I ponder the situation the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka finds herself in as she celebrates Christmas, and prepares for two significant events in January next year – one secular, one spiritual.
A Presidential election just five days before a papal visit. That in itself is unusual for the Vatican steers clear of partisan politics and does not usually schedule visits within two months of an election.
So when, how and WHY did these diametrically opposed events collide?
Instead of spending the weeks leading to the canonisation of the Apostle of Sri Lanka in prayerful spiritual preparation, both Church and State are guilty of distracting Catholics from this holy event, and placing our beloved Pope in the tenuous and unsolicited position of being in the epicentre of an ugly and volatile political situation.
I am not privy to communications between Church and State but Vatican officially confirmed the visit in October. It was very much later when preparations for visit were substantially under-way that Presidential elections were announced.
When rumours initially surfaced of pending elections, the Church voiced her concerns. Despite these please, a date was set just four days after the papal visit when the President had promised a much bigger window.
Broken promises to the Catholics of the country. Nothing new in that. In politics, promises are empty before they are spoken.
For many Catholics, it seemed then a foregone conclusion that the visit would be postponed. However the Cardinal announced it would go ahead with “Trust in God”. Although some priests advocated postponement to 2016, they were like the Baptist, lone voices crying out in the wilderness amidst the silence of many. Why did we not speak out and protest the broken promises? Perhaps we would have if the Bishops Conference had led the way but they passively asked us to trust God.
My question is not so much about trust (a sin qua non for people of faith), but about actions that are judicious and prudent, based on trust and faith. Do we trust in God and remain in the eye of the storm? Or, do we follow the wisdom of the adage, trust in God (sailor) and row for the shore, away from the impending storm? Do we trust that nothing is impossible with God and another opportunity for a papal visit will present itself? We would then be able to truly prepare spiritually for this holy visit instead of being caught up in these secular issues?
The question may be moot. It may be too late to head for safe waters. We may have no option but to ride out the storm. Or we may just have a wee bit of time before the storm hits. Hence this letter.
Reverend Cardinal and the Bishops Conference – look up, look out, look about. Take your bearings. It is certain that what was calculated as a passing shower is turning into a storm. The elections were expected to be a slight blip. The incumbent President would be re-elected. Life would go on. He would welcome our Pope and we would prayerfully celebrate the canonisation of the Apostle of Sri Lanka.
But things have changed. A serious contender with promise and potential for the powerful position has come forward. Election violence is erupting. The outcome of a free and fair election is by no means a foregone conclusion. Skeletons are coming out of the closet. Pandora’s Box has been opened.
Things are turning ugly with accusations being hurled at the defender of the post who will use fair means or foul to retain power – including exploiting the much awaited papal visit. The Cardinal has had to request that campaign posters exploiting the visit be taken down. Whether or not this is heeded is also a moot point.
The Church, instead of being able to prepare spiritually for this momentous event, is now fully caught in the midst of this political turmoil. The Pope is being placed in the untenable position of endorsing the outcome of ‘dubious’ elections as he will be the first Head of State to visit. ‘Dubious’ for how can valid elections be held when a sizeable populace displaced by floods is struggling for survival and may not be able to cast their vote?
Instead of preparing wholeheartedly in mind and spirit for the visit of our Pope, Catholics, as part of the nation find ourselves caught up and distracted with manifestos and election ‘fever’.
Our population has never been magnanimous in victory or humble in defeat. Post-election violence is inevitable irrespective of the outcome. His Holiness will arrive in a nation caught up in the post-election emotions of victors and losers. Punitive measures, retribution, has followed every election and this can be expected in a far more dramatic way than previously, especially if an unprecedented third term is obtained by the incumbent. If the challenger wins, retribution is likely to be slower.
Either way, there will be cries of foul, and calls for recounts. Either way, it is very unlikely the dust or mood of elections will settle in four days.
So … ‘Trust in God’ and stay ‘put’ … Or ‘Trust in God sailor and row to safe waters ‘ before the storm hits and politics and religion are caught up in one ugly twister. For aborting the visit any time after Election Day will appear as a politically partisan decision either way.