A file image of Pope Francis releasing a dove in the Sri Lankan town of Madhu on Jan. 14, 2015. (Photo by Alessandra Tarantino/AFP)
In April 2014, when the Sri Lankan bishops were in Rome for an ad limina visit, they spoke to Pope Francis about the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Then, on his visit to Sri Lanka the following January, he agreed to raise Blessed Joseph to sainthood.
During his visit Pope Francis made five speeches, visited the Madhu Shrine and greeted those who had been subjected to violence in the ongoing civil war. Although it had already been over for five and half years by then, no solution had yet been reached to give both sides a win-win outcome.
Caritas Sri Lanka had organized various events in the quest for reconciliation, working hard to help the victims and the displaced. It tried to provide income-generating projects for people in the north and the east, while several NGOs also did their best to help people make the transition to their new circumstances.
The pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) was a very positive attempt by church leaders, challenging as it did gross violations and corruption in the country. It was issued in December 2013 but after that there was no attempt to work out the practical details of how to implement its proposals.
Moreover, when those with the country’s best interests at heart made a hue and cry, church leaders neither supported them before or after the changeover. The Church was, frankly, a silent observer and did not side with the poor and the sufferers.
Nor did the north-south negotiations help much — they were initiated with great pomp and high expectations but did not result in any progress.
The papal visit remained merely a historical fact for the local Church. Pope Francis’ appeals became distant sounds while poverty increased; during the five years since the papal visit, its influence has dwindled.
For the local Church in Sri Lanka, the documents that the pope had published, including his second encyclical Laudato Si’, have been translated into the Sinhalese language — and that is a positive. On the other hand, however, these documents are not studied and discussed and, sadly, remain on the book shelves only.
Another important aspect of the reign of Pope Francis is moving toward the importance of synodality, an aspect of the pastoral arrangement that had not hitherto been taken seriously by the local Church.
The pope approved the canonization of the Blessed Joseph Vaz, declaring him the apostle of Sri Lanka. That was a major positive for the local Church.
In his sermon at the Galle Face Green, where the largest gathering of people congregated, the pope spoke of three areas of in the life of St. Joseph Vaz, stating that the new saint was a powerful sign of God’s goodness and love for the people of Sri Lanka.
First, St. Joseph Vaz was an exemplary priest and an example of patient suffering in the case of the Gospel. And he was constantly united with the crucified Lord. He had become a living icon of God’s mercy and reconciling love.
Secondly, he showed us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace. He is an example of missionary zeal. This is what Christ asks of you. This is what St. Joseph teaches you. This is what the Church needs of you.
One could ask from local church leaders whether they followed these three positions posited by the pope in the last five years positively in their pastoral work. Maybe they are trying to take the statue of the saint around the country as if to expose a relic of a garment?
At the interreligious gathering held on the day of the pope’s arrival, Jan. 13, Francis spoke to the coming together of four major religious groups integral to the life of Sri Lanka.
The pope stated that he had come to demonstrate the great love and concern the Catholic Church has for the island nation. He hoped that his visit would encourage and deepen inter-religious and ecumenical cooperation. He requested that the local Church open new avenues in this regard.
His last visit was to the Madhu Shrine of Our Lady and here he pleaded for the resolution of ethnic disputes and the building of future reconciliation, justice and peace for all in the country.
As mentioned already, local church leaders conveniently forgot the path shown by the pope. Only a few of his proposals were taken seriously.
Even his very recent statements on the evils of sexual abuse and the human unity of all groups did not figure in local Catholic journals.
With the Easter Sunday tragedy in the background, the Church was open to dialogue with other faiths. The feelings expressed by the majority and some of the people including the clergy, however, are very negative regarding the Muslim faithful and only a few concerned priests and laity even made an attempt at dialogue with the extremists.
The after-effects of the pope's visit
Immediately after his visit, as he made his way to the Philippines, Francis spoke very positively about Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, hailing him as a genuine and simple person. Did our president live up to the ideals presented by the pope? It can be recorded that he had instead took up a contrary position in his leadership.
Although the pope proved his relational leadership qualities, the Sri Lankan Catholic laity as well as other civil society leaders failed even to take note of his appeals for life, environment, the poor, the migrants, the refugees, and the marginalized in society.
Since the president also made himself minister of the environment when he took office, he should have taken a leaf from the epoch-making encyclical Laudato Si’ and given it wide publicity in the country. Had he done so, it would have done great benefit to the environment.
For 900 days the families of the disappeared had fasted in the north of the country, requesting information regarding those who disappeared in the war. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s political leaders have failed even to listen to the words of the pope, for whom the refugees, migrants and disappeared were such a major part of his vision.
It is my plea that the local Church and the political leaders of the country do constantly become aware of the approach of the pope.
Let everyone, not only Catholics but all the citizens of Sri Lanka, study the methodology of Pope Francis by giving prominence to marginalized people at the bottom of society, performing the mission of the Church and getting involved in the development of the country by its political leaders.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a prominent human rights defender, and a former university lecturer and chaplain of the Young Christian Workers Movement of the archdiocese. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com