Pope Francis in Sri Lanka: An Expat’s Account

Crowds at Galle Face Green during Pope Francis’s visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Surekha Ahgir Yadav

Crowds at Galle Face Green during Pope Francis’s visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Surekha Ahgir Yadav

As a Singaporean Hindu, I never imagined I would find myself in the midst of a vast throng of people in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka, cheering for the pope.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Galle Road, this city’s main thoroughfare was closed to traffic. Rather than the usual cacophony of blaring horns and veering tuk-tuks, streams of pilgrims flowed along the asphalt to the hypnotizing sound of hymns broadcast from PA systems and floating over the surrounding office blocks and hotels. It was peaceful.

By contrast, the pilgrims’ final destination, Galle Face Green, was absolutely jammed with humanity. This 12-acre lawn situated between the city and the Indian Ocean held an estimated 500,000 people, which is extraordinary considering Catholics make up perhaps 6% of Sri Lanka’s population, or just over 1 million people.

That’s when I realized Pope Francis’s visit – the first papal visit to Sri Lanka since John Paul II’s in 1995 — had transcended faith. Looking around, I could see an evidently mixed crowd. There were Sinhalese, Tamils, Eurasians, Muslims, and a sprinkling of foreigners.

I found myself standing next to a very dapper looking Sri Lankan gentleman who introduced himself as Fayiz Joseph Riyaz. “My father was a Muslim, my mother Catholic, I’ve always been a Catholic,” he said. “But, see, the Holy Father has brought everyone together. It’s a sign and blessing this country is only going to go forward from here – I know it.”

“There are Tamil and Sinhala Catholics in Sri Lanka,” said Devi Malar, a 45-year-old woman from near Puliyankulam in the north of the Island. “I am Tamil. When Pope John Paul came 20 years ago, there was still fighting, I could not travel to Colombo but this time I made it and see what he has done!”

Expats like me turned out. “I live here but I’m from Mexico and Catholic, so of course I came to see the pope. But my family were surprised when I told them,” said Ana Breton, a marketing executive has worked in Colombo for the past six months. “‘There are Catholics there?’ they asked. It looks so peaceful–better organized than Mexico! This gives a really good impression.”

Isabelle Finateu, a video producer from France living in Colombo, put it more simply: “At home in France I’d honestly never go to see the pope. But, well, he’s here with palm trees by the beach. I bought myself a packet of sliced mangoes to go listen to the choir. It’s seeing the pope in paradise!”

The pope’s visit transcended another of Sri Lanka’s great divides: politics. The Jan. 9 presidential election was fiercely contested by two rival Sinhala parties. Yet both groups cooperated to ensure Pope Francis’ visit was a success. What was really striking about the mass was that neither party seemed to try to gain political mileage.

“It was apolitical. They didn’t drag MPs and ministers on stage, which is really something. The pope was the center, as it should have been, and that was really wonderful,” said Dharini Gunawerdene, a Sri Lankan housewife.

Walking along the Galle Road, I saw people posing for photos with the guards at Temple Trees – the Prime Minister’s house – as they do at Buckingham Palace in London. A week ago, under the previous regime, tourists weren’t even allowed on the pavement outside the official residence.

Simple things like being able to take snapshots outside the Prime Minister’s residence reveal a significant post-election change in this country. “Now you can see the change – people are breathing,” said Sri Lankan corporate executive Dinal Edirisinghe.

Source: http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/01/17/pope-francis-in-sri-lanka-an-expats-account-of-an-extraordinary-visit-to-colombo/

 

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