MUMBAI, India – A Sri Lankan still dreams about the blasts that killed more than 250 people on Easter Sunday in the South Asian country.
Claretian Father Joy Mariaratnam was celebrating the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine in the Kochchikade suburb of Colombo when the bombs went off.
He remembered the explosion happened during the fourth prayer of the faithful, which was for pilgrims and citizens.
“My first thoughts were that the transformer had gone off, or there was an electrical failure. But I then saw a head fly from one side of the shrine to the other and I knew it was a bomb blast,” he told Crux.
“For about a minute, I stood immobile, but soon realized the gravity of the bomb blasts. The huge glass panes, on the left and right, crashed to bits, but I was unhurt, not a drop of blood stained my vestments,” Mariaratnam continued.
“I rushed down the aisle to help, still vested, there were bodies everywhere, I saw legs and arms, and also a body without legs and arms. There was so much bloodied flesh all over. Together with our people, I pulled out bodies and with bloodstained hands, helped survivors, who were taken to hospital. I was very calm as I attended to the victims and also to the dead, but I was filled with a righteous anger: These were the people to whom I had spoken before Mass; they were so happy, filled with hope and joy on Easter Sunday, and now there were no more. In an instant, their innocent lives were snuffed off,” the priest said.
The Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were carried out by seven suicide bombers, while two other suicide bombers died triggering blasts, one to avoid capture by the police and another at an inn where he was staying. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
St. Sebastian’s Church in the mostly Catholic town of Negombo was also targeted, along with the evangelical Zion Church in the coastal town of Batticaloa. Three hotels were also hit: the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury Colombo, and the Cinnamon Grand Colombo.
(Coincidentally, Mariaratnam is the parish priest at a different St. Sebastian’s Church, which is located just under 3 miles from St. Anthony’s, where he celebrates Mass daily.)
The explosions collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.
Mariaratnam noted the shrine’s statue of St. Anthony was just 12-13 feet away from the blast, but escaped unscathed, “completely untouched, and safe.” However, he did discover a bloody piece of flesh on the statue the day after the attack.
The priest minced no words about the bombing, calling it “a work of evil; a diabolical act.”
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, visited the shrine on May 22 to mark the one-month commemoration of the April 21 blasts.
“What happened on Easter Sunday was not only an act against a few people or a religion, it was an act against the people of Sri Lanka,” the cardinal said.
He also noted the special place St. Anthony’s occupies in the life of Sri Lanka, since it is visited by not only Christians, but also Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
“It is open to everybody who would like to come here to find the open arms of Jesus, or the blessing of St. Anthony, and a moment of peace for their soul, their mind, their problems, their defeats,” Filoni said.
Now that the shrine has been partially reopened, Mariaratnam said he has witnessed “an intense thirst” for faith among the people.
“These bombs have rekindled in their hearts a desire for Jesus Christ,” he told Crux.
He also said “our Muslim friends” participated in the prayer service that reopened the shrine, and one told him: “We do not want those who perpetrated these bomb blasts to be at peace. We will neither name them or pray for them.”
The priest said he responded by saying that the Catholics would pray “for all those involved in these attacks.”
Mariaratnam lamented the fact the attacks hurt relations between Catholics and Muslims: There were several examples of anti-Muslim incidents in the aftermath of the bombings.
“The Christian community is shaken and confused; they are asking: Why were we targeted?” he said.
The priest also said members of the Church worried about their freedom of worship, since Mass was cancelled for two weeks after the blasts due to security concerns.
“You cannot even imagine the anguish and agony of our people,” he said, adding that “even last night I dreamt about the blasts.”
“I told our people God has a message. I was saved, and 1,200 people in the shrine were saved, because those who died were the ‘shield of God’; martyrs who died to save the rest of the people and give them a second chance to live,” the priest said. “We are now called to be messengers of reconciliation and forgiveness.”
Mariaratnam said that a month after the bomb blasts, the effect has been that “it has united the whole Church of Sri Lanka,” adding that this “is a source of joy for us Christians.”
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