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How Faith triumphed over death in Sri Lanka

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

ON APRIL 21, 2019—Easter Sunday—death interrupted the lives of the parishioners attending Mass in St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Sri Lanka. It also interrupted the lives of those present at the Shrine of St Anthony in Kotahena, the Zion Church in Battacloa, three hotels in Colombo—the Cinnamon Grand, the Kingsbury Hotel and the Shangri-La Hotel—and the Tropical Inn guest house in Dehiwala.

That interruption was acutely felt by Fr Basil Rohan Fernando, the National Director of PMS (Missio) Sri Lanka, who was made aware of the terrorist attacks by a fellow priest over the phone as he was driving home from Mass. Shocked and shaken, he made it home, but no sooner had he done so, he set off for St Sebastian’s to be with the people there.

“I have never experienced anything like it,” Fr Basil said. “The closer you got to the church, the more you could smell the flesh of people. It was hard to get too close because of the smell and the fact that there were body parts everywhere. They tried to cover them, but they couldn’t. The whole church was like that, covered in blood.

“I couldn’t stay there for too long, so then I went to the hospital. There were injured people everywhere. When I was seated, some of the parents would say: ‘Father can you go and bless my child?” What those parents didn’t know was that their child was already dead. A husband asked me to bless his wife, but again, he didn’t know that she had passed away. In one instance only the mother survived, her three children and her husband had died. At that time, nobody knew who had survived and who had died. There were so many bodies. In another case, among the dead bodies, one lady raised her hand to signal that she was alive. Everyone that they presumed dead were sent to the mortuary and in there, this lady cried out: ‘I am alive!’ There were so many difficult interactions that most human beings won’t experience.”

These suicide bombings resulted in the deaths of 269 people and injured at least 500 more. By injured I mean in a physical sense, because, as Fr Basil explained to myself and my colleague Andrea during our recent mission trip to the country, the attacks have left an ‘open wound’ among many Sri Lankans. This is not merely due to the lives lost, but because of the suspicion of the government’s involvement in and subsequent cover-up of the attacks that exists among the general populace, something which Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has himself alluded to.

However, the purpose of this feature is not to focus on potential black-ops and the nefariousness of politicians in Sri Lanka, there are those far more informed and qualified to write about that than myself. Rather, given that the Missio Scotland team was taken to St Sebastian’s Church and the surrounding areas, I’d like to share with you some of the stories, both harrowing and uplifting from our visit there.

Sad stories

Upon arriving through the gates of St Sebastian’s, the church instantly comes into view and despite having been restored to its original splendour, my mind was cast back four years to the events of that day and the image of this largely destroyed Catholic place of worship. Yet while restorations have taken place, parts of the church that were affected by the blast that day and have been left untouched to serve as a poignant and powerful memory of those who perished in the blast. A glass panel on the floor marks the spot—literally—where the bomber struck, while one of the church’s columns contains the pockmarks left by the ball-bearings packed into the bomb. Perhaps the most moving reminder, however—and one of the most unique, impactful depictions of Our Lord I have ever seen in my life—sits at the right-hand side of the altar, a statue of the Risen Jesus covered in blast marks and the blood of the victims. As a family prayed near the statue, I couldn’t help but see this as anything other than a stark, visual image of those who were killed because of their Faith on the image of the Son of God who gave His life for us.

Outside of the church, Fr Basil gave us a far greater insight into the bombing and its aftermath. He told us how the suicide-bomber exploded the bomb at the doorway, which actually saved lives, for had he made it to the centre of the church, many more people would have died. He outlined how one entire family was wiped out by the attack and that their house has remained locked ever since. He detailed the story of an artistic young girl, from a largely Muslim family, who would attend Mass with her Catholic grandmother and sadly lost her life that day. Her mother shared with us a drawing that she did of Jesus, two days prior to the attack, with His arm around her, which also read: ‘Jesus takes us to His Kingdom.’ Many people now visit that girl’s family home to say a quite prayer in front of her photo. And he spoke of the tragic tale of a baby, who lost its mother in the bombing, trying to latch onto her father to breastfeed from him. Visiting the nearby cemetery was no less emotional. Seeing the graves of whole families buried next to one another was tremendously sad, as was the grave of a little boy who didn’t manage to see his first birthday. Sights like those really stop you in your tracks and move you to tears.

Coming together in Faith

It was at the cemetery, however, that Fr Basil also told of some of the uplifting stories that have arisen from the tragedy. Missio Scotland and Missio England and Wales together provided the funds to build a memorial chapel in the cemetery, something that Cardinal Ranjith had stated that he wanted to see erected. Opened on the first anniversary of the attacks, the Chapel of the Heroes of Faith was officially opened by the cardinal and provides a place of prayer and solace for the families visiting their loved ones’ graves.

“I’d like to thank Fr Vincent Lockhart of Missio Scotland and Fr Anthony Chantry of Missio England and Wales for their support,” Fr Basil said. “As soon as they heard about the project, there was no need for any discussion, they helped out immediately. The chapel has now been built and we pray that in 2024—the fifth anniversary of the blast—the Holy Father will officially recognise the victims as martyrs and if he does, this chapel will be known as The Chapel of the Martyrs. I am very proud of how the PMS in Scotland and England and Wales supported its construction.”

The building of the chapel has proved pivotal in the Sri Lankan Church being able to support the victims in as wide a sense as possible. The fact that Missio Scotland and Missio England and Wales had provided funds for the chapel meant that the Church in Sri Lanka could divert their attention and funds elsewhere, which they duly did. Scholarships were provided for children affected by the bombings. The medical bills of those injured were paid for, including one woman who required 24-hour care and had a personal nurse. New houses were built and provided free of charge for those families who were severely affected by the bombings—those who had lost their main breadwinner for example. The Missio Scotland team and Fr Basil were treated to Sr Lanka’s national drink—tea—by a family who now inhabit one of these houses. Now Scots love our tea, but these cuppas were particularly special and it wasn’t just the beverage that was heart-warming, but seeing the people living in these new houses and thriving once again was a beautiful sight.

As we left the new estate and headed back to the grounds of St Sebastian’s Church, many people had arrived in our absence, some to visit the memorial to their loved ones, some to pray silently in the restored church and some just to sit in the courtyard chatting with friends and family, watching their children run and play and relaxing in a balmy June evening. This church in Katuwapitiya and the Church in Sri Lanka are full of life once again. Death may have interrupted the lives of Catholics in the country, but their Faith has seen them triumph over death, like the Risen Lord Himself.

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