Pope Francis landed safely in Sri Lanka around 9 a.m. local time, receiving the welcome of the country’s new president and other Sri Lankan leaders and military as well as groups performing traditional dance.
The Holy Father will be in Sri Lanka until Wednesday afternoon local time, when he departs for the Philippines.
He comes at a time of national tension, on the heels of last week’s presidential election, which brought the defeat of incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though Rajapaksa initially conceded defeat, it is expected that the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, will face a great challenge in forming a new government.
The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, though a small minority, has a unique role in the country, since Catholics come from both the main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and Tamils.
Most Sinhalese are Buddhist, while most Tamils are Muslim and Hindu, but the Sinhalese and Tamils who are Catholic worship together.
The new president gave a welcome address in English, speaking of the country’s struggle for reconciliation and asking the Pope’s blessing on the people as well as prayers for their peace, prosperity and progress.
He said he looks forward to strengthening the bilateral relations of Sri Lanka and the Holy See.
Pope Francis then responded with a brief address, also in English.
“I look forward to this visit to Sri Lanka and these days we will spend together,” he said. “Sri Lanka is known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean for its natural beauty. Even more importantly this island is knowns for the warmth of its people, and rich diversity of its cultural and religious traditions.”
“Mr. President, I extend to you my best wishes for your new responsibilities,” the Pope said.
He mentioned gratitude for the country’s “eminent religious leaders,” noting they play “such an important role” in the country.
“I thank you all from the heart for your kindness and hospitality.”
Pope Francis explained that his visit is “primarily pastoral” and that he has come “to pray with the Catholic people of this island.”
But he pointed to the message he brings to all of the Sri Lankan society, noting that a highlight of his visit will be the canonization of Joseph Vaz, a missionary to Sri Lanka from India, whom he described as a model of “respect for all people, regardless of ethnicity.”
He spoke of the need for the Catholic community to be an active participant in the life of this society and decried the “continuing tragedy of our world that so many communities are at war with themselves.”
“Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife” and is now seeking peace, he said, in reference to the 30-year civil war that stretched from 1983 until 2009, when former President Rajapaksa squelched the rebels with a military offensive.
The Pope said it is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustice, and said the pursuit of truth is a key part of the process. He also said he is convinced that the followers of the great religious traditions have an essential role to play in the process of reconciliation.
For the process to succeed, “all must have a voice,” he affirmed, and Sri Lankans must be prepared to accept one another, to respect legitimate diversities and learn to live as one family. The process must be about promoting human dignity and respect for human rights.
After the military salute and music from the band, a youth choir sang a welcome song about his ministry, with a leader telling the Pope in English, “God has sent you to this blessed land to lead us in his way.”
— — —
On ZENIT’s website:
For the full text of the Holy Father’s address, go to: