Catechists take part in a prayer service on Jan. 24 at Catechist Center in Anuradhapura. (Photo by Anurdhapura Diocese)
In Anuradhapura Diocese where Catholics are less than 1 percent of the total population, being a catechist is an important vocation to help in the mission of the local church.
Piyaseeli Perera, 52, an unmarried catechist from the Buddhist majority area of Puttalam in Sri Lanka has dedicated her life to the service of Anuradhapura Diocese.
"Over the last 30 years I have dedicated myself to catechism and other religious activities in Anuradhapura. At present I live in a house adjoining Nirmala Lurthu Church in Anuradhapura. There are also 15 other teachers living there, who came from Colombo, Chilaw and Kurunagala to serve in Anuradhapura."
Anuradhapura Diocese has about 12,000 Catholics out of a population of 1.3 million, less than 1 percent of the population. At least 90 percent of people are Buddhists.
Perera used to travel about 25 kilometers from her residence to a church in Mihintale to teach catechism.
"It is 25 kilometers from home to the church. We travel by public bus and walk another 3 kilometers. The Mihintale Church has five centres. I and another teacher are responsible for all the Sunday classes within these five places," she said.
"Apart from Sunday classes I visit parishioners’ houses and discuss their family problems like school drop outs. Because the area is majority Buddhist, many mixed marriages have taken place. There are family problems which have affected the children."
"We help them to solve their problems, conduct prayer services and prepare children for first Holy Communion and Confirmation," she said.
"Earlier, I taught religion as a subject to Catholic students who study in Buddhist schools. During that time there was opposition from Buddhist monks," she said. "Through these difficulties I continued to serve."
Perera explained that she has continued her mission for the last 30 years with many difficulties.
"I am paid 6, 500 rupees (US$ 44) by the Bishop of Anuradhapura. With this salary I have to buy food, pay electricity, water bills and medical expenses," Perera said.
The Ministry of Tourism, Development and Christian Religious Affairs also funds 11,860 catechists across 13 dioceses in 2017.
The Diocese of Anuradhapura employs 242 catechists and are paid with contributions from the Ministry of Tourism, Development and Christian Religious Affairs, according to Father Eric Fernando, Treasurer of Anuradhapura Diocese.
Father Fernando said each teacher also gets 5,000 rupees in subsidies.
"Money is only for education and to buy books and update their knowledge. During Christmas teachers get a gift and they get a uniform twice a year from the government," said Father Fernando.
"We organize education and awareness programs at national and diocesan level. We organize awareness program for catechists on social issues on poverty, kidney disease, farmers’ problem and inland fishing," the priest said.
"Most of our catechist not only teach catechism but are also involved as animators to young people through the children’s program in Lakrivi," said Father Fernando.
There are 15 teachers who work full time living in a house the diocese maintains. They encourage people to recite the rosary and carry out Bible study.
Father Fernando said that even though Anuradhapura has a small Catholic population the Sunday class attendance is 99 percent.
There are only 12,000 Catholics from 4,000 families. If a child is absent the parish priest and catechists such as Perera visits the parents.
Anuradhapura city, sacred to Sri Lankan Buddhists, is an ancient capital within the territory of the diocese. The arid area is rich in ruins of palaces, gardens, dagoba (Buddha relic containers) and reservoirs dug over the centuries.
Anuradhapura Diocese has 27 priests, 52 nuns and 242 catechists serving 12,000 Catholics in 15 parishes.