I came to appreciate the late Fr. Dalston Forbes (OMI) through our days together at the Sri Lanka Association for Theology (SLAT), an indigenous ecumenical movement. Our several encounters at theological reflections, exposure programmes and business meetings soon revealed that in Fr. Dalston we had a saint and a prophet in our midst.
As a saint, his presence compelled people to measure their lives against his, and to then strive to emulate the Christ in him. As a prophet, he questioned the inconsistencies of the church and Sri Lankan society and called for transformation. In this role, he was never personal or bitter.
Fr. Dalston was also known as a faithful pastor who cared for and defended the vulnerable. To him, these were “God’s little people”, a term he paraphrased from our Lord’s “Little flock”, and loved to use. When a senior priest of his religious order was compelled to walk through the wilderness, he walked with him till they both came out vindicated and with dignity.
He held high office in the Roman Catholic Church as Rector of the National Seminary Ampitiya and Assistant General of the Oblates in Asia-Oceania. While exalted positions seemed to embarrass him, he took them in his stride. There was never a danger that ecclesiastical recognition and responsibility could undermine the best in him.
Fr. Dalston was my spiritual guru for many years. Any encounter with him was memorable. It was under him that I began to understand the practical implications of the Incarnation, and it was he who deepened my appreciation of Mary, the Mother of our Lord. It was from him that I learnt to discern Christ at work beyond the church, and that true holiness comes from association with this same Christ at work in the world.
It was he who introduced me to the spiritual discipline of prayer and timing, when decisions had to be made, a rhythm he had mastered. His entire life conveyed that simplicity is a Gospel imperative for the disciple of Christ, and his ministry repeatedly stressed that the Church had much to learn from “God’s little people”.
Many in the Anglican Church loved, admired and respected him for his pragmatism, courage and integrity. Barriers of denomination, ethnicity, class and gender disappeared in his presence. With him, all ordained priests shared a common vocation, and the laity enriched the priesthood of all believers.
His last days were difficult. Despite this, there was the occasional twinkle in his eye, and this will be my last image of dear Fr. Dalston. He seemed to be saying, “Press on … in the midst of the pain and the turmoil of life, strive to discern God’s reassuring smile.”
May light perpetual shine upon him.
Duleep de Chickera,
Bishop of Colombo