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Troubled Diocese Gets Long-awaited Auxiliary Bishop

Updated: February 25, 2008 05:00 PM GMT
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The vicar general of war-plagued Trincomalee-Batticaloa diocese, who is known for promoting interreligious harmony, has been appointed auxiliary bishop.

Priests and laypeople in the diocese welcomed Pope Benedict XVI´s appointment of Father Joseph Ponniah, 55, on Feb. 19. His episcopal ordination is scheduled for May 10.

Father Mathurangan Croos, parish priest of John de Britto church in Kallar, told UCA News the bishop-elect is a "capable person" willing to "face the challenges" in the eastern diocese.

The priest described the bishop-elect, whom he came to know while a student at the national seminary in the 1990s, as active, straightforward and openhearted in his dealings with all people.

"Even those who criticize him love him, because he speaks his mind face-to-face," Father Croos added.

Catholics, predominantly ethnic Tamils, as are the bishop and newly appointed auxiliary, number 68,174 of around 1.5 million people in the diocesan area. The diocese, based in Batticaloa, 220 kilometers northeast of Colombo, has 66 diocesan and Religious priests, and 131 other Religious.

Priests say the appointment of an auxiliary to work alongside Bishop Joseph Kingsley Swampillai had been long awaited.

"The bishop was carrying the burden all alone for the last 25 years," said Father George Dissanayake of St. Mary´s Cathedral in Trincomalee, 240 kilometers northeast of the capital, speaking of his happiness over the appointment.

"A true son of the soil," was how he described the newly appointed bishop.

Church personnel say the diocese has faced many challenges. Tamil rebels and government forces have fought many battles in its territory since the civil war began in 1983, and the 2004 tsunami wreaked destruction up and down the eastern coast the diocese lies along.

Currently it struggles to respond to the needs of more than 100,000 internally displaced people, while also running development projects, and serving a population that is a mix of ethnic and religious communities. Amid the social challenges, the spiritual development of the Catholic community looms large.

Father T. Kingsley Robert of the bishop´s house in Trincomalee said the diocese is a "vast area" and travel is difficult.

"One bishop cannot be in all places at all times. Previously, the bishop used to spend one Christmas in Trincomalee and the next year in Batticaloa. Now, everyone can be happy. This will allow two bishops to preside over the two areas," he told UCA News by telephone.

Bishop-elect Ponniah was born in Thannamunai, Batticaloa, in 1952, and ordained a priest in 1980. He studied at St. Paul´s Seminary in Tiruchirapalli, southern India, and the papal seminary in Pune, India. He earned a bachelor´s degree from the University of Peradeniya, and a licentiate in Biblical Theology from Pontifical Urban University in Rome. His doctorate in Christian Civilization came from the University of Jaffna.

The bishop-elect has served at St. Mary´s Co-Cathedral in Batticaloa and several other parishes, and was appointed rector of St. Joseph´s Minor Seminary in Batticaloa in 1993. In 1996 he was appointed lecturer at the National Seminary of Our Lady of Lanka near Kandy, in central Sri Lanka. Besides his involvement in seminary formation, he has lectured on catechetics and scripture, Indian philosophy and Hinduism. He has been vicar general, highest diocesan official after the bishop, since 2006.

"His appointment in this war-torn diocese was televised as breaking news," reported Jane Kamalendran, 42, a parishioner of Our Lady of Presentation in Thandavanvely.

According to her, the new appointment is "significant and also a big challenge" for a diocese heavily affected by civil war, where thousands of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims have lost their lives in ethnic and religious violence.

In mid-February, "one Christian pastor was shot dead, and his wife and child were injured," she told UCA News, stressing the serious lack of peace locally.


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