Jan 13, 2015 11:36 PM

Pope presses Sri Lankan unity call with Mass, Tamil visit

The Associated Press

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) Pope Francis pressed his call for Sri Lankan unity and reconciliation Wednesday with a Mass in Colombo to canonize the country's first saint and a visit to the war-ravaged north to pray at a shrine revered by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.

Tens of thousands of people waving Vatican flags packed the capital's seafront park for the Mass, with some spending the night under the stars to ensure a good spot. Seemingly rested after a grueling first day of his Asian tour, Francis arrived well ahead of time to greet the crowd, getting off his popemobile to kiss the sick and handicapped.

Bells rang out and the crowd erupted in applause when Francis declared the Rev. Joseph Vaz a saint at the start of the service. Vaz was a 17th century Indian missionary who revived the faith in Sri Lanka during a time of anti-Catholic persecution by Dutch colonists, who were Protestant Calvinists.

The Catholic Church considers Vaz a great model for today's faithful, ministering to the faithful of both Sri Lanka's ethnic groups and putting himself at great risk to spread the faith.

Francis told the crowd that Vaz lived at a time like today when Catholics were a minority and often persecuted, and yet he ministered to all, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

"St. Joseph shows us the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace," Francis said in his homily, delivered in English and then summarized for the crowd in both Sinhalese and Tamil. "As the life of St. Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all."

After Mass, Francis was to fly by helicopter to the northern city of Madhu to pray at the Our Lady of Madhu shrine. The visit is the first by a pope to the northern Tamil territory that was devastated by Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war, which erupted in 1983 with Tamil demands for an independent homeland because of perceived discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

Francis is expected to call again for reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils, and people of different faiths, to overcome the wounds of the war.

Upon his arrival in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, Francis called for reconciliation but also for the truth to come about the injustices committed during the war.

Catholics make up slightly more than 6 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 21 million. They are by far the largest Christian denomination in the country but are a distinct minority compared to Buddhists, who make up about 70 percent, and Hindus another 13 percent. Muslims make up about 10 percent.

Most Sinhalese are Buddhist and most Tamils Hindu, but the Catholic Church counts both ethnic groups as its members and considers itself as a result a source of unity for the country.

The Mass drew people from across the teardrop-shaped Indian Ocean island nation, eager to see the first pope since St. John Paul II visited in 1995. In fact, it was during that brief visit that John Paul beatified Vaz, using the same altar that Francis used Wednesday to make Vaz a saint.

The crowds poured off buses and out into the street from the nearby railway station. Security was tight, and everyone had to walk the last few hundred meters (yards) to the Galle Face Green, but the atmosphere was festive and ordered. Taxi drivers handed out free cups of tea and the crowd was treated to traditional dancing and music.

"My son can't understand what's going on, but I will take photographs and show him when he grows up how he attended this Holy Mass," said Pradeep Niroshan, a 31-year-old insurance agent as he carried his 2-year-old son en route to the service. "It will be memorable for him, because the next pope may come to Sri Lanka, may be after 20 years."

On Thursday, Francis flies to the Philippines for the second and final leg of his Asian pilgrimage.


Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield


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