COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — With his three-day visit to Sri Lanka, Pope Francis set a record.

More than three-fourths of Sri Lanka’s 1.2 million Catholics traversed long distances to have a glimpse of the Holy Father during his Jan. 13-15 visit to the Indian Ocean island.

When Pope Francis arrived at 9am on Jan. 13 at the airport, a host of leading persons in Sri Lanka lined up to greet him, led by Sri Lankan President Maitripala Sirisena, who assumed power only four days earlier, after winning the Jan. 8 presidential election.

Accompanied by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka, Pope Francis stood waving at enthusiastic crowds for more than two hours in an open popemobile along the 18-mile route from the airport to the nunciature in downtown Colombo.

More than half a million Catholics had filled Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo hours before the Pope was to arrive, in the early morning of Jan. 14, for the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz and a public papal Mass. But even those who reached the ground four hours ahead of the event could not enter the ground, as it was already packed to capacity by those who arrived earlier.

The newly canonized saint, who is known as the “Apostle of Sri Lanka,” hailed from Goa in India and is credited with  singlehandedly reviving the local Catholic Church in the island nation, following Dutch-Calvinist oppression beginning in the late 1600s.

 

‘Missionary Zeal’

As the canonization service began, a black wooden cross was brought in solemn procession. It was a relic of St. Joseph Vaz — the wooden cross he had planted in one Catholic church, now preserved in the church located at Galdamunwa in the Diocese of Kurungela.

With the tomb of the saint, who died in 1709, remaining untraced, it is the only major relic of St. Joseph Vaz, who was renowned for installing crosses wherever he traveled. Consequently, statues invariably depict him carrying a cross in his hand.

After the canonization, Pope Francis exhorted local Catholics to emulate the saint by spreading the Gospel with “missionary zeal.”

“St. Joseph knew how to offer the truth and the beauty of the Gospel in a multireligious context, with respect, dedication, perseverance and humility,” the Pope said.

Noting that St. Joseph had won the support of a Buddhist king by caring for victims of a smallpox epidemic, and thus “was allowed greater freedom to minister,” the Holy Father praised the Sri Lankan Church’s compassionate service to her neighbors.

In fact, space in front of the altar had been reserved for the physically handicapped and the sick. These “VIP” enclosures looked like a mini hospital, with many people in wheelchairs and stretchers who had family attendants and nurses present.

“More than 500 sick and differently challenged from Church centers across the nation have been brought here,” explained Fernando Pulle, a retired government pediatrician who was in charge of the special enclosure.

Soon after the Pope left, hundreds of priests swarmed the altar and posed for photos around the wood-carved, life-size statue of St. Joseph Vaz.

 

Madhu’s Marian Shrine

Five hours later, the Pope arrived by helicopter at the Marian shrine of Madhu, 160 miles north of Colombo, to give a healing touch to the overwhelmingly ethnic Tamil crowd, many of whom had endured the travails of Sri Lanka’s bloody and protracted civil war.

Nearly half a million people erupted in joy when the Holy Father released a pigeon before he expressed solidarity with their suffering: “There are families here today that suffered greatly in the long conflict that tore open the heart of Sri Lanka.”

According to international monitors, more than 100,000 lives — most of them civilians — perished in the bloody ethnic war that crippled the ethnic Tamil minority areas in the nation’s north and the east for a quarter century, until it ended in 2009.

“Many people, from north and south alike, were killed in terrible violence and bloodshed,” noted the Holy Father. “Through the intercession of Our Lady of Madhu, may all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace.”

The Pope made this plea after earlier dismounting from the popemobile to greet more than 1,000 war victims, most of them amputees in wheelchairs. He shook hands with several of them at the sprawling grounds of the Marian shrine, which is located in a jungle region and served as a refuge for thousands of war victims for more than two decades.

The Madhu shrine houses a tiny statue of Mary that has been venerated by Sri Lankans since the 16th century. In the wake of the Dutch-Calvinist persecution of Catholics in the 1600s, some of the faithful reached the Madhu jungle with the two-foot statue of Mary and built the church there that has become Sri Lanka’s leading pilgrimage site.

 

Consolation for War Victims

During most of the 26-year struggle between government forces and Tamil rebels, both sides recognized the area around the shrine as a demilitarized zone, allowing it to remain a sanctuary for thousands of war refugees. However, in 2008, the shrine came under crossfire, forcing the removal of the historic statue from the shrine.

“I am thrilled that the Pope came to meet us in this shrine in the jungle,” S. Mohananathan, a Hindu who had been blinded in one eye when sand hit his eye during the 2008 fighting in that area of Sri Lanka, told the Register on Jan. 17. Three of his five children died in the same July 2008 shelling of Mullaithieve in the rebel-held Tamil area.

“The Pope’s message is that he is with us. We hope the world and the government will take note of the solidarity the Pope has expressed with us,” said 63-year-old Mohananathan.

Antony Constantine, a Catholic who works at the Madhu shrine, is another who suffered profoundly as a result of the 2008 attacks and who received consolation from the Pope’s visit.

Constantine recalled that his two elder sons, Britto,14, and Bruno, 12, were among 16 children from the refugee camp at the shrine who were killed in a landmine blast, along with their headmaster, on their way to school in 2008.

“Both of them were altar boys, and I am happy that my daughter was chosen to present a bouquet to the Holy Father,” said Constantine, touching the cross on top of the tombs of his sons in the cemetery where the 16 child victims have been buried in a row.

Constantine said he came to the shrine in 2006 with his family to visit and to meet his sister, Holy Cross Sister Ida Thomas, who lives in the convent near the shrine.

“Suddenly, the cease-fire ended, and there was war. We could not go back to Jaffna, and we decided to stay in the refugee camp,” Constantine explained about how the war profoundly changed his life.

But now, following Pope Francis’ visit to Madhu, Constantine said, “All my pains were washed away when my daughter [Mary] presented a bouquet to the Holy Father.”

 

Interreligious Dimension

Thousands of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims flocked to the shrine for a glimpse of the Pope. Church officials pointed out that while Catholics in the northern region number around 300,000, more than half a million people, including thousands of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, were assembled at Madhu for a glimpse at the Holy Father.

Earlier, the Pope surprised many, when he came down from the podium at the end of his hour-long interreligious meeting on the evening of Jan. 13, attended by two hundred Buddhist monks, scores of Hindu priests and Muslim clerics, as well as leaders and pastors of other Christian denominations. The Pope shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the religious leaders for 10 minutes.

However, the climax of the Pope’s outreach to other faiths came when he made a surprise visit to a prominent Buddhist temple in Colombo the following evening. The Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka reciprocated by showing the Pope the historic relics of Buddha’s disciples, exposed only for the annual Buddhist feast in May.

The Mahabodhi Vihara (temple) at the headquarters of the Mahabodhi Society is known for the relics of the two disciples of Buddha — Arhanata Sariputta and Moggallana — brought there in 1952 from the Buddhist holy land of Sanchi in India.

“The Pope’s visit to our temple was a historic gesture,” said Ven Banagala Upatissa, president of the Mahabodhi Society of Sri Lanka.

“It [the visit] was a gift to the whole Buddhist world,” Ven Upatissa explained during an interview at his residence in Makola, 10 miles outside of Colombo. “That is why we decided to show him the relic. … We broke the tradition to honor the Pope.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.