Sri Lanka, The Catholic Church in
SRI LANKA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is an island country of the Indian Ocean, located southeast of the tip of the Indian subcontinent. Connected to the Indian mainland through a narrow, intermittent causeway, the island consists of low rolling plains rising to mountains in the interior. Visited by monsoons in winter and summer, the climate is tropical; agricultural crops include rice, sugarcane, grains, spices and tea, although agriculture is slowly being replaced by textile and garment manufacture as the region's main export. Natural resources include limestone, graphite, gems and phosphates; Sri Lanka is also located near the major Indian Ocean shipping lanes, which has fueled the government's recent efforts to boost trade.
Once known as Ceylon, the region was inhabited mainly by Sinhalese and Tamils who migrated from India. The island was discovered by the Portuguese in
1505, and captured by the Dutch in the 17th century. In 1796 it was occupied by Great Britain and was made a Crown colony in 1802. The region was granted independence as a member state of the British Commonwealth in 1948. Ethnic violence broke out in the early 1980s, and continued unabated into 2000. From 1985 to the end of the 20th century 50,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives in the fighting. The population in 1960 showed the Buddhist Sinhalese population at 69 percent and the Hindu Tamil population at 23 percent Tamil; by 2000 the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Tamils had shifted those percentages to 75 and 15 percent respectively. Other ethnic groups include Ceylon and Indian Moors, Burghers (Eurasian
descendants of Portuguese and Dutch colonists), Malays and Europeans.
Ecclesiastically, Sri Lanka has its Archdiocese in Colombo, with suffragans at the ancient city of Anuradhapura, as well as at Badulla, Chilaw, Galle, Jaffna, Kandy, Kurunegala, Mannar, Ratnapura and Trincomalee-Batticaloa. The island's minority Roman Catholic population is concentrated in the west coast of the island, with pockets in the central highlands, around east coast ports, and in the northern peninsula.
The following essay is divided into two parts. Part One covers the history of the Church in Sri Lanka from its beginnings through Vatican II. Part Two completes that history through 2000.
The Early Church
A center of Buddhist civilization from the 3rd century b.c., Sri Lanka was first evangelized by Portuguese Franciscans, but the mission was not systematically organized before 1543. Although most attention was given to the west coast across from India, a mission was established in the north at Mannar, although the King of Jaffna presumably massacred the 600 Christians there in 1544. St. Francis xavier sent a missionary to the island in 1544, but never visited there himself. The Franciscans had exclusive charge of Sri Lankan missions until the arrival of the Jesuits in 1602, and of the Dominicans and Augustinians soon after. By the middle of the 17th century there were 170 churches and 120 missionaries on the island.
Reformation, then Freedom. The arrival of the Dutch in 1658 led to serious difficulties for the Sri Lankan Church. Priests were immediately expelled, and the Dutch Reformed Church became the only recognized form of Christianity. No priest worked on the island until Joseph vaz, a member of the Oratory of Goa, arrived secretly in 1687 to begin reorganizing the Church. Of those oratorians who followed him, the most outstanding was J. Gonçalvez (d.1742), who was a pioneer in the development of Christian literature in Singhalese and Tamil. By the end of the Dutch period (1796), Catholicism, though still officially prohibited, was tolerated in practice, and Catholics outnumbered Protestants on the island.
With the advent of British rule in 1802, anti-Catholic laws were abolished (1806), and Governor Thomas Maitland officially proclaimed freedom of conscience and worship. In 1809 there were 83,595 Catholics in the island, which the British named Ceylon. The Church continued to grow and in 1836 the Vicariate of Ceylon, with headquarters at Colombo, was separated from the Diocese of Cochin, on the Indian coast. The Oratorians, unable to supply priests for the growing mission, were obliged to ask for European missionaries. In 1848 the vicariate was divided, and the Silvestrine Benedictines were entrusted with the Vicariate of Jaffna. The Benedictines confined their activity to the Vicariate of Kandy after 1857, while the Oblates of Mary Immaculate assumed responsibility for Jaffna (1857) and Colombo (1883). The hierarchy was established in 1886 with co lombo as the metropolitan see and Jaffna and Kandy as suffragan sees. Dioceses were erected at Galle and Trincomalee (1893) and entrusted to the Jesuits, who at the same time founded a pontifical seminary at Kandy to serve both India and Sri Lanka. In 1939 the Diocese of Chilaw was erected and entrusted to secular clergy under the first Sri Lankan bishop. The great organizer of the Sri Lankan Church in the 19th century was C. E. Bonjean, the Oblate bishop of Colombo (1883–92), who established a network of parochial missions and Catholic schools, encouraged native vocations and recognized the value of a Catholic press. His aim was more a revival of faith among Catholics than an attempt at mass conversions.
The island achieved independence from Great Britain on Feb. 4, 1948, after suffering heavy bombing by the Japanese during World War II. At independence, despite racial tensions that had been growing in the region since the 1930s, president, Don Denanayeke established a balanced government. Over the next three decades, however, the Church's position became increasingly threatened by nationalism, a Buddhist revival and a series of leftist governments. In 1956 the Nationalist Freedom Party swept the elections, and Sinhalese was made the official language of government.
In the face of rising Sinhalese nationalism, attempts to appease the Tamil minority were met with communal rioting and the assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1959. In 1961 Catholic primary schools were nationalized, and funding was withdrawn from all Churchrun schools. Sisters were required to leave the hospitals in 1963. Foreign missionaries were prevented from entering the country, and those already in Sri Lanka were required to pay large fees to apply annually for residency status. Fortunately, the Church possessed a high percentage of native clergy; the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Thomas Cooray, was Sri Lankan, as were his auxiliary and the bishops of Chilaw, Jaffna and Kandy. English-speaking Christians lost their jobs in the civil service and in the armed forces after an attempted coup in 1962 by military officers, among whom Catholics figured prominently.
Bibliography: f. de queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, tr. s. g. perera, 3 v. (Colombo 1930). s. g. perera, The Jesuits in Ceylon in the XVI and XVII Centuries (Madura, Ind. 1941). r. boudens, The Catholic Church in Ceylon under Dutch Rule (Rome 1957). j. rommerskirchen, Die Oblatenmissionen auf der Insel Ceylon (Hünfeld, Ger. 1931). w. l. a. peter, Studies in Ceylon Church History (Colombo 1963). h. haas, "Zur gegenwärtigen Lage der katholischen Kirche auf Ceylon," Neue Zeitschrift für Missionswissenschaft, 19.4 (1963) 300–311. Bilan du Monde, 2:210–215.
Vatican II and Beyond
Sri Lanka's nationalist ruling party equated their victory in the parliamentary general election of 1960 with the supremacy of both the Sinhalese race and the Buddhist religion. This quickly translated into laws that favored the rural Sinhalese majority over the colonially favored Tamils and the minority English-speaking Christians. By the end of the 1960s the Church saw the erosion of its privileged colonial position and separate eurocentric religio-cultural identity, which it had protected and reproduced mainly through its educational institutions.
Influence of Vatican II. The teachings of Vatican II on inculturation and the use of the vernacular, the role of the laity, interreligious dialogue and the social mission of the Church were received in Sri Lanka against a troubled ethnic and socio-economic background. With regard to clergy and religious, most sisters, priests and bishops were indigenous Sri Lankans, a result of the immigration restrictions in place on the island. After Vatican II new dioceses were erected in Anuradhapura, Mannar, Kurunegala and Badulla. Parish councils and various forums of clergy and laity at the diocesan level organized local church affairs. The first national diocesan synod was held in 1968.
In the spirit of Vatican II the Church attempted to Asianize itself and find a common identity with the rest of the nation. Despite efforts at inculturation and use of the Sinhal and Tamil vernaculars, the pervasive nationalism promoted by the ruling Sinhala nationalists caused the Church, composed mainly of Sinhalese and Tamils, to ultimately split along divisive communal lines.
The 1968 Pastoral Convention commissioned a report on the nation's deteriorating social and economic situation and suggested ways the Church could progress its spiritual and social mission. Many ideas, however, were slow to be implemented. The role and impact of the laity in Sri Lanka, first enhanced by the schools crisis, eventually found expression in the increased lay involvement in catechetical work, social projects and organized critical debate on the Church's organization, teachings and role in society. Dialogues with other Christian groups as well as with the island's non-Christian faiths, such as Buddhism, were stepped up.
In 1971 a failed insurrection led by a group of educated, unemployed and mainly rural Sinhalese youth in the south known as the Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), brought the social mission of the Church into sharp focus. While the majority of bishops called the youthful leaders of the JVP "misguided," some in the clergy and laity, supported by then bishop of Kandy, Leo Nanayakkara, saw the rebellion as a sign that the hierarchy was failing to respond to the needs of the times. A variety of social justice and dialogue groups were organized, among them the Center for Society and Religion, Satyodaya, Tulana Research Centre and the Janavabhodhi Kendraya. Bishop Nanayakkara also attempted to create new forms of pastoral life and priestly formation in the "experimental" new diocese at Badulla.
In the 1970s Catholic and other Christian groups formed throughout the mainly Hindi Tamil north to address the minority question. Social justice and dialogue groups in the predominantly Sinhalese south also addressed the question of rights for the Tamils.
Political Shift under New Constitution. A republican constitution was introduced in 1972, renaming the country and cutting all remaining ties with the British crown. A new government elected in 1977 set the country on a development policy driven by free market economics, and on Aug. 16, 1978 the constitution was altered to provide for an all-powerful executive presidency. Relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities quickly deteriorated, resulting in a series of pogroms that reached an irreversible climax in 1983 when the violence, fanned by a group of Sinhala racists, became particularly intense. A longstanding, hitherto minority claim for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island found wide Tamil support, as both sides chose the military option. In the midst of the war between Tamil separatists—called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—and the Sri Lankan government, the Church found itself divided on the race issue and the bishops' conference was unable to produce a unified response. A second JVP uprising (1989–91) in the south saw atrocities and human rights violations committed by both the state and the JVP. The Church was paralyzed with silence as the violence escalated, leaving it to the members of radical Christian and interreligious groups to raise protests, demand justice and openly criticize both sides, often at risk to their own lives.
Other groups, formed within the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches in the mid-1970s, called for radical social, political and spiritual solutions to the country's serious ethnic and socio-economic problems. They argued that the social teachings of Vatican II were not taken far enough in Sri Lanka. In calling for theological renewal, they explored interreligious relations and dialogue with other ideologies. Creative new contextual theologies and liturgical practices emerged from this radical fringe of the Church based mainly around an Asian perspective on the theology of liberation and dialogue with Buddhism and Hinduism.
Into the 21st Century. A change of government occurred in 1994 when, after 17 years of rule by the United National Party, the coalition People's Alliance, led by the Freedom Party, was elected into office. While the new government promised a negotiated settlement of the Tamil issue and curtailment of the excesses of the free market, it was unable to end racial violence, and by 1995 the violence had escalated. A state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka in 1996, and the violence caused many Tamil to flee to surrounding areas.
A minority faith within a predominately Buddhist nation, the majority of Sri Lankan Catholics remained faithful to the teachings of the Church with regard to doctrine, liturgy, church organization and the living of a Catholic life in a secular or non-Christian culture, although by the late 1990s they were forced to confront the possibility of legalized abortion due to pending government legislation. In the wider society, fringe groups, though small in number, were influential, some pushing for a return to the devotion and ritual of a pre-Vatican II Catholicism. The charismatic Pubuduwa movement, founded in 1973, retained a large lay following from all sectors of the Church. Initially a purely spiritual movement with no interest in politics, it became active in human rights and economic issues after 1982, was critical of clericalism, showed itself to be significantly different from other interdenominational lay groups like the Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF), a worker-led, church-related ecumenical movement founded in 1958 with a strong interreligious and socialist flavor.
In 2000 there were 384 active parishes in Sri Lanka, with 568 diocesan and 308 religious priests. In addition, 246 brothers and 2,237 sisters worked in various capacities. Religious active on the island included the indigenous Rosarians, founded by P. T. Thomas, OMI, in 1928, and the Rosarian nuns, founded in 1950. The Young Christian Workers and the legion of mary were also active in the towns. A Catholic weekly, The Ceylon Catholic Messenger, published in Sinhalese and Tamil as well as in English, represented mainstream church views. A Catholic college, the Catholic University College, was located in Colombo. Catholic schools continued to provide an alternative to the religious education mandatory in state-run public schools, where the parent's choice of faith was presented in an academic, rather than spiritual manner.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference took a vocal role in denouncing the racial war in their country, issuing numerous statements in response to the continued bombings, massacres and other acts of terrorism, including a 1999 attack by the LTTE of a church in Madhu that resulted in nearly 100 casualties. The Holy See supported the bishops' efforts to stop the violence in Sri Lanka. In August of 1996, one year after his visit to Sri Lanka to beatify the Indian-born priest Joseph Vaz, "Apostle of Ceylon," Pope John Paul II noted: "Only dialogue can safeguard inviolable human rights, including the legitimate rights of minorities." Hope for a peaceful resolution grew stronger in May of 2001 when the government announced an agreement reached with LTTE leaders that would establish peace talks, although a cease-fire was not implemented.
Bibliography: u. dornberg, Searching through the Crisis (Colombo 1992). k. malalgoda, Buddhism in Sinhalese Society (Berkeley 1976). f. houtart, Summary of the Survey of the Catholic Church in Ceylon (Colombo 1971); Attitudes toward Development among Catholics in Sri Lanka (Colombo 1980). e. harris, Crisis, Competition, and Conversion: The British Encounter with Buddhism in 19th-Century Sri Lanka (Colombo 1993). centre for society and religion, Statements of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka 1988 (Colombo 1989).