Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 7, 2019 / 04:00 am (CNA).- As Fr. Eranga De-Silva finished celebrating Easter Sunday Mass at his parish in Sri Lanka, he noticed policemen guarding the three entrances to the church.
He was celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass, and had just given the final blessing at Our Lady of Lourdes, the parish where De-Silva is a parochial vicar, when his pastor approached the altar, and whispered to him that he had “sad news.”
De-Silva’s pastor, who had just come from celebrating Mass at a different parish, then took to the pulpit, interrupting the final hymn.
The pastor announced the news to the congregation: bombs had been detonated at two different Catholic Churches, St. Sebastian’s in Negombo and St. Anthony’s in Colombo. Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Raddolugama, where De-Silva was finishing Mass, is just nine miles to the south of Negombo.
“People had no clue and were instructed to move quickly to their residences safely,” De-Silva told CNA. “Then the police asked (us) to close all the gates of the church. All were wondering what was happening and what (they) were to do.”
Around noon, De-Silva decided to head to Colombo to offer his assistance as a priest, despite the risk to his safety. He heard several more blasts by the time he reached the city, he told CNA.
The next day, he headed to Negombo, where priests were needed for help with prayer services and burials. “I saw hundreds of priests gathering, despite the prevailing risk, to help the flock,” he said.
Fr. Sachitra Perera was another priest who rushed toward danger after he heard of the attacks. He was heading to visit his parents on Easter when another priest told him of the bombs.
“My parish priest Fr. Manjula Fernando called me and said that there had been a blast so let’s rush to Katuwapitiya (St. Sebastian’s in Negombo),” he told CNA. It was about 8:45 on Easter morning.
When the priests arrived, they couldn’t believe what they saw, Perera said.
“Bodies were everywhere. People were dumbfounded, scared. Police had rushed to the place…I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. “(I) felt so sad and for a while I felt numb and speechless.” Perera said he helped clear paths for ambulances and emergency workers to reach the victims. He said he knew one family personally who lost their father, mother, and youngest son in the attacks. The two older children were away in Japan.
The family were faithful, daily Mass goers, Perera said. “And this son who died is very innocent, always with a bright smile. Even though he (was in 10th grade), he is so loving and innocent.”
De-Silva said that while he didn’t know any of the people who were injured or killed, he had heard of a family in which the father and his youngest daughter, Fathima Azla, were Muslim, while the mother and eldest sibling were Catholic.
“Although Fathima Azla was not baptized, she used to come for the Sunday Mass. Prior to this Easter, she had seen Jesus and some angels in dreams, and once very recently she had told the family members that she saw Jesus sprinkling some water on her,” De-Silva recalled. “Her mother has told her may be Jesus wants her to be baptized…and she had drawn some pictures of Jesus. However, Fathima Azla was one of the innocent victims of the terror attack.”
An evangelical church, three hotels, and a private residence were also struck by suicide bombers during the Easter attacks.
Both priests said the attacks have rocked a country that was just getting used to peaceful times, after war and terrorism reigned in the country from 1983 to 2009.
Sri Lanka is a majority-Buddhist country; the small minority of Christians in the country (fewer that 8%) are mostly Catholics. Roughly 10% of the population are Muslims.
It used to be that people saw churches as a place of refuge, Perera said.
“This is a major blow,” he said. “When something happens, people run to the church. In 2004 when the tsunami struck, they ran to church for safety. But now…”
“As a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country Sri Lankans could be identified as a relatively rich country. It is well known for hospitality,” De-Silva said.
“But, after these attacks, there is an unnecessary tension. After that day full of surprises, people today are full of (suspicion). The friendly way of approaching has faded away for the past two weeks. I hope this will end soon,” he added.
Perera said that he wanted to credit Catholics in the country for their peaceful and faithful response to the attacks amidst so much tragedy.
“I must appreciate our faithful,” he said. “Sometimes as pastors we think people are not practicing what they believe, but this is a good example to show how strong we are because no one reacted to the Muslim community with violence.”
“I visited few houses of the affected people, they still have deep faith but they are in trauma. They have not lost their faith,” he noted.
Still, “the fear and uncertainty will slowly fade away but the scars will remain,” he added.
On May 5, for the second weekend in a row, Sri Lankan Catholics stayed in their homes and watched Mass on T.V. instead of going to church, due to ongoing security threats.
Although public schools in the country reopened after the attacks as of May 6, Catholic schools will remain closed until at least May 13. The risk, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith decided, is still too great.
De-Silva said he is not sure when churches will reopen for public Masses, but he and Perera both said they support Cardinal Ranjith’s decisions. Ranjith is the Archbishop of Colombo, and has been thrust into the spotlight as the leader of the Catholic Church in the country since the attacks.
Only on Monday, May 6, did the police chief of Sri Lanka announce that all suspects linked to the bombings were either arrested or dead, according to Reuters, which could effect whether or not Catholic churches open for Mass next weekend.
“It is said, ‘once bitten, twice shy.’ So I totally agree with my shepherd Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who officially announced about not having Sunday Masses in our parishes in the Archdiocese,” De-Silva said. “His Eminence postponed the starting date of Catholuc Schools till May 13. Again, in my opinion, a very brave and a great idea.”
“The way he led his flock and the way he instructed us was amazing,” De-Silva added about the leadership of Cardinal Ranjith. “Buddhists appreciate his approach and all are amazed with the grace shared by his thoughts. May God continue to guide us through him.”
De-Silva, while a priest of Sri Lanka, has United States ties. He and several other priests from Sri Lanka spent several years studying in U.S. seminaries, through a partnership with the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, where they were affectionately called the “Sri-Lincolns.”
De-Silva said he was grateful for Bishop Emeritus Fabian Bruskewitz, who started the program, and was touched to hear from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, who called each of the “Sri-Lincoln” priests to check on them after the attacks.
“Thanks for all who called and checked how we were doing,” he said. “I know that there are many still praying so hard. Please continue!”
Besides prayer, De-Silva asked that Catholics not forget what happened in the Easter attacks.
“Please do not forget what happened. We, as humans have the tendency to forget things easily. But (we’ll) not forget, especially for the sake of our future. Most of all – pray!”