The island nation of Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, underwent a bitter civil war in the closing decades of the 20th century. The majority Sinhalese population, made up in large part of Buddhists, clashed for years with the mainly Hindu Tamils, especially regarding their relationship to the former colonial powers of the British and Dutch. The war between them resulted in the deaths of over 70,000 people and left deep scars on the South Asian nation. Today there are Catholic bishops in both ethnic groups, with Vatican diplomat and polyglot Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, of Sinhalese background, being the most prominent.
Ranjith’s Tamil counterpart Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar had asked that the pope visit the territories in which his ethnic peoples are concentrated. Francis has agreed and will in January visit both the capital city of Colombo, the center of the Sinhalese world, and the Tamil territories in the northeast crescent of the island.
The Holy Father will be visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, a place of devotion for both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics. We know that St. Francis Xavier carried Christianity to Asia, and there are less well-documented traditions that St. Thomas the Apostle perhaps visited these areas in the decades immediately following the crucifixion. However, Sri Lankan Catholicism is deeply indebted to the work of Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian missionary beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Travelling barefoot throughout the island at great personal risk, Vaz was tireless in his support of the poor and those suffering from smallpox. He ministered throughout India and Sri Lanka during the colonial occupation, revivifying the faithful during his travels. He died of disease in 1711. Many Sri Lankans hope that he will be canonized in the coming years.
In choosing to become the first pope to visit Tamil settlements, Francis is once again prioritizing our shared humanity over divisive political ideologies. The hope is that his presence and prayers at the jungle shrine of Our Lady of Madhu will help build bridges and foster forgiveness, not only between Sinhalese and Tamils, but also between the various non-Christian religious traditions present in the multi-cultural nation.
The shrine has become a symbol for national reconciliation and social accord. Francis will likely echo the prayers for peace he has so passionately offered for the Middle East and Ukraine lately. He has said that the desire for peace and serenity is “threatened by tension and conflict that does not seem to stop, generating so much suffering among civilians.” And he has promised to continue to ask the world to “pray together in particular for the victims, their families and those who suffer.”
Vatican correspondent Paolo Affatato is reporting that the images used for the papal trip will center on Vaz and the Cross of Sri Lanka colored blue to honor the Marian elements of the trip, all folded into a Nil Manel lotus bud, the national symbol of Sri Lanka.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.