Driven by faith and determined to see Pope Francis on his historic visit to this island last week, they came in their numbers, undaunted by the prospect of a long wait. That they would not have much by way of food and shelter or that the ground beneath them was hard and stony did not [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

A sea of hope to see the Pope


Driven by faith and determined to see Pope Francis on his historic visit to this island last week, they came in their numbers, undaunted by the prospect of a long wait. That they would not have much by way of food and shelter or that the ground beneath them was hard and stony did not matter. The Pope would celebrate Mass the next morning and they were determined to secure their place on the Galle Face Green as near as

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives at the Galle Face Green. Pic by Ranjith Perera

possible to the Holy Father.

It was Tuesday evening when the Sunday Times met the first comers among the thousands who would turn the Galle Face Green into a sea of people the next morning, January 14. Pope Francis had arrived in Sri Lanka the morning of Tuesday the 13th and all arrangements were in place for the Pope to celebrate Mass and canonize Sri Lanka’s first Saint, Blessed Joseph Vaz, the Goan missionary who in the 17th century had stood unflinching against Dutch persecution to spread the Catholic faith in this land, on Wednesday morning.

Each person on the Green had a special reason to be there. Many of them had come seeking the blessings of the Holy Father, while some of them

Mercystella Rodrigo: “God’s strength has brought me here”. Pix by Anuradha Bandara

anticipated a miracle by his mere presence, others seeking a release from pain and ill-health.

Sixty-year-old Winefrida Kurruppuarachchi who had been suffering from arthritis for over 30 years,had come to Galle Face from Kalutara North.

“I came here with my sister at around nine a.m. today (January 13) and I plan on spending the night here to be present to see the Pope in the morning. We didn’t expect to find a place so close to the stage but as it happened, by the grace of God we did,” she said.

Winefrida’s faith had brought her to Galle Face Green. “Mata paapwahansege blessing eka watinawa” (the Holy Father’s blessing is important to me), she told us.

Adding that she was thrilled at the prospect of a saint coming from Sri Lanka Winefrida said, “This is a big moment for Sri Lanka – as a Roman Catholic I strongly believe in intercessory prayers. My husband is a Buddhist but my two sons are Catholics and we are truly blessed to be here.”

Bentus Cooray: Hoping for a miracle that would make him walk again

The devotees who gathered at the Green were in different enclosures demarcated by steel railings and it was down a dusty pathway into another area that we met Bentus Cooray, 61, an ex- Serviceman.

Seated on his wheelchair Bentus told us that he was shot in the leg by LTTE cadres opposite Lake House in 1997.

Bentus who lives in Moratuwa, had come to Galle Face at 3.30 p.m. “I am really excited to see the Holy Father,” he said, adding, “I strongly believe in Blessed Joseph Vaz and I am privileged to be a part of the service tomorrow (14). I’m hoping and praying for a miracle so that I may walk again.”

As the sun began to set over the horizon many of the devotees wrapped themselves up in sheets and blankets they had brought with them, anticipating the cold wind that would blow across the Green that night. Many had come prepared with sleeping bags and food. Most were bursting with excitement at the thought of seeing the Holy Father the following morning.

Winefrida Kurruppuarachchi: Thrilled to find a place so close to the stage

Pointing her walking stick towards the heavens, Mercystella Rodrigo, 80, said “God’s strength has brought me here.”

Accompanied by her family, Mercystella had left her home in Rawathawatte, Moratuwa earlier that day. “I believe that it is a blessing to see the Pope and I am privileged to witness a canonization ceremony during my lifetime,” she said.

But it wasn’t just the Roman Catholics who had gathered at Galle Face on the 13th.

W.B. Ishani, 40, who is a Buddhist said ‘faith’ had brought her to Colombo all the way from her home in Negombo.

“I have been suffering with a slipped disc for the past six years,” she said adding that she endures excruciating pain on a daily basis.

“The Doctors have told me that they will have to perform an operation on me soon, but they aren’t sure about that either. I believe that I would experience a miracle here tomorrow,” Ishani said.

She added “I am experiencing a slight pain as I sit here, but I believe it’s worth it as I get a chance to receive the blessings of the Holy Father tomorrow morning.”

W.B. Ishani: A Buddhist who said faith had brought her to Galle Face from Negombo

Ishani was among a group of four who had followed the Papal procession as it made its way from the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) to Colombo. As the Pope’s motorcade entered the Apostolic Nunciature in Colombo 7, they took the road to Galle Face Green.

Swarna Madurawala, 60, Beatrice Mallika, 57 and D.M Udani, (46) ,shared Ishani’s excitement over seeing the Pope.

“We got a chance to see Pope John Paul II who visited the country in 1995 and we have been praying that Pope Francis would visit Sri Lanka too. Our prayers have indeed been answered. We have brought bread with us since we planned to stay the night but we don’t care about the food, we only want to see the Holy Father who represents God,” Beatrice Mallika said.

“Our hearts felt love as we watched Pope Francis makes his way to Colombo from the airport. His smile as he waved at the crowd inspired us,” an excited Swarna said.

The following morning (January 14) the Sunday Times team moved amongst the now tired and sleep deprived devotees, most nevertheless clearly elated that they had been part of a very special occasion. Amongst the crowd that slowly made their way out of the Green, we met 48-year-old Anthoni Amma.

Anthoni Amma had a different story to tell us. She had arrived at Galle Face Green with the intention of confiding her troubles in the Holy Father.
Carrying a single candle and an old bag, that contained all her worldly belongings in her hand, Anthoni Amma said the recently concluded Presidential poll had cost her, her home.

“I lived with my brother in Hewaheta, after previously being employed in Saudi Arabia. But I have no home now. We pledged our support to a particular political party during the Presidential elections and this resulted in our neighbours sending us death threats, she said.

“Eyala mawa maranna haduwa” ( they tried to kill me).

She wiped a tear from her eyes before proceeding to tell us that she has no knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts now.

“I have no other relative and I have nowhere to go. Therefore I came here to tell the Pope my troubles,” she said. She had arrived at Galle Face Green at 3.30 p.m. the previous day. After having spent so many hours in the scorching sun and foregoing her meals in order to save her place close to the stage, Anthoni Amma says though she didn’t meet the Holy Father she was lucky to receive his blessing.

Peter Joseph, 53, had travelled to Colombo with his 23-year-old son from Nuwara Eliya to receive the Holy Father’s blessing and to witness what he described as a ‘once in a lifetime canonization ceremony’.

The Sunday Times team found a worried Mr. Joseph up on the stage where the Holy Father had finished the morning service a few hours earlier. He was silently praying and waiting for his son, who had got lost in the crowd. He had come to the stage to have an announcement made over the P/A system.

“My 23-year-old son suffers from a rare nervous disorder and experiences short-term memory loss.”When we heard that the Holy Father was coming to Sri Lanka I wanted to bring him here. I strongly believe that the Holy Father’s blessing will heal him,” Mr. Joseph said.

Mr. Joseph had come to Galle Face with his brother and son at 3.45 p.m on Tuesday, January 13. They had camped on the Green overnight to see the Pope the following morning.

On the Galle Road pavement, we met a family of 16 awaiting a bus to Fort. They were to board a train to Badulla that evening.

Teckla Rosary, 35, said she and her family had a 12-hour journey by train from Badulla to Colombo. Having left Badulla at 5.30 a.m. on Tuesday, the family had arrived at Galle Face by 5.30 p.m. that evening.

“We really wanted to see the Holy Father and receive his blessing and we were able to achieve that. The canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz was a happy moment for us as we always pray to him,” she said.

And so they went away, as people truly blessed by the presence of the Holy Father. No doubt, they would cherish this memory all their lives.

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