Sri Lankan priest's spirit lives on
Controversial theologian whose excommunication was reversed is remembered on the fifth anniversary of his death
Father Tissa Balasuriya, who was excommunicated during the reign of Pope John Paul II, was never afraid to challenge the establishment. (Photo by ucanews.com)
Rights activists and academics aim to continue the mission of a Sri Lankan theologian who worked with slum dwellers, vulnerable women, orphans, human rights workers, whistleblowers and female activists.
Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya was an outspoken Catholic priest and activist who was excommunicated during the reign of Pope John Paul II.
He was one of the original founders of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians in 1975 and founded the Center for Society and Religion in Colombo in 1971 for inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. He was the first international chaplain for the Young Christian Students Movement.
Father Balasuriya, who died in 2013, was a prolific writer who completed 35 books on human rights, theology and religion.
Ruki Fernando, a human rights defender, said Father Balasuriya worked for social justice for marginalized people and criticized the church for not responding to social issues in Sri Lanka and globally.
"He always acted like a social person who spent his day with marginalized people and promoted social justice for the oppressed. Father Balasuriya worked for the slum dwellers in Summit Pura," said Fernando.
Summit Pura (Summit Town) is an area that began to be occupied in 1971 by beggars and poor families living on the edge of capital city Colombo.
"Father Bala actively worked on issues of gender and sexuality, poverty, labor rights, ethnic issues, environment, reconciliation, women plantation workers, fishery communities and farmers," said Fernando, addressing academics, activists, nuns and priests at an event at the Centre for Society and Religion on Jan. 17 to mark the fifth anniversary of Father Balasuriya's death.
In 1990, Father Balasuriya was excommunicated after the Vatican warned that his book Mary and Human Liberation contained heretical content by apparently misinterpreting the doctrine on original sin while also casting doubt on Christ's divinity. After intense international publicity and negotiations, the Vatican reversed the excommunication in 1998.
Priests hold a one-minute silence for Father Balasuriya on the fifth anniversary of his death. (Photo by Niranjani Roland)
Prabha Manorathna, a lecturer at the University of Kelaniya, said Father Balasuriya always looked at social issues from a holistic perspective.
"In his book Planetary Theology, he says that due to the enormous influence of western nations on the thinking of almost all the people of the world today, there has been a tendency to see history from the western point of view. It is taken for granted that they have developed the world, and the poor countries are on the road to development," said Manorathna, a Buddhist.
Manorathna said Father Balasuriya always looked at issues with a long-term vision.
Oblate Father Ashok Stephen, director of the Center for Society and Religion, said the organisation was promoting the vision of Father Balasuriya.
"We translated Planetary Theology to Sinhala and formed a fund to translate his other books for local readers," said Father Stephen, a human rights defender.
"We are about to organize an annual debate on social issues for oblate seminarians and will give a trophy featuring Father Balasuriya."
Ruki Fernando said the Centre for Society and Religion should work on current issues of political prisoners, war disappeared, commemoration of war victims, feminism, abortion, rights of transgender community, economic and cultural rights.