Almost every month, Sri Lanka’s popular Madhu shrine, a Marian pilgrimage site inside a forest, holds pilgrimage feasts largely at the initiative of laypeople.
Every May, it is the turn of Catholic parishioners from the Negombo region, a Christian stronghold some 260 kilometers from the shrine, to organize the festival.
A 20-member team of laypeople arrange for the liturgy, as well as organize accommodation, food, and free medicine for some 7,000 pilgrims for the week-long event. They also invite some 20 priests and a bishop to celebrate the feast day Mass.
Nelson Dariju, a Catholic from Mother of Presentation parish in Negombo has been part of the 20-member volunteer team since 2010.
He says he feels disappointed that “some priests don't encourage but dismiss such efforts by lay people as normal.”
The 57-year-old told UCA News that priests do not assist them adequately in organizing such festivals that promote interfaith harmony in the country.
The feasts at the 400-year-old national shrine cut across faiths and ethnicities and attract the Buddhist majority Sinhalese and Hindu-majority Tamils, who were bitter enemies during Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.
“Some priests do not even make an announcement about the feast during the Sunday Mass,” said Dariju, who works for Sarvodaya (Progress of All), a voluntary organization promoting social harmony.
Various parishes and regions organize 11 feasts a year at the shrine — every month except in April and November. In March, they organize two feasts.
Most priests “ignore laypeople and their contributions to their parishes,” said Dariju, who has been involved in Church activities since becoming an altar server at the age of eight.
B. Nelson Dariju, 57, reads at a feast Mass at the Madhu shrine in May 2023. He was among 20 lay leaders who organized the feast at the National Shrine of Sri Lanka. (Photo supplied)
Laity ignores mission
Puspa Fernando, a Catholic teacher based in Ratnapura diocese, which covers a remote region in the south-central part of the country, said lay missionary activities are “rare in most dioceses” and most Catholics consider “mission work is the role of the priests.”
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation with an estimated population of 21 million. Buddhists make up about 70 percent, Hindus 12.6 percent, Muslims 9.7 percent and Christians account for 7.4 percent, according to official statistics.
The country offers plenty of scope for dialogue between faiths and ethnicities, which the Church has yet to fully utilize, Dariju said.
He said some priests started working with Muslims, Hindus, and Protestants after the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 that killed 269 people when bombs exploded in three churches and three luxury hotels.
“But the majority of priests and laypeople consider [inter-religious work] as irrelevant,” Dariju said.
Fernando said more laypeople need to be trained “to be part of the Church’s mission” in Sri Lanka.
Some dioceses have trained laypeople and awarded them with theological “degrees, diplomas and certificates but such training often does not bear fruit to fulfill Church’s mission,” Fernando said.
The hierarchy could “make use of the laity in remote dioceses to work with children and adults,” she said alluding to the lack of effort in including laypeople in the Church’s mission.
Lay people organize Pasan chanting (lamentation hymns) in various churches and schools during the Lent season. (Photo supplied)
Priests overshadow laity
Few parish priests allow laypeople to participate in the decision-making process of parishes, Dariju said, reflecting a general feeling among Catholic laity in the country.
Most laypeople UCA News approached were reluctant to speak critically about the limitations they face from priests fearing a backlash from the hierarchy.
It is a pity that Sri Lanka’s more than a million-strong lay Catholics are overshadowed by some 592 priests, Dariju said.
On parish committees, some priests appoint representatives of their choice without election. It helps the priest to implement “what the priest wants” and it “sets a wrong precedent” in parishes, he said.
Such appointments also smother the chance for parishioners to effectively respond to socio-political and religious issues affecting the nation and their region.
Social issues such as drug addiction among children and child abuse are never discussed by parish councils, he added.
“Priests see them as unnecessary problems, in which the Church should not be involved,” Dariju said.
Laymen like Dariju said since priests and laypeople do not understand the link between society and Christian life, political scams and the country’s crippling economic crisis become non-issues for ordinary Catholics.
People pray at the 400-year-old Madhu shrine, which draws thousands from all over the country, including the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil people. (Photo supplied)
Women doubly neglected
Women leaders like Fernando said even when laypeople are considered part of Church activities, it is almost always men — women hardly get any chance.
Even for the Maundy Thursday feet-washing ceremony, “very rarely do priests invite women even though the Church has permitted it," she said.
Some parishes allow women to be lectors, ministers for the distribution of the Eucharist. Thousands of women voluntarily work as Sunday school teachers, which the clergy sees as a form of empowerment of women in the Church, she said.
Women demand “equal treatment” in Church activities and in some churches “women are now elected to the parish council, but their voices are seldom heard in the decision-making,” she added.
But Dariju, who was a parish council member for more than a decade, said some priests still will not “allow laymen to read the notices after Sunday Mass."
Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a university lecturer, said women are estimated to make up 52 percent of the Church, similar to their proportion in the national population, and they deserve better empowerment in the Church.
"It is very important to give more equal opportunities to women in making decisions” in the various commissions of the national bishops’ conference, the priest said.
Catholics gather in a cemetery to pray for their departed loved ones. (Photo supplied)
Training needed for collaboration
Father Fernando said that some priests are reluctant to involve laypeople in the ministries fearing that they “must be paid” for the services.
In order to “meaningfully obtain services of laypeople in the Church,” efforts have to be made at the parish, regional and national level by training laypeople, the priest said.
The Church needs to improve the understanding of both priests and laypeople on the social teachings of the Church “so that they can realize its mission can only be fulfilled with collaborative efforts,” he noted.
A section of both laypeople and priests fear that involvement in social issues will have negative consequences on their future.
Father Sarto Nonis, a senior priest and former director of the Laity Commission of Chilaw diocese in the east of the country agreed.
"In order to provide the necessary knowledge to fulfill their responsibilities, the Church has to organize various programs and courses," said Nonis.
The Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of the role of laypeople in the mission of the Church.
"Although not all of us are experts in all fields, by sharing the roles and the abilities of one another we can all collectively progress in prayer and, through love for one another," the priest said.
Father Michael Rajendram, the national director of the Laity Commission said it is time the Sri Lankan Church reflected on the involvement of laypeople in the Church’s mission. He said all parishes have been instructed to strengthen the lay apostolate.
Dariju, the lay leader, said if the Church aims to establish “a new social order” based on the values of the Bible, “there is no alternative to empowering the laity in the Church.”