De Pilo Pendet: Reconciliation and the Catholic Church’s Role in Post-War Sri Lanka

Photo by Dominic Sansoni

I have a memory that dates back several years. It is of a Good Friday Service at my family’s parish in Kotte, Sri Lanka and of the length of time I spent standing outside in overcast weather. A Good Friday service calls for a special liturgy, sober reflection, and patience. It’s a long-standing joke amongst Catholics that during the Triduum, every lapsed Catholic remembers to attend Mass ‘just in case.’ Churches are packed to the rafters, and many have to stand throughout the longer services. That parish in Kotte is a special one, sandwiched between two Buddhist temples and within walking distance of Sirikotha (the stronghold of the UNP, the main political opposition to the present Government). There is no greater example of the intensity with which politics, religion and multiculturalism meet in Sri Lanka than to consider one’s physical geography during Mass. That particular Good Friday, I was a troubled sixteen year old, full of questions about my faith, and fatigued by the length of time I had spent standing outside.

The service was extended from its normal time because it was done in two languages: Sinhala and English. A prayer or litany would be done in English and then repeated in Sinhala. It’s easy enough to be irritated, and to check out during the non-English portions. During a Sinhala prayer, I walked away from my spot with the other parish youth in order to alleviate my impatience. Perhaps it was some grace, perhaps it was youthful curiosity, but I suddenly decided to start following along with the Sinhala prayer. I was moving between groups, not all praying at the same time, but gathered together in some kind of solidarity. It was beautiful, that, and it settled me. There was a deep beauty in the effort of this church to put us through the wringer of a long, bilingual service, because it had made us stand together. (Masses are usually done in one language only, except for this day. Regrettably, there is no Tamil service but, in part, this has to do with the fact that much of the ethnic Tamil population are ‘English speaking.’) Despite the crowd, the loudspeaker, the dust, and the imminent thunderstorm, something felt reconciled. I checked my desire to nip across the road for a chocolate milk from the ‘Cool Spot’ and stayed for the whole service.

A sacrament from Church to World

Reconciliation and reconciliatory processes play a significant role in Catholic theology. The individual meeting between penitent and confessor within the confines of the ‘box’ allows for, yes, a profound encounter with the Divine, but also a catharsis that manifests in speaking. Theological students are often told that the sacrament received is a sacrament of words, that through the ‘speaking’ act, specifically, we can come to understand the grace of reconciliation.

In some ways, a version of this idea was deployed in the recent spate of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that were held Canadawide. The sessions attempted a ‘telling’ of the story of victims of residential school abuse such that through a necessary wording, a process of healing could begin. Mid-way through a segment of this process at which I was in attendance, I texted a friend of mine telling her of some of my immediate reactions. She texted back, “Can you imagine how this process would work back home?” A profound question. My friend is Indian and I am Sri Lankan, but we can come together easily and often in trying to understand the difficult conflicts and social divisions on the subcontinent. My friend is Lutheran, I am a Catholic. Her worldview is significantly less sacramental, mine is almost completely so. I come from a tradition where the word ‘Reconciliation’ immediately suggests that individual confession of sin, and of meeting of the individual with the profound Other.

How can we understand, or rather deploy this aspect of confessing to reconcile, of wearing the garments of penance when attempting to ‘make peace’ after a sustained period of conflict? In a long standing war, and in a peace process that has yet to take off, the healing that has to happen has also taken on complex forms. Arguably at this time in Sri Lanka, we have entered a certain messiness, where perpetrator and victim have also entered into a relationship that either mirror each other, or end up taking on each other’s forms and vices- a development which, as Robert Schreiter points out in A Theology of Reconciliation and Peacemaking(2004), is not uncommon in post-conflict societies.Elizabeth Carmichael, in ‘Practical Theologies for Reconciliation’ (2008)also reminds us of a further way in which the process loses clear demarcations between ‘good’ and ‘bad’; instances in which a person can cross or blur the line between oppressor and oppressed, or of individuals who begin the process of reconciliation even during the conflict/event itself. There are those who ‘struggle with a reconciled heart’. How does a process of healing the wounds of a long war in a multicultural society even begin to deal with the struggle that was, and the struggles that have been taken on? The central elements of the rite that structure the meeting between self and Other within Reconciliation can be appropriated as it underlines dependence. By recognising our dependence upon one another, we make the garments of repentance almost immediately garments of relationship also.

This is not to argue for the imposition of Catholicity or a religious worldview on the Sri Lankan peace process, but to argue for the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka to take on a significant role as a mediatory body in the healing process. As a body that is, and should always be ‘extra-state’ the Roman Catholic Church, for whom an understanding of reconciliation is so deeply entrenched, is ideally posited to be a force for making the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) accountable for moving this process along, and for amplifying the tools needed for reconciliation. Indeed, as this article went to edits, Catholic news outlets reported that Pope Francis had called on the Church to be the ‘leaven for reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka.

A Church in the World

At varying times in history, the Roman Catholic Church has either been with or aside from the state. In what we can call the ‘post-war’ era, although it is certainly not a period devoid of conflict, the Roman Catholic Church has, primarily, decided to place itself in a position that seemed somewhat ambiguous. Whilst Bishops in the North and the East have been working from a grassroots level to assist their flock, the position taken by the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has proved problematic to his congregations. In particular, a visit made to Mullikulam, and reported on Groundviews in 2013, suggested that the Cardinal maintained a relationship with the defence establishment and not the community in difficulty. While the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, has maintained a stance that is strongly critical of the government, Cardinal Ranjith issued a statement in 2012, calling for Western powers not to interfere with the sovereignty of the Sri Lankan state. This last mirrors significantly the rhetoric of the GOSL in its response to any criticism in receives from within or without the country.

In recent times, however, we have seen that changing. This may be a result of the young papacy of Pope Francis, whose call is explicitly one of social justice and the protection of the marginalized. On another level, it may also be need to respond to the growing persecution of non-Buddhist communities by a militant Buddhist groups. Here, too, the Catholic Church has ‘fallen’, for, it’s reticence to speak out on this topic has suggested the particular bias of the Church in terms of shying away from association with evangelical churches. However, with increased attacks on non-Buddhist populations, including the desecration of a tabernacle in Angulana, the invasion of a church in Weliweriya, a denial to prisoners to meet with Bishop Joseph during Lenten services, and a condition of social suffering that impossible not to respond to, we are seeing a much needed fight back from the Catholic Church. In December 2013, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka issued a Pastoral Statement on ‘Reconciliation and Rebuilding’, the first such document of its length and constituency issued since 1984’s pastoral letter on rebuilding a nation. The statement cites heavily from Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II, a document that, very purposefully and, arguably, quite radically, positioned the Church to bring itself into the World. Indeed, the legacy of the council of Vatican II is simply this, it opened the Roman Catholic Church up more than it had ever been before. Importantly, however, the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops Pastoral Statement also, building off of Catholic Social Teaching, and reflecting the call from Sri Lankan civil society, makes a strong call for decentralisation of power in the island, and for the drafting of a new constitution. These are important and powerful ideas to push for in a country where the intense monopolisation of power by a dynastic family, and the unbridled Sinhalization of the North and East has pushed the possibility of reconciliation and rebuilding back at least a few years. It is important to point out here, that while the conversation at the top, in terms of the Sri Lankan episcopate has been quite fragmented, any encounter one has with more rural or destitute areas will strongly witness to the tireless work of the women religious and the ordained male clergy, standing side by side in their mission to the poor. Look at pictures from different civil society rallies, and you are sure to see more than a few nuns marching alongside other protestors. The groundswell and capacity for the Catholic Church to take a significant role in calling for and actively leading the reconciliation process already exists, what it requires is unified and continued momentum from the top, as well as a profound articulation of appropriating the liberating principle of Reconciliation itself as a response to the gaping, and ever-widening wounds the island carries.

Akin to many Churches mired in the messy politics of a country that is ‘developing’ or in the Global South, or working its way from a colonial past, the identity of the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka should, arguably, be defined by its ability to respond to the voices of those who are poor and oppressed in body, mind and spirit. Where war, poverty, desperation and abuse are rampant, a Church stands face to face with systemic injustice and is called to battle these forces and to reform and revolutionize these structures of inequality. In Latin America, the rise of the current of Liberation Theology is an excellent example; in India, we see the struggles of the Dalit Christians. In Sri Lanka, Fr Tissa Balasuriya was forced into a confrontation with the Vatican because of a document he wrote that was, in essence, a response to the difficulties of the social situation that he saw in the island. The Catholic Church struggles with ‘revolutionary’ voices in its hesitance to be identified with Marxist materialism and violent struggle. Yet, some form of non-physical violence, of action, is necessary now in finding the places where healing can grow, in attacking the sins committed in the war and truly transforming Sri Lanka.

And so, ‘de pilo pendet’- it hangs by a hair. At the five year point, Sri Lanka has reached a critical stage in where it moves on in terms of the necessary process of healing. In this scenario, the Catholic Church, acting as a non-state actor, must respond by effectively deploying tools already embedded within her theology and pastoral care towards making the GOSL accountable for reconciling the country. As a religion that is shared across the Tamil and Sinhala divide, especially, the Church is also placed in an ideal mediatory position to open dialogue between North, East and South, drawing from the experiences of its local congregations and ordained to fuel policy making for reconciliation. By taking such an active role, the Church calls itself to integrity. Furthermore, it can also begin its own journey of repentance and healing.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • Dependable

    Anupama Ranawana makes a very interesting premise; that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has and ought to have a very large role in reconciliation in the island. However, I see several flaws in her analysis which I will set forth presently.

    Firstly, I don’t think the Catholic Church has never taken a humanistic role, either in Sri Lanka or indeed the world. On the contrary the long history of the Church is littered with its collaboration with oppressive governments and the Church itself was a serial human rights abuser over the centuries, assuming the role of judge and jury over vast swathes of the human population. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the devastation of native South America, the persecution of the Jews, the sexual abuse of thousands of children all took place under the tutelage of the Catholic Church. Then from a Sri Lankan perspective, out of all the religions in the island it is Catholicism (and Christianity in general) that arrived with war and violence, and the period when the Catholic Church ruled the roost was rife with the absolute religious persecution of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who together constitute more than 93% of Sri Lanka’s population. The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, therefore, has a crises of credibility among non-Catholic Sri Lankans; it is historically responsible for the destruction of many ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim places of worship and particularly the persecution of the Sri Lankan Muslim community who fled to the Kandyan Kingdom seeking refuge from the barbarity of the Church’s hierarchy. These incidents may have happened a few centuries ago, but the Sri Lankan Catholic Church has shown no remorse over its past behaviour.

    The Sri Lankan Catholic Church also has a very dubious record of collaborating with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This is certainly more true of the northern constituents of the Church. In particuar Rev. Rayappu Joseph – who Anupama unfortunately attempts to whitewash – has been accused of allowing children to be conscripted by the LTTE and stealing the Madhu Church statue. He has also been accused of using his power to intimidate internally displaced Muslims returning to the Mannar region after the conclusion of the war. Reverend Father S. J. Emmanuel, another Catholic priest is the leader of the Global Tamil Forum and has been an ardent supporter of the LTTE despite it being a banned terrorist organisation. It appears as if the Catholic Church in the north of the country is subservient to Tamil nationalism and places Catholicism the religion in a secondary position. This certainly does not bode well for reconciliation.

    Secondly, I see a problem with Catholic doctrine itself. Reconciliation between diverse groups of people who have different cultures and religions requires respect. This is a fundamental principle that is required for successfully bringing disparate groups together. Unfortunately I do not see this existing in current Catholic dogma. According to Catholic teaching the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – and indeed Protestants and atheists – are destined to burn in an eternal hellfire after death simply because they do not share the Catholic faith. This automatically assumes a second class position for non-Catholics who cannot receive the beneficence of the Christian God without converting to the Catholic faith. It denies them love, tolerance and equality. It denies them respect, that very key ingredient required for reconciliation. Indeed, the use of the terms “heathens” and “idol worshippers” by the Catholic Church to refer to others is symptomatic of a sense of superiority over other faiths that pervades Catholic doctrine. The fact that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka is still desperately trying to gain converts through many overt and covert means of evangelism goes to show that it has scant respect for other religions in the island.

    Given this, I therefore find it very difficult to believe that the Catholic Church could play any meaningful role in reconciliation in Sri Lanka. At best the Church may play a role in reconciliation between different Catholic groups in the island, but as for bringing together the other 93% of the population who are non-Catholics, that is another matter.

    • Fitzpatrick

      So are you suggesting that we follow the BBS doctrine (ably supported by Gothabaya) for reconciliation?

  • Melde

    For over 25 years as the war raged on the Catholic Church did precious little to bring together Sinhalese and Tamils, instead they were busy building bigger and grander churches, taking money from parishioners and meeting up with foreign dignitaries. The way they treated and treat converts out of Christianity is appalling. Political Catholic priests were preaching to their parishioners who to vote for in elections – straight from the pulpit! How can such an institution play any role in reconciliation in Sri Lanka, when they are so self absorbed and divisive? As a Sinhala Catholic, Anupama clearly looks at the church with rose tinted glasses and sees no wrong in them despite all evidence to the contrary. Catholics in Sri Lanka need to stand up and critique the church and its corrupt priests instead of fawning on them and hiding all the dirty laundry.

    • AMR25

      Dear all, Thank you for reading. Please note- if you look at the article I do not spare the Church and am very aware of its faults. I am calling it to play an integral role in the process because it has the capacity to do so. It must step up to the plate. Simply providing a ‘litany of sins’ would have proved unhelpful for the point I wished to make- which is to explain reconciliation in context and call the Church to follow through. It, too, must wear the garments of repentance. Often righting a wrong means taking to action.

      • Dependable

        How do you think the Catholic Church will “play an integral role in the [reconciliation] process ” when it cannot even provide justice to the thousands upon thousands of children all over the world who have been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of its priesthood? Exactly what “action” has the church taken there?