Updated: July 02, 2021 08:58 AM GMT
The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Mary Nirmala, a Sunday school teacher from Negombo, visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu with her parents every year in her childhood. Now she follows the tradition by visiting the shrine with her husband and two children.
Every year on July 2, Madhu shrine is usually filled with thousands of devotees. The shrine, which is considered the holiest Catholic shrine in Sri Lanka, is a major pilgrimage destination and place of worship for Catholics.
Nirmala vowed to come to Madhu with her youngest child every year after the child was cured of a disease that doctors said couldn’t be cured.
Unfortunately, this year there is no opportunity for Nirmala to visit because the government has imposed travel restrictions and religious places are closed.
Even during the height of the civil war, she visited Madhu shrine, but the Covid-19 pandemic has stymied her pilgrimage this year.
Instead Nirmala and her children watched the Madhu feast on television on July 2.
This is a time we need Mother Mary's intervention to save our country from Covid
Madhu shrine, 220 kilometers north of capital Colombo, was damaged by shelling in 1999, and about 40 Tamils, including children, were killed. In 2008, a mine exploded close to the church, killing 20 people including 11 children. The 400-year-old shrine became home to thousands of refugees on several occasions.
Pope Francis visited Madhu when he came to Sri Lanka in 2015.
The shrine remains a special place for Sri Lankan Catholics, both among the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. Its main statue of Mary is reputed to have healing powers and is venerated by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Processions and other events have been prohibited due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only 30 people including Auxiliary Bishop Anton Ranjith of Colombo, Bishop Harold Anthony Perera of Kurunegala and Bishop Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar attended a service in the church and the faithful participated in the Mass via television and social media from their homes.
Bishop Perera said 30 years of war ended after the Madhu statue visited the southern part of the country.
"This is a time we need Mother Mary's intervention to save our country from Covid," he said during his sermon.
"Many disasters have come to the country after the Easter Sunday attacks. Victims have not yet received justice. The recommendations of the Presidential Commission report have not been implemented. But God can do everything. Let's recite the rosary together for the country," said Bishop Perera.
In times of peace, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka go to Madhu shrine during feasts.
In the shrine, all Sinhalese, Tamils, Catholics and Buddhists can be seen as brothers and sisters working together in unity
Like Nirmala, Tamil Catholic teacher Shreenika Subashini used to visit the shrine every year. She said there are many rituals that people perform before starting the Madhu pilgrimage.
"They go to their parish church and attend confession, light candles and develop good will to suit the pilgrimage," Subashini recalled after attending the televised Mass.
"Madhu shrine is a symbol of peace in the north and south. In the shrine, all Sinhalese, Tamils, Catholics and Buddhists can be seen as brothers and sisters working together in unity," said Subashini.
The church contains a statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought for safe keeping from the Dutch in the 17th century and was consecrated in 1944.
"More than 250,000 Catholics flock to the shrine from every part of the country for the feasts in July and August," said Subashini, adding that devotees recite the rosary, observe Holy Hours and sing hymns.