January 2013


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Wit and Wisdom of Our Guru, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya

Dr. Leonard Pinto

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya
(Photo by the Sri Lankan Guardian )

We are saddened by the death of our dear Fr. Tissa Balasuriya at the age of 89. We are equally happy to celebrate his successful, colorful and controversial life. He was a brilliant intellectual from his youth. Born at remote Kahatagasdigiliya, he graduated from the University of Ceylon in Economics, winning the prestigious Khan Gold Medal. In 1949, he was ordained a Catholic priest in Rome. He further studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, agricultural economics at Oxford and social economics at the University of Paris. On his return, he assisted the illustrious Fr. Peter Pillai as the registrar of Aquinas University College and became its rector in 1964 after the death of Fr. Pillai. He broadened the scope of programs at Aquinas and introduced courses in technology, business law, agriculture and religious studies. In 1971, he left Aquinas and founded the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in the Colombo suburb of Maradana.

True intellectual that he was, he opened the boundaries between secular socio-economics and sacred theology in his intellectual pursuits and in their application to society, reiterating what Pope John Paul II wrote: “Every truth, if it is really truth, presents itself as universal, even if it is not the whole truth. If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times.” (Faith and Reason) He knew that religion is a superstructure on society and that religion and society interacted with each other, sometimes providing emancipation to individuals and other times providing tools for social, political and economic exploitation. As a student of economics and philosophy, he knew the Marxist accusation that “religion is the opium of the masses” where people are deceived by petty emotional benefits while religion and the State supported the powerful exploiters and benefited in return. He questioned the established norms and attempted to develop an Asian theology that addressed Christianity in the context of the political, economic and social realities of Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka. He attempted to bring peace during the insurrection of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramu (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front. He tried to bring the Church in Sri Lanka closer to the Buddhist majority and other denominations and identified himself with the poor, marginalized and downtrodden in his writings and projects. For his straightforward and non-traditional approach, he received bashing both from the State and the Church.

True spiritual man that he was, he had no ecclesiastical, political or financial ambitions. He had no interest in developing a personality cult. His spirituality was not in magical tongues and faith healing where crowds clap and shout or in converting people by offering them money and gifts, but it was rather in quiet reflection, discussion and actions to bring into fruition truth, justice, love and peace through faith in Jesus that prevailed in the early Christian community. His Christianity was a living Christianity where Christian values were visible in life. His book Mary and Human Liberation was an attempt to demythologize sentimentalism around Mary and to present her as an enduring and courageous model for Sri Lankan women in their tribulations and difficulties. He was a humble man; for when the Church found error in his perceptions (not in doctrine), he was willing to withdraw them, saying that was not what he meant. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) in one of its Sunday Compass programs praised him as the only Catholic priest who had returned to the Church after an excommunication. He was a true Catholic priest— honest to God, honest to himself and loyal to the Church till the end.

I was fortunate to be one of his students in the Religious Formation Course at Aquinas from 1966 to 1967, listening to his lectures on the early Christian community where Basil Fernando, former executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong who vehemently champions the press and judicial freedom and human rights in Sri Lanka, and many Catholic sisters and brothers who later became provincials, rectors, superiors and principals of schools were present. Fr. Balasuriya’s lectures were teeming with dynamic Christian concepts in Greek, such as metanoia (repentance), maranatha (Lord with us), agape (the selfless love of humanity as revealed in Jesus) and eschatology (final events in history and mankind). He kept on harping on the inner change that one must strive to achieve by thirsting for truth and being cut to the heart (Acts 2:27). He emphasized the importance of teaching and preaching the truth in this inner conversion rather than the external rituals of baptism (1 Cor. 1:17). As Jesus did, he spurned the external show in worship as “whitened sepulchers” (Matt. 23:25–27), worrying about other people’s faults and their non-observance of the Law as domination and oppression (Matt. 7:1–5, Matt. 23:1–22, Mark 2: 23–27), the high priority given to business in religion as turning the house of prayer into a den of thieves (Matt. 21:12–13) and using religion to achieve political agendas as unfortunate (Matt. 26:3–5, John 11:49–53).

He was humorous in his lectures when he paraphrased the disagreement between Peter and Paul at Antioch in imposing Jewish customs on Gentiles given in the Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2:11–14) as “Paul telling Peter to the face” (munatama kiuva). Referring to Peter opening his mouth and speaking in his sermon (Acts 10:34), Fr. Balasuriya emphasized the importance of opening the mouth before speaking (kata arala katha karanda). These comments were out of context of the serious subject matter he was expounding but kept the students awake. On another day, we were having a practical class on ancient civilizations conducted by an Irish nun, Mother Joseph. Four groups had presented projects on Indian, Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian cultures and two sisters were performing an Assyrian dance with veils when Fr. Tissa happened to pass by his way to the office. Seeing this dance, he stopped for a while, and, as the sisters left the stage, he came to the stage, used his handkerchief as a veil and attempted to imitate the Assyrian dancers. We spent the rest of the day laughing at the dance performed by the rector of Aquinas!

Knowing him as our guru, it was obvious that he had no malice when he wrote Mary and Human Liberation, tried to facilitate an unsuccessful peace agreement with the JVP’s Chandrasiri Senanayeke and the government’s Lalith Athulathmudali or when he went about in civvies and a state-run newspaper tried to defrock him in an editorial.

He was an intellectual who expressed his views irrespective of the consequences as Socrates did. He was a man of a future era, misunderstood in the present for his non-conformity as many great men of the world had endured. He was a courageous man, not afraid to express what he thought was correct. He did not lick the sandals of political or ecclesiastical powers to have a comfortable career. He was a man of ethics as defined by Wittgenstein that right and wrong are determined by our sincere intention rather than what we pretend to do as right. He was a strong follower of Jesus as he followed him in championing social justice.

May he receive his heavenly reward and meet the Divine Master in joy for a life fruitfully spent.