SRI LANKA: In Memory of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya 

Every associate of Fr. Tissa will undoubtedly have his/her lasting and loving memories of him. My association of him has left in me a memory of him as a spiritual guide and campaigner of social justice. One of the earliest was his talk delivered on the theme “Crisis in the Priesthood” to us as then students of the National Seminary in the 1970s. I still remember two important points he mentioned during his talk.

One was referring to ‘priestly security’ he said ‘the bane in the priestly life is the security entailed in the priesthood’. Then he said, quoting the gospels, ‘Jesus had no place to lay his head’. As a seminarian who was in formation in a comfortable setting this statement left a lasting impact on me and its profound meaning inspired me to rethink about our priestly ministry and the life style that was expected of us.

The beginning of 70s was at the threshold of social revolution in Sri Lanka. Even within a secluded setting of the seminary, a large number of seminarians were becoming aware of the challenges they were to face in future.

Yet the traditional theology and spirituality given to us during our formation was mainly aimed at equipping us to perform the Catholic rituals and the task assigned to us was saving souls for a heavenly kingdom.

The training given and the model of priesthood portrayed to the seminarians did not prepare them to cope up with the future challenges either intellectually or pastorally. That intensified their frustration and disillusionment.

Fortunately the thinking of Fr. Balauriya shed a ray of hope for the future life of the seminarians. His thoughts on the priesthood inspired them to see the relevance of the prophetic role in the priesthood in the context of the emerging society.

Another moment I spent with him was at an anti-war demonstration held at Galle Face Green sometime in the 1980. With him on that occasion there were two or three prominent Buddhist monks and a few members of the Catholic clergy both men and women and also some peace activists. The police came to the spot and tried to stop the demonstration. The chief Police officer shouted at Fr. Tissa in filthy language for organizing the event and ordered all to get away and dispersed the demonstrators. Fr. Tissa moved out but was not deterred. He found new strategies to continue the peace campaign and to realize his aim. Together with Dr. Ariyaratna organized a prayer campaign at Kataragama and a Peace Walk from there to Colombo in order to educate the general public. The participants were able to walk only a few miles because of the orders given by the then President and the walk had to be abandoned. Thus, Tissa was certainly one of the pioneer defenders of the rights of the Tamil community and a strong antiwar campaigner.

Among his theological writings three remarkable works were ‘Eucharist and Human Liberation’, ‘Planetary Theology’ and ‘Mary and Human liberation’.

Although our ‘loyalty’ to the Church does not allow us to admit, but it is not far from the truth, to say that what has been inculcated into us from the childhood were ‘theological myths’ more than Faith in God of History.

Thanks to the new spirit of VATICAN II, Fr. Balasuriya together with the other Sri Lankan theologians pioneered in delivering our Faith from darkness and made Faith more alive and demanding and he never allowed us to be neutral on issues of Justice but constantly called us to move into action. For instance, when we pray ‘thy Kingdom Come’ in the Our Father, it ought to be an expression of our commitment to work for the ‘realization of the values of the Kingdom of God among human beings’.

The Church traditions have often presented a distorted and domesticated picture of Mary which has created a warped spirituality in the ordinary people. Tissa, in ‘Mary and Human Liberation’ has brought out the depth of Mary’s Faith as found in the gospels. According to him the prophetic spirituality in Mary did not make her so much a ‘comforter of the disturbed but a disturber of the comfortable’.

The concept of social or structural dimension of sin, found in the bible from the first book of genesis but kept hidden from the faithful, was another biblical concept enunciated by of Fr. Tissa. Some failed to see its biblical origin and attributed it to Marxism rather than to the Bible.

The political implications of these theological exposures really made those in power uncomfortable and therefore an unofficial warning was issued that Fr. Tissa can be a danger to one’s faith. But I am grateful to Fr. Tissa for making my faith more alive.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-017-2013
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Democracy, Right to redress, Right to remedy, Rule of law,