The History
 

A SHORT HISTORY OF CATHOLIC CHURCH IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka, is an Island of 25000 square miles at the southern tip of the Indian sub – continent. For nearly two millennia, the kingdom of the Sinhalese flourished in the Island with its own culture and civilization, influenced largely by India: and at the time of the arrival of the first colonial power from the West, the Portuguese (1505),

Although there is evidence of the presence in the island prior to the sixteenth century of small groups of Christians among traders from the Middle East or mercenaries from South India, it was only with then coming of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that any organized effort was made to convert the local inhabitants to Christianity. As a colonial power, Portugal encouraged by the Popes, sought to spread the Catholic Faith in the overseas territories that came under her rule or influence.

About the time that St. Francis Xavier himself came to India, a small group of Franciscans, sent by King John III of Portugal, arrived in Sri Lanka in the year of (1543). Xavier was greatly interested in Christianization of the people of Sri Lanka as we learn from his letters but there was little success in the area of Kotte near Colombo in the west coast . The saint’s presence in South India at this time, however, had repercussions in another part of Sri Lanka, the Island of Mannar, by the north- west coast. The people of Mannar, having heard of Xavier’s work among their Kinsmen on the Indian mainland, begged of him to come over them too. Xavier sent a fellow-worker who converted several hundreds of Mannar’s inhabitants.

In the area of Kotte, king Dharmapala succeeded to the throne in 1551 & became a Christian himself and gave freedom to the Franciscans for missionary activity. Since he had no children to succeed him, he gifted his Kingdom to Portugal in the interest of Christianity, so that at his death in 1597 the Kingdom came under Portuguese rule.

The Franciscan missionaries became very active in the areas of Kotte and Jaffna and made great head way in their work of evangelization. Other Religious Orders too came to assist the Franciscans – the Jesuits in 1602, the Dominicans in 1605,and the Augustinians in 1606. Many of the inhabitants became Christians, some however, for the material advantage that Christianity brought them under the Portuguese.

About the middle of the seventeenth century, The Dutch, another colonial power came on the scene and they ousted the Portuguese (1658) and occupied the territories held by them. During the period of Dutch Catholicism was proscribed: Catholic Churches and schools were confiscated, Catholics were forbidden under severe penalties to harbour Catholic priests.

For nearly thirty years the Catholics had no priests. Every effort made by the Holy See to send missionaries from Europe failed. Then an Indian priest from Goa, Fr. Joseph Vaz, who had just helped to found an Oratorian Congregation there, hearing of Sri Lanka’s Catholics, came to the island in disguise in 1687 and secretly ministered to the Catholics. Later other Indian priests from the Oratory of Goa joined him. They were kindly treated by the Sinhalese Buddhist Kings of Kandy. Fr. Vaz served the church in Sri Lanka so heroically and with such apostolic zeal up to his death in 1711 that he is venerated as the Apostle of Sri Lanka. Throughout the Dutch period, up to 1796, it was these Indian Oratorians always a handful, who looked after the Church in Sri Lanka. In church history, this is a unique instance at that time of Asians going as missionaries to another Asian country, and having full charge of its Church.

In 1796 the British took over the island and they restored religious freedom In 1834 Sri Lanka, which from Portuguese times had formed part of the diocese of Cochin in India, was constituted into a separate vicariate apostolic with the Indian Oratorian Vincente de Rosaryro as its first head and Bishop.

With religious freedom restored, for European Missionaries had an oppertunity to come to Sri Lanka again. First a few from various Orders, then Oblates of Mary Immaculate from France, Sylvestro Benedictines from Italy, and Jesuits from Belgium came over. Several Orders of women religious too came to the island for educational and social work. Steps were taken at the same time to train Sri Lanka candidates for the Priesthood and the Religious life. In 1887 the hierarchy was established with Colombo as the Archdiocese and Jaffna and Kandy as Suffragan Dioceses. A French oblate Christopher Bonjean, became the first Archbishop of Colombo.

According to a survey made by Governor Mackenzie in 1838, there were at that time only 74,787 Christians in the country of whom 72,870 were Catholics. But now the Church made steady progress. Indigenous vocations multiplied. In 1948 the country became Independent. The first Sri Lankan Archbishop, Thomas Benjamin Cooray OMI, was appointed in 1947, and in 1965 he became also the first Sri Lankan Cardinal. At present there are eleven Dioceses and all of them (except Anuradhapura) have Sri Lankan Bishops. The church has served the country very prominently in the fields of education and social service. Today Catholics number over one million in a population over18 million, and are by far the most numerous of all the Christian denominations. In 1947 the Blessed Virgin Mary was proclaimed the National Patroness of the country under the title of Our Lady of Lanka. A National Basilica has been built in her honour at Tewatta, near Colombo.

Source: W. L. A. Don Peter. Catholic Directory Sri Lanka 1989-1990

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