Representing the two communities, Mgr Justin Bernard Gnanapragasam and Mgr Raymond Kingsley Wickramasinghe concelebrated the solemn Mass. The Sri Lankan Navy organised the feast, including meals, shelters for pilgrims and temporary piers for their boats.
Katchatheevu (AsiaNews) – More than 10,000 Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics from Sri Lanka and India took part in the annual celebration to honour St Anthony of Padua at the shrine dedicated to him on Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island that lies between the two countries.
This year, for the first time in the history of the event, believers could follow the Mass in both Tamil and Sinhalese, a sign of unity and reconciliation between devotees of the patron saint of fishermen as well as between the two communities, still marked by the memory of the violence of the long civil war.
Pilgrims reached the island last Friday, a day before the solemn Mass led by Mgr Justin Bernard Gnanapragasam, bishop of Jaffna (northern Sri Lanka), and Mgr Raymond Kingsley Wickramasinghe, bishop of Galle (south-western Sri Lanka). Fr Yameen Powelraj, parish priest in Verkodu, Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu (southern India), and some Tamil priests concelebrated the service as well.
"After three days, Jesus rose again,’ Mgr Gnanapragasam said in his homily. “St Anthony too gives back life and blessings to those who seek his favour and hold strong faith in him. Only then will the Saint give you what you are asking.”
“All of you who participate in this feast, you should live in peace and unity. All of us who have come here from different parts of India and Sri Lanka, let us and pray to God to give us peace and strong unity in our families and in our countries."
Mgr Gnanapragasam’s words were echoed by those of Mgr Wickramasinghe. "This is an important moment, as Sri Lankans and Indians celebrate this feast together,” he said in his homily in Sinhala.
“It is a miracle, because this is the first time that a bishop of the southern province has taken part in this feast. I join all of you in praising the Lord and praying to God. Today's reading invites us to share with others the love and peace God has given us."
"After so much pain, hurt and bad times, we now have a new life,” the bishop added. “If we work together, we can rebuild our society and our country, we can forgive all misdeeds and mistakes, and achieve a new life through forgiveness."
Speaking to Sinhalese pilgrims Mgr Raymond said: "Our presence is bound to dry the tears of those who have suffered. We can talk about reconciliation for years. We can talk about different laws and justice, but until we change our attitudes and thoughts, nothing will happen. And if people are still suffering, let us forgive each other."
For Mr Ganendran, a Tamil Catholic devotee of St Anthony who spoke to AsiaNews at the end of the service, "This is a great opportunity to rebuild unity between Tamils and Sinhalese, but also between the Catholics of Sri Lanka and those of Tamil Nadu."
Located 45 nautical miles from the northern port of Kankesanthurai (Jaffna), the island of Katchatheevu is administered by Sri Lanka but was claimed by India until 1974.
Under the agreement signed by Colombo and Delhi, the island can be used by the fishing communities of both countries and Indian pilgrims can access it without a passport.
Dedicated to Saint Anthony in 1905, the church was rebuilt by the Sri Lankan Navy, which handed it over to the Diocese of Jaffna in 2016.
This year, the Navy also organised the feast, including meals, shelters for pilgrims and temporary piers for their boats.
The bishop of Galle makes an appeal during Lent to the faithful “not [to] confine ourselves only to external rituals”. Stronger ties of brotherhood can lead to peace in society. Tamils and Sinhalese share religious ethnic traits. People must overcome the desire to find culprits. A new mindset is needed.
Local elections results could reverse the process of national reconciliation. Under President Sirisena, relations between the government and ethnic minorities has improved. Now “The danger is [. . .] a vicious cycle in which Sinhalese nationalism in the South feeds and sustains the rise of Tamil nationalism in the North.”