Pope Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka, which opened as a sign of friendship among religions, concluded by looking to the nation’s future. From the ancient Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in the north of the island, through the intercession of the Virgin, Francis prayed: “may all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace”.
And those words spoken in the place of worship — highly venerated not only by Christians — had also been heard that morning in Colombo during the papal homily of the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. The words resounded with hope that Christians may offer an ever greater contribution to the country in the aftermath of a long and sanguineous civil war.
The Oratorian from Goa, who went to Ceylon clandestinely in 1686 to support Catholics being persecuted by Dutch Calvinists and to offer his help to all, was help up by the Pontiff as an example for all Christians today. Speaking to the more than half a million people gathered in the enormous ocean-side park, Francis presented the new Saint as an exemplary priest who taught us “how to go out to the peripheries, to make Jesus Christ everywhere known and loved”. Notably, Vaz lived, “like ourselves”, in a time of “rapid and profound transformation”, when “Catholics were a minority” which was “often divided within” and which faced “occasional hostility, even persecution, from without”.
Religious divisions must be transcended, the Pope repeated. And like the Oratorian missionary who strove to serve everyone, “whoever and wherever they were”, the Church in Sri Lanka today, while certainly not rich, makes no distinction of any kind in the generous service she provides through her works to the whole of society. She asks only one thing in return: the freedom to carry out her mission. Thus, the example of the Saint proclaimed in Colombo confirms that “genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life” and “for the dignity and freedom of others”. This is precisely the necessary way to be missionaries in multi-religious contexts: with respect, naturally, together with “dedication, perseverance and humility”.
The prayer at the Shrine of Madhu was was simple and touching, immersed in the green of the forest, before the ancient image of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus in her arms. At the conclusion, Francis used her image to bless the faithful. Here, the Pope said, everyone, Tamil and Sinhalese, gather in Mary’s home “as members of one family”. The Pope recalled that, from the tragedy of the civil war from which not even the Shrine emerged unscathed, it became, however, a place of refuge open to everyone. He asked Our Lady for the grace of God’s mercy and for the grace “to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil” the war provoked.
The small statue of Our Lady of Madhu had been taken away from the Shrine during the years of civil war, and returned there after the war’s end. “But Our Lady is remaining always with you”, the Pontiff exclaimed, and she continues “to bring us Jesus”, accompanying the process of reconciliation in order that the Tamil and Sinhalese communities may also return to the house of God.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 21, 2018
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