From scenes of elation along the road from BIA to Colombo during Pope Francis’ arrival, to scenes of reverence at Galle Face Green, Joshua Surendraraj and Namini Wijedasa capture the spirit of the Papal stay in Sri Lanka Never before had Pope Francis received such a rousing welcome from a country in which Catholics were [...]


Curtain rises for Pope as curtain falls on polls

Vatican pleasantly surprised at people’s rousing welcome from non-Catholic country

From scenes of elation along the road from BIA to Colombo during Pope Francis’ arrival, to scenes of reverence at Galle Face Green, Joshua Surendraraj and Namini Wijedasa capture the spirit of the Papal stay in Sri Lanka

Never before had Pope Francis received such a rousing welcome from a country in which Catholics were a minority, a spokesman for the Vatican said this week.

Beating the heat: Pope Francis waves at the crowds standing on route from BIA to Colombo. Pix by Sanjeewa Niroshan, Ranjith Perera and M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Throughout the 28-kilometre stretch from the international airport to the Apostolic Nunciature in Colombo 7, the roads were lined with rapturous crowds. Many had reserved their places at dawn and waved papal flags. Election hoardings had given way to billboards expressing love for the Pope.

“We saw so many people standing by the side of the roads,” said Rev. Father Frederico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, at a news conference. “We did not expect this from a country that does not have a Catholic majority. The Holy Father had a very impressive first encounter with the people on the street.”

The Papal delegation was delighted with the 40 caparisoned elephants that had greeted them on their exit from Bandaranaike International Airport. Father Lombardi said it was “something we had never seen before”.

The 78-year-old religious leader left the airport in a modified Land Rover jeep. The frame that supported him was made by the army. He stood most of the distance in the sweltering heat. At one location on the Negombo road, he left his vehicle to bless a disabled devotee, causing others to rush elatedly towards him.

The sun beat down on the Pope as he smiled and waved continually. His delegation later said he had been exhausted at the end of the journey. The temperature rose to 30 degrees in the midmorning. By the time he reached the Nunciature, Pope Francis was flushed with heat and sitting down.

While in Sri Lanka, the Pope stayed at the Nunciature and partook of in-house meals. His delegation was booked into the Taj Samudra in Colombo. A temporary chapel was set up at the hotel for their use. When he wasn’t travelling in the jeep, Pope Francis used a Toyota Axio car. “The Holy Father requested a simple, used car to be presented to him for travelling purposes,” said Rev. Father Cyril Gamini, who handled media for the Papal trip.

The Papal delegation was delighted with the 40 caparisoned elephants

The visit came just five days after presidential poll. There had been concerns that the Pope might cancel his trip over fears of post-election violence. But he remained determined to come, said an Italian editor famed for conducting the first ever interview with Pope Francis.
“The goal of his visit was reconciliation,” said Rev. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Editor-in-Chief of La Civiltà Cattolica. Mr. Spadaro accompanies Pope Francis on pastoral visits. “He likes to be present in places where there are tensions because then there are also seeds (needs?) for the future. He is never concerned about security.”

The main event of Pope Francis’s visit was the Holy Mass and Rite of Canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz at Galle Face Green on Wednesday. A total of 20,000 policemen had been stationed to handle a crowd of more than 500,000 devotees, including foreigners. Some pilgrims came to Colombo two days in advance to secure a spot near the main stage. Chamara Tharanga Navaratne, a 34-year-old air force employee from Matale, came with a group of eight that included his two-year-old son and three other children between the ages of 9 and 13. They sat under umbrellas in the baking sunshine.

“We left at 3 a.m. in a van and reached here around 9 a.m.,” said Chamara. “Now we will wait.” One of the main reasons for their being there was to seek healing from God, Chamila Priyadharshani,Chamara’s wife said. Chamara had severe arthritis and other problems with his nerves. Their son had a kidney ailment. And her sister-in-law recently had a womb operation which left her unable to have more children.

On arrival at BIA: The Pope flanked by President Maithripala Sirisena and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

Galle Face Green filled up in a steady stream throughout Tuesday night. Police were tasked with checking each person who came in but this descended into chaos as the night progressed and morning dawned. The competition for space was intense. Latecomers sat on the road adjoining the Green and saw nothing of the service.

There was some confusion in VIP tents and arguments broke out. But a hush fell over the people as the Holy Father arrived. He travelled through the grounds to the sound of clapping and exhilarated chants of ‘Viva Papa’.

There followed the Mass and the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Twins Minoli Grace and Mihiri Anelise Fernando participated in the ceremony. Fourteen years ago, their pregnant mother, Sureni, was advised by doctors to abort one foetus so the other could survive.

Sureni and her husband, Sanjaya, who are also doctors, ruled this out and prayed to Blessed Joseph Vaz instead. Both babies were born healthy. Their case was taken up by the Vatican Commission for the Canonization of Saints and declared a miracle. The family was invited for the Papal visit and the twins carried the offertory to the altar. Among the devotees at Galle Face Green were Contemplative Carmelites who usually do not come out of their convents. They had been granted special permission to attend the mass and an 89-year-old nun who was with them said she was happy to have seen the Holy Father.

Many foreigners flew to Sri Lanka for the Papal Mass. Mary Lawrence, a 57-year-old banker from Bangalore, said she came with a group of 80 from Bangalore after a travel agent advertised the event. She loved Sri Lanka, she said, adding that she had been impressed by the religious harmony in the country.

Devotees at Galle Face Green

“People seem so respectful of other religions,” she said. “I love the way there are so many Buddha statues everywhere but you still have full page articles about the Pope in your newspapers.”

John Braganza, a 74-year-old retired government officer of the High Court in Donna Paula, Goa, came with another group. Saint Joseph Vaz was originally from Goa. “There are seven buses from Goa with 45 people in each,” he said, after buying Papal souvenirs at a roadside stall. “Saint Joseph Vaz is a son of our soil. We, as Catholic people, like to see someone of ours on the altar.”



SriLankan flies highPope Francis hardly slept on his six-hour flight out to Philippines, said a SriLankan Airlines official who was on the Airbus A340 aircraft.

The Pope waves just before he steps inside the plane

While the Pope arrived at Katunayake on Alitalia, it is customary for him to leave on the national airline of the host country. SriLankan Airlines offered to fly him to Manila on their account. The Vatican graciously accepted. The 80 Vatican-accredited foreign journalists who accompanied the Pope paid their way. Their aircraft went empty from Manila.

“We offered our newest aircraft but the Vatican team chose the Airbus A340,” said Kapila Chandrasena, SriLankan Airlines Chief Executive Officer. The plane was not modified in any way and the small Papal party occupied the front.

There were no special meal requests and no fuss. “They looked at menus and made their choice, both Eastern and Western cuisine,” Mr Chandrasena said. “He did not eat breakfast, only a light meal for lunch.”

There were 12 in-flight crew members and three instructor captains for optimum safety. “The flight was operated as VVIP,” he explained. The pilots and crew were all Catholic or Christian. “We wanted to give them this opportunity,” Mr Chandrasena said, adding that other selection criteria such as seniority and performance were also applied.

“It was the highlight of my life,” Mr Chandrasena said. “The Holy Father was so humble and simple. I felt he was someone who really practises what he preaches. I hardly saw him rest. He keeps up an incredible pace. He came onboard carrying his own bag.”

“When we were airborne, the first thing they did was pray,” he continued. “He rested for an hour or so before giving a briefing to the journalists at the back. He blessed each crew member as well as rosaries and other personal items they brought to him.”

A small replica of an aircraft was presented to the Pope on behalf of SriLankan Airlines. Later, he had a meeting with his officials. He did some reading and would have dozed off briefly before landing around 5.30 p.m., local time, in Manila.

Each time the aircraft overflew another country, greetings from the Pope were conveyed through the flight communications system to the head of that nation. He also sought permission to enter the cockpit and to thank the pilots.
“And when he left, he said, ‘Pray for me’,” Mr Chandrasena concluded.

Story of the Papal chair and unfinished portrait

The chair used by Pope Francis in the Holy Mass will be taken to a Catholic Museum, said Rev. Father Priyantha Silva, who handled preparations at Galle Face Green.

Two chairs painted in ivory white and gold were originally designed for the Pope, one more elaborate than the other. The Vatican Master of Ceremonies selected the one that was simpler in design. It was decorated with religious symbols.

“The pineapple flower design is very special because it is a symbol of resurrection,” Fr. Priyantha said. As Archdiocesan Consultant for Ecclesiastical Art and Architecture, he is designing the portrait of St. Joseph Vaz according to the rules of sacred arts and sacred geometry according to Christian iconographical standards.

It was due to be finished in time for the Papal visit but was not completed on time. Fr. Priyantha said it will be finished soon and sent for approval by the National Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka and the Joseph Vaz Secretariat. It will be first official Sri Lankan portrait of St. Joseph Vaz.

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