Unusual things are happening in Rome in the tiny city of the Vatican, which is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Most interestingly the head of the Vatican state, Pope Francis has been shaking the structures of the Vatican which were once thought to be “the unchangeable structures”. All those who are interested in the Catholic Church as well as the media keep a continuous eye on Vatican affairs, because nobody knows what the Pope will do next or where he will make his next visit or what stand he would take regarding an issue.
From the time he was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI he has contributed vastly in resolving social issues. He has enhanced the position of the Church on the social teachings. His apostolic exhortation on “The joy of the Gospel” is widely seen as the foundation of his Papacy. His meetings, visits, weekly audiences and writings, everything portrays a new image of the Church in the contemporary world.
He became very lenient towards the people of other faiths and overlooked those who are well to do. During his meetings with the heads of the states and his visit to various countries he voiced against all sorts of social evils which are melted by those who are in power. Within a short period of time he caught the attention of the international media who follow him on all his visits. It should be noted that he was a contender for the renowned Nobel peace prize for his contributions towards promoting world peace.
In this background he announced his visit to Sri Lanka. From the beginning of his Pontificate, Pope Francis expressed his desire to reach Asian nations which his predecessor failed to do. He had hinted a couple of times about his desire to visit Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Catholic Church also did everything possible to invite him to Sri Lanka. No doubt Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was in the forefront in making this dream a realisation during his term as Archbishop of Colombo and as the president of the Sri Lankan Bishops’ Conference (CBCSL). Following the official invitations from the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother and Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (he met Pope during an audience in November and gave the invitation letter) it became clear that apart from the Church the State is also interested in inviting the Pope.
In the past five years the Sri Lankan government has lost his image in the international arena due to the UN allegations on human rights violations in the last phase of the war in 2009. The rights groups and the ethnic minorities were accusing the government of increased harassments from the majority. Thus the government is in need of portraying its image as positively as possible. Having witnessed the increasing fame of Pope Francis, President Mahinda decided to invite him to Sri Lanka on a good will visit.
Church Divided over Papal visit
Even before the Vatican confirmed the Papal visit to Sri Lanka, concerns were raised regarding the advantages and disadvantages within the Church as well as outside. Basically the Papal visit was meant to be on the 75th anniversary of the national Basilica of Our Lady of Tewatta and opening of Benedict XVI Asian Theologeate in Negombo. Then there came another possibility of the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Combining everything initially it was thought that the Pope could visit the capital city where possibly he would meet various groups. But the rights groups and the Diaspora began arguing that such a visit, though spiritual in nature, could be manipulated by the regime of Rajapaksa so as to water down the international concern on the human rights abuses. The Church in northern Sri Lanka, knowing the nature of Pope Francis, began insisting on a visit to North which would give an opportunity to the war affected to meet the Pope.
During the Ad limina visit (the official visit of the Bishops’ conference to Pope every five years) in May this year, the Bishops welcomed the idea of a possible visit to north. But, after considering what the Pope has done during his visits to other countries it became evident that the Pope will not let go such an occasion to meet the war affected which is one of the worst affected group in recent times. So the Pope himself expressed his personal desire to visit north, before anyone started insisting on it. Even the delegation which went to Sri Lanka from the Vatican to monitor the security situation, issued a clearance for a Papal visit to north. At the beginning of October the Catholic Church declared a hundred days preparation for the Papal visit.
As the preparations are underway, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has called for a snap presidential poll in January, just five days prior to the visit of Pope Francis despite his assurance that there would not be any elections closer to the visit. This situation placed both the Vatican and the Sri Lankan Catholic Church in a dilemma. But many view that the Sri Lankan Church leaders would have acted in a prudent manner in order to avoid this situation. However the Church is caught up in a trap due to the ambitious leadership that it has in Sri Lanka. It is the right time for the Catholic community to take correct and suitable decisions in order to promote good governance in Sri Lanka.
The late Tissa Balasuriya, a veteran Sri Lankan Oblate who dedicated his whole life arguing for social justice and human rights, once regrettably noted on the cause of the unwanted events which raged in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo during Pope John Paul’s visit in 1995. There were several protests by Buddhist monks and fundamentalists, regarding the position taken by the Pope on Buddhism in one of his books.
However before his arrival in Sri Lanka the Pope sought conciliation with the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and in fact personally wanted to meet the Buddhists monks. But just prior to his arrival Vatican officials clarified that what the Pope was seeking was not an apology to the position but using his good will to reconcile with the Buddhists. This had doubled the outrage and there was little done to calm the situation and make the Pope’s visit a peaceful one. The main reason for this is that the Vatican was not well informed about the actual situation in Sri Lanka and the Church had indeed underestimated the situation.
Fr. Tissa blamed the Sri Lankan Catholic hierarchy and particularly the man in charge of the Papal visit for their ignorance of the ground reality and the lack of openness when it came to the collaboration with those who are in field. He warned that this would lead the Church towards ruin. Fr. Tissa is no more and what he predicted still continues in Sri Lanka.
There is clear evidence that those mistakes are being repeated again and again. Any Catholic would not resist an opportunity to welcome the Pope, and especially Pope Francis who has attracted the attention of all. So it is should be seen as a privileged moment to have his Holiness in our country. This is what we desired and are still seeking. But given the present situation in Sri Lanka can we still expect the Pope to visit the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” which in recent times seen as a “tear of the Indian Ocean” due to its records on human rights violations in all possible levels. May be, it is more meaningful for the Pontiff to step into this island nation right now as it is ravaged by so many issues, according to Pope Francis Charism who always calls for dialogue and assures his closeness to the oppressed and afflicted. But those who fall into this ideology should also take into consideration the extra-high possibility of manipulation.
At a time when all peace loving Sri Lankans are awaiting for a change in the regime in order to eradicate corruption, nepotism, political oppression, religious extremism etc, it is not justifiable to offer the present Mahinda regime to remain in power. Unlike any other elections, the forthcoming presidential election has the minority ethnic and religious groups as conspicuous players. They are widely seen as the king-makers. Both the ruling party and the opposition are making all efforts to rally their support.
The Sri Lankan Catholic community owns at least 6.5% of the total vote bank. The ruling Mahinda Rajapaksa faction and its Catholic members are creating all possible methodologies to portray Mahinda as a friend of Catholics. By exhibiting unprecedented billboards in which Pope Francis is portrayed with the President or with his ministers the government is trying to manipulate the image of Pope Francis for its elections purposes. Ignoring the Church’s warning to remove the billboards immediately, new ones are being put up every day in Catholic majority areas.
I would like to argue whether the Sri Lankan Catholic Church presided by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who was the key person in organizing Pope John Paul II’s 1995 visit, is in a position to advocate for what is just and good. In the past, things came to limelight on how the Sri Lankan government had manipulated the Church officials to garner international support especially through the person of Cardinal. On the other hand some Bishops especially in the north continued to raise their voice for their people; in the south the Church was carrying the Mahinda regime in its shoulders. When, the then Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith was appointed as the Bishop of Colombo Diocese and one year later named Cardinal, the state offered all that was possible. From a religious figure he was brought to a national figure through the ways Mahinda government treated him. In his gratefulness to the government he did everything possible to restore the image of Mahinda’s regime.
It should be noted here that two years ago the Cardinal had organized a great banquet for President Rajapaksa on the 42nd anniversary of his political life. It took place nowhere than in the eternal city, Rome. He made arrangements for the Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to meet the Pope in the Vatican. In turn Gotabaya had offered a grand banquet for the priests in Rome in November 2013. On 2nd of November in one of its articles ‘Vatican Insider’ raised a question when the doubts regarding the Papal visit started arising due to the much discussed election. How was the Cardinal able to rush to a decision and confirm the Papal visit on the part of the present regime without any clear procedures or even the knowledge of other Bishops?
The local media revealed in November that a meeting took place between the Defence secretary Gotabaya and the Catholic priests of the Archdiocese in a military hotel in Uswetakiyawa on 23rd of October. The media also exposed a meeting between the Bishops and the Defence secretary on the 21st of October at the Archbishop’s house where Gotabaya had insisted that the visit should take place. The Catholic intellectuals started questioning whether the visit of the Pope is administered by the Catholic Church or the Rajapaksa government. It is understandable that there is a security concern and the discussions with the government are inevitable but the government imposing certain conditions on the visit is unacceptable at any cost.
Though the Church has insisted on not politicizing the visit of the Pope, practically it had been already politicized by those who are in power. Even the recent visit of the President to the Vatican was made with a clear political agenda, and those who are behind the arrangements should be held responsible for promoting such meeting at this crucial moment in the Country.
If the Church continues to stick to the Papal visit agenda in January, concretely it is going to favour the incumbent president in his election campaign and affect the opposition. Any possible cancellation will not favour any parties, instead it will allow the Sri Lankan Catholics to freely decide on their votes. Apart from the visit we can expect post-poll violence coinciding with the Pope’s visit, no matter who wins.
The priority of the Sri Lankan Church at this juncture is not the preparations they have already committed to or the money spent, but promoting good governance by requesting the cancellation of the Pope’s at this particular time. If Church leaders in Sri Lanka continue to shoulder the present regime and persuade the Vatican to carry out the already planned visit, the Church in fact is committing a historical mistake. Any Catholic would not want a repetition of the situation in 1995 or even worse than that.
When the Church leaders fail to accomplish their duty, then it is the responsibility of the local faithful to do what is necessary. Let us join hands and raise our voices for the truth.