‘Our faith is stronger than their bombs’: A Sri Lankan priest in Rome

IMG 0048 1 Fr. Jude Raj Fernando at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, Oct. 24, 2019. | Courtney Mares/CNA

As the pastor of a parish in which many families lost a mother, father, or child in a bombing on Easter Sunday, Fr. Jude Raj Fernando has seen how healing from loss can be a long, difficult journey of faith.

Fr. Fernando is the rector of St. Anthony's shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka -- one of the churches bombed during the Easter attacks by a group affiliated with Islamic State that killed 258 people in April. He spoke of his painful pastoral experience Oct. 24 at an Aid to the Church in Need event in Rome on the ongoing persecution of Christians.

"I had never heard a sound like that. My first words after the blast were 'Father forgive them, they know not what they do,'" Fernando said, beginning to weep as he remembered the parishioners at Mass the day of the bombing. 

"There was a young couple married eight months before together at Easter Sunday Mass … and a man who had given an older lady his seat … a pregnant mother who lost her husband." He noted that this woman gave birth to a healthy baby last week and she is now a single mother. 

Along with offering trauma counseling at the parish, Fernando said that the local Church remains committed to aiding the religious education of the children who lost parents and occupational training for households that lost their breadwinner. 

People at the parish are still asking, "Why did God allow this to happen to us?" he said. A young child asked him 'why did God take my mother from me at church?'

"We priests walked this difficult journey with our victims," Fernando said. "It is a long journey of faith." 

"Please continue to pray for us … we can overcome evil with the love in our hearts," he said. "Our faith is stronger than their bomb."

Fr. Fernando spoke in the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, a basilica devoted to the Church's modern martyrs and home to 120 relics of persecuted Christian communities around the world. 

The Sri Lankan priest presented the basilica with items from St. Anthony's church in Colombo that survived the bombing during the Aid to the Church in Need event "Persecuted more than ever."

"This place, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on Tiber Island, is a testimony," said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation of Oriental Churches, "to this dimension of the Church's today … surrounded by innumerable signs, coming from the various continents, men and women who gave their lives for the Lord Jesus." 

"They make us sure that the passion of Christ continues in the children of the Church, as He tells us in the Gospel 'If they persecuted me, they will persecute you too,' but they also ask us to purify our heart and our eyes, learning to live all these experiences in faith," the cardinal said.

The Aid to the Church in Need report on Christian persecution 2017-2019 defined Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Pakistan, India and Myanmar as countries with the most severe persecution of Christians.

Cardinal Sandri said that an awareness of this ongoing persecution should also always be framed by the victory of Christ, who tells us "take courage, I have conquered the world."

The cardinal said that he learned during his diplomatic service to the Holy See to look for and recognize the signs of victory that the Lord grants over time. He pointed to the example of a Eucharistic procession that took place in Zocalo Square in Mexico City after Cardinal Posadas Ocampo was assassinated.

"It was a historic fact after the prohibition of public acts of faith that had lasted since the time of the anticlerical and anti-religious persecutions that gave the country many glorious martyrs and witnesses to the faith, Christ returned to physically tread the streets of the city in the Blessed Sacrament," he said.

Sandri stressed that, while circumstances were growing more difficult for Christians in different ways across the globe, the whole Church was rediscovering the early Church's understanding of bearing witness to the faith.

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"In different geographical and social contexts, witnessing will take on a different meaning," Sandri said.

"In some places it will be giving life, even physically, in blood; in others it will require the courage of parresia; in others, isolation, misunderstanding or derision." 

"In any case," the cardinal said, "it will require a willingness to pay a high and true price, as happened in the first centuries." 

"Being a Christian cost life, but this did not prevent the Gospel from spreading. Modern times have given us back the ancient meaning of the word witness."

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