Commentary: The courage of Sri Lanka’s first saint challenges today’s Church

Joseph Vaz devotion card

     The courage of Sri Lanka’s first saint challenges today’s Church

The  eyes of the faithful saw the saint in Joseph Vaz during his lifetime. But he had to wait 303 years after death for official acclaim of his sanctity. And now, will his canonization just niche him away on church walls or inspire emulation of his pastoral courage?

For many years, Church historians, pious groups in Goa and Sri Lanka’s Joseph Vaz National Secretariat kept the Vaz saga of sanctity alive. As secretariat chair and ordinary of Vaz’ final resting place, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy harnessed people’s enthusiasm for the Vaz cause. Soon after Vaz was beatified in 1995, nine Lankan dioceses built 23 churches/chapels in his honor. At some 10 venues, devotees hold public prayer to seek his intercession.

Even before official approval of public veneration for the country’s first saint, in 1983 Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando of Colombo pioneered a project to focus laity attention on a vital aspect of Vaz’ ministry. He founded Joseph Vaz Deva Dharma Niketanaya to teach theology in the Sinhala language. Now affiliated to Rome’s Urban University, the theologate has campuses in three other dioceses as well.

Up until now, this network has helped train catechists and lay cadres for apostolates. Hopefully, the Jan. 14 canonization should enthuse these campuses to take a lead in deeper study and wider sharing of hitherto unexplored lessons of the Vaz mission methods.

The life and mission of Sri Lanka’s first saint was uniquely heroic and prophetic in many ways. His own priestly zeal led him there in 1687 to serve Catholics abandoned by Portuguese colonizers and their clergy. After the Apostles of Jesus, he is the first known Asian missioner to have evangelized an Asian country. And he did it with the help of a few fellow-Indian priests. That is why Pope John Paul II named him the greatest missioner in Asia since Francis Xavier.

From the ruins of a Lusitanized Church deserted by the Portuguese, the Brahmin priest began to build a truly native Church. After studying the local language and culture, his pastoral team introduced indigenized para-liturgies to meet people’s spiritual needs. He set apart teams of writers to provide Catholic literature in Sinhala and Tamil. Though he led a minuscule religious community, Father Vaz intervened for the public good when floods and plagues hit the country. If the essence of his pastoral style became a guide to later European missioners to Lanka, it froze in a cultural winter. His vibrant witness to interreligious harmony and interethnic amity ended up fossilized.

Three centuries after Father Vaz’ death, the better method of celebrating his canonization would be to discern his message for today, not to blindly mimic his pastoral methods. Just as he set apart personnel for contextual apostolates such as writing and healing, will today’s Church prioritize current apostolic needs and pastoral challenges?

More importantly, will the example of his personal holiness and commitment challenge Catholics and their pastors to holiness of prophetic witness, the essence of our Christian faith? Just the way the Vaz team ministered to smallpox victims, there is a need for pastoral teams to speak up for victims of today’s bigger-pox: injustice, oppression and corruption.

Some Sri Lankan dioceses are so blessed with a glut of priests that seniors may opt to make way for younger clergy. In such a scenario, let volunteers go on Vaz-style mission to needy regions and apostolates.

Maybe, the new Asian theological institute to be blessed by Pope Francis in Negombo could be the nucleus for an Asian program of reverse mission of prophetic social ministry. Such emulation of the great missioner’s pastoral vision and style will be the better way of bringing alive his canonization. It will also resonate the challenge to “apostolic courage to come out of itself” that Cardinal Bergoglio presented to the Church, just before he was elected pope.

Hector Welgampola

welgampo@gmail.com

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

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Pope Francis, visit war-torn areas and survivors – Tamil Civil Society Groups

Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) has called upon Pope Francis to visit war-torn areas in the North and East and visit the survivors of the “war  against Tamils”, as part of his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015.

TCSF – a network of Tamil civil society social activists from the North and East including Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, aired their appeal in a letter to the Pope on Sunday. It requested him to openly call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to genuinely address grievances of Tamils during his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The text of the letter is published on Eye Sri Lanka

Address grievances of all factions – human rights, justice and peace advocate

In her presentation to last month’s International Conference on Politics and International Affairs in Athens, Salma Yusuf, pointed out that while the defeat of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in May 2009 ended the three decades-long conflict, its root causes remain.

Yusuf, university lecturer and adviser to programs on human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice and peace-guilding, stressed that grievances of all factions in the conflict have to be addressed. 

“When advocating reconciliation and unity, the fears and anxieties of all communities must be acknowledged, understood and addressed,” Yusuf said.

She warned, “An over-emphasis on the grievances of the Tamil community alone which is the natural tendency can lead to new waves of conflict and at must be avoided at all costs.” 

Read full text of her presentation  titled Sri Lanka: Reconciliation is Both a Process and a Goal 

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Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-Muslim clashes reveal the evil of politicising religion, Hector Welgampola

In mid-June, Sri Lankan Buddhists observed Poson, the festival marking the arrival of Buddhism from India. At June end, the country’s Muslims began Ramadan, their month-long fasting season. In between these religious observances, some members of the two groups were engaged in violent confrontation.

Long before the country fell under Western rule in 1505, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamils had lived in peace with descendants of visiting Arab traders since the 12th century. The pacific lifestyle of the native peoples had offered an oasis for the Islamic traders from the arid climes. The only prior confrontation between Buddhists and Muslim had been in 1915. If those riots led to more deaths and destruction, the magnanimity of naive leaders helped heal inter-ethnic wounds and even pave the way for the country’s freedom struggle against British rule.

Still fresh after the yet-unresolved outcome of the 30-year war in the North, the recent Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the South raise a familiar question once more. Has political freedom equipped Sri Lankans with the moral calibre to forge inter-ethnic unity from the embers of strife? The debate is still open. As yet, much is being said about seemingly sudden provocations that lit the powder keg of ethno-religious attacks and destruction. Some trace it to the harassment of a Buddhist monk by a Saudi-returned Islamic youth. Others blame it on the demagogy of a Norway-visiting Buddhist monk. However, the hate war was more than a random event.

As above allegations infer, the impact of international elements may not be discounted. In recent decades, many local Muslims and non-Muslims migrated to West Asia in search of petrodollars. Trade and tourism drew West Asians to the country. A new power equation emerged, particularly during the 30-year war with Tiger rebels. When money spoke the language of power, rulers tolerated the influx of Wahabism and even jihadism.

While echoes of the Arab spring empowered some local Muslims, the rise of militarism alongside the ethnic war in the North, did not go unnoticed. Some of them found support in the patronage of West Asian powers, even more openly than Tamil Tigers had enjoyed India’s favor under the Gandhis.

Meanwhile, the war as well as post-war victory parades entrenched a war psychosis among some Southern Sinhalese. Instead of extending the hand of peace to fellow citizens of the war-ravaged North, rulers let racism thrive in the guise of patriotism. Extremist lobbies were quick to grasp the message, just as rulers had been to benefit from the war chest of defeated rebels. Opportunism is the refuge of political ambition.

In the absence of a magnanimous patriotic upswell or a Marshal Plan for nation-building, opportunism became an easy path for the establishment’s survival. Momentarily, it tolerated the anti-minorities stance of a few zealots who seemed to capture the momentum of chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhist political groups. Unsurprisingly, their first targets were Evangelical Christian communities. But in the face of international reaction to such arson and plunder, political godfathers changed strategy.

The revised master plan was to kill two birds with one stroke! Ambitious godfathers had watched the collapse of the Norwegian government which once supported the Tamil Tigers. Reportedly, Norway’s new rulers were lobbied to counter their predecessors’ support for the Tigers by backing the Southern ethno-religious surge. It worked. The key Buddhist monk who engaged with Norway became the firebrand of new-born Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, army of Buddhist power). Like India’s Shiv Sena (army of god Shiva) which had attacked Ayodya’s Babri Mosque, BBS led sporadic anti-Islamic campaigns in various parts of the country before the mid-June clash in Southern Sri Lanka.

And now, weeks after that wave of death and destruction, there has been no end to the gimmicks of spin doctors of all political parties seeking to get as much mileage as possible from that disaster. Their ultimate aim is to exploit it to enhance their power base for the elections due in 2015. Goons responsible for the mayhem are blamed or defended with that goal in view. It is not mere politicisation, it is vicious political exploitation. Amid such mean power games, possible economic pressure from 14 Islamic nations adds to the threatened loss of employment to a million locals working there. And instead of getting trapped in such exploitative power play, local or foreign, all religions should rally to rescue people from further abuse. Religious leaders must exit comfort zones of political privilege, and fearlessly champion moral integrity. Otherwise, the future could be far more dismal than during the ethnic conflagration that raged for three decades.

In particular, Christians have a moral duty at a time when the future of the nation is threatened. This season sacred to both Buddhists and Muslims, is also sacred to Christians as the season of Corpus Christi. The festival of fellowship obligates Christians to promote justice, peace and moral uplift, not to connive in exploitative politics. It obligates mutual empowerment with moral integrity – sustenance for the long march of nation-building.

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka  retired Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook

Do more to stop “anti-Muslim” riots- Islamic nation reps to Sri Lanka president

Ambassadors and Heads of Mission and High Commissioners representing Muslim nations in Sri Lanka reportedly met with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees and declared that all Sri Lanka Sinhala Buddhists will stand to lose their jobs in their nations and other barriers would be place on Sri Lanka immediately due to government’s failure to stop “anti-Muslim” sentiments and violence spreading nationwide.

Officials at the meeting reportedly represented governments of Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The report cites the UAE Ambassador saying that his government believes the president’s brother and Defense Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapaksa and the military’s links to the anti-Muslim sentiments and violence.

Officials at the meeting reportedly gathered by Cabinet Minister Rauf Hakeem expressed dissatisfaction and warned Rajapaksa that if the anti-Muslim riots and attacks around the island are not stopped, there will be “severe repercussions” on him and his government diplomatically and economically.

Violence persists even after the Sinhalese who comprise 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s population celebrated victory in May 2009 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who fought a bloody 26-year separatist war.

This time police are pointing the finger at a Buddhist extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – meaning the army of the Buddhist power – led by ethno-fascist monks as leading the riots last week that left 4 people dead, 80 wounded and hundreds of homes and shops destroyed.

Since the outburst of riots last week, all Arab and Islamic countries have placed an indefinite travel ban on Sri Lanka. This has reportedly significantly contributed to Sri Lanka’s tourism revenue the last two years.

Sri Lanka’s highest foreign exchange earner is also reportedly from expatriate labor remittances from the Middle East and other Muslim countries, which has been the sole provider for Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves.

Imposing restrictions on Sri Lankan labour in the Middle East and Muslim countries, could send the country’s economy plunging overnight, the report said.

Last year alone, these nations provided almost US$ 2 billion in grant aid to Sri Lanka for development projects in education, medical and health care, the report added.

If Islamic countries restrict oil supplying, Sri lanka will be compelled to import from Russia at three times the price per barrel of crude oil.