Finding Christ in Sri Lanka

Interview With Nation’s 1st Camillian Priest

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ROME, APRIL 18, 2011 ( A red cross is associated with caring for the sick because of a 17th-century Italian saint named Camillus.

The founder of the Ministers of the Sick, he is the patron of the sick and nurses.

Now, his first Sri Lankan spiritual son hopes to carry on his legacy by one day founding a care center for AIDS patients in his native land.

The future Camillian Father Maximilian Ranatunga was born in Ragama near Colombo. Young Nihal (Maximilian is his baptismal name) was a Sinhalese Buddhist. But economic difficulties after the death of his father started the chain of events that led to his conversion, and eventually his religious vocation.

Father Ranatunga spoke with the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

Q: Sadly, Sri Lanka has been in the news because of the civil war.

Father Ranatunga: Yes we have suffered for 30 years due to the civil war that has caused many deaths. This caused problems economically, particularly in tourism.

Q: What is causing this conflict?

Father Ranatunga: The problem is between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The Sinhalese claim to own Sri Lanka, and the Tamils, whose ancestors came to Sri Lanka, have established themselves in the north and wish to divide Sri Lanka.

Q: What is the religious affiliation of the Tamils?

Father Ranatunga: They are either Hindus or Catholics, but not Buddhist.

Q: Is Sri Lanka a predominantly Buddhist country?

Father Ranatunga: Yes, 80% are Buddhist and the rest are Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and others.

Q: Is this a religious issue then?

Father Ranatunga: It is an ethnic issue and not religious. Those two ethnic groups, Tamils and Sinhalese, are not able to co-exist.

Q: What are the difficulties between these two?

Father Ranatunga: There is both a cultural and language difference. The Sinhalese are Buddhist, speak Sinhala and have a monopoly on the political power. It is enshrined in law that the president must be Sinhalese and must be Buddhist. The Tamils feels discriminated against and this is the problem.

Q: You were raised Buddhist as a child. What was it like?

Father Ranatunga: It is a philosophy and Buddhism does not have one god like Christianity. There were no sacraments with rules and regulations; Buddhism is not like that. I had the desire to be a Buddhist monk.

Q: Is it common for young boys to wish to be Buddhist monks?

Father Ranatunga: Normally it is the case for most young boys to enter as novices. Fortunately for me it went the other way. Although I wished to be a monk, I did not enter. This is a mystery. God always works miracles in our lives and like St. Paul I did not want anything to do with Christians. I came from a very poor Buddhist family. My father died when I was 12. We faced financial problems. My mother could not manage six small children. She said: “You go to this family to stay and they will give you a job.» I then went to a Catholic family to live and stay.

Q: So as a young boy you had to work for this Catholic family?

Father Ranatunga: Yes, I had to work hard and I did domestic work. I was provided with everything. There in the village was the St. Maximilian Church. I used to go there and I befriended families, the priest and sisters and children my age. This is what attracted me to the Catholic Church.

Q: How did you reconcile this? You mentioned earlier that you wanted to become a Buddhist monk?

Father Ranatunga: There were so many Buddhist families around, but somehow my desire to be a Buddhist monk diminished. Before my baptism I used to follow the people who went to Mass. It was at this time that God was working in my life, like the conversion of saints such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and even St. Camillus. He was doing something in my life.

Q: Just by going inside this Church you decided to be Christian?

Father Ranatunga: No, I went to Mass, prayed novenas, attended Christmas parties with carols, but I was not thinking of becoming a Christian. I then went back to the Catholic family and they suggested that I should be baptized. I did not know anything about Christianity, so I had to learn about the Catholic Church before I learned about catechism.

Q: Who did you ask about the faith?

Father Ranatunga: When I went back home, in my village was the Church of St. Jude Thaddeus. I went to this church and the parishioners befriended me and I was invited to various parish activities. They even sent me to study at the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family for about six to seven months. I did not know anything about Christianity but I received the ability to understand clearly the faith, the mystery of Christianity. Now I’m teaching around 10 Buddhists about the faith.

Q: Is it difficult for a Buddhist to convert to Christianity?

Father Ranatunga: Yes, it is difficult. My family did not accept me initially — my brother especially — but now there is understanding and mutual respect. In the villages Catholics and Buddhists now live together. It is difficult, but there is respect. They don’t say anything. I, however, feel alone and I envy the Catholic families, which are able to invite a priest. They are present at functions and celebrations as a family. I do not have that chance.

Q: How are relations between Buddhists and Catholics?

Father Ranatunga: We have a good relationship, but the problem is with some of the American evangelicals. The local people are confused and are unable to distinguish one from the other because Jesus Christ is common to all Christians. They are sometimes very aggressive and try to convert anyone. They provide aid and as such attract the people.

Q: You are working in a hospital in Rome. What are your plans now that you are going back to Sri Lanka?

Father Ranatunga: I like to work with the sick. My dream, which might not happen, is to build a hospital and an AIDS center. We already have the sisters whom I invited. I have also spoken to the bishop and the mother superior. I do not know what will happen. I think if you are united with God you can do so many things: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” If I am united with him then the “branches” will bear fruit. I want to be united, and lost in him.

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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