In the Ecumenical Service of Humanity: Fr. Paul Caspersz, s.j.

ONE: Jayantha Somasundaram, reminding us today via an article he penned in 2009 entitled “Paul Caspersz: The Politics of Religion” on his 80th birthday

Rev. Fr. Paul Caspersz, SJ, who celebrated his eightieth birthday was recently felicitated with a national seminar that dealt both with global as well as national issues of development. This reflection on the politics of religion in Sri Lanka is penned as a tribute to him.

Paul c

The secularisation of life and thought that the thinkers of the Enlightenment foreshadowed has yet to come to pass. The last priest has not yet been strangled with the entrails of the last king. Despite the efforts of men and women of faith to disassociate themselves from politics, no world view or ideology can be impervious to the issues surrounding our social and political relationships. This is why the American Evangelist Billy Graham said: The choicest places in hell are reserved for those who are neutral on the big issues of life.

In Sri Lanka today, religion is central to the political process; but it is a complex relationship that has evolved with the passage of time. This applies very specially to the Christian community. Perhaps this is partly on account of demography. Although Christianity, like all the living religions of our time, is Asian in origin, and though in the distant past Nestorian Christians from Persia had carried the Christian message to India and Sri Lanka, contemporary Christianity is largely a product of the European colonial experience. It is a minority religion and throughout the twentieth century has accounted for no more than seven per cent of the Island’s people.

Roman Catholicism with a heritage going back half a millennium to Portuguese times, and comprising six per cent of the population has deep roots in the villages of the western coast, particularly between Chilaw and Kalutara, as well as in the Mannar area. Protestant Christianity on the other hand has largely been a middle-class phenomenon, restricted to an urban elite. It is not a coincidence that Sri Lanka’s political elite, including the Bandaranaike, Jayawardene and Wickremasinghe families come from an Anglican Church background.

In 1946 on the eve of Dominion Status, the establishment formed the United National Party (UNP) with the expectation that power would be transferred into their hands when colonial rule ended. However an anti-establishment opposition, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party were already there and ready to take them on at the first General Election in 1947.

In the decade that followed, the Left remained the main opposition in parliament. An LSSP stronghold was the urbanised south-western seaboard, which happened to be largely Roman Catholic. The result was that elections most often became a bitter contest between Marxist candidates and their Catholic opponents representing the UNP. Given the support that influential middle-class Catholics extended to the UNP, the Church hierarchy invariably found itself on a collision course with the Left Opposition.

With Protestant middle class interests also coinciding with the UNP’s conservatism, in the 1950s a strong alliance developed between the Christian community and the UNP. The emergence of S. W. R. D. Bandraranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1951 did little to change this. The SLFP drew its support from a rural middle-class which in the South was largely Buddhist.

The SLFP also had the backing of nationalists who championed a state-supported Buddhist renaissance which automatically put them at odds with the Christian Church, which as a minority favoured a secular state. This divide was exacerbated after Mrs. Bandaranaike took office in July 1960.

The Government’s attempt in 1961 to implement the new official language policy drew protests from the Tamils in the North and East. Colombo responded by using the armed forces for internal security. This was also the period during which the Government moved to nationalise the state-aided denominational schools, the bulk of which belonged to the Catholic Church. Parents occupied the schools and a siege mentality was pervasive among the Catholics.

Concerned with the situation in Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Nehru sent Cardinal Garcia from Bombay to mediate between the Church and the Government. The mutual antagonism was not helped when in January 1962, Christian officers within the armed forces and the police, attempted to overthrow the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government.

With the coup foiled, overt opposition to the nationalist policies of the SLFP Government receded. Christians who clung to the hope that the UNP would reverse things were devastated when the Dudley Senanayake Government elected in 1965, not only failed to return the schools to the Church, but introduced the lunar calendar making Sunday a working day. Christians felt let-down, they now realised that the post-1956 policies had become bipartisan and they had little to gain as a religious community by being blindly loyal to the UNP.

Gradually a new political openness began to permeate the Church. It was facilitated by the arrival of a new generation of Christians. The Second Vatican Council had made its impact. Bishop Leo Nanayakkara among others pioneered reform within the Roman Catholic Church, while leaders like Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe did much to reform the thinking of the Anglican Church and the wider Protestant tradition.

It was however left to the activists to transform the image of the Church and Christianity in the eyes of the community. On the Protestant side there was Yohan Devananda, an Anglican Cleric who established Devasarana, a place of encounter and service at lbbagamuwa near Kurunegala. Among the Catholics Rev Fr. Tissa Balasuriya established the Centre for Society and Religion, where new ideas could be aired and new programmes launched.

In February 1972 in Kandy, Rev Fr. Paul Caspersz launched Satyodaya – the dawn of truth – a centre for social research and encounter. “Satyodaya is a vision of a new society of justice and peace,” he explains. From the outset the Centre worked towards bringing Tamil plantation workers and Sinhala villagers together, in order to help them develop their communities and lives.

Fr. Paul Caspersz says: we work to secure basic services – housing, water and sanitation – and in training – technical and community-building – towards self-empowerment. We work to bring Tamil workers and Sinhala villagers to the awareness that they share a common destiny.

His work which was initially confined to the Central Province, was compelled to take on a broader challenge posed by the crisis that would come to dominate Sri Lanka over the next three decades. More specifically it was a response to the race riots of 1977 and 1979, some of it affecting the upcountry areas.

Paul Caspersz, along with other concerned activists, launched the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE). A generation later it is one of the most credible and uncompromising organisations in the political arena.

Paul Caspersz remains one of the most important influences in the radicalisation of the Christian social conscience in Sri Lanka. Like all pioneers, his has been a lonely pilgrimage. Like all those who seek to be different he has been misunderstood and misrepresented. But he has created a legacy that future generations can build on. During his years of activism, he has seen the Church and the Christian community transformed. From being a bastion of privilege and elitism, it is increasingly seen as a friend of the poor, the marginalised, the dispossessed.

No longer is it identified with one political party or ideology. Instead it has become responsive to needs and situations rather than being bound by structures and traditions. The Church and its activists have reached out and built bridges to other religions and ideologies. Thereby it has gradually transformed itself into an integral part of society, has earned the right to express itself on the big issues of life and take up political positions as required.

As he marks this significant personal milestone in his life, Paul Caspersz will be reminded of the words of Bishop Leo Nanayakkara when they launched Satyodaya: “The Church will be where the People are”.

God made the angels to show Him splendor,

As He made animals for their innocence,

And plants for their simplicity.

But man he made to serve Him wittily

In the tangle of His mind.

– Thomas More


TWO: Mangala Fernando in Q and A with Fr. Paul … reproduced in Groundviews 03/04/2016

Fr Caspersz currently lives in Negombo in the Jesuit Priests’ Retiring Centre. He is a nonagenarian and is partially bed ridden. I frequently visit him as I consider it is my duty and responsibility. I remember I first met him in 2000 when I was an undergraduate in the Peradeniya University. With his invitation to work at Satyodaya I was a member there till 2006 during which time I also completed my BA and MSc studies from the same university. I was so fortunate to live at Satyodaya and to broaden my scope of work in the civil society sector and also to develop my ideological foundations towards peace, social justice, and minority rights.

Fr Caspersz is a Colombo born and Oxford educated person. He co-founded Satyodaya (meaning, “dawn of the truth”) in 1972 together with an equally progressive individual, Bishop Leo Nanayakkara. Prior to this initiation, he served as the principal at St Aloysius College, Galle.

Around 1960 – 1970, Fr Caspersz took liberation theology seriously. He joined forces with different lines of radicalization movement of the church initiated in Sri Lanka by very few Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant priests. Influenced by the radical movements of Latin America and Asia, Fr Caspersz started to search God among people. He said, “The church will be where the people are”.

He will be remembered for good many years in the future for founding the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) in 1979 along with a group of activists. MIRJE is still regarded by many as one of the most credible and uncompromising movements in the socio political arena in Sri Lanka. Prior to MIRJE, Fr Caspersz also initiated the Coordinating Secretariat for Plantation Areas (CSPA) in 1974 to provide direction and leadership to individuals and civil organizations to protect and promote the rights of tea plantation workers.

After many years of working as the director and advisor of Satyodaya, he is now at the retiring centre. In one of my encounters with him, recently I was able to interview him by the side of his bed. Please note that his mental powers currently are not that sharp as they used to be during his active life. I posed him some simple questions and his answers are recorded here below.

Question: What do you remember in your childhood?

That does not inspire me very much now. I started school at Good Shepherd Convent at Kotahena and went onto St Benedict’s and St Joseph’s.

Question: Why did you want to be a Jesuit?

At that time I read the History of England by T F Tout. One of its chapters, titled “Counter Reformation” and the part the Jesuits played in it moved me. From that time, though not very definite, I began to think that I would like to become a Jesuit.

Question: Where were you ordained?

I was ordained in Naples in Italy.

Question: Then?

Then I went to England and did my secular studies at Oxford and read Politics and Economics. Then I came back to Sri Lanka. I was a teacher before taking up the responsibility of principal at St Aloysius College Galle.

Question: Then you started Satyodaya with Bishop Leo Nanayakkara in 1972. How did you first encounter with him?

He was a friend of Fr [Tissa] Balasooriya with whom I had friendship. When Fr Balasooriya started his centre [the Centre for Society and Religion – CSR] I also started Satyodaya.

Question: How were you influenced by Liberation Theology?

When I was in Italy I was introduced to Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology gave me perspective to work for the rights of the people especially of workers. That is why I began to like to work with [Tea] Plantation workers.

Question: Why were you so interested to promote the inter-religious harmony among people in Sri Lanka?

It was a time when the troubles between the Sinhalese and Tamils were so intense. Around that time I founded the movement MIRJE which some did not like the acronym as they argued that the Sinhalese and Tamils were from the same race. Therefore they wanted “inter-ethnic” being in it. But R (racial) became fitting to the term and we went ahead with that. I was the founder and president of MIRJE for several years.

Question: I remember at Satyodaya we had members from many ethnic groups and faith. How did you encourage that to happen at Satyodaya?

This is because I wanted Satyodaya to be also like Sri Lanka with many ethnic groups and languages. At that time Tamils had difficulties especially during the first period of SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) [during 1972 – 1975], when they started the land reforms. Then I began to be interested at [tea] plantation workers. We did lot of things to get their citizenship.

Question: Even today, inter-ethnic and religious harmony is a challenge. What have you got to say about it?

In fact I was thinking about it yesterday. There is room for a movement like MIRJE [today].

###  The writer is Mangala Fernando and he can be contacted via

THREE: Charles Sarvan: A Man Full Of Passionate And Selfless Intensity,” 11 March 2016

ather Paul Caspersz went to school in Colombo, entered the Society of Jesus in 1942, and was ordained a priest 10 years later. He read Politics and Economics at Oxford and, returning to the island, was a teacher till 1971. A year later, he co-founded the Satyodaya Centre for Social Research and Encounter, Kandy. New Culture, marking Paul Caspersz becoming an octogenarian, testifies to a remarkable man, and a remarkable life of quiet, sustained, service to the poor and the disadvantaged, animated by the spirit of Decree IV of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus:  “The reconciliation of men and women among themselves, which their reconciliation with God demands, must be based on justice.”

Caspersz has a special sympathy for the Upcountry (or Plantation) Tamils because they are among the most wretched of “the wretched of the earth” (Frantz Fanon), suffering from both the vertical and horizontal lines of ethnicity and class: “not only was the estate isolated from the village but, through a series of vicious and restrictive laws, regulations and customs, each estate was carefully sealed off from every other” (p. 32).  The surrounding Sinhalese villages deeply resented both the expropriation of their land and the importation of foreigners, but unfortunately their anger found expression not against the real villains – British imperialism, the tea companies and their managers – but against the hapless victims.

Callously exploited by estate management (motivated by profit and heedless of the human cost); resented by the Sinhalese; betrayed by some of their leaders, theirs has been a most unfortunate fate. New Culture traces the sorry story, independence (1948) bringing the deprivation of citizenship, disenfranchisement and, in the case of thousands, expatriation (not repatriation) to India. Caspersz argues that, given the long passage of time, these folk should no longer be seen as “Indian Tamil”. The “ethnic origins of the overwhelming majority of (all) the people now living in the island are Indian, and it is highly probable that the origins of the great majority are South Indian” (p. 1. Emphasis added). Unafraid, wishing to provoke thought, Caspersz argues that if the plantation folk are “Indian Tamil,” then the Sinhalese are “Indian Sinhalese” (p. 18).

On Easter Sunday,  April 5, 1942, Japanese dive-bombers attacked Colombo. There was general panic, shops and hotels were closed, and the (British) Government of Ceylon, fearing the reaction of the plantation workers, sent Deputy Controller of Labour, M. Rajanayagam to reassure them. The plantation folk were puzzled at being asking whether they intended to leave the island: Our forefathers lie buried under the tea bushes. ‘We will not leave the plantations’ (Sithamperam Nadesan, A History of the Up-Country Tamil People in Sri Lanka. 1993 : 140). It was home — the only home they had ever known.

Caspersz acknowledges that he had welcomed the Land Reform Law of 1972, not anticipating that nationalisation would lead to Tamil plantation workers being ordered out of the estates, often without notice, “hungry, homeless and helpless” (p. viii).

Misled by racialists: The Sinhalese are by nature one of the friendliest people in the world but (they) can be easily but diabolically misled by Sinhalese racialists, who stop at nothing and are stopped by nothing, not even by compassion, the kindness and the non-violence of Buddhism, in order to whip up hatred against the Tamils to a frenzy. “The estates are now ours,” they shrieked. “Get out!” And the Tamil workers on many estates close to the Sinhalese villagers left the estates where some of them had lived for generations defenceless, friendless, their hearts in the dust like a tea bush uprooted, to roam the streets of the cities and live off garbage bins (p. 35)

Not surprisingly, there is collective amnesia: for example, someone I knew, a Kandyan, retired planter, disclaims any knowledge of this.  Caspersz is aware of the suffering of Sinhalese villagers, but cautions against a “dangerously divisive” competition of misery: “Both estate workers and poor peasants suffer oppression. To ask where the oppression is greater is much less important than to end it, both on the estate and in the village” (p. 36).

Ethnicity is the dominant problem in Sri Lanka (p. 78), and Caspersz pleads for a united nation that permits and encourages diversity (p. 74). Unity does not mean uniformity; integration is not assimilation; pluralism should be welcomed and celebrated. The ethnic conflict is totally unnecessary, and a tragic waste. After all, Sinhalese caste groups such as the karavas, the salagamas and the duravas were “originally South Indian immigrants who over a period of centuries assimilated so successfully with the local population as to make everyone, even themselves, oblivious of their origins” (p 80). The irony is that “the vast majority of the Tamils would not want separation if there was genuine redress of their grievances” (p. 83). To support this argument, Caspersz quotes from the 1970 election manifesto of the Federal Party:

“It is our firm conviction that division of the country in any form would be beneficial neither to the country nor to the Tamil-speaking people. Hence we appeal to the Tamil-speaking people not to lend their support to any political movement that advocates the bifurcation of our country” (p. 83).

The Sinhalese who exclude the option of secession are, for that very reason, all the more obliged to work for genuine pluralistic acceptance and equality (p. 86). The nature and shape of politics is formed by people and parties: “Whenever one of the two main Sinhala parties tries to redress the legitimate grievances of the Tamils, the other accuses it of betrayal or surrender. The tragedy is that there is no question of principle but of sheer dishonest political gain” (p. 28).

Religious teaching: As I have written elsewhere, unfortunately religious teaching does not determine the nature of society; rather, it’s the people who determine the   nature of religion. The same religion – whether Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam – at different times and places finds different expression: compassionate or cruel, gentle or harsh, tolerant or assertive. Christianity, born in the Middle East, was adopted by the West, and later exported to the non-Western world. It accompanied Western imperialism — and the exploitation and humiliation that imperialism visited upon the conquered.

Secondly, it came dressed in the “clothes” of Western culture and, rather than adapting Christianity to Sri Lankan culture, converts adapted Western ways. It is not surprising that many Sri Lankan Buddhists look upon Christianity with resentment. (Recently, the situation has been worsened by the methods and motives of certain USA-based evangelical groups.) Caspersz does not deny the complicit role the church played in the past.

For instance, the church stressed law and order, but did not question the moral rightness of that externally imposed (British imperial) “order”. A good Christian was held to be one who went to church, was concerned with the sacrament and the holy spirit – not with “inter-human justice” (p. 142). But since we are social beings, to be a good Christian is not only to do “social service” but also to be active in endeavouring to bring about social change. Rather than being kind within an unkind system, one must work towards changing the unjust order of things. What is desired, and longed for, is not charity but justice.

A good Christian life means a good social life – not only prayer, however pious and emotional. Rather than being spiritual preparation and prelude, prayer has become an easy substitute for action. Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount must be given a literal (not a conveniently figurative) interpretation. The beatitudes are the beatitudes of the poor and the oppressed (p. 100). As Marx pointed out, for profit, we are willing to disregard human laws, and if “turbulence and strife” will result in material gain, so be it (see, p. 192). Marx did not claim that “the economic element is the only determining one” (p. 194). Indeed, it is this mechanically reductionist attitude that made Marx exclaim towards the end of his life, “Thank God that I am not a Marxist!” (ibid). Caspersz clarifies his position:

“The God I believe in is the God of Justice, the God of Justice — Love. The God I believe in is the God who in Jesus became human, a colonised and anti-imperialist human, a worker, immensely concerned about the loss of human freedom and the oppression of the poor” (p. 195).

And so it is that a Christian priest quotes Communist Che Guevara: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love” (p. 102); a Jesuit cites Che Guevara citing Jesus in his last letter to his children:

“Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world. That is the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary. Jesus of Nazareth was guided above all by just such ardent love” (p. 103).

As for the role of Christians in the ethnic conflict, while almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese, and all Hindus are Tamil, the Christian congregation consists of Sinhalese and Tamils. Therefore, Christians have a better opportunity and, following from that, a greater duty, to work for inter-ethnic understanding and harmony.

Developing nations:
Development is a frequently encountered word, and countries like Sri Lanka are sometimes (hopefully) described as “developing” nations. But what does development mean in practice? “Often and deliberately, the World Bank-IMF complex hides its real intentions behind difficult phrases” (p. 256). When international organisations think, plan and carry out “development” projects, the poor are peripheral (p. 241); the centre is occupied by “economic growth which means the making of more and more money” (pp. 241-2). It is assumed that the more material possessions and comforts a person or a nation has, “the more fulfilment is there of the capacity of that person or nation to be” (p. 279).

A distinction must be made between needs and wants. As Gandhi pointed out, there is enough in the world for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed (p. 250). Those active in “development” should remember the Mahatma’s words: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him” (p. 240). Marx wrote that religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress, and the protest against real distress. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless world” (p. 299).

Development, while having to do with the economy, the material, must also have the spiritual dimension of devotion to humanity, to truth, goodness, beauty, equity and justice (p. 247).  In that sense, one can be spiritual without being religious. Caspersz concludes that the opposite of religion is not atheism but idolatry, the idolatry of material possession, status, snobbery, false values and power. Oscar Wilde observed that we know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Marcus Aurelius asked himself (Meditations) how one could estimate the value of a person, and answered that a possible way was by the things to which that person gave value. It does not mean that one should not take (using contemporary parallels) an interest in fashion or cricket — there is a difference between value, the things that are really important to a person, and her or his interests.

As Caspersz observes, some books do not pulsate, do not bleed (p. 19) but, moved by love, sympathy and indignation, he himself writes with power and passion about “this once happy, but now so tragic, land (p. 19). Yeats (‘The Second Coming’) says that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, but Caspersz, being among the best, is full of a passionate and selfless intensity. He is one of those to whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest (Keats, Fall of Hyperion). New Culture is an attempt to help in the creation of a new culture (a new way of life) and so, a new society, a “paradise isle” (tourist slogan) in far more important terms than landscape and scenery. A man who has rendered long and dedicated service performs yet another in making this collection available to the public.

“For good is the life ending faithfully” (Wyatt, 1503-1542).


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  1. Pingback: A Jesuit Servant of the People –Two Affirmative Voices applaud Fr. Paul Caspersz, s.j. | Thuppahi's Blog

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