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Catechists serve as living witnesses in rural Sri Lanka

Surrounded by Buddhists, teachers of the faith live a simple life and help poor people

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

Published: October 24, 2019 03:11 AM GMT

Updated: October 24, 2019 03:14 AM GMT

Catechists serve as living witnesses in rural Sri Lanka

A statue of St. Joseph Vaz at Cansaulim Church in Goa. (Photo by joegoauk via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sri Lankan catechist Fatima Jothi lives among Buddhists in Kahatagasdigiliya village in Anuradhapura Diocese and seldom has contact with her family.

Born in Marawila in Chilaw Diocese, she left her parents and other relatives 30 years ago and joined Anuradhapura Diocese as a catechist.

Jothi, 53, and her friend Piyaseely Perera, 52, visit houses and prepare children and adults to receive the sacraments. Jothi conducts classes at Horowpathana, Mihintale, Ashokapura, Thirappane and Kahatagasdigiliya Sunday schools.

"We both cook together and all around our house are Buddhists, but they love us very much. We are invited to every wedding in the village," said Jothi, who travels around 25 kilometers by public transport to teach the Catholic religion to children.

They live a very simple life and help poor people in their day-to-day activities. Another duty is to prepare non-baptized children and youths to be received into the Church.

"We receive 7,500 rupees (US$42) per month, which is a small amount to survive, but we sacrifice our lives regardless of personal benefits," said Jothi.

There are about 70 Catholic families in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Kahatagasdigiliya. Anuradhapura Diocese, about 200 kilometers north of capital Colombo, has about 15,000 Catholics in a population of 1.3 million. Buddhists comprise about 90 percent of the people.

Anuradhapura is considered the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is one of the ancient capitals and has a vast network of ancient Buddhist temples, monasteries and places of worship.

Catholics across Sri Lanka are engaging in activities this month to observe and celebrate Extraordinary Missionary Month. The Catholic Church marked the 93rd World Mission Sunday on Oct. 20.

Pope Francis declared October as Extraordinary Mission Month to revitalize and renew the missionary call. This year's celebration also commemorates the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s apostolic letter on mission, Maximum Illud.

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Father Damian Perera, a history writer and catechetical director in Anuradhapura Diocese, said the diocese has 268 Sunday school teachers.

"There are five full-time catechists in the diocese who serve parishes," said Father Perera. "In our Buddhist-majority area, the church is the only place to strengthen the Christian faith."

Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Buddhists, with Hindus accounting for about 15 percent and Muslims 8 percent. Christians, mostly Catholics, make up the rest.

Sunday school is important because there are a lack of Catholic teachers in government-run schools to teach catechism.

In the Sri Lankan school system, all students must study religion. When the majority-Buddhist students study Buddhism, Christian students also study their own religion.

Catechists have to undergo a special class once a month and have to pass a three-part teachers' exam as well as a certificate course approved by the government.

Piyaseely Perera became a catechist in 1989 and still serves Anuradhapura Diocese. "Our mission is to protect a handful of Catholics here and bring them to God," she said. "We train children to be leaders, help them when they are in need, and prepare children for sacraments."

Sri Lanka's first and only saint

Father Cecil Joy Perera, rector of Daham Sevana Intermediate Seminary, said the history of the Sri Lankan Church records the period governed by the Dutch, who did everything possible to eradicate Catholicism from the country.

Father Perera said that God sent St. Joseph Vaz encouraged by lay leadership. The Indian missionary was an example of missionary zeal.

St. Vaz secretly helped Catholics to remain in their faith. He walked hundreds of miles and dressed as a beggar because of religious persecution and had secret meetings at night with Catholics. When he entered the country, he saw churches were destroyed and the faithful dispersed.

Pope Francis was instrumental in his canonization and declared him as the apostle of Sri Lanka in 2015. That was one of the major positive achievements for the local Church to follow St. Vaz as a model for catechists.

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