For Sri Lanka, Pope's visit solidifies peace after brutal civil war

For Sri Lanka, Pope's visit solidifies peace after brutal civil war

Sri Lankans participate in healing prayers for a day of the sick in August, 2014. Credit: Roshan Fernando/Archdiocese of Colombo.
Sri Lankans participate in healing prayers for a day of the sick in August, 2014. Credit: Roshan Fernando/Archdiocese of Colombo.

.- Falling just five years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Pope Francis’ visit to the country is seen as a sign of reconciliation, a message expected to be shown through his gestures more than his words.

“We are going to have (Pope Francis) in an atmosphere in which we have finished a war – a civil war for 30 long years – and we are in need of a real process of reconciliation; spiritually, materially, politically,” Fr. Prasad Harshan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Colombo, told CNA Jan. 8.

“More than his words, we are waiting to see his gestures and postures, his spontaneity, how he will go out of his way to do certain things. Those things will speak a thousand times louder than his words.”

Fr. Harshan currently lives in Rome and is in his final year of studies at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce. He also helps to look after the spiritual needs of Rome’s Sri Lankan community.

He noted how the Pope’s Jan. 12-14 visit to Sri Lanka, which will reflect on the theme “Remain in Love,” lands 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.

Over 70 percent of the 20.4 million people in Sri Lanka are Buddhists, and Christians make up an estimated eight percent of the population.

Pope Francis has always been a person who represents peace and reconciliation, so to have him come to Sri Lanka at this time is a “privilege,” Fr. Harshan observed, adding, “we are immensely blessed to have this visit.”

The priest then pointed out how despite the brevity of the Roman Pontiff’s trip, he will not only stay in the capital city of Colombo, but will also go to the areas of the country that were most heavily impacted by the war.

“Nobody loved the war, everybody felt very sorry for this. So even the majority group, they are not against the Pope visiting that area,” the priest said.

“There is no negative ideas about his visit to the war zone areas. (Sri Lankans) not only love it, but appreciate it and encourage it.”

This, Fr. Harshan noted, will be a symbolic and welcome move for all of Sri Lanka, since “non-violence is the basic principle” in a country where some 70 percent of the people are Buddhist, and the Christian minority is around eight percent.

He also noted how the Pope’s trip will fall just one week after the country’s presidential elections, which took place Jan. 8

Out of three papal visits to the country, Pope Francis’ trip will be the second time a Pope will be welcomed by one government after being invited by another. The first to have this happen was St. John Paul II during a visit in 1995.

The Pope was invited to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been president of the nation since 2005. Rajapaksa was defeated in the election by Maithripala Sirisena, who was sworn into office Jan. 9.

Although the election results are “crucial” for Sri Lanka’s continued process of recovery and reconciliation after the war, they are “not against the Pope,” Fr. Harshan stressed, and assured that they will pose no direct problems to the Pope’s visit.

Amid all of the organizational preparations for the papal visit, including the composition of a song “that everyone knows by now” based on the trip’s theme, the priest noted that the country’s spiritual preparation has emerged as even more important.

This visit, in which the first Sri Lankan saint, Blessed Joseph Vaz, will be canonized, is not just any other visit, he said, noting how dioceses have increased access to Confession in order to “make this visit a spiritual journey, not so much a materialistic (one.)”

Pope Francis’ visit “is one of hope … the Vicar of Christ is visiting us, so that should make some changes in our lives,” the priest observed.

“So the spiritual preparation is done because he’s not just coming to see the country and go. He’s coming to canonize the first saint in Sri Lanka, and that’s very, very, very important for us.”

As a religious minority in Sri Lanka, Catholics have a strong devotion to Bl. Joseph Vaz, who traveled there from India as a young priest in order help maintain the faith during the Dutch persecutions, Fr. Harshan noted.

“He came to the island, learned the two languages, walked all over the country irrespective of religious or ethnic groups (and) had a very good rapport with all other religious groups, with politicians, the king, etc. So to give him back to us in the context of this nature is a wonderful sign for us.”

Fr. Harshan also noted the high number of vocations in Sri Lanka, who currently have around 1,000 priests on the small island, more than 400 of whom serve the 1 million Catholics present in the Archdiocese of Colombo.

With 12 dioceses in the country, 16 bishops, 13 minor seminaries for secular priests and more than 10 additional ones for religious congregations, there are “a lot of vocations,” he noted, adding that each year there are some 50-60 priestly ordinations.

“So although the Church in Sri Lanka is small in numbers, it’s a vibrant Church, a very effective Church, and a growing Church … I’m sure these two days are going to be unforgettable not only for Catholics, but for all Sri Lankans.”

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