Pope in Sri Lanka: Some Images and Reports

POPE at GF green

A Mass of People from all walks of Life assemble at Galle Face Green in Colombo

ONE: Alex Van Arkadie’s Heartfelt Paen of Praise … from Rome

The Welcome accorded to Pope Francis in Sri Lanka will go down in church history for more than the unique manifestation of a small Buddhist nation’s extravagant pomp and throbbing pageantry comprised also of a Twenty-one Cannon Salute from when the Alitalia craft touched-down on Lankan soil – thanks to the apostolic visit of His Holiness Pope Francis and the flock of Sri Lankans who  followed him during his hectic 2-day stay. Lanka’s newly-elect President Maithripala Sirisena in a welcome message summed up his own and the Nation’s hope when he said that the Pope’s visit is a timely blessing.     Answering journalists later on his Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Colombo to Manila, Pope Francis affirmed how touched he was with the President’s plans to win the hearts of his people through healing, reconciliation, peace and harmony.

This common urge was underlined further by interreligious and ecumenical leaders of the Buddhist, Hindu, Islam and Anglican congregations when the Pontiff met them in large number at the close of the first day of his visit at the BMICH, Colombo.

The following morning at the St. Joseph Vaz Cannonization ceremony on Colombo’s Galle Face Green, the Pope referred to the magnificent prophecy which he said ‘we heard in today’s first reading’. The text coincided so well with its prophetic content, quote: “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Is 52:10). And, indeed wasn’t there a near half million present who had borne the wounds from a thirty year civil war to bear witness to the ancient prophetic text, thanks to the missionary zeal of the Goan oratorian monk, St. Joseph Vaz.

What more could this Resplendent Isle (which Pope Francis repeatedly referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’) offer St. Peter’s successor than her abiding affection and reverential respect. Aroused in emotion I watched as the Buddhist Sangha,  their hands joined in prayer chant seth pirith upon the Pope. Many rose up to greet him and thereafter gift him decorative and symbolic souvenirs including, I believe, a replica in ivory of the crucified Christ. His last-minute stop-over at the Colombo Mahabodhi Viharaya en route to the Airport is another unique exception that would undoubtedly help link more closely the Sangha with the hierarchy of the Church and contribute toward the Universal Day of Prayer in Assisi next January.

There is now unfolding evidence that each and every single segment of this kaleidoscopic event has led to capture wide public audiences and participatory interest in Italy thro. all of its public media channels, viz. press, radio and TV; notwithstanding the official organs of the Vatican’s Osservatore Romano, Radio Vaticana, and the Centro Televisione Vaticana (CTV cum Tivu Duemila) !

As a Lankan freelance media journalist based in Rome since 1977 may I add that not many ‘Cannonizations’ of the recent era have blended in such harmony as when the Papal Pronouncement was made in the midst of such a diverse community of ethnic peoples drawn from a mixture of major doctrines and faith prevalent and practised to date throughout the Asian Continent. The world has just witnessed or will soon sense what unfolded within this small tropical island whose majority of people are non-Christian and are located far from the buzzing heart of Rome.

These are a striving nation of people who for four centuries have sought refuge from civil distress by congregating within the sacred jungle shrine area dedicated to their Heavenly Mother of Madhu. Thanks therefore also to the preparatoryspadework of His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter- religious Dialogue and the entire membership of the Bishop’s Council of Sri Lanka.

The programme for Sri Lanka, both pre-arranged and impromptu, shall remain an admirable and exemplary one, truest to its Christian sense. It has helped evoke glowing tribute (and even ovation) upon President Sirisena (and his predecessor ex-President Rajapakse), Cabinet Ministers and Service Staff of the Lankan Government, brothers and sisters of Sri Lanka’s multi-religious Congregations and all of our beloved Sri Lankan people, viz. Sinhalese, Tamils, Moslems, Burghers and her religious and lay people who gathered for the series of events also from India together with other smaller groups of foreign expatriates resident in the Island. As has been already observed and commented by Vatican correspondents and Italian media people, without doubt, the Regimental Armed Forces, the dancing troops, the baby mascot and his adult team of caprisioned elephants, the youth choirs, the Police Force together with associate Teams of Volunteers and thousands of others did contribute toward the success of the entire Papal Visit Program.

Besides, every word spoken and each spontaneous gesture of Pope  Francis surrounded by masses of Lankan people will from now on be re-echoed, re-viewed and reviewed … in colourful sight and sound … among our brethren throughout Asiaand the rest of the non-Christian world.

Thus invoked Pope Francis ‘… could I commend all of you to the prayers of our new saint, so that, in union with the Church throughout the world, you may sing a new song to the Lord and declare his glory to all the ends of the earth…. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised (cf. Ps 96: 1-4)! Amen.’

        VAN ARKADIE, Alex., Freelance media Journalist, Roma (tel.06+5091.4633), Italy

PAPAL pic 21Alex  Van Arkadie  13 March 2013, Vatican City, Rome St. Peter’s Square following the election of Pope Francis.

TWO – Al Jazeera’s Report … http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia/2015/01/pope-francis-sri-lanka-201511341823895486.html

Pope Francis has arrived in Sri Lanka at the start of a weeklong Asian tour, saying the island-nation cannot fully heal from more than a quarter-century of ethnic civil war without pursuing truth for the injustices committed. The pope delivered a speech on the tarmac of Colombo’s international airport on Tuesday, in the first papal visit in two decades.

“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth,” said the pope, whose visit will focus on reconciliation in a country still recovering from a 37-year ethnic conflict that pitted Tamil separatists against government troops. All members of society must work together; all must have a voice. All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears.”

The pope arrived to a colourful welcome ceremony, complete with traditional drummers and dancers from both the Sinhalese and Tamil groups, and a children’s choir singing a song of welcome in both languages of Sri Lanka – as well as English and Italian.

Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from Colombo, said a lot of excitement has been seen, not just among the Catholic faithful but from the population as a whole. “We have seen people lining the streets along the route that Pope Francis will take as he’s driven into Colombo from the airport this morning.”

Meeting religious leaders: Francis has a busy first day, including meetings with the country’s bishops and representatives of the country’s major religious groups. He is expected to call for greater dialogue among the country’s Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Catholics amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by fundamentalist Buddhists.

Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist while Tamils are mostly Hindu. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of the country’s 20 million people, but the church counts both Sinhalese and Tamils as members and sees itself as a strong source for national unity.

On Wednesday, Francis will canonise Sri Lanka’s first saint, the Reverend Giuseppe Vaz, a 17th century missionary credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.

Later in the day he flies into Tamil territory to pray at a shrine beloved by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful. On Thursday he heads to the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third-largest in the world, for the second and final leg of the journey. There he will comfort victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, and displaced about 4 million.

THREE — Catholic World News – January 22, 2015

The visit to Sri Lanka by Pope Francis was welcomed not only by Catholics, but by the entire diverse population of the country, Bishop Valence Mendis of Chilaw told Aid to the Church in Need. “The Pope was not only welcomed by Catholics–who are, after all, a minority in Sri Lanka– but also by many fellow Sri Lankans who belong to other religious denominations,” the bishop reported. He observed that many non-Catholics attended an outdoor Mass celebrated by the Pontiff on January 14, swelling the congregation to twice the expected size.

The papal visit came at an auspicious time, following a change in government leadership, the bishop continued. “The Pope called for reconciliation, solidarity and peace. Following the change in government, hopes are now high that the new government will guarantee press and judicial freedom as well as minority rights.”

crowds line street-al jazeera Crowds line the sidewalks of Colombo awaiting the Papal entourage

FOUR — Reuters on Impromptu Papal Visit to a Buddhist Temple

Pope Francis paid a surprise visit to a Buddhist temple on Wednesday, capping a trip to Sri Lanka where he told huge crowds that religions must unite to heal the country’s war wounds. The only other visit by a pope to a Buddhist temple was made by Pope John Paul during a trip to Thailand in 1984.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope briefly stopped at Colombo’s Mahabodhi temple to meet Banagila Upatissa, a Buddhist leader who had invited him when they met on Tuesday at an inter-religious meeting. “The pope listened with great respect” as the monks were singing and praying, Lombardi said. He said that in honor of the occasion, the monks opened a container holding Buddhist relics that is normally unsealed only once a year.

Pope Francis greets Buddhist monks in Colombo Pope Francis greets Buddhist monks in Colombo January 14, 2015– Reuters

The spokesman said that during the pope’s 20-minute visit, which was not on his schedule, Francis listened intently as the monks explained aspects of their religion in a room where there was a statue of Buddha. Francis, who has made inter-religious dialogue a plank of his papacy, has already been to mosques during trips to Istanbul and Jerusalem.

During his two-day trip to Sri Lanka – which is about 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and 7 percent Catholic – the pope has stressed the role of religion to help reconciliation after the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 and killed up to 100,000 people.

Earlier, Francis gave Sri Lanka its first saint at a seafront Mass for more half a million people in Colombo, calling 17th century missionary Joseph Vaz a model of reconciliation. He held up Vaz as an example of tolerance as Sri Lanka recovers from the war between mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils. Vaz was born in 1651 in India’s Goa, then a Portuguese colony. He traveled south at the age of 36, dressed as a beggar after hearing about the persecution of Catholics by the Dutch. He worked for years under the protection of a Buddhist king.

STATUE OF MARY: Also on Wednesday, Francis flew by helicopter to Madhu, in the north, to preach forgiveness for the “evil” committed in the war and visit a Catholic shrine that was shelled. It was the first visit by a pope to the predominantly Hindu region that contains a large Catholic minority and was the scene of fierce fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels seeking a separate homeland.

In a prayer at the church of Our Lady of Madhu, Francis denounced the conflict that “tore open the heart” of Sri Lanka, and drove home the central message of his two-day trip – that religions needed to work together to heal the wounds of war. “May all people here find inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land,” he said in English.

The shrine containing a 400-year old statue of Mary is the most venerated Catholic site on the island. It is also visited by followers of other religions, but was kept out of bounds for years by fighting. After landing, the pope drove to the shrine in an open jeep, leaning out frequently to touch the heads of the faithful lining the roads, many using umbrellas for shade.

In 1999, shells slammed into the church, killing some 40 people who had sought refuge there. Since the end of the war, the north has undergone reconstruction, but divisions still run deep. The region gets few visits from world leaders.. The Vatican also said former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who invited the pope to make the visit to the country but was defeated in an election last week, paid a courtesy call to the pontiff at the Vatican embassy where he is staying.

FIVE: Media Release from the National Peace Council

The outcome of the recent presidential election and the visit of Pope Francis to the country consolidate the space for national reconciliation that has been newly created in post-election Sri Lanka.  In his opening speech, Pope Francis stressed the need for  peace and reconciliation among different faiths and said that “The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society.”  It is this latter aspect has not received enough attention by the Sri Lankan State.  Much money has been spent to restore the physical infrastructure in the North. But “man does not live by bread alone” as the Bible says.  Human beings value freedom and want to be treated as equals by the State and society.

Although the war is over the damage caused by the war still continues to exist in the form of displaced people still awaiting to be resettled, missing persons to be found, civilian rule to be restored and political rights to be obtained.  Polarization within the country has continued.  The recent presidential election campaign exacerbated this polarization due to the strong propaganda campaign by members of the former government.  This negative campaign highlighted events of the war period and warned of a recurrence of such events if the incumbent was defeated. Such propaganda by the defeated political forces is likely to continue with the aim of creating social unrest.

The post-war healing that is required today, and especially in the aftermath of the Presidential Election, is not only for the people who were directly affected by the war, but also for those whose minds have been subjected to a long period of one-sided propaganda in which the ethnic minorities have been made to look as threats to the sovereignty and unity of the country and to the majority Sinhalese people. Their fears and concerns need to be addressed, as they are real to them, and one way of healing would be through the recognition of the common good and the unity of humankind. The de-militarisation that has to take place today, more than five years after the end of the war is not only of physical weapons but also of the mind set.

The Pope’s visit offered the people of Sri Lanka, and the different religious communities, the opportunity to show their goodwill to each other, which they did in abundant degree at the events to celebrate the occasion. It also offered the government an opportunity to demonstrate to the ethnic and religious minorities, and to the international community, that it accepts the reality of Sri Lanka being a multi ethnic and multi religious country.  From the perspective of the National Peace Council the visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka most importantly offered the possibility of collectively remembering the past and its costs and striving together as citizens of one country to find the way to a just and mutually acceptable political solution that ensures that such a collective tragedy will never occur again.



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