VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis arrives in Sri Lanka on Monday where, within his itinerary, he plans to promote reconciliation in a country that, until recently, was stricken by a bloody 30-year civil war.
To find out more about the two-day visit, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo and president of the island-nation’s bishops’ conference, shared his comments with the Register via email Jan. 7 on what the visit will mean to the Sri Lankan people, the challenges he would like the Holy Father to address and concerns over unexpected presidential elections on Jan. 8 that have threatened to clash with the visit.
What are your expectations for the Holy Father’s visit to your country?
The Holy Father represents for us the tangible expression of God’s own loving concern for the Church and for humanity. He loved us on the cross and established the community of his disciples, the Church, as the vehicle that would carry this message of love to the whole world. He appointed St. Peter as the first apostle and the one who took his place, entrusting to him specially the task of “strengthening the brethren” in that mission of love. The visit of Pope Francis, who, for us, is the partaker in the role of Peter, would encourage us to be stronger in our commitment as disciples of Christ to work to transform the world from sin, selfishness and desperation to one of freedom, selflessness and joy.
More than at any other time, we in Sri Lanka need to become a Church that reflects such joy, enthusiastic commitment to love and service of everyone else and to the call to be the leaven of transformation in our society. The Holy Father’s visit would thus be a catalyst for such a transforming commitment in us.
What has the Sri Lankan Church been doing to prepare for the visit, and how is the country feeling generally about the apostolic trip?
Ever since we became aware of the possibility of such a visit, we have been preparing enthusiastically for it. Much more than the technical preparations, the local Church has been electrified by a spirit of joyful expectation and has united itself strongly, across all human barriers, to prepare for this visit spiritually. We have had a continuous program of catechesis on the matter, prayer, special spiritual programs, animation through the mass media and campaigns of awareness building.
We also have kept all of our non-Catholic fellow citizens informed of the visit, conducted programs of awareness-building among them on the Church, its history, both local and universal, the papacy and its central role in the spiritual service of the world.
The Sri Lankans as a whole, of all religions and linguistic and cultural groups, have enthusiastically welcomed the visit. They hold Pope Francis in great esteem and are eagerly awaiting to see him.
Another factor that makes this visit so important for Sri Lanka is the forthcoming canonization of our own apostle and saint, the 17th-century missionary from India who saved our Church from extinction at the hands of the Dutch colonial rulers, Blessed Joseph Vaz. The Holy Father approved this canonization and fixed it for Jan. 14, which means that he will canonize the saint during the visit.
What challenges is Sri Lanka facing that you would like Pope Francis to address?
One of the main challenges we face in Sri Lanka is the lack of a true spirit of reconciliation between the Sinhala and Tamil populations in the aftermath of the 30-year tragic war. There still are signs of intense suspicion and fear between these two groups.
It is compounded on the one side by the lack of a clear plan to engage in a process of dialogue between them and to seek a mutually acceptable solution and, on the other, through a spirit of fear on the part of the Tamils, that their traditional habitats are being deprived to them. [They feel] their aspiration to live in peace, safeguarding their own identity, is being eroded, while the majority-Sinhalese community, too, feels fearful that there is an international conspiracy to divide their homeland, their only little corner of the earth, and to throw them out — a conspiracy that they feel is being fostered by the former LTTE guerilla group [Tamil Tigers] now living in exile in the west and enjoying the support of the powerful Western nations.
It is a situation that needs a spirit of give and take from both sides in order to work out a settlement. Politicians on both sides of the divide are not allowing this to happen, as they are unwilling to reach out to the other side in a spirit of large-heartedness and a give-and-take process, which would be the best way out.
Secondly, there is a need to further strengthen interreligious harmony and cooperation between the adherents of the main religious groups. At times, there are tensions created due, in part, to the activities of aggressive proselytism carried out by the Christian fundamentalist sects. As a result, there is pressure on the part of those of the majority religious community to introduce legislation to ban proselytism by unethical means. These attempts, though to some extent justified, do create suspicion and fear in the minds of the minority religious communities and could lead to division. That needs to be prevented or controlled.
Some controversy has surrounded the visit, regarding a clash with presidential elections. What are the dangers of the visit coming so soon after the Jan. 8 vote, and what is being done to lessen possible problems?
When the idea of a visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka was first mooted, there were no indications of these elections, as the incumbent president had three more years of stewardship ahead of him. Yet, after everything had been already planned, the elections were announced. This situation caused a tremendous embarrassment to us. Yet the bishops did meet with the two leading candidates, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main opponent, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, and they both assured us that whoever wins the election they would ensure that nothing will disturb the program of the visit.
Indeed, I have continued to meet both candidates and to keep them updated about all the developments of the visit. Both have assured us that they will help in every way possible. Besides, the bishops' conference has also made a public appeal for a free and fair election and for the cooperation of everyone to make the visit a success. Generally, everyone here is enthusiastically awaiting the Pope, and many feel that the visit would even help to smooth the post-election tensions, if any.
How much is the faith growing in Sri Lanka, and how much can this be attributed to the Holy Father, the “Francis Effect” and his non-Eurocentric background?
The Holy Father is much loved, appreciated and respected by the Catholics, as well as by all our people, irrespective of religious differences. His people-friendly and simple ways have made him very much a role model for a religious leader. It has also helped to strengthen the Catholic community. His visit has also helped to unite the Catholic community across the linguistic and cultural divide, especially the Sinhala and Tamil Catholics.
The Pope is not considered by our people as a European, but as one of their own. This helps to open up the hearts of everyone to receive him cordially. It also helps to give a positive image to the Catholic Church and the papacy in Sri Lanka, which, because of colonial-era experiences in the past, has not always seen these two institutions positively. This visit will, then, help to heal that memory, to some extent.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.