ROME — By the end of this week, headlines about Pope Francis’s Jan. 12-19 trip to Asia, the second since his election, are likely to focus mostly on the Philippines, if for no other reason than the massive and adoring crowds he’s likely to draw in one of the most intensely Catholic cultures on earth.
Yet the trip actually begins in Sri Lanka, where Francis arrives early Tuesday morning (late Monday on the East Coast of the United States), and it’s entirely possible that of the two nations he’s visiting, it’s the place where he has the chance to do the most good.
A surprising outcome to the recent presidential election, in which a long-shot challenger unseated a seemingly invincible incumbent, have Sri Lankans feeling like they’re at a crossroads, with the possibility of either making significant progress toward reconciliation or falling back into chaos.
Given his already impressive track record as a political and diplomatic game-changer, Francis thus has a chance to nudge the country toward continued peace.
Although Sri Lanka is no larger than Sicily, it plays a pivotal role in Asia. It’s located off the coast of India, but has increasingly close economic and political ties with China, and is often seen as a bellwether for broader trends on the continent.
Its population of 20 million is divided among a majority Buddhist Sinhalese population and a Tamil minority, made up of Hindus and Muslims. Catholics are only about 7 percent, but they occupy a unique niche since it’s the only faith with a sizable following among both Sinhalese and Tamils.
Sri Lanka endured a grisly 30-year civil war that began in 1983 with an insurgency led by the “Tamil Tigers,” a group that was originally a grassroots military force reflecting what many saw as legitimate grievances from the Tamil minority, concentrated in the country’s north, but which over time morphed into a fairly brutal terrorist organization.
The war ended in 2009 after the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa abandoned efforts at dialogue and instead launched an all-out military offensive.
On Wednesday, Francis will travel to the north of Sri Lanka to visit a famed Marian shrine located in a former battle zone, where a 450-year-old statue of the Virgin is believed to have miraculous powers, including the ability to protect people from poisonous snakes in the nearby jungle.
The sanctuary was hit with artillery during the fighting, killing 38 people who had taken refuge there, including 13 children, and for a brief period in 2008 the statue had to be smuggled out to keep it safe.
Although Rajapaksa won the war, critics say he never won the peace. They accused him of failing to promote development for Tamils in the northern regions, and also of becoming increasingly authoritarian and isolated.
Given that background, the fact that Francis is not remaining in the capital city of Colombo but making a point of traveling to the north, despite being in the country just 48 hours, is seen by many Sri Lankans as a call on the government to step up its efforts at outreach.
Last Thursday, Sri Lankans seemed to surprise even themselves by rolling the dice on change, rejecting Rajapaksa’s bid for a third term and embracing challenger Maithripala Sirisena.
(Interestingly, this is the third time a pope has visited Sri Lanka, after Paul VI in 1970 and John Paul II in 1995, and the third time that a pope’s arrival has coincided with a change of government. The moral of the story would seem to be that if you’re an incumbent Sri Lankan president, you might want to keep the pope as far away as possible.)
Sirisena, who until recently was a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, is also a Sinhalese Buddhist, but he made the Tamil minority a cornerstone of his electoral base. He also called for an end to the growing cult of personality around the presidency.
“What our country needs is not a king, but a real human being,” he said.
Over the weekend, the new government announced that access to media sites that had been blocked by Rajapaksa will be restored, and also proclaimed an end to surveillance of political dissidents.
Sri Lankans seem happy with themselves for taking a chance, but also nervous about how it might play out.
“We needed change,” said Palitha Rodrigo, a Sinhalese Catholic and construction engineer who made his way to the Marian shrine in Madhu for the pope’s visit. “We don’t want to have fighting in Sri Lanka.”
The sense that things still might erupt was stoked by rumors that Rajapaksa tried to deploy army and police forces to thwart the results of the election, something the army has denied.
More broadly, there’s fear that Sirisena’s unwieldy electoral coalition, which ranges from hardline Buddhist nationalists who deny that thousands of Tamil civilians died in the final bombing campaigns of the war to a former president who once apologized for historical mistreatment of Tamils, may prove unstable and plunge the country back into chaos.
In that context, a successful papal visit — especially one in which Francis uses his popularity and media platform to compliment Sri Lanka for embracing democracy and tolerance — could provide a badly needed shot in the arm, helping assure the country that its new experiment can work.
Francis may also be able to encourage Sri Lanka’s Catholics to step up, playing the role of bridge-builders that their unique ethnic makeup affords them.
In a country often defined by its ethnic divide, Catholicism offers an intriguing counter-example. Seminarians are required to be fluent in both Sinhala and Tamil. The country has 13 minor seminaries but just one major seminary, in part so future Sinhalese and Tamil priests can be formed together and develop friendships.
Most parishes offer Mass in both languages, and observers say congregations are generally mixed between members of both groups.
It also helps that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo is a respected national figure, a source of pride as the first Sri Lankan ever to serve as a papal nuncio, or ambassador, and then as a senior aide to Pope Benedict XVI.
Catholics in Sri Lanka also have a long history of being willing to make sacrifices, a point Francis will underscore on Tuesday morning when he canonizes Blessed Joseph Vaz, a 17th and 18th century missionary priest from Goa, India, who helped rebuild a Catholic presence in Sri Lanka at a time of intense persecution by Dutch Calvinist occupiers.
Among other things, Vaz encouraged an active role for the laity in an era in which it was difficult for priests to operate freely. Francis is also passionate about the lay role, and it may be especially important right now in terms of the contributions lay Catholics can make to Sri Lanka’s new political and social gamble.
(As a footnote, Vaz is another case in which Francis has dispensed with the requirement for a second miracle before declaring someone a saint, known as an “equipollent” canonization.)
Given all that’s at stake, Sri Lanka is by no means merely a warm-up act. The crowds may be bigger in the Philippines, but in terms of the importance of the pontiff’s mission, Sri Lanka is very much a main event.