Vatican City, 13 January 2015 (VIS) – This morning Pope Francis began his visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the seventh apostolic trip of his papacy. Like his predecessor St. John Paul II, he will visit the two Asian countries with the greatest number of Catholics in a single trip. The visit to Sri Lanka will last for two days and will include an interreligious meeting, the canonisation of Joseph Vaz and a Marian prayer at the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu. During his three-day visit to the Philippines the Holy Father will meet, among others, victims of the typhoon Yolanda. The last day of his trip will coincide with the feast day of the Holy Child of Cebu in the Philippines, whose shrine receives millions of pilgrims.
The Holy Father, who left from Rome's Fiumicino airport at 6.50 p.m. yesterday evening, and arrived in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, at 9 a.m. today, local time, where he was received by representatives of the religious and civil authorities including the apostolic nuncio of Sri Lanka, Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Tot, and the president of the country, Maithripala Sirisena. Two young girls offered him a floral garland and he was welcomed with hymns sung by a choir and greetings from around two thousand children.
The welcome ceremony took place at the same airport, and following the president's speech, the Pope addressed those present.
“My visit to Sri Lanka is primarily pastoral”, he began. “As the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, I have come to meet, encourage and pray with the Catholic people of this island. A highlight of this visit will be the canonisation of Blessed Joseph Vaz, whose example of Christian charity and respect for all people, regardless of ethnicity or religion, continues to inspire and teach us today. But my visit is also meant to express the Church’s love and concern for all Sri Lankans, and to confirm the desire of the Catholic community to be an active participant in the life of this society.
“It is a continuing tragedy in our world that so many communities are at war between themselves. The inability to reconcile differences and disagreements, whether old or new, has given rise to ethnic and religious tensions, frequently accompanied by outbreaks of violence. Sri Lanka for many years knew the horrors of civil strife, and is now seeking to consolidate peace and to heal the scars of those years. It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustice, hostility and mistrust left by the conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace. The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.
“Dear friends, I am convinced that the followers of the various religious traditions have an essential role to play in the delicate process of reconciliation and rebuilding which is taking place in this country. For that process to succeed, all members of society must work together; all must have a voice. All must be free to express their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and their fears. Most importantly, they must be prepared to accept one another, to respect legitimate diversities, and learn to live as one family. Whenever people listen to one another humbly and openly, their shared values and aspirations become all the more apparent. Diversity is no longer seen as a threat, but as a source of enrichment. The path to justice, reconciliation and social harmony becomes all the more clearly seen.
“In this sense, the great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society. It is my hope that Sri Lanka’s political, religious and cultural leaders, by measuring their every word and action by the good and the healing it will bring, will make a lasting contribution to the material and spiritual progress of the Sri Lankan people”. The Pontiff concluded, “Mr President, dear friends, I thank you once again for your welcome. May these days we spend together be days of friendship, dialogue and solidarity. I invoke an abundance of God’s blessings upon Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and I pray that its beauty may shine forth in the prosperity and peace of all its people”.
Following his address, the Holy Father made the 28-kilometre journey from the airport to the apostolic nunciature in Colombo by car. The transfer took longer than expected due to the large number of faithful who greeted the Pope as he passed. He therefore cancelled the scheduled visit to the archbishop's residence to meet with the twenty bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Sri Lanka, whom he encountered recently in the Vatican. Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin attended as the Pope's envoy.
Upon arrival at the archbishop's residence, Pope Francis lunched privately, after which he transferred by car to the presidential residence in Colombo to pay a courtesy visit to President Maithripala Sirisena, with whom he had a private discussion. The president subsequently accompanied the pontiff to the great hall where there was a presentation by the State authorities and dignitaries, and a short ceremony for the issue of commemorative stamps.