Vatican City, 14 January 2015 (VIS) – This Wednesday the Holy Father made the 250-kilometre journey by helicopter from Colombo to the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, the second stage of his trip in Sri Lanka. The shrine is located in the north of the Island inhabited predominantly by the Tamil people, and has a four-century-long history. In 1544 some Christians escaped from the massacres ordered by the King of Jaffna, who feared the expansion of Portuguese influence, and sought refuge in the jungle, where they built a rudimentary place for prayer with the statue that is now located inside the shrine. In 1583 some Christians, again fleeing from Mannar, began to build churches in nearby areas. One of these, in Mantai, subsequently became the first “home” of the statue of Our Lady of Madhu. Following the persecution of Catholics by the Dutch, who arrived in Ceylon in 1656, thirty Catholic families seeking refuge journeyed from village to village, taking the statue with them. In 1670 they settled in Maruthamadhu, where the shrine is now located. They were later joined by other Catholics of Portuguese origin, who built the first small church dedicated to Our Lady of Madhu.
The Virgin of Madhu, protectress against snakebites, became well-known throughout the island and, with the arrival of St. Joseph Vaz in 1987, Catholicism began to flourish and Madhu transformed into a missionary centre. The construction of the current building began in 1872, and the papal legate crowned the statue in 1924 on behalf of Pope Pius XI. The church was consecrated in 1944. The Marian shrine is a place of prayer that is well-respected and frequented by Catholic faithful and followers of other religions; nevertheless, it was affected by fighting between Tamil rebels and government forces. The bishops of Sri Lanka managed to ensure that the shrine became a demilitarised zone, to guarantee the safety of pilgrims and the many refugees who fled there in search of safety during the war. Indeed, since 1990 the 160 hectares of land around the shrine have provided a safe haven to thousands of displaced persons, becoming a refugee camp recognised by both parties in the conflict. In April 2008 the shrine passed once more to the diocese of Mannar and reopened as a place of worship in December 2010.
More than half a million people awaited the Pope, and prayed with him for the consolidation of the peace reached in 2009 following a conflict that had lasted over three decades. Both Tamil and Sinhalese families, who suffered greatly as a result of the hostilities, were present.
“We are in our Mother’s house”, Francis began. “Here she welcomes us into her home. At this shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, every pilgrim can feel at home, for here Mary brings us into the presence of her Son Jesus. Here Sri Lankans, Tamil and Sinhalese alike, come as members of one family. To Mary they commend their joys and sorrows, their hopes and needs. Here, in her home, they feel safe. They know that God is very near; they feel his love; they know the tender mercy of God.
“There are families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka. Many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years. No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place, or the sad day when the venerable statue of Mary, dating to the arrival of the earliest Christians in Sri Lanka, was taken away from her shrine.
“But Our Lady remained always with you. She is the mother of every home, of every wounded family, of all who are seeking to return to a peaceful existence. Today we thank her for protecting the people of Sri Lanka from so many dangers, past and present. Mary never forgot her children on this resplendent island. Just as she never left the side of her Son on the Cross, so she never left the side of her suffering Sri Lankan children.
“Today we want to thank Our Lady for that presence. In the wake of so much hatred, violence and destruction, we want to thank her for continuing to bring us Jesus, who alone has the power to heal open wounds and to restore peace to broken hearts. But we also want to ask her to implore for us the grace of God’s mercy. We ask also for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known.
“It is not easy to do this”, acknowledged the Holy Father. “Yet only when we come to understand, in the light of the Cross, the evil we are capable of, and have even been a part of, can we experience true remorse and true repentance. Only then can we receive the grace to approach one another in true contrition, offering and seeking true forgiveness. In this difficult effort to forgive and find peace, Mary is always here to encourage us, to guide us, to lead us. Just as she forgave her Son’s killers at the foot of his Cross, then held his lifeless body in her hands, so now she wants to guide Sri Lankans to greater reconciliation, so that the balm of God’s pardon and mercy may bring true healing to all”.
Finally, he added, “we want to ask Mother Mary to accompany with her prayers the efforts of Sri Lankans from both Tamil and Sinhalese communities to rebuild the unity which was lost. Just as her statue came back to her shrine of Madhu after the war, so we pray that all her Sri Lankan sons and daughters may now come home to God in a renewed spirit of reconciliation and fellowship”.
“Dear brothers and sisters”, he concluded, “I am happy to be with you in Mary’s house. Let us pray for one another. Above all, let us ask that this shrine may always be a house of prayer and a haven of peace. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Madhu, may all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land. Amen”.
Following the Lord's Prayer and after blessing the assembly with the image of Our Lady of Madhu, the Pope returned by Popemobile to the Madhu heliport, a journey of one and a half kilometres, greeting the crowds of faithful along the way. He then returned to Colombo.