That they form a nation whose territory consists of islands dotting the Pacific quite removed from the Asian mainland has made Filipinos think they are a continent unto themselves.
Often likening their archipelago to the beads of the rosary, Filipinos have one-sidedly believed that the Philippines is the only Christian nation in pagan Asia.
But the Pope’s recent visit to the continent should, by now, have disabused that notion.
Prior to the Philippines, Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka, whose Christian roots apparently lay deeper than the Portuguese arrival in the early 16th century: A Persian cross excavated recently in Anuradhapura seemed to belong to the 5th century, when Middle East traders had reportedly brought Christianity to the island.
During his visit, the Pope canonized Fr. Joseph Vaz, an Oratorian priest of the 17th century who tried to rebuild the Church of Sri Lanka amid the persecution of the Calvinist Dutch, who had kicked out the Catholic Portuguese.
Vaz was from Goa, India, the Christian enclave built by the Portuguese colonizers and missionaries, the most prominent of whom would be the Pope’s Jesuit confrere, St. Francis of Xavier.
Although Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio took his papal name from the vastly more famous and much, much earlier Francis (of Assisi)—ostensibly the first Franciscan as against Xavier, one of the first Jesuits (he was a friend and companion of St. Ignatius of Loyola)—the later Francis has been known to be the first great missionary of the East, having planted the roots of Christianity in South Asia and the Far East except China.
But his missionary work in Goa had been preceded way, way before by the first Christians from Asia Minor, notably St. Thomas the Apostle.
How one of the first apostles was able to reach India is a tantalizing prospect for historical investigation. But if faith could move mountains, St. Thomas Didymus (“The Doubter”), famous in the Johannine Gospel for having doubted his fellow apostles who claimed to have seen the resurrected Lord and for declaring that he would not believe until his own fingers probed the wounds of Christ, should show that doubt, or “unfaith,” could bridge vast geographies.
In any case, the ancient Syrian Christian community of India traced its origin to St. Thomas the Apostle, who was believed to have been martyred in the hillock now named St. Thomas Mount near the Chennai international airport. The community remains a Christian enclave, and its presence is linked with the Christians of Sri Lanka since two crosses excavated in Anuradhapura in 1913 were similar to the ancient cross of St. Thomas Mount.
Although the ancient missionary work on the Asian mainland have not really created vast territories, or “nations,” for the Christian faith, that they have remained staunchly Christian despite the vicissitudes of history and the challenges by more dominant religions should check Filipinos’ sense of triumphalism.
Those cute pachyderms
Definitely for the Filipino journalists who were part of the Vatican Accredited Media Personnel (VAMP) on board the papal flight to Asia last month, the great welcome accorded by mainly Buddhist Sri Lanka to the Supreme Pontiff should be a sobering experience: 40 elephants and their guards richly dressed in gold-laced attire standing ceremoniously like honor guards on the airport road that took the Popemobile out for a 28-kilometer motorcade, with almost every corner of the stretch filled with people cheering His Holiness.
The sight of the well-garbed elephants welcoming the Vicar of Christ was a visual feast. The Filipino journalists shook their heads and wondered how the Philippine welcome could outdo Sri Lanka’s: 40 wild tamaraws maybe? Or 40 “Lolong”-size crocodiles?
But beyond the “Kodak moment” of the incident, there was a greater import: The presence of the pachyderms showed that Buddhism in Sri Lanka had gotten over what its adherents called an affront to their belief over Pope John Paul’s alleged remarks against Buddhism in his best-selling 1995 book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.”
In the book, the scholarly Polish pope criticized Buddhism for its alleged nihilism. He noted how Christianity and “the religions of the Far East, in particular Buddhism,” look at the world differently.
“For Christians, the world is God’s creation, redeemed by Christ… Therefore he does not need to attain such an absolute detachment in order to find himself in the mystery of his deep self.”
In contrast, John Paul the Great wrote, Buddhism looks at the world as a “‘radical’ evil” that one should be detached from through meditation and ultimately, reject; hence it is nihilist.
The negative reaction from Buddhist leaders to the remarks marred John Paul’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1995 when he beatified Father Vaz.
Apparently the two religions have since smoked the peace pipe—going by the presence of the pachyderms.
Sri Lanka locals said the animals are all government-owned and -protected, although each is left to the care of a qualified individual, who’s obviously well-financed and who can provide at least an acre for the animal to roam.
As it turns out, most of the elephants are entrusted to the care of Buddhist monks who allow the animals to roam around their well-endowed monasteries.
Fr. Samantha Korkoro of the Roman Archdiocese of Colombo said the fact that the Buddhist monks allowed the elephants to welcome the Pope should be a gesture of reconciliation.
Another gesture of reconciliation was the Mass to canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint, Father Vaz, that drew at least a quarter of a million people, many of them Buddhists.
Based on estimates of the Sri Lankan police and clergy, 250,000 to 300,000 people turned up for the canonization Mass.
The Mass was said in English and Latin as well as in Sinhala, whose speakers are Buddhists, and Tamil, whose speakers are Hindus.
In his homily, the Pope held up Vaz as a model missionary laboring in a setting where there are different cultures and religions. “St. Joseph Vaz knew how to offer the truth and beauty of the Gospel in a multireligious context,” he explained.
It helped to assuage Buddhist Sri Lankans of their hurt that they are also eager to rebuild from the ashes of the bitter Tamil insurgency and recover from the tainted rule of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who conceded the election only the week before to Maithrapala Sirisena.
The Pope called on all sectors to unite while Sirisena asked him “to bless the people of Sri Lanka.”
Sister Regina Kuizon, Philippine provincial of the Religious of the Good Shepherd who has worked in Sri Lanka, said that the Pope’s message of peace “is most welcome” for a country that is just coming out of a 26-year civil war.
“Whether Sinhalese or Tamil, people experienced loss and grief, anger and hatred,” she explained.
“As a minority church, what we can do is to continue to build trust, promote dialogue among religions and their followers,” she pointed out. “All religions are called to bring peace, harmony, love.”
She said that Good Shepherd nuns in Sri Lanka do their “small contribution through education, welcoming Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims into our schools, engaging students and their parents in dialogue.”
Our Lady of Madhu
Paradoxically enough, the Pope drove home his ecumenical and interreligious message by visiting on Jan. 14 the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in the Mannar district near the north western coast. Dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, and with the icon showing both the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus, Madhu is Sri Lanka’s most revered and famous Roman Catholic shrine.
The catch is that the shrine is also visited by Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils for Our Lady of the Rosary’s reputation as a miracle worker.
During the Tamil Tiger rebellion, in fact, the decision of the local bishop to relocate the image because the shrine was in the war zone alarmed not only Catholics but also Sinhalese and Tamils.
Welcomed by tens of thousands in Madhu, the Pope referred to the time when the statue was taken from its shrine. “No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place, or the sad day,” he said, when the venerable statue “was taken away from her shrine.”
Referring to the the 30-year insurgency war that ended in 2009, he noted that there were families present that day that “suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka” and in which “many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed.”
“Our Lady remained always with you,” Pope Francis told Sri Lankans. “She is the mother of every home, of every wounded family, of all who are seeking to return to a peaceful existence.” She never forgets her children, and “just as she never left the side of her Son on the Cross, so she never left the side of her suffering Sri Lankans.”
He asked Our Lady at Madhu “to implore for us the grace of God’s mercy” and “for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known.”
The Pope likewise asked Our Lady of the Rosary of Madhu to accompany “the efforts of Sri Lankans from both Tamil- and Sinhalese-speaking communities to rebuild the unity which was lost” and assist them to “come home to God in a renewed spirit of reconciliation and fellowship” and to obtain for them the strength “to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land.”
For their coverage of the papal visit of Sri Lanka, VAMP members were given each a beautiful medal of Our Lady of Madhu.
For the Filipino VAMP journalists, the medal would be a reminder that the rosary beads that form the Christian archipelago of the Philippines in the Pacific extend to the Indian Ocean as well, specifically to the beautiful chaplet of an island known as Sri Lanka.