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Sri Lanka

Catholic Church Includes Hindu Festival Offering At Mass

Updated: January 23, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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Father Anthony Marcelliar led the offertory procession carrying a hot earthen pot blackened by smoke and placed in a cane basket.

The pot contained cow´s milk with brown sugar, lentils, plums and cashew nuts. The sweet dish had been prepared at the entrance of his church before Mass to celebrate a Hindu festival.

The festival, Thai Pongal, whose name comprises the Tamil words for January and boiled rice, respectively, a harvest celebration that heralds the start of the Hindu year. It was celebrated on Jan. 14.

Oblate Father Marcelliar, parish priest of St. Philip Neri´s Church in Toppuwa, 35 kilometers north of Colombo, told UCA News that the local Tamil community celebrates the festival every year.

"It is a thanksgiving festival to the sun god," he explained, adding that youths in his parish organized the celebration. "Tamil and Sinhalese youngsters worked together to make this festival meaningful."

Before Mass, Catholics gathered at the church entrance. All helped prepare the Thai Pongal dish together, offering thanksgiving for the harvest and praying for a better one in the new year. The meal was shared by all at the end of Mass in a festive mood.

Father Marcelliar observed that as Tamil Catholics or their forbears converted from Hinduism at some point in time, it is normal for them to mix with Hindu relatives at the festival. Sometime after the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), he continued, the local Church gave a Catholic color to the festival by introducing a special Pongal liturgy.

Sinhalese, concentrated in southern Sri Lanka, form about 74 percent of the country´s estimated 20 million people, and Tamils about 18 percent. Members of both communities are among the country´s 1.3 million Catholics, about 60 percent of whom live in the Colombo area. Many Tamil Catholics are among them.

Luxumi Jesuthasan, a Hindu convert from a parish near Colombo, recalled, "Before I was married to my Catholic husband I celebrated Thai Pongal with my Hindu parents and relatives, worshipping the sun god." But after seeing the Thai Pongal ceremony in church, she directed her prayers to "God in heaven."

At St. Lucia´s Cathedral in Colombo, 40-year-old Gerard Peiris said his Sinhalese friends come with him to attend the Thai Pongal Mass even though they do not understand the Tamil language. "They are very eager to know the meaning of each ceremony conducted during the service," he said.

"I am happy the Church organizes this thanksgiving feast with the minority Tamil community in the country," Peiris told UCA News after the Thai Pongal Mass his cathedral parish celebrated on Jan. 15.

The camaraderie of Tamils and Sinhalese at Thai Pongal appears to be at odds with the bitter ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, he noted, saying the festival has them praying together and trying to understand each other´s culture.

Up to 80,000 people have died and a million been displaced in the ethnic conflict that dates back to 1983, when Tamil rebels launched an armed struggle for a separate state in the northern and northeastern part of the country.

Oblate Father Philipiah Jesunesan in Jaffna, where government-rebel fighting has been heavy since a four-year-old cease-fire broke down last year, said he is grateful to Vatican Council II for "opening the doors for inculturation." He told UCA News via telephone from Jaffna that churches in Tamil areas celebrate a special Mass to mark Thai Pongal. Jaffna, effectively cut off from the rest of the country by the fighting, is at the northern tip of the island.

In Tamil-majority Batticaloa, on the eastern coast, Sister M. Regina told UCA News that their home for 45 handicapped children celebrated Thai Pongal by offering at Mass what they had grown in their garden and coconut farm.

The Holy Family nun said the children also collected rice, lentils, sugar and clothes to send to people staying in refugee camps because of the war.

Even the predominantly Sinhalese parish of St. Paul the Hermit in Badulla, central Sri Lanka, celebrated Thai Pongal. Father Benedict Eugene, the parish priest, told UCA News the celebration "inculcates in them (parishioners) certain religious values such as gratitude for favors received, along with sharing and respect for Tamil culture."

END

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