Fr. Tissa Balasuriya: A loving and gentle rebel

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Photo courtesy the late Fr. Tissa’s blog

Fr. Tissa has been called a radical and rebel within the Catholic Church and society. This is perhaps because like Jesus, he never flinched from challenging the rulers and powerful – be they be those in government, multinational corporations or church. Unjust socio-economic-political structures were subjected to harsh criticism by him. He never sought or accepted any privileges from the rulers.

But what I remember most about Fr. Tissa is his love and his gentleness.

I only got to know Fr Tissa in his seventies, though I had read his writings a few years before. He took me with him to slums in Summitpura in Colombo, got me involved in conducting discussions on human rights in schools in Colombo, invited me to a training on organic farming in Kandy and made me part of theological discussions with leading Sri Lankan and other liberation theologians from across the world, in the farm he lived in at Andiambalama, near the Katunayake airport. He lived a simple life, had very little personal belongings and mostly travelled by bus and train.

I remember that in 2009, when I had to present a paper on the Eucharist and Armed Conflict at a conference held in preparation for the plenary assembly of Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) in 2009, the central theme I picked “The Eucharist has to be related positively to human liberation if it is to be faithful to its origins” was from Fr. Tissa’s book on Eucharist and Human Liberation published in 1977. I had read the book many years before, but could not find it as I was abroad, and when I contacted Fr. Tissa, he was very kind to immediately email me a soft copy of the book.

Even when he was excommunicated by the Vatican with active collaboration of local Church leaders in Colombo, he didn’t speak angrily of those who were responsible, including the present Pope and Cardinal. “I feel more in communion with the real church and those oppressed” was the sentiment I remember most in my conversations with him from that time.

From my days as a teenaged advanced level student, I had been a visitor to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), which Fr. Tissa had founded. It was here that I came across critical material on church and society. It was from CSR that we borrowed slides, videos, overhead projectors and other material and equipment for use in the Young Christian Student (YCS) Movement. On one occasion, Fr. Tissa recommended a film on the Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvadore who was killed due to his outspoken condemnation of the military dictatorship. I had never heard of Romero or the film before, but took his advice and showed the film. It remains one of the most challenging and inspiring films I had watched and since then, I had shown this film several times to different groups. Fr. Tissa and CSR had played an important role in my journey as a human rights activist.

I remember a woman activist sharing that Fr. Tissa was amongst the few in the late 1980s and 1990s that welcomed her together with her young child to CSR. Long before Fr. Tissa wrote the book “Mary and Human Liberation” that led to his excommunication, he had been an advocate for women’s rights – in society and especially within the Church.

He was a very caring person. Especially in the last six years, he continued to encourage me, but often also cautioned me and warned me of dangers. Having heard of risks I was facing few years back, he had tried to call me, and having failed to get through to me, sent a very short email telling that “I (Fr Tissa) have very short time to live, but you have more years ahead of you, so be careful”. Later on, he invited me to stay with him and promised that he will protect me. His interest in me was not limited to safety, but and he often used to ask me when I would get married and whether he would be invited! He never failed to reply to an email or return a phone call.

I remembered and looked up one of the last emails Fr. Tissa sent me last year; where he said “would it not be a valuable contribution for all the ethnic groups, religious groups and political  parties to regret our shortcomings and come together to build a common monument for peace and for the victims of this tragedy of over half a century in our country. The monument can be physical as well as a movement. We can pardon one another, and resolve to build a united Sri Lanka helping the families of the victims dead and alive injured. Ruki please regard this as confidential to you personally, so far.  If you and the group mentioned in your letter are initiating something positive like this I could join you for the short time left to me in life” 

Unfortunately, the prevailing political situation didn’t enable us to initiate this and involve Fr. Tissa. But we hope someday to be able to do this.

Fr Tissa was and will remain one of my gurus – someone who helped me to connect my faith to realities of oppression and injustices around me – in Sri Lanka and beyond.

Some people close to Fr Tissa found it difficult to work with him, and indeed had disagreements with some of Fr Tissa’s thinking. Maybe because his visions and commitments were too idealist and hard for others to keep up with. And of course Fr. Tissa was also a human being who was not perfect. But I’m amongst the many fortunate persons that Fr Tissa had mentored and inspired – through his writings, talks he gave and the personal conversations we had, but most importantly in the simple way he lived and the love he radiated.

I’m very sad I didn’t visit Fr. Tissa when I was in Colombo few weeks ago. He was amongst those I wanted to spend some time when I go back to Sri Lanka, to reflect about what I have been doing last few years and what I planned to do. But that no longer will be possible.

I will miss you, dear Fr. Tissa. But what I learnt from you and what you inspired me to be will remain. May you rest in peace.

  • Phil Little

    Many thanks to you for this moving reflection on the influence of Tissa in your life. I had the privilege only once to meet Tissa – when I was an Oblate missionary in a poor area of Lima, Peru we had a visit – perhaps around 1977 or 78 – when Tissa was doing a visit to missions of the Oblate order. He spoke then of the opposition he experienced, even from another Oblate who at the time was the Cardinal of Colombo, because Tissa was organizing the poor tea pickers (mostly women) into unions. His commitment to the poor was not theoretical or academic but came from his solidarity among the poor. Of course that challenged the people in power – both civil and church. We give thanks for the life and witness of this great Oblate.

  • Rita

    Thank you, Ruki.

    Fr Tissa had sawn the seed for :
    “would it not be a valuable contribution for all the ethnic groups, religious groups and political parties to regret our shortcomings and come together to build a common monument for peace and for the victims of this tragedy of over half a century in our country”

    Though all seedlings don’t get to maturity in this world, let’s hope this seedling will grow and bear fruit.

    We need to water it and fertilise it and protect it.

    Fr Tissa’s life should be part of our Peace Education