|How Sri Lanka undermined the
infallibility of Pope John Paul Two
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
One of the greatest strengths or weaknesses of any Pope is the belief in his
"divine" infallibility. One is able to discern the importance given to this infallibility
concept in all the media hype surrounding the death of Pope John Paul the
second. It was this confidence in Papal infallibility by the incumbent Pope and
like minded faith on the part of followers that contributed greatly towards the
authoritative mystique exercised by Karol Wajtyla in his Popish avatar.
The infallibility of the Pope is almost sacrosanct in Vatican circles. There is the
humorous anecdote about Irish patriot and medical doctor Oliver Gogarty and
Pope Pius. Eamon de Valera and Oliver Gogarty were having a Papal
audience. Both were decorated by the Pope. As was the custom a priestly aide
took the tray bearing two medals to the relatively less important gogarty first.
Impulsive as ever Gogarty took the larger medal meant for De Valera and
promptly put it in his pocket. Eamon was left with the smaller one.
After the audience was over and both were leaving an eminent Cardinal rushed
after them. Accosting Oliver Gogarty the prelate blurted "Dr. Gogarty a dreadful
mistake has been made". Without batting an eyelid Gogarty retorted frostily "
Have I come all the way to the Vatican to have the infallibility of the Pope
questioned?". The Cardinal beat a hasty retreat. Gogarty kept his medal. The
Popes infallibility remained untarnished..
With all the grandeur surrounding this belief readers may be intrigued about
how Pope John Paul's infallibility was undermined by the tiny Island nation of Sri
Lanka. It is all tied up with the Country's protracted ethnic conflict tearing the
land apart. The Sinhala - Tamil ethnic divide has affected the Catholic Church
there too. Clergy and laity think of themselves often as Sinhala or Tamil first.
Being Catholic is relegated to second place.
Our story revolves around the dastardly murder of a Tamil Catholic Priest in
Vankala in the North- Western district of Mannar. The priest Fr. Mary Bastian
was abducted by a section of the armed forces and murdered after torture. The
body was clandestinely burnt. The incident occurred on January 5th 1985.
Several witnesses saw the Priest being taken away by the soldiers. The
incident caused massive resentment in Catholic majority Mannar district.
If the detention of Catholic priests like Fr. Aabaranam Singarayar and Anton
Sinnarasa had evoked much protest in Tamil Catholic circles the killing of Mary
Bastian sent shock waves. It was the first time a Catholic priest had been killed
in this manner. Some days later a Methodist Priest George Jeyarajasingham
was ambushed and killed by soldiers at Murungan also in Mannar district.
Years later Catholic priests like Fr. Wenceslaus and Fr. Chandra Fernando
were also killed.
The government of Junius Richard Jayewardene was in the dock. His national
security minister Lalith Athulathmudali got a lot of flak internationally. Vatican
evinced concern over Mary Bastian. Moreover Pope John Paul the second
engaged in action that sent shivers down the UNP government heavily
dependent on the Catholic coastal belt at that time.
Pope John Paul engaged in a special prayer for the departed souls of Fr. Mary
Bastian and killed Polish solidarity personality Jerzy Popiesky. A Papal
pronouncement was made and publicised through customary Vatican channels.
Sympathetic concern for the brutal murder of Fr. Mary Bastian echoed all over
the Catholic hemisphere.
Athulathmudali in typical Goebbelsian style issued a complete denial. He
denied the murder had occurred and added insult to injury by tarnishing the
dead priests reputation. The Oxford - Harvard educated Athulathmudali
charged that Mary Bastian had run away to India and that he was very much
alive in Tamil Nadu. With a censorship in vogue several news agencies picked
up the story. The vehement rebuttal issued by the Tamil Catholic Bishops was
To their eternal shame many Sinhala catholic priests collaborated in this
elaborate cover up. The most serious collaborator was the present Arch Bishop
of Colombo Rt. Rev Oswald Gomis. This priestly propagandist took up
Athulathmudalis position and with the tacit consent of Arch Bishop Nicholas
Marcus Fernando wrote to the Vatican that Fr. Mary Bastian was alive safely in
India. Unfortunately some bigwigs in Rome fell for this story. If the denial came
from a government the Holy See would have been skeptical. But coming from
eminent men of the cloth there were few doubting Thomases.
This led to the Pope retracting his earlier statement. A fresh press release was
issued by Vatican. In that the Pope corrected himself on Fr. Mary Bastian. The
Pope had erred in praying for his departed soul. Joyfully he was alive the
statement said. In a regrettable omission the Tamil Catholic priests were not
consulted by Vatican prior to the retraction. It was later that Vatican was
appraised of the true position and realised belatedly that the Holy father had
been cunningly deceived by jackals in Shepherdly clothing.
Issuing a further correction remedying the previous position would have eroded
the Popes credibility further. Already the image of Papal infallibility had been
dented. The Tamil Catholic clergy to its credit did not want to embarrass the
Pope anymore. They were devoted to the Pope. It was not for nothing that the
world engages in the chorus "John Paul Two, We Love You". So they let it go.
This was how the Popes infallibility was undermined by Sri Lanka. Firstly it was
by retraction of an earlier position an almost unheard of thing. Secondly it was
sticking to the same position without correcting it though aware of it being
This man who acted as a Luciferian instrument in deceiving the Pope is now the
Colombo Archbishop. This Cardinal Richelieu like Bishops rise in the Catholic
church is due to his easy access to the Sinhala corridors of Political power.
Oswald Gomis is the only high ranking Catholic prelate from the dominant
Goigama caste. This factor coupled with his conservative, pro - establishment,
Sinhala supremacist views made him one of the powers behind the Sinhala
Casteism is a reality even in the Church. There was a time when all the Tamil
Bishops came from the Vellalar community of Karamban. There are churches
with "unwritten" rules of being confined to worship by particular castes alone.
This feature may be less pronounced in the Sinhala South but the caste factor
is always there. Oswald Gomis was personally close to several politically
powerful Sinhala families. This writer has no qualms in describing this arch -
conservative, racist reactionary as a political peddler in priestly garb.
Unlike some of the courageous and progressive Sinhala catholic Bishops like
Leo Nanayakkara, Frank Marcus Fernando or Malcolm Ranjith Oswald Gomis is
one who always wants to hold "pandang" to the Sinhala Buddhists in power.
This appeasement was done earlier at the expense of Tamil Catholics. His
consistent attempts to silence the "voice of truth" broadcast by the Manila
based "Veritas" Radio is a case in point. Gomis conducted a systematic
campaign against Fr. Jegath Gaspar Raj and tried to get him removed at the
behest of his masters in Colombo. Gaspar Raj through Veritas was highlighting
the pathetic plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.
In spite of this shameless surrender to Sinhala Buddhist hegemony Humpty -
Dumpty has had a great fall. The Buddhist forces of intolerance unleashed in
the fifties started with the usurping of the roundabout pedestal meant for
Josephian rector Fr. Le Goc and went on in the sixties to take over Schools and
Hospitals and substitute Poya for Sunday Holiday. Now the same forces are all
out to deprive Christians of the freedom to worship and practise their religion.
The Catholic Church should have been at the vanguard of resistance to these
efforts. But under Oswald Gomis it displays a shameful inertia. Earlier the
Church tried to dissociate from the "evangelicals" under the self - centred belief
that the ultra nationalists will leave them alone. But no , the neo fascists know
who their real enemy is and have zoomed in onto target.
It is a historical fact that Tamil Catholics have been comparatively reluctant to
emphasise their "Tamilness" in earlier years. On the contrary some piliticised
Sinhala clergymen have not been hesitant to push the Snhala line. The most
famous or notorious case being that of Bishop Edmund Peiris . When the
Chilaw Diovese was carved out of the Northern diocese a substantial
concentration of Catholics along the Western seaboard were Tamil Bharathas
Peiris came out with the nomenclature "Tamil Speaking Sinhalese" in relation to
the Bharatha community and projected the line that their medium of instruction
should be Sinhala. So 48 Tamil medium schools and Tamil streams in schools
became Sinhala overnight. It was cultural genocide. The grandchildren began
speaking Sinhala while the grandparents spoke Tamil. The parents were
caught in between. Former Arch Bishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando's mother
from Mundal was literate in Tamil only. The son used to correspond in Tamil
with the mother.
The transformation of Bharatha identity from Sinhala to Tamil through
education is a phenomenal example of a majority assimilating a minority.
Mercifully the Bharathas of Vankalai and Pesalai coming under the Northern
diocese were free of this "Sinhalaisation" and remain fiercely proud Tamils. The
tragic aspect of this identity conversion was the silent acceptance of this
perversion of justice by Tamil Catholics in the name of religion.
Catholics of a later era blame former Jaffna Bishop Emilianuspillai for this lapse.
During colonial times the Catholic church in Sri Lanka comprised only two
Dioceses - The Northern and Southern. The Northern diocese consisted of the
Northern and Eastern Provinces along with areas extending downwards to
Negombo , Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Though Tamils are only one -
sixth of the Sinhala population the Sinhala - Tamil ratio in the Catholic church
was six to five.
If the Tamil Catholics were vigilant they could hve sought and obtained a
separate Arch Diocese for the North - East. This is both administratively
convenient and culturally homogeneous. There is nothing wrong in this
arrangement. In India for instance the state of Tamil Nadu though uniformly
Tamil speaking has two Arch dioceses headquartered in Madurai and Chennai.
Just as the political leadership of the Tamils at dawn of Independence from
Britain failed to articulate and demand a federal set up the Tamil Catholic
hierarchy too failed to get a separate Archdiocese.
Years later the history conscious Jaffna Bishop Rt. Rev Deogupillai felt the
necessity for a demarcation. He wrote to Vatican in 1976 seeking a separate
Arch Diocese. There was immense merit in this request. Yet the Sinhala
Catholics came down on him like a ton of bricks. Even a progressive like Bishop
Leo Nanayakkara condemned Deogupillai for raising the demand. This was
linked to the 1976 Vaddukkoddai resolution for Tamil Eelam and depicted as a
separatist threat. Deogupillai backed down against his better judgement.
The question of a separate North - Eastern Arch diocese loomed large again in
the early eighties. The arrest of Tamil Catholic priests under the draconian
Prevention of Terrorism Act brought out sharply the ethnic divide in the
Catholic Church. Sinhala and Tamil Catholics perceived the same phenomena
through different prisms. The Papal nuncio in Colombo Nicolo Rotunno was
broadly sympathetic. The Vatican was concerned about the arrested priests
plight. The Popes representative also took up the issue with Jayewardene.
There was much speculation that a separate North - Eastern Archdiocese was
in the offing. Colombo acted hastily and firmly. The papal nuncio was
Thereafter Vatican did not pursue the "separate" Arch diocese proposal. Pope
John Paul Two preferred nd backed Catholic unity. The 1983 violence could
have seen the emergence of a North - Eastern arch diocese but for one factor.
Jayewardene cleverly blamed it on Communists, Trotkyites, Marxists and
Maoists. This was anathema to Pope John Paul whose greatest
accomplishment is precipitating the dismantling of the Soviet Communist
Pope John Paul two was fully conversant with the Sri Lankan Tamil
predicament. He was briefed on this regularly by Cardinal Loudesamy of
Bangalore later stationed in the Vatican. Archbishop Aarolliyasamy of Madurai
who was once manhandled at Madhu by Sinhala Catholics for preaching in
Tamil also had the Popes ear on this. Though sympathetic the Pope wanted
the Catholic church to remain united. At one stage when Sinhala and Tamil
Bishops were dangerously drifting apart Pope John Paul summoned all ten
Bishops for a special meeting to Vatican and persuaded them to forge unity in
One of the things the Pope mentioned then was remarkably prophetic. He
pointed out that once the Catholic church was divided on ethnic lines fresh
tensions will ensue between Catholics and the Buddhist and Hindu majorities
respectively. He warned of rising anti - Christian feelings on both sides of the
ethnic divide and wanted the Church to remain united and strong to meet this
challenge. Pope John Paul has passed away ,Those prophetic words of his are
now coming true.
It remains to be seen whether the Church will face up to religious oppression
unitedly in the future. Though highly desirable one cannot see true
rapprochement taking place under Oswald Gomis. It may have been possible
under someone like Malcolm Ranjith now out of the Country.On the other hand
feelings are rising among Tamil Catholics too. Fr. SJ Emmanuel once stated
that he was first a Tamil and next a Catholic. Mannar Bishop Joseph Rayappu
went on record defending the tiger flag as the Tamil Eelam flag. With Tamil
Catholics identifying increasingly with Tamil Nationalism and Sinhala Catholics
with the Sri Lankan state genuine reconciliation seems remote.
The development that could transform this situation dramatically is rising
Buddhist intolerance. There is every chance that the battlelines in Sri Lanka
could be redrawn on religious lines. If that happens Sinhala and Tamil
Christians could close ranks. Pope John Paul will be proven right. No force on
earth can defeat an idea whose time has come.
Meanwhile the much loved Pope has been laid to rest. As Sri Lanka mourns the
passing away of a truly great Pope, let us also remember how John Paul was
misled by our Countrymen. Like the proverbial saying - about "the axe that
chops the mighty ebony tree, getting stuck in a plantain tree", it was tiny Sri
Lanka that eroded to some extent the infallibility of Pope John Paul the second.