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

 

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