Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan 14, 2015 / 03:33 am
At a Marian shine during his three-day trip to Sri Lanka, Pope Francis touched on the country's brutal decades-long civil war and pointed to the Mother of God as the ultimate witness of forgiveness.
"In this difficult effort to forgive and find peace, Mary is always here to encourage us, to guide us, to lead us," the Pope said Jan. 14 at the Our Lady of Madhu shrine in Sri Lanka's Mannar district.
"Just as she forgave her son's killers at the foot of his cross, then held his lifeless body in her hands, so now she wants to guide Sri Lankans to greater reconciliation, so that the balm of God's pardon and mercy may bring true healing to all."
Pope Francis lands in Sri Lanka just five years after the country concluded a nearly 30-year civil war between Sinhala nationalists and Tamil separatists which claimed at least 60,000 lives.
Although Sri Lanka is a mostly Buddhist country – with Christians accounting for just eight percent of its 20.4 million people – Pope Francis is the third pontiff to visit the country. Pope Paul VI made a visit in 1970, and Pope St. John Paul II visited 20 years ago in 1995.
Bishop Joseph Rayappu of Mannar greeted the Pope at the shrine Wednesday, thanking the Holy Father for the witness of his "admirable love for the poor and the suffering."
"You are visiting our country – Sri Lanka – as a messenger of Peace based on Truth, Justice and Reconciliation," the bishop said.
He noted that Mannar is the location of the first martyrdom in Asia, as some 600 believers gave their lives for the faith in 1544. "The blood of the Martyrs of Mannar has become the seed of the faith in the entire North and eventually in the whole country," Bishop Rayappu reflected.
He also pointed to the significance of the shrine itself, with 400 years of history.
"This shrine of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary had fostered the faith and the devotion of all our dear people from all over the country regardless of all differences of race, religion or language for the last four centuries," he said. "It still remains the privileged Marian Shrine of fostering priestly and religious vocations in our dioceses."
During his remarks, Pope Francis acknowledged the "families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka. Many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years."
"But Our Lady remained always with you," he said. "Mary never forgot her children on this resplendent island. Just as she never left the side of her Son on the Cross, so she never left the side of her suffering Sri Lankan children."
"In the wake of so much hatred, violence and destruction, we want to thank her for continuing to bring us Jesus, who alone has the power to heal open wounds and to restore peace to broken hearts," the Pope added.
"But we also want to ask her to implore for us the grace of God's mercy. We ask also for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known."
"It is not easy to do this," he emphasized. "Yet only when we come to understand, in the light of the cross, the evil we are capable of, and have even been a part of, can we experience true remorse and true repentance."
After his Sri Lankan visit, the Pope will fly to the Philippines, where he will visit through Jan. 19. In stark contrast to Sri Lanka, 86 percent of the Philippines' 93.4 million people identify as Catholic. While the country has not known as much political unrest as Sri Lanka recently, the Philippines has been ravaged by several typhoons, earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years.