By Easwaran Rutnam
Pope Francis visited the historic Madhu church for a mass, as part of his Sri Lanka visit, and was greeted by thousands of Tamils who lined the streets and also attended the mass at the church.
Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph, speaking to The Sunday Leader, said that he was deeply grateful to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for agreeing to include Mannar in the Pope’s itinerary. Rajapaksa had invited the Pope to visit Sri Lanka at the time he was President of Sri Lanka and his Government was involved in making the initial preparations for the visit. Bishop Rayappu Joseph said the fact that the visit of the Pope to Sri Lanka took place in January was a good start for the year for Sri Lanka.
“This has given us joy, hope and happiness. The Tamils in the north had been praying for peace for a long time and even after the war they had problems. They had faith in Our Lady of Madhu. The visit of the Pope to Madhu brought them a joy which is beyond description,” he said. Bishop Rayappu Joseph said that 2015 has seen a string of turn of events with Maithripala Sirisena winning the Presidential elections and political parties deciding to work together on National issues. He said the arrival of the Pope to Mannar was another good sign for the year and the Tamils hope it will bring them blessings.
Speaking on his arrival at Sri Lanka, Pope Francis noted that it was a continuing tragedy in our world that so many communities are at war with themselves. He said that the inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence.
He noted that Sri Lanka, for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years. It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility and mistrust left by the conflict.
“It can only be done by overcoming evil with good (cf.Rom 12:21) and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace. The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,” the Pope said.
He said he was convinced that the followers of the various religious traditions have an essential role to play in the delicate process of reconciliation and rebuilding which is taking place in this country and for that process to succeed, 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. Most importantly, the pope said, they must be prepared to accept one another, to respect legitimate diversities, and learn to live as one family. “Whenever people listen to one another humbly and openly, their shared values and aspirations become all the more apparent. Diversity is no longer seen as a threat, but as a source of enrichment. The path to justice, reconciliation and social harmony becomes all the more clearly seen,” he said. The Pope noted 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.
Pope Francis expressed hope that Sri Lanka’s political, religious and cultural leaders, by measuring their every word and action by the good and the healing it will bring, will make a lasting contribution to the material and spiritual progress of the Sri Lankan people. Meanwhile, speaking at the Inter-religious and Ecumenical Gathering in Colombo, the Pope said that positive developments in interreligious and ecumenical relations take on a particular significance and urgency in Sri Lanka. He said that for too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence and what is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division.
“Surely the fostering of healing and unity is a noble task which is incumbent upon all who have at heart the good of the nation, and indeed the whole human family. It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters. How many ways there are for the followers of the different religions to carry out this service! How many are the needs that must be tended to with the healing balm of fraternal solidarity! I think in particular of the material and spiritual needs of the poor, the destitute, those who yearn for a word of consolation and hope. Here I think too of the many families who continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones,” he said. Pope Francis called for a growing spirit of cooperation between the leaders of the various religious communities and to put reconciliation among all Sri Lankans at the heart of every effort to renew society and its institutions.
“For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed,” he said.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, speaking to Vatican Radio just before the Pope arrived in Sri Lanka, said that, the Pope will be able to give a push to the new government to work towards reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
“I think [Pope Francis’] coming at this time with a new government that the has promised to work for reconciliation among the people and I think his coming right at the beginning of that government, is a good indication that he will be able to give a push to that decision of the new government to work towards a reconciliation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils after the 30-year civil war,” Cardinal Ranjith told Vatican Radio.
The Cardinal also noted the Pope wants to keep things simple, and to have contact with the poor and sick of Sri Lanka. “We are happy he is taking that attitude,” said Cardinal Ranjith, “because it is I think an example to all of us, especially to us bishops, and Cardinals!”
While being driven along the streets after arriving in Sri Lanka and at the mass at Galle Face, the Pope showed how simple he was by reaching out to ordinary people to greet them.