Pope Francis’ Historic Visit to Sri Lanka

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This is an opinion piece I wrote about the Pope’s history visit to Sri Lanka, followed by an opinion piece on the same event by my friend and fellow Fulbright scholar Amiya Moretta below:

Yesterday morning, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience Pope Francis conduct a mass in Colombo, Sri Lanka, addressing a sea of about a million people and confiding sainthood on the 17th century Sri Lankan priest, Joseph Vaz. The arrival of the Pope has been a highly anticipated event in this island nation, and its importance is only accentuated by the recent election of Maithripala Sirisena as the new president on January 8th. The event was an emblematic moment in Sri Lanka’s tumultuous recent history, signaling the collective embrace and celebration of a religious tradition residing outside the hegemony of Sinhalese Buddhism, which has been the predominant idiom of moral and political legitimacy in recent years.

The presence of Christianity, and Roman Catholocism in particular, has retained a notable place in the pluralistic religious landscape of Sri Lanka for several centuries. Indeed, the island has long been a seedbed of diverse cultural influences, arising largely from its strategic economic and political locale off the southern tip of India.

Archeological evidence has traced the existence of Christianity in Sri Lanka back to the 5th century CE with the discovery of a cross in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, and an elaborate baptismal pond farther north near Vavuniya.

It wasn’t until the arrival of Portuguese colonialists in the 16th century, however, that Christianity gained traction as a substantial and organized presence on the island. The Portuguese were primarily interested in exploiting the island’s rich cinnamon resources, though the introduction of Roman Catholicism constituted an indispensable aspect of their agenda-driven enterprise.

The Dutch later ousted the Portuguese in the mid 17th century, and ushered in even more aggressive Protestant missionary efforts to gain loyalists in its attempt to monopolize the spice trade in the Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, it was Roman Catholicism that would persist as a comparatively larger presence in Sri Lanka through the subsequent British colonial period into today.

Catholics account for 8% of the population, representing both ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Nonetheless, their presence in public discourse has largely been overshadowed by the recent, 26-year long ethnic conflict between the Sri Lankan government, comprised predominantly of Sinhalese Buddhists who make up about 70% of the population, and the separatist Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamil minority has expressed sentiments of continued marginalization after the controversial end of the war in July of 2009, where the Sri Lankan army is under intense international scrutiny for alleged war crimes committed against Tamil civilians.

Mahinda Rajapakse, the recently-deposed president, has been further criticized by Tamils for centralizing power and retaining a heavily militarized presence in the north, while rendering infrastructure projects that quite literally and figuratively “skim the surface” of underlying ethnic grievances as meaningful concessions.

Meanwhile, the Rajapakse regime presided over an increasing anti-Muslim furor among Sinhalese Buddhist extremists, with reported links to groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, an organization of militant Buddhist monks that fomented violent attacks against Muslims in the southern city of Aluthgama in June of last year.

The Pope’s arrival comes at a seemingly auspicious time. The former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, defected as one of Mahinda Rajapakse’s most trusted adivisors to become the common opposition candidate and pulled a remarkable upset victory to dethrone the incumbent.  Sirisena campaigned on a platform of decentralizing power, combating corruption, upholding freedom of expression, and reconciling differences across ethnic and religious communities. In so doing, he managed to secure an overwhelming majority of the minority vote critical for his election.

That said, the president is still a Sinhalese Buddhist who has pledged to uphold Buddhism’s privileged status in the constitution and in the affairs of the state. It remains to be seen how successfully he can navigate across the contours of a pluralistic society, and foster the kind of national and inclusivist unity he championed in his campaign.

It is in this landscape that the Pope arrived in Sri Lanka. As I walked down Galle Road toward the Galle Face Green, the momentous nature of the occasion was apparent. Hanging posters read, “Holy Father We Salute You,” and the heavy police and military presence, coupled with the closing of major sections of road, testified to the collective importance and publicly-anticipated ritual occasion.

I descended upon a sea of patrons who had eagerly positioned themselves against the beautiful backdrop of the Indian Ocean. Catholic hymns resonated through the loudspeakers, as I weaved my way through the bustling crowd under an intensifying sun, hopeful for a mere glimpse at His Holiness himself.

The emergence of Francis was apparent, as the crowd sprouted up in an expression of collective exaltation and excitement. The Pope commenced the ceremony with a prayer, as the great expanse of Catholic devotees bowed their heads in deep reverence. He then conferred sainthood upon the 17th century Indian-born priest, Joseph Vaz, who came to Sri Lanka to preach among the poor. Francis recognized St. Joseph as an embodiment of the peace and reconciliation necessary for Sri Lanka to move forward:

“Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion,” he said.

The Pope ended with a homily that extended his blessings upon the people of Sri Lanka, regardless of ethnic background or creed. The crowd applauded in humble solidarity, an apparent display of common aspiration and unity in this historically divided yet collectively recovering island nation.

Francis’ message was decidedly inclusivist in nature, and reflected his emerging role as a peace builder in an increasingly pluralistic world. He has been heralded for his progressive attitude toward issues such as homosexuality, stating that “if a person seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?” More recently, the Pope played a critical role in working with both members of the Cuban and American governments to normalize diplomatic relations after many decades of hostility. His leadership and influence have extended well beyond the confines of the Catholic Church, and have elevated him to the status of a great moral leader of our time.

But in Sri Lanka, Francis’ presence represents a whole lot more. Between the epic ceremony at the Galle Face Green, and President Sirisena’s welcoming remarks that asked for the blessings of Francis on this island nation, it is evident that this was an event of tremendous historical importance in celebrating the contributions and guiding insights of a tradition residing beyond the realm of Sinhalese Buddhism, which has long delineated the bounds of conventional moral and political truths in this country. Despite the controversial history of how Christianity may have come to this island, or its precise ideological compatibility with the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, the people were able to take a step back and appreciate its indispensable place in this beautifully diverse land, and to ruminate on a message with relevance to all. Let’s hope President “Maitri”, whose name means “compassion,” will build on the pope’s timely message to nurture an expanding idea of what it means to be Sri Lankan.

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The following is an opinion piece by my friend and fellow Fulbright scholar Amiya Moretta:

Ceremonial Hypocrisy

Observing Pope Francis today (January 14, 2015) in Colombo, Sri Lanka ordaining Joesph Vaz into sainthood was an interesting historical moment. However, my interest was not necessarily in the ordainment itself but instead, in the 60 or so male priests adorned in black robes while not a single woman was elevated to the platform alongside of them.

This proved especially surprising given that hundreds of nuns had traveled near and far to be in the presence of His Holiness and after devoting every facet of their lives to the Catholic religion, were not considered stage-worthy.

As I listened to the ceremony that spoke of human rights, social justice, and equality, I found myself questioning the situational irony of the expression of Christian teachings that hail the worth of every human being and the oppressive, misogynistic ideas that arise from cultural conditioning in the Church. As the ceremony concluded, l decided to capitalize on the opportunity to speak to a nun who happened to speak English.

Draped in a navy blue robe with the cross of Jesus resting around her neck, I asked her, “Can women be ordained to priesthood within the Catholic Church? She looked at me as though I was an idiot. Even though I already knew the answer to this question, I wanted to talk about the women’s role in the Catholic religion and in particular, how she felt about the female’s lack of mobility under authority to be ordained as priests.

Answering with the conviction of Newton proving the existence of gravity, she told me, “Mothers can’t be fathers and father’s can’t be mothers. Women were made to be mothers. And a Mother would not want to be a Father.   I looked at her and did not respond as I had met some “Mothers” who wanted to be “Fathers” in America (where the nun and I both happened to be from), some of which who had been denied ordainment despite beliefs that they were being called to priesthood by the Holy Father himself.

After attending a ceremony in a country at the beacon of transition, with the new President Maithripala Sirisena in power, a fresh new year, and a visit from the first Pope to endorse homosexuality, I couldn’t help but wonder why no changes were being made for the women’s movement of equality within the Catholic Church. People who are apart of the women’s movement for equality, such as Mary Daly in The Church and the Second Sex had this to say about the Catholic Church, “those engaged in the struggle for the equality of the sexes have often seen the Catholic Church as an enemy” (105).  Although the nun I spoke with did not share the same position, many who are considered “outsiders” in the Church are trying to create the credibility and leverage necessary to fuel the momentum that would stimulate a push towards women’s equality within the church.

As I continued listening to the nun she said, “Men were made first and women were made second. They are the supporting role and that’s why women have motherly instincts- to take care of others.”  As she left her last words were, “ you know, I know this has been said before, but a women’s place really is in the home.”

As I reflected on this  conversation and her blatant acceptance of her position as “created second” and “supportive,” I couldn’t help but think of the words of Rosemary Radford Reuther, who writes in Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, “Western cultural traditions…, of which Christianity is a major expression , have justified and sacralized…relationships of domination”  (191). The hierarchy of patriarchal domination within the Catholic Church that was so clearly expressed visually in today’s ceremony with regards to physical proximity to His Holiness himself and the physical display of power through the stage of priests and hundreds of nuns below it could be felt in the words of this woman.

Was this glorification of female inferiority as the “woman’s role” one that other Catholic followers submitted to and then projected in their every day life?  What could this nun be teaching the little girls in Sri Lanka about their personal worth, their potential, and their value as human beings if she herself believed the role of a woman was second to a mans?

Despite this nun’s acceptance and dispersal of agenda driven beliefs passed down by patriarchal domination, many within the Catholic Church are choosing to opt out.  So, what happens to the “Mothers” who wish to be “Fathers” and others who choose not to prescribe to the structural inequality present in the Catholic Church?

Some are leaving their faith all together and looking to something else for spiritual connection. In Carol P. Christ’s, Why Women Need the Goddess she expresses the unique power of the Goddess as it deters from a “woman’s will being subordinated to the Lord God as king and ruler, nor to men as his representatives” as in the case of the female priests, yet provides a different understanding of the will as one that can be “achieved only when exercised in harmony with the energy and will of other beings” (171). Thus, a woman is not reduced to waiting and acquiescing to the wills of those in a patriarchy but instead, encouraged to recognize that all wills can be achieved in their own time.

A myriad of emotions arise when something as sensitive and close to people’s hearts as religion is seen as needing reform by some and yet, is perfectly acceptable to others such as the nun I spoke with. However, as the mission of most Christian churches is to bring as many people to God as possible, it seems necessary that they become open to change and in particular the insistence upon equal treatment among all peoples, especially if they are going to be preaching social justice and equality on an international platform.

Opinion Piece: Amiya Moretta

 

On Memory, Friendship, and Carrying On


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I  returned to the New York area toward the end of October, where I would spend time with family and friends before taking off for Sri Lanka. My Fulbright grant was slated to last nine months, but quite honestly I didn’t know when I’d come back again. I cherished this limited time I had with those who had supported me through such formative common experience, and who constituted an indispensable part of my journey up to this transitional point in my life.

I want to share a few stories that shed light on some of the powerful experiences I shared with family and friends during this time. But before I do that, I’d like to take a step back and reflect on the function of memory and retrospective in inspiring my writing. For one, I realize that much of my creative nonfiction narrative has been produced a considerable time after the events I describe herein. My recollection is therefore inevitably filtered through the prism of my present experience–informed by the contexts of relative equanimity in which I often approach my writing, as well as an evolving perspective conditioned by subsequent life experience. I’m already naturally critical of language as a vehicle to accurately encapsulate or even “do justice” to the complexities of what we positionally encounter everyday. But even more broadly, I admit that my own position of hindsight in  writing about the “real world” can serve to situate and appropriate experience so as to fit more neatly into a broader narrative. When you have some idea of where a story is going, it’s tempting enough to instrumentalize past experience to have some teleological bent toward what is to come. You might obscure or further delude the essence of what was experienced in a given moment.

I am conscious of that, and I hope to bracket my position of hindsight so as to better illuminate what really went on. But at the same time, I want to emphasize that it’s often not just the “what” that is sown in the story of human experience, but what people make of the “what” and internalize both individually and collectively. More relevantly for my writing, it’s often not the ins and outs of what’s happened to me in the “real world” that matters, but how the contours of my experience have informed the broader mosaic of self-actualization and growth in my life, and how they might resonate in the life of others. I don’t want to suggest that we are entirely conscious beings making wholly conscious choices that define who we are and who we aspire to be, but that the subjective prisms of self-concept, perception, worldview, and value through which we experience the world are perpetually affected by both conscious and unconscious appropriations of what we’ve been through. And that is what I hope to illuminate in my writing–not just the cards I’ve been dealt but the hands I come to play. Perhaps memory and retrospective are not so obscuring after all.

And so, my first story involves my mom. Days before I left, she and I decided we wanted to go for a hike in the area. We dawned a few layers to confront the brisk chill of the fall afternoon, and headed to the Greenwich Audubon Society just a few miles away. We walked into the nature preserve, and glanced over signs at the main trailhead in an attempt to get oriented to the area. It didn’t take long before the trail we had chosen became obscured by the colorful leaves blanketing the forest floor, but it didn’t seem to matter. We headed in a general direction forward into the heart of the preserve, lost in conversation about this transitional point in our lives. My mom was navigating a change in her career path, and I was about to embark on a 9-month journey on the other side of the world. I felt like we could connect on a real adult level–two people at a rather vulnerable place in our lives, trying to make the most of the cards we’ve been dealt.

IMG_1686We made our way to a quiet pond toward the outer perimeter of the preserve, where we came upon a small row boat resting on the edge of the water body. In a moment of spontaneous revelation, I suggested we take the boat for a spin out on the water, propelled by a broken oar that lay by its side. Of course, I neglected to mention the far side of the boat read, “staff only.” My mom was game, so we flipped the shell over and headed out from the grassy shore. We paddled across the still surface of the pond, parting a colorful layer of leaves to reveal the still darkness of the water below. The absurdity and novelty of the experience was beyond words, and left us laughing in an expression of simple joy as we commandeered the extents of the pond in this humble vessel. At this common juncture in our unique life trajectories, we embraced the intrinsic beauty of paddling along to an unknown destination.IMG_1683

My next story involves my good friend Alex, or Schmal as we like to call him. Schmal and I go way back to our days at Julian Krinsky Tennis Camp in Haverford, Pennsylvania back in 2006. He is probably the most energetic person I’ve ever met, and his general enthusiasm about life is infectious. Schmal has always been intentional about sustaining our friendship across distance and time, as he is one of those unique individuals always finding new opportunities to bring people together. Sure enough, when I returned back to the New York area after several months away, we were quick to reconnect and catch up on on where were in our respective journeys.

After much challenge and time since graduation, Alex had just landed his dream job working for Major League Baseball in New York City. He was eager for me to see him in his new office, and we decided upon a day I could come in. I took the train into New York, and walked a short distance from Grand Central to a towering office building a few blocks away. I checked in with the front desk to get the requisite credentials, and walked toward a set of golden elevators that would take me up to his floor. Sure enough, I exited one the elevators and encountered a crisply-printed “Major League Baseball” sketched on the glass door of the office. Alex soon greeted me in the lobby, impressively “overdressed” with a dapper sport coat secured by his dad, Big Mike, and was thoroughly excited to show me around.

He took me past a hall with mannequins representing every team in the league, and autographed memorabilia behind glass panes marking the perimeter of the office. He showed me his desk, his current work assignments, and introduced me to some older employees who clearly appreciated the joviality, energy, and sports knowledge he brought to the office. I had always known how passionate Alex was about sports, but to see him tangibly pursuing his dream in this place was an amazingly gratifying experience. It gave me the equanimity to know I could take off for a distant world in Sri Lanka, and rest assured that my good friend was thriving in a unique element of his own. After all, I realized with friends all over the world that this was most important — that despite the physical or experiential difference between us, what is most important is providing the support and affirmation to pursue these different life journeys, and if our shared experience and/or energetic wavelength was strong enough, our paths would surely cross again.

My third story involves a trip up north. Before I left the country, I was intent on spending a few days with my grandparents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and catching up with the rest of my extended family close by in Newton. I made the three and a half hour drive, and settled in on the familiar street my grandparents have occupied for several decades. It was an absolute gift to spend this brief period of time with them, and so gratifying to hear their perspectives after a significant amount of time in the world of adulthood myself. I felt like I could relate to them on a whole different level, and situate the unique path I was about to undertake within a rich family history. My family in Newton came over with barbecue one evening for a dinner, which was particular kind since my cousins were in the midst of a busy school week. My cousin Hannah was in the process of applying to colleges, which was fairly baffling to me given that I’d always considered her my baby cousin. Nonetheless, it was a tremendous gift to spend time with them, and affirmed our enduring connection at this transitional place in several of our lives.

I also got together with my high school friend Gus, who is a senior at Harvard. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with him and hearing about his ambitious pursuits in the field of medicine, as well his infectiously adventurous spirit in developing plans for after his imminent graduation. His intellect, drive, and compassion have always inspired me, and it was a true pleasure to see him and to meet his girlfriend, two people I look up to and inspire me to be better everyday.

IMG_2029I also got together with my good friend and freshman year roommate Nick, who was in the process of settling into his first job and newfound life in Boston. I felt a similar wavelength of experience to my time seeing Alex in his office at MLB, as it brought me such happiness to see Nick thriving in a city he had set his sights on for some time, and embracing a reinvented identity in the adult world.

And finally, I connected with some of my former tennis team teammates living in Boston for dinner in Harvard Square. It was amazing to see these guys, who could uniquely relate to such a formative common experience we shared unlike so many new people who would enter my life. It was also incredibly inspiring to see them thriving in their lives beyond Bowdoin — Casey at Fidelity Investments, Andrew who spearheaded and successfully secured the 2024 U.S. Olympic bid in Boston, and Nico, who had returned from living in Shanghai to attend Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It gave me the hope during this transitional period of time before I took off for Sri Lanka that I, too, would get grounded in my own sphere, and ultimately thrive in this next chapter of my life.

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Before heading to Boston, I had decided I wanted to visit Bowdoin one more time to connect with good friends before taking off for so long. I made the trip north on I-495 with the sort of nervous anticipation that comes with returning to a formative place of the past, while knowing that my identity within that place had profoundly changed. As I reached campus, I could physically feel my heart wrench as I contended with an evident void between the power this place had constituted in my life, and my position as a relative outsider negotiating a newfound sense of identity to situate myself in this place.

Nonetheless, I was quickly reminded of how inextricable of a connection I maintained with people and place at Bowdoin. I met up with my old tennis coach, who was eager to hear about my latest adventures, and to fill me in on the new team dynamic this year. I also connected with my younger teammates and our new freshmen, and I cherished the opportunity I had to spend time with them and share a new perspective having left this place for some time.

Perhaps my most memorable experience was reconnecting with my friend and mentor, Bernie, along with my friend Will, who had returned after graduation to work in the Center for the Common Good on campus. When I reached out to Bernie to see if we could get together, he quickly responded with enthusiasm and asked me if Will and I wanted to join him for dinner. We ended up driving to his place in Freeport, where we had an amazing time catching up over dinner and wine on our various adventures over the last six months. Bernie actually told me that he had been practicing meditation that very morning before I reached out to him, and I happened to come into his field of consciousness, where he extended compassion toward me. Sure enough, despite all the diverse experiences we had undergone over this period of time, it felt like we were picking up on a conversation we had never left. Everything simply flowed. It is good friendships like these where I know that no matter how much time or divergence in experience may pass, we continue to occupy the same energetic wavelength and connect on a substantive level that will sustain our friendship moving forward

These experiences with friends and family combined to remind me that my unique life trajectory has not unfolded in a vacuum, but has been inextricably shaped by the people, places, and ideas I have encountered across many years of living. I returned back to the New York area, and prepared to ship off for Sri Lanka with the reaffirmed sense of equanimity that comes with knowing I was carrying a whole lot more with me than that single black duffle bag that lay by my side.

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