A silent song of a shepherd
~ 75th B'day of Emeritus Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando
At 44, Fr. Nicholas Marcus when declared the 7th Archbishop of Colombo probably measured like a primogeniture, the length and the gravity of his episcopate, which could have spanned for more than 30 years. Having been installed, he received his Episcopal ordination on May 14, 1977, at the square of St. Benedict's College, Kotahena.
A man who lived a silent, dedicated life was not a "popular figure" in a worldly sense, which neither by nature nor by nurture he sought to be. But he has found favour before God, and through divine inspiration in the hearts of priests who had preferred him as successor to Cardinal Thomas Cooray, for his sanctity, simplicity, downrightness and austerity. Now it was his new calling to be among God's people and their affairs leading them as their good shepherd.
The Catholic Church teaches that the calling received at baptism is equal whether of layman, priest or bishop but differs in the role one plays in the church.
The 7th Archbishop's new era was apparently based on this awareness and conviction. He took to his trust everyone who was entrusted to him. The theme of his inaugural address was ‘Love is the need of hour', where everyone, the old and the young, man and woman, progressive and conservative, rich and poor, weak and strong had his/her due place in the church. The role of the shepherd was to embrace all those God gave him. At times even to go looking for the lost one.
Looking back at his Episcopal shepherding, what he left behind should not be evaluated with edifices, positions, popularity or his glamorous Episcopal genealogy. In such an evaluation it will look a big success. Instead, his real achievement was the evangelical spirit which he scrupulously laboured to instil in the laymen and the priest. Sharing his responsibility with others within a decentralized administration was his concept of leadership. Inclusion of respectable lay expertise in the financial administration of the Archdiocese was his transparency. Regular dialogue with his flock was his way of feeling their pulse. Walking the extra-mile to look for the lost one, was the criticality of his being "the merciful father".
Making arduous journeys to the north and the east to share the agony of war battered people and his resources with the suffering, was his way of being "the Good Samaritan". Introducing mechanisms for the affluent parishes to share more with those with lesser resources was his way of inviting "to share one tunic with those who have none".
He respected every individual and opinion but did not pretend to always agree with them giving credence to his motto "To speak the truth in charity". He led his priests and parishioners to face the truth in their moments of adversity and weakness, success and strength, for he believed in the words "truth shall make you free".
During his episcopate which coincided with the regimes of four Presidents and six Prime Ministers, he did not compromise with them on unfair treatment of minorities and the poor. His policy of "Giving Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's" won him admiration and respect, even from his critics. Any good work of governments which benefited the people won his appreciation and encouragement.
On December 6, 2007, now Emeritus Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando, celebrates his 75th birthday, the day he should have stepped down according to the norms of the Catholic Church. Having served as Archbishop for 25 years, in 2002 five years prematurely, he stepped down from office, which was filled by the present Archbishop Oswald Gomis.
It was a rare moment in both ecclesiastical and political history of our country for a leader at the peak of his term of office to relinquish all power and position. For the Emeritus Archbishop, it was not a difficult decision. For him episcopate was not power or position but an evangelical service of the Truth.
For a man who loved his priests and people till he reached the age of a grandfather perhaps thought it fit to find them a new shepherd. So, he headed towards "Emmaus" (his present residence at Tewatte), allowing the ecclesiastical waters of Kelani and Tiber to run their course.
Even in retirement, his life is a silent song, an invisible inspiration and a precious presence to the Archdiocese. We wish him a happy long life among us.
Ad multos et faustissimos. annos.