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Sri Lankan bishop reflects on Easter attacks during Boston visit

  • Bishop Wickramasinghe visit the graves of victims of the Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. Courtesy photo
  • Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe holds a paper angel made by Boston members of the Missionary Childhood Association. Courtesy photo

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BRAINTREE -- While visiting the Archdiocese of Boston, Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe, from the mission Diocese of Galle in Sri Lanka, sat down with the Pilot on June 27 to talk about his home, the missions, and the impact of the Easter attacks on churches in his country.

Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, where Catholics and Muslims are religious minorities. Galle is the southernmost of Sri Lanka's 12 Catholic dioceses. Bishop Wickramasinghe described his diocese as large in geography but small in population, with about 8,500 Catholics in 16 parishes.

He said the Easter attacks were a "shocking" and "sad" experience that "even today, after two-and-a-half months, we are grappling with to understand and to get the truth behind what happened and trying to provide trauma counseling."

On Easter Sunday, simultaneous suicide bombings were carried out at churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. On the western side of the island, St. Anthony's Shrine in the capital city of Colombo and St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo were bombed.

On the eastern side of the island, a suicide bomber in Batticaloa entered a Catholic church to find that services had ended, so he instead targeted a nearby Evangelical church, Zion Church, where people were present.

The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed over 250 people and injured 400, according to Catholic News Service.

Bishop Wickramasinghe was preparing to visit and celebrate Easter Sunday Mass in prisons when he heard about the attacks, which took place at 8:45 a.m., the time when many morning services were ending. Mass was taking place in the Galle cathedral, so Bishop Wickramasinghe entered during the intercessory prayers and announced the news. Many tourists in attendance left immediately, but others stayed until the Mass was over.

Since the time of the attacks, Bishop Wickramasinghe said, there has been tension and heightened security in Sri Lanka. The police, army, and navy organized to protect Sri Lanka's bishops and their homes and churches. For two weeks, Sunday Mass was canceled for fear of more attacks.

"The tensions are very high these days," Bishop Wickramasinghe told the Pilot.

He compared the current mindset of Sri Lankans after the Easter Sunday bombings to the mindset Americans had after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bishop Wickramasinghe was visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan that day.

"I know what went through the American minds," he said, adding, "You can imagine what (was) the situation in Sri Lankan hearts and minds."

Two days after the Easter attacks, Bishop Wickramasinghe went to the bombed churches and the funeral homes in Colombo to console the people. That same week, he visited the hospitals to see those who were wounded.

"The doctors did a wonderful job to save many people," Bishop Wickramasinghe said.

He shared a story about part of the attack that failed. A second bomb was set up in a car parked about 20 feet away from St. Anthony Shrine on a busy street with many beggars. Thousand-rupee notes were left in the front seat, and the bomb was rigged to detonate if someone tried to enter the car to take the money. Though many people passed the car, no one attempted to open it. The army found the car bomb the day after the attacks.

Bishop Wickramasinghe said that since the attacks, there has been "a new revival" in the Catholic community. People wanted to come to Mass in spite of the risks. Numbers have increased, with many prayer services and holy hours offered.

"But they're very alert now (about) who is close to you, next to you, who is entering the church, and unknown people are questioned," he said.

Bishop Wickramasinghe said the worst effect of the attacks has been the breaking of trust between people.

"The trust must be built again," he said.

He said that Sri Lanka seems to be starting "a new journey" of interreligious dialogue.

The day after the attacks, 50 Muslim clergy came to the bishop's residence to express their condolences and condemn the extreme Islamic ideology known as Wahhabism. Buddhist clergy offered support by visiting the injured and cleaning up the churches. There have also been interreligious memorial services.

Bishop Wickramasinghe said he thinks this new relationship between the Buddhist and Christian communities "will have (a) lot of fruits in the coming years."

During his time in the Boston archdiocese, Bishop Wickramasinghe visited parishes on three weekends to speak at Sunday Mass about the needs of his diocese and asked for parishioners' prayers and financial support. He visited the collaborative of St. Agnes and St. Camillus in Arlington, the collaborative of St. Jerome and Immaculate Conception in Weymouth, and St. Ignatius Parish in Chestnut Hill.

"A big component of all this is to get people's prayerful support," Maureen Heil, director of Programs and Development for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, told the Pilot on July 12.

One mission Bishop Wickramasinghe hopes to carry out in his diocese is opening a home for adults with mental disabilities. The diocese of Galle currently has a home for children with disabilities and an outreach program that serves about 50. Bishop Wickramasinghe said he is now looking for a place to build a home for adults with mental disabilities, some of whom also have physical disabilities, and he hopes to begin building it this year.

He expressed gratitude to Heil, Pontifical Mission Societies Director Father Gabriel Troy, and all who work for or contribute to the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.

"They have been a part of our missions all along. So today, as a bishop, I want to say thank you, thank you, and thank you," he said.

Bishop Wickramasinghe said he asks the people of the Archdiocese of Boston to, "Please continue to hold us in your prayers because we are at a crucial time in Sri Lanka that we are being challenged."

He said children in the archdiocese have sent encouraging messages and sometimes pictures through the Missionary Childhood Association.

Bishop Wickramasinghe brought back with him dolls made by seventh-grade students at Immaculate Conception School in Revere to give to the Missionary Childhood Association. The dolls were decorated to look like saints, and some students also made booklets of Bible stories. Some even translated the booklets into Singhalese. Heil told the Pilot he plans to use the dolls as prizes for Missionary Childhood Association children in his cathedral's faith formation program.

"There really are two pillars to whatever (Pontifical Mission) Society people are supporting here: praying for the missions and for people like Bishop Raymond (Wickramasinghe) when they meet them, learning to take them onto their daily prayer list, and then financially supporting us so that the mission Church, the universal Church, can flourish," Heil said.

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