Catholic bishops in Sri Lanka assessed the most recent visit of Pope Francis to their country with both gratitude and great confidence, as they continue welcoming the change in government.
“The Pope was not only welcomed by Catholics, who are, after all, a minority in Sri Lanka, but also by many fellow Sri Lankans who belong to other religious denominations. The Holy Father was greeted by millions during the approximately 25 kilometre journey from the airport to Colombo City,” Bishop Valence Mendis said to the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
The Bishop of Chilaw in the western part of the country added: “We had expected that Mass on 14 January would be attended by up to 500,000 visitors. In the end, it was probably twice as many, including many non-Catholics.”
Bishop Mendis continued, “Two moments were especially moving: the canonisation of Joseph Vaz, the first [saint] in our country and one we have been waiting for for years, and the Holy Father’s visit to the pilgrimage site of Madhu in the north, where the Pope blessed the crowd with the statue of Our Lady.”
Bishop Mendis commented on the change in government following elections on 8 January, a change that has come as a surprise to political observers, “I think that many hoped for this and thus voted for change. Now expectations are high that the new government will make the dreams of the people come true.”
President Mahinda Rajapakse lost the elections to his contender and former Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena just before the visit of Pope Francis.
The Bishop of Mannar in the northwestern part of Sri Lanka, Joseph Rayappu, also considered the visit in a positive light, “The Pope called for reconciliation, solidarity and peace. Following the change in government, hopes are now high that the new government will guarantee press and judicial freedom as well as minority rights.”
Bishop Joseph Rayappu continued: “Sri Lanka is diverse, not only ethnically but also in terms of culture, language and religion. The government, the first in which Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims are all represented, has to both recognise this truth and take it into account politically.”
Around 70% of the 21 million Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 12% are Hindu, about 10% are Muslim and around 8% Christian, including 6% to 7% Catholics. The country is also diverse in terms of ethnicity: 75% are Sinhalese, about 15% Tamil and about 10% Moors, the vast majority of which are Muslims who speak Tamil. Even though the Catholic church only represents a minority of the population, it has taken on a key role because it is the only religious denomination that has followers from various ethnic groups.
Aid to the Church in Need supports the pastoral work of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka. A key element of its work either directly or indirectly revolves around the goal of reconciliation. Thus, the volume of ongoing projects from 2012 to 2014 alone lies at 1.6 million euros. Among others, further education programmes and various construction projects have received and continue to receive sponsorship.