Sri Lanka honors priest who fought social injustice

Tissa Balasuriya challenged church convention in quest to serve underprivileged
Sri Lanka honors priest who fought social injustice

In the later stages of his life, Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya established a small center to provide rudimentary schooling for young children. He was an outspoken Catholic priest and activist who was excommunicated during the reign of Pope St. John Paul II. (ucanews.com photo)

Inspired by the lifelong efforts of an outspoken Catholic priest who was excommunicated during the papacy of St. John Paul II, social activists in Sri Lanka are continuing his mission to protect the downtrodden.

Mary Beryl Patricia said she decided to join the Center for Society and Religion (CSR) in March 1978 that Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya founded in order to fight against social injustice.

A newly opened resource center dedicated to the late priest, who died in March 2013 at the age of 89, is both a testament to his work and a reminder of the importance of what he stood for, she told ucanews.com this January.

Balasuriya was known as a liberation theologian and staunch anti-imperialist who railed against the exploitation of Asia by colonial powers from the West.

He was also critical of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later go on to become Pope Benedict XVI, and was punished in 1997 for his unorthodox — some would say radical — views on the Virgin Mary, original sin, baptism and women's right to serve as priests. 

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A senior member of staff who has worked at Sri Lanka's Center for Society and Religion (CSR) for over 30 years pays his respects to Tissa Balasuriya on the fifth anniversary of the late oblate's passing, at the CSR's auditorium in Colombo in January 2018. (Photo by ucanews.com)

 

While the church has traditionally portrayed Mary as meek and docile, Balasuriya struck a nerve by painting her as more of a strong-willed revolutionary.

After he was excommunicated, he spent much of his time working with slum dwellers, female activists, vulnerable women, orphans, human rights workers and even church whistleblowers.

He would later write of then Cardinal Ratzinger, who was instrumental in the Vatican's proceedings against him, "He has to have a less eurocentric view of the world. He must be ready to accept that God can speak to humanity through other media than the Christian church."

Patricia, who is now 68, worked with him for 27 years. She recalled how she would stay up for nights on end typing articles dictated by Balasuriya, who she refers to as Father Bala, calling for a better world.

"Father Bala struggled to gain social justice for the oppressed and the marginalized, and his love for the impoverished was not theoretical but came from his heart," she said. 

Father Ashok Stephen, executive director of the Center for Society and Religion (CSR), addresses priests, nuns and rights activists at the sixth commemoration ceremony for Father Bala on Jan. 17, 2019, in Colombo. During his lifetime, Father Bala railed against global injustice, neoliberal economics and the exploitation of Asia by the West. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

 

"This was seen as a challenge to those in power, both in civil society and within the church," she added.

She described him as a deep thinker who tried incessantly to provoke dialogue on pressing social and theological issues.

Patricia remembers a kind man who mingled with slum dwellers in Colombo, women workers in free trade zones, victims of ethnic conflict, farmers, fishermen, young people and victims of huge development projects.

Yet he was not without a sharp edge, harshly condemning parts of capitalism and neoliberal economics in his regular articles penned for domestic and international media.

At a time when the Catholic Church was dominated by male clerics, Balasuriya stood out from the crowd by championing women's rights and their dignity, and making a case for female priests.

"Even though he struggled during the period when he was excommunicated, he never lost his love for the church," Patricia said. "He tried to negotiate with the hierarchy by engaging in positive dialogue with priests and laymen both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

The priest, who wrote no fewer than 35 books on theology, human rights, the exploitation of workers and the merits of other religions, ran into problems with the Vatican after publishing his book Mary and Human Liberation in 1990.

The Vatican warned him that the text contained heretical content because it misrepresented the doctrine of original sin and cast doubt on Christ's divinity.

He was excommunicated in 1997 but the ban was lifted one year later in the wake of intense pressure from various groups of priests and laymen.

Balasuriya never accepted any privileges from political leaders and is said to have led an ascetic lifestyle. He also launched a controversial magazine in pursuit of social justice to educate people on burning issues.

A trained economist, he was ordained a priest in 1953 and became the first chaplain in the Asia-Pacific region to join the International Movement of Catholic Students.

In 1971, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a Marxist-Leninist party known in English as the People's Liberation Front, led an unsuccessful armed insurrection against the government.

That prompted Balasuriya to quit Aquinas University College and establish the CSR, which serves slum dwellers, vulnerable women, rights activists, university students, victims of Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war and researchers.

Over time his writings became more diverse and he strove to go beyond contextual theology, even covering such subjects as "planetary theology" in 1984.

He was also a founding member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

Prof. Shirley Lal Wijesinghe, who teaches at the University of Kelaniya just outside Colombo, said academic life was of secondary importance to the priest, whose foremost concern was helping the poor.

He liked to challenge theologies that justified the kind of structures that fostered or extended poverty, the professor said.

"There is a machine that produces poverty and this is fuelled by economic relations and thought patterns including Christian theology. This was the center of gravity of Bala's thought," Wijesinghe said during an address to priests, nuns and rights activists in the capital on Jan. 17 on the sixth anniversary of Balasuriya's passing.

"At the very outset, it should be noted that Bala's life's work was not meant for academic consumption. It was theologizing in the context of concerted action. The objective was action, contemplation on action for action. This was shown clearly in the structuring of the conferences he organized.  

"The CSR was a significant prophetic gesture 'of society and religion' or 'of a just society' and of a relevant religious philosophy or a Christian theology for a just society,' and it was followed by others with diverse specializations. One among them is the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL)."

Balasuriya was a founding member of PAFFREL, launched in 1987 to ensure fair and free elections to help foster democracy in Sri Lanka.

Father Ashok Stephen, executive director of CSR, has since assembled a collection of his books including those on liberation theology, feminist theology, human rights and the environment.

On Jan. 17, to commemorate the priest's fight for social justice, a special reference section showcasing these was opened in Colombo for the use of academics, university students, and rights activists.

"We will open a library in a few months so that more people can borrow and read his works," said Father Stephen, who serves as an attorney-at-law.

Patricia said Balasuriya worked with Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims indiscriminately, serving various ethnic and religious groups and bridging religious divides. "He worked tirelessly for justice," she said.

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