Photo courtesy the late Fr. Tissa’s blog

We heard the sad news that the internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan catholic priest and theologian Father Tissa Balasuriya (Fr Tissa) has passed away. His exertions on the Catholic Church about the nature of Jesus Christ and his teachings, and how to adjust to the realities of life in the developing world are not well known. Nevertheless, he became famous internationally when he was ex-communicated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1997 for the book he authored, Mary and Human Liberation, which took a feminist perspective on her life, such as the issue of ordaining women as priests in the Church. Obviously, his dynamic interpretation of the mother of Jesus was quite different from the traditional interpretation. There was intense international pressure from within and without the Catholic Church to rescind the excommunication. Fr Tissa did not admit to doctrinal error, but acknowledged perceptions of error, for the sake of a compromise. After a week-long negotiation, the excommunication was rescinded in 1998.

Fr Tissa took progressive initiatives relating to various issues that prevailed in Sri Lanka. He was one of the most respected and the humblest of priests who endeavoured to practise Christianity by his personal commitment and example. He donated his 80-acre ancestral property and home at Andi Ambalama to establish a Farm and Training Centre for street children. It was set up as a self-sustained community. The community for children commenced its work in 1990. Fr. Tissa also donated his ancestral home in Katuwapitiya to the Centre for Society and Religion. He was also instrumental in running another home for boys in Battaramulla, Sri Lanka.

Being a critic of the iniquities of the global capitalist system, he sought to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the global quest for social justice. He was well known for his track record in defending human rights. He won the prestigious Khan Gold Medal when he graduated in economics.  He entered the Novitiate the same year and was ordained a priest in Rome in 1949. As an economist, he became convinced of the need for economic justice for the working people and became a strong advocate and lobbyist for social justice and equity. He was strongly opposed to neo-liberal economic policies and crony capitalism, the creation of a liberal economic system in which only some cronies gained political and economic power in return for supporting the regime. He provided leadership for coordinating inter-religious and inter-racial activities with the aim of working towards achieving social justice, freedom and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. Fr Tissa was the founder of the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in 1971 set up for studying the burgeoning social, economic and political problems of Sri Lanka, and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians in 1975. In the process, Fr. Tissa had been misinterpreted both by sections of the Church and the ruling interests.

Father Tissa is/was a good friend to both Chitra and me. Chitra used to work for Centre for Society and Religion under the guidance of Fr Tissa, with the aim of trying to assist those families who live in slum areas in Colombo. She studied at the Aquinas University College where Fr Tissa was Rector. My first contact with him occurred in 1978, when I was presiding over a public May Day rally held by the JVP at Town Hall in Colombo. He had come closer to the stage and sent me a message to meet him for a couple of minutes, to which I obliged. This infuriated our leader. Since then I had met him on several occasions while attending public seminars at the CSR. His close connection to our family strengthened during the period of terror and repression in 1988-89, when he arranged an Australian community to assist Chitra and the two children to visit Australia, while I had to find refuge in Japan due to death threats to my life.

Fr Tissa’s death also brings back memories of Fr. Michael Rodrigo, who was a follower of Fr Tissa’s life traditions of simplicity, humbleness and servitude to the people. He was assassinated in 1987, while conducting a sermon at the pulpit of the church. We cannot forget Fr Tissa’s political activities in Canberra opposing the US led war in Iraq during one of his visits. Despite becoming frail due to age and sickness in recent years, he carried out his work in promoting not only social justice but also religious and racial harmony.

We will not only remember and respect his contribution to the betterment of socio-economic conditions of working people in Sri Lanka, but on a more personal level, we will never forget his genuine love and offer of help for the needy, irrespective of their socio-cultural background.

We salute him for his immense contribution for the betterment of society. He will be remembered with gratitude. We extend our deepest sympathy to his bereaved family and friends.

Fr Tissa’s struggle for social justice will carry on and be strengthened by his peerless example.

Lionel and Chitra Bopage