Sri Lanka
1999-08-17 00:00:00

Oblate Bishop Jerome Emilianus Pillai, the first Tamil Catholic bishop of Sri Lanka, was remembered 27 years after his death for his efforts to foster education, native vocations and smooth ethnic relations.

"His intellectual capabilities, his foresight, his tact and diplomacy, his ability as an organizer are unparalleled," Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna Catholic diocese said in his homily at a requiem Mass July 17.

Monsignor J.P. Selvarajah, Jaffna vicar general, said that "if Bishop Emilianus were living today, there would have been no war on this island," which has been torn by more than 15 years of fighting between Tamil rebels seeking autonomy and the Sinhalese-dominated central government.

"He was so much in contact with all the leaders and had such an influence with both ethnic communities that he would certainly have prevented this situation," he said.

Several priests concelebrated the Mass at St. Mary´s Cathedral in Jaffna, in which Bishop Savundaranayagam praised the late prelate as "a colossus" who "brought new life to the Church here in Jaffna" and throughout the country.

He also noted that Jaffna Catholic diocese at that time covered not only Jaffna, but also the present dioceses of Mannar and Anuradhapura.

Bishop Pillai valued education very much "and paid a heavy price for it," the Jaffna bishop said, adding that the late prelate "believed in building an educated leadership who had both learning and moral integrity."

"He was very keen to integrate spiritual values into the content of education," Bishop Savundaranayagam said.

The many schools he founded helped thousands of poor children in rural areas such as the Vanni, Sri Lanka´s north-central jungle region, to take first steps toward acquiring higher education and improving their life, he said.

"During his time he spared no effort to keep the schools private after the government takeover," Bishop Savundaranayagam added. "He somehow found the money to run these schools. It was after his demise that some of these schools were handed over to the state, and this was a great pity."

He also recalled Bishop Pillai´s encouragement to native youth to join the priesthood. "Thanks to him we have a young, energetic and vibrant team of native priests to work in the diocese," he said.

Bishop Savundaranayagam also said that Bishop Pillai introduced a formation in which the lifestyle of priests was attuned to "the mentality and conditions of the people here."

Bishop Pillai was the fourth child in a family of five. His father was a Tamil teacher who worked in the Sinhalese area of Wennappuwa in the northwestern coastal area.

Three brothers also embraced religious life. The eldest joined the De La Salle Brothers and later became provincial visitor. Another joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The youngest, also an Oblate, founded Aquinas University College and became its first rector.

The only layman among his brothers qualified as a British civil servant and for a time headed the Treasury of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon.


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