, 2024 03:16 AM

After two years of pain and failed treatments, Ruwani Mudalige said she had 'a dream of Christ' in 2019

Ruwani Mudalige is pictured using her mobile phone.

Ruwani Mudalige is pictured using her mobile phone. (Photo supplied)

At 58, Ruwani Mudalige chose to be baptized a Catholic in Sri Lanka after years of keeping away from Catholicism, her mother’s religion.

"I grew up in a house of Buddhists. But my mother was a strong Catholic. I used to attend Sunday Mass with her during my childhood, but I never felt a connection to the Church," Mudalige said.

She moved further away from Christianity with her marriage to “a devout Buddhist” at the age of 22 in 1988.

The family of her husband Aloka Weerathunga was one of the traditional dancers, who attended Buddhist religious festivals and ceremonies across the Buddhist-majority country.

Mudalige accompanied them as they — her husband, his father and other relatives — performed before temple processions with a decorated elephant in vibrant colors.

During these festivals, her family's youngsters formed a fire-dancing team, performing outside Buddhist temples as part of the festivities.

“Those were joyful and colorful days when we hardly thought about the meaning and purpose of life,” she said.

Traditional fire dancers are seen performing during a Buddhist festival in Sri Lanka. (Photo supplied)

But those colors faded when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, aged 51.

The doctors diagnosed her with aggressive cancer and scheduled surgery and chemotherapy treatment, but she refused to believe the medical reports.

Doctors also told her that there was no treatment for her ailment other than surgery and that avoiding it could become life-threatening because of her advanced age.

She agreed to one round of chemotherapy and surgery.

After two years of pain and failed treatments, she said she had “a dream of Christ” in 2019.

The crucified image told me that “God loved me because of his mercy, but not because of my merits. I saw it as a sign from God to return to him," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Her prayers to Christ, she said, “miraculously cured her of cancer, surprising even doctors.”

When doctors scheduled another surgery in 2020, she insisted that they re-scan. Medical examinations certified her as free from cancer that year.

Ruwani Mudalige (third from left) is seen kneeling and praying at the Kurusa Palliya (Holy Cross) shrine in Marawilla, Sri Lanka. (Photo supplied)

Despite the cure, regaining health was a gradual process. Her recuperation took a few months, most of which she devoted to reading the Bible.

"When I read the Bible stories about miraculous healings, I realized perhaps Jesus healed the sick not just to fix their physical bodies. But they, like all of us, had the greatest spiritual need of all — to encounter life-changing love," she recalled.

Mary Elizabeth, Mudalige’s close friend, who stood by her and sought prayers for her cure from Catholics — including nuns and priests, was also convinced that the cure was a miracle.

Mudalige and her friend, who would later become her baptism sponsor, have visited Kurusa Palliya (Holy Cross) shrine in Marawilla on Fridays since 2020.

“There I felt connected with God, and received the invitation to join the Church,” she said.

She shared her story with one of the priests at the shrine and he directed her to a nun. The nun began to teach her catechism.

“It is hard to believe that someone will convert to Catholicism at such an old age. I still respect Buddhism, and I have a clear feeling about Lord Buddha. However, because of my experience, I follow Jesus,” she said.

She was baptized at St. Mary’s Church in Chilaw diocese in April 2023, marking a new chapter in her spiritual journey.

A statue of Lord Buddha surrounded by his disciples is seen at a popular Buddhist center in Sri Lanka. (Photo supplied)

Her conversion did not go down well with the Buddhist villagers.

“Some hardline groups resorted to making different forms of wrong announcements in the village against my change and some villagers also propagated various false claims about my family,” she said.

“No one cheated me, and no one gave me money to change my religion. It was my personal decision about my life,” said Mudalige, respecting all her Buddhist friends.

She said that converting to Catholicism in a predominantly Buddhist village was a challenge, because of the push by Sinhala-Buddhist militant groups to ensure the dominance of their majority religion.

But Mudalige said she wants to serve the community. Since baptism she has become a parish council member and is looking to join other such groups, she said.

“I never lose my faith in God and continue to support vulnerable people and those who need my service,” she said.

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