Sri Lanka: A town stands as a witness to the Resurrection after persecution

Thousands of faithful signed a petition addressed to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, asking that he open a cause for the beatification of the 171 Catholics who were murdered five years ago.

On 21 April 2019, the town of Kutuwapitiya, in Sri Lanka, saw a joyful Easter Sunday Celebration turn into a scene of unimaginable horror. An explosion completely destroyed the Church of St Sebastian, claiming the lives of 115 people, including 27 children. This tragedy was one of eight coordinated attacks carried out by seven terrorists in different parts of the country, which resulted in the deaths of 264 people and left over 500 wounded.

Common Funeral Service for Easter Sunday Victims at St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo (Sri Lanka)
Common Funeral Service for Easter Sunday Victims at St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo (Sri Lanka)

Devanjalie Marista Fernando is a young survivor of this attack. She spoke to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the terrible events that scarred her for life. “I went to the church with my mother. I sat at the back, under the fan, so that I could get a bit more air, since the church was full. My mother, however, sat further ahead. We received communion, then we heard a very loud explosion and I saw a ball of fire. Then, the roof began to fall. I covered my head with my arms and ran out of the church, where I found my father. I was in shock. My father asked me where mother was, and I raced back into the church where I found her injured and dying among the benches.”

Father Gregory Vajira Silva, a Third Order Franciscan, also recalls those terrible moments. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were bodies everywhere. Everything happened so quickly, unexpectedly, and brutally.”

Katuwapitiya, which is known as “Little Rome” because of its high Catholic population and numerous religious monuments, went into mourning and turned into one large pain-filled funeral home. The community, which was used to having one or two burials a month, suddenly had to commit over 100 people to the earth, all from a single parish. “We didn’t have enough space to bury them, so the owner of the local cemetery donated a plot of land”, Father Silva explains.

Sri Lanka, Negombo. Holy Mass at St Sebastian Church, Katuwapitiya.
Sri Lanka, Negombo. Holy Mass at St Sebastian Church, Katuwapitiya.

The attacker’s betrayal left a deep wound. “The man who did this to us lived here for three months, like just another villager. He lived among them. People believed and trusted in him; they treated him like a brother. But he simply betrayed the love they had shown him” says the Franciscan priest. This act of violence has uncovered “an ideology” that threatens the very fabric of society.

After the attack, the churches in Katywapitiya were closed for security reasons, but the faithful kept calling, again and again, to ask about Mass times. Father Silva and others began to celebrate in people’s homes, like the Christians during the Early Church, stressing the importance of faith in times of persecution. “We realised that we have no life without the Eucharist”, he tells ACN.

This act of violence left the community deeply traumatised. The priest also felt this terrible wound in the loss of his parishioners. “Many people lost family members. As a priest, I also lost people whom I knew and loved. We need a great miracle of healing. Everyone was affected.”

Helping the families struggle through their pain became the most important mission for the Church. “We decided to walk beside them”, Father Silva explains, “we didn’t preach at that time, we were simply there for them, and they could feel it. We helped them, listened to them, cried with them, shared what they were experiencing at that time”. Each priest was assigned a group of families, to whom he would offer emotional and practical support.

Holy mass at the St. Sebastian's Church, Katuwapitiya, Negombo. Three months since a suicide bomber killed close to 100 people on Easter Sunday
Holy mass at the St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, Negombo. Three months since a suicide bomber killed close to 100 people on Easter Sunday

Father Silva has no doubt that the victims of that Easter Sunday are martyrs, since they died on that fateful day because of their decision to be in Church, to proclaim their faith in Christ and in the Resurrection. And he is not alone. On the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack, the community of the Archdiocese of Colombo delivered a petition to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, signed by thousands of the faithful, asking that he open a cause for the beatification of the 171 Catholic faithful killed that day.

Though the scars of that Easter Sunday remain, Katuwapitiya, the Catholic town in Sri Lanka, stands out as a living witness to hope in eternal life. Father Silva felt his faith severely shaken and tested. He recalls kneeling by the altar, looking for answers for the suffering he saw. In that moment of despair, a sign from above brought him comfort: Upon the blood-splattered altar lay the missal, unsullied except for a drop of blood that had come to rest just above a sentence which, evoking the words of Christ, spoke of consolation and hope to those who are nourished by the sacraments, with the promise of eternal life and resurrection.

 

By María Lozano.

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