Papal visits, planned long in advance, cannot be arranged to coincide with unfolding news events. But the visit to Sri Lanka, coming only days after a surprise presidential election result that some more euphoric local commentators likened to the rise of Václav Havel or Corazon Aquino, meant that Pope Francis arrived at a moment of rare national harmony, with genuine hopes for renewal and reconciliation after years of civil war and authoritarian rule.
History and euphoria were two striking features of the visit, in which I was pleased to participate. There was the recent history, meaning the civil war that ended in 2009, and the immediate history of the election. Yet there was also the longer history of the Church in Sri Lanka, highlighted by the canonisation of St Joseph Vaz, the Goan missionary known as the Apostle of Sri Lanka. Vaz came to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) after the Portuguese had lost the island to the Dutch, who prosecuted a rather severe anti-Catholic persecution. In 1658, the Dutch commander there could write home that from Ceylon “the entire Popish gang and its idolatry has now been banished”.
Vaz entered Sri Lanka clandestinely in 1687 and ministered secretly, until his death in 1711, to beleaguered Catholics, some of whom had not been to Mass in decades. The story of St Joseph Vaz is quite similar to that of St Edmund Campion, arriving in Elizabethan England a century before – though Vaz arrived disguised as a beggar, while Campion came undercover as a merchant.
With that history in mind – of a Church that had survived persecution and was revived by “recusant” lay faithful and a few missionary priests – the simple fact of a papal visit, even if Francis was the third pope to visit, was of historic significance. Catholics in London who were astonished at the sight of Vatican flags flying along the Mall during Benedict’s visit in 2010 would appreciate the turns of history in which Sri Lanka – a Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim country with a small Catholic minority – draped the highways and city thoroughfares with the same flags, welcoming, to employ the older language, the head of the popish gang itself, encouraging his flock precisely to be missionaries to the
wider Sri Lanka population.
No one would begrudge the long-suffering Sri Lankans the fiesta-like spirit of these days, but one could wonder if the euphoria meant that what Pope Francis actually had to say was being heard.
Sri Lanka is nearly unique in its religious landscape. It has a large Buddhist majority, not untouched by aggression and violence, which is otherwise an oxymoron in the Western imagination of Buddhism. It has significant Hindu and Muslim minorities, while Catholics are still numerous enough to have a voice at seven per cent of the population.
The question of inter-religious dialogue and the Church’s mission is relevant here as in few other places. How should Catholics present the Christian Gospel amid eastern religions in Asia? Indeed, in 1997, St John Paul II excommunicated a Sri Lankan priest, Tissa Balasuriya, for his faulty attempts to present Jesus Christ in the pantheistic categories of the East. While he was reconciled in 1998, the case highlighted the important theological issues at stake in the Church’s Asian mission.
So when Pope Francis said at an inter-religious meeting that “for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions”, he was stating an important, and contested, principle. It appeared to get no notice whatsoever, in contrast to his acceptance from the Hindu representative of a saffron shawl. It may have been that no one was listening, so delighted were they with the Holy Father’s presence alone.
Certainly the bishops should have been listening. Yet after the papal Mass, one spoke of the Holy Father helping Sri Lankans “to forgive and forget” the conflict and violence. Francis had, to the contrary, spoken several times about the importance of facing the truth about the past, indirectly indicating his support for the kind of exercise St John Paul used to call the “healing of memories”. To forget the past was never suggested.
Francis is the master of the vivid gesture, one that can speak louder than words. On apostolic journeys it makes him an enormously effective preacher. This time, though, it seemed as if the preacher’s actual words were forgotten.