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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Francis begins his apostolic trip to Sri Lanka

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.

Interreligious meeting: religious beliefs must never be abused in the cause of violence and war

Vatican City, 13 January 2015 (VIS) – The second stage of Pope Francis' apostolic trip to Sri Lanka was his visit to the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall) in Colombo, where he participated in a meeting with representatives of other religious confessions.

The main religious groups in the country are Buddhism (70% of the population), Hinduism (12.6%), Islam (9.7%) and Catholicism (7.16%). From a chronological perspective, Hinduism was the predominant belief on the island until the arrival of Buddhist missionaries in the third century B.C.; currently its followers are concentrated geographically in the north and east of the country, and the majority belong to the Tamil ethnic group. Theravada Buddhism reached the island in around 246 B.C., and was declared the official religion around 200 B.C.; from the mid-nineteenth century onwards it enjoyed a revival linked to national movements. Islam spread from the fifteenth century, brought by Arab merchants who controlled the South Indian Ocean trade routes, until the arrival of Franciscan missionaries along with the Portuguese. According to tradition St. Thomas arrived on the island in the first century after crossing Kerala in southern India. However, the earliest documentation of Christianity on the island dates from 1322, when the Franciscan Odorico da Pordenone stayed briefly, and then from 1517 onwards, with the arrival of Franciscan missionaries.

Around one thousand representatives of the various religious communities (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and various Christian confessions) awaited Pope Francis in the Great Hall of the BMICH. The meeting began with the Buddhist chant “Pirith”, followed by a Hindu blessing, a Muslim blessing and a prayer by the ecumenical group.

Following a speech by the Buddhist monk Vigithasiri Niyangoda Thero, the Holy Father gave an address in which he affirmed the Church's profound and lasting respect for other religions, and reiterated that, for the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be abused to justify violence and war.

“I have come to Sri Lanka in the footsteps of my predecessors Popes Paul VI and John Paul II to demonstrate the great love and concern which the Catholic Church has for Sri Lanka. It is a particular grace for me to visit the Catholic community here, to confirm them in their Christian faith, to pray with them and to share their joys and sufferings. It is equally a grace to be with all of you, men and women of these great religious traditions, who share with us a desire for wisdom, truth and holiness.

“At Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church declared her deep and abiding respect for other religions. She stated that she 'rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for their manner of life and conduct, their precepts and doctrines'. For my part, I wish to reaffirm the Church’s sincere respect for you, your traditions and beliefs”.

He continued, “It is in this spirit of respect that the Catholic Church desires to cooperate with you, and with all people of good will, in seeking the welfare of all Sri Lankans. I hope that my visit will help to encourage and deepen the various forms of interreligious and ecumenical cooperation which have been undertaken in recent years.

“These praiseworthy initiatives have provided opportunities for dialogue, which is essential if we are to know, understand and respect one another. But, as experience has shown, for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions. Certainly, such dialogue will accentuate how varied our beliefs, traditions and practices are. But if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common. New avenues will be opened for mutual esteem, cooperation and indeed friendship.

“Such positive developments in interreligious and ecumenical relations take on a particular significance and urgency in Sri Lanka. For too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence. What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division. Surely the fostering of healing and unity is a noble task which is incumbent upon all who have at heart the good of the nation, and indeed the whole human family. It is my hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters.

“How many ways there are for the followers of the different religions to carry out this service! How many are the needs that must be tended to with the healing balm of fraternal solidarity! I think in particular of the material and spiritual needs of the poor, the destitute, those who yearn for a word of consolation and hope. Here I think too of the many families who continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones.

“Above all, at this moment of your nation’s history, how many people of good will are seeking to rebuild the moral foundations of society as a whole? May the growing spirit of cooperation between the leaders of the various religious communities find expression in a commitment to put reconciliation among all Sri Lankans at the heart of every effort to renew society and its institutions. For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.

“Dear friends”, concluded the Pope, “I thank you once again for your generous welcome and your attention. May this fraternal encounter confirm all of us in our efforts to live in harmony and to spread the blessings of peace”.

Pope's greetings to the presidents of Doctrinal Commissions of the European Episcopal Conferences

Vatican City, 13 January 2015 (VIS) – The Holy Father has sent a message to greet the participants in the meeting of the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the European Episcopal Conferences with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Esztergom, “the religious heart of Hungary”. The text was read this morning, during the opening session of the meeting, which will be held from 13 to 15 January.

“I thank Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for this timely initiative that emphasises the importance of the local Episcopates, and in particular the Doctrinal Commissions, in their responsibility for the unity and integrity of the faith as well as its transmission to the younger generations. As I wrote in my Apostolic Exhortation 'Evangelii Gaudium', resuming the teaching of the dogmatic Constitution 'Lumen Gentium' of Vatican Council II, 'Episcopal conferences are in a position to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realisation of the collegial spirit'. I hope that your meeting will contribute to enabling a collegial approach to various doctrinal and pastoral difficulties that present themselves in Europe today, with the aim of inspiring in the faithful a new missionary zeal and greater openness to the transcendent dimension of life, without which Europe risks losing the very 'humanistic spirit' that it loves and defends.

“I commend your works to the maternal intercession of the Virgin Mary, model for every believer, and impart my heartfelt blessing”.
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