Ancient beliefs and modern
By Ephrem Fernando
According to Rev. Fr. Benedict Anthony Fernando who passed away during the wee hours of January 24, the eve of his seventieth birthday the current reforms are deforms and have nothing to do with ancient beliefs because everyday every one of them invents something new. He agonised because echos kept coming from the past specifically the echo of Jeremias.
"My people have been a lost flock
Their shepherds have caused them to
And have made them wander in the
They have gone from mountain to hill
They have forgotten their resting place".
We were in the boarding of St. Josephs College Colombo. I was in the hostel and Benedict in the big dormitory meeting often in the morning while I leisurely strolled towards the chapel for Mass and Benedict scurrying across the quadrangle catching up and whispering you are late for the introibo ad altare Dei the opening words of the Mass of all time. The only child of wealthy patrician parents, he obeyed Our Lords command "Leave everything and follow Me" and left to enter the seminary. What an everything? A fortune a fraction of which evil men would kill to get without batting an eyelid. After his ordination he left for the Gregorian University in Rome where he won doctorates in philosophy and theology. Returning he began his pastoral work in the Chilaw diocese. His vows were sacred specifically the vow of celibacy making it a point not to be seen seated even with his mother in the family Benz. He was an incorrigible Thomist and read the Summa Theologica on his knees. He considered the Summa a summary of all his beliefs and compared it to the Pyramids because of its majestic simplicity and to a Medieval Gothic Cathedral because of its wealth of material, its enormous scope, its wonderful construction and its concentration in one marvellous synthesis all the fruits of theology and philosophy. Whenever Father Benedict spoke to me over the phone he would begin by singing one of Saint Aquinass wonderful Eucharistic hymns either Lauda Sion or Adoro Te. When he rings to wish me on my birthday he never misses to point out that. I bear the name of a Doctor of the Church whose feast he confirms he has just celebrated by saying Mass and praying for me and lamenting the fact that Catholics today bear neo-modernist names like Joy and Alex and acquiescing readily when I retort even Humpty and Dumpty. When the vacancy occurred why he was not made the Bishop, raised eyebrows and still boggles the mind. The Church will be chastised by God for this monumental error.
As Girolamo Savonarola wrote in his chief work 'The triumph of the Cross' "Whoever swerves from the truth undoubtedly enters upon the path of error and turns his back upon Christ". Father Benedict was devastated by the deforms but in obedience celebrated the New Mass but in the privacy of his chapel celebrated the Latin Mass which he believed is not something he did but something Christ does. The life of Father Benedict is the life of an ascetic and scholar. There are no dramatic scenes in it. He seldom if ever left his beloved Chilaw diocese. But all the world seemed to find their way to Saint Marys Church Haldanduwana, Dankotuwa where he was the parish priest. His life fell into two parts the God-seeker and the God-finder and could be compartme mialised in the immortal words "Thou has made me for Thyself and heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee". If any definite point could be fixed for marking the end of ecclesiastical Latin in this country it will be the death of Father Benedict. His death will accelerate the decomposition of the north western coastal belt from a crucible of priestly vocations to a devastated vineyard and cannot avoid recalling Virgils words Horror unique animos simul ipsa silentia terrent known to English readers as everywhere there is horror at the same time the silence itself terrifies the mind.
Father Benedict departed to meet his Maker, a beautiful cloud that hurried by, unable in conscience to compromise on a liturgy that had grown organically, developmentally, respecting tradition and without change for nineteen centuries. He lost the will to live. But his friends will pick up the pieces and carry on until the church is restored to its pristine purity where erennial dogmas will be safe from attack by heretics and apostates. The death of Father Benedict is a grief. But as Cardinal Newman said "Our griefs are our consolations". Let us set aside the Misereres and sing the Te Deums and choose for Latin Benedict the name he was fondly known the epitaph Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem meaning out of shadows and symbols unto truth.
First it was Stephen stoned to death in 37 AD. Then James beheaded in 44 AD. Then came the line. What a line? Now 20 centuries later comes Benedict. The historian Tacitus who was a boy in Rome when the prosecutions took place describes in the Annals the outrages, tortures and deaths to which the Disciples of Our Lord were subjected by the infamous Nero. Taditus wrote that Nero always made it a point to grant the sufferer their last wishes. But the last wish of Father Benedict who was made to suffer for his uncompromising stand on ancient beliefs was not granted. An act not only disgraceful but an outrage.
Father Benedicts last wish was modest compared to the treasure, including the building of 8 churches, poured into the Chilaw diocese by his ancestors. His wish to be buried in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Anthony Nainamadama built by his parents on about 4 acres of prime coconut land donated by his grand parents where he celebrated his first Mass after he was consecrated in 1961 by Bishop Edmund Persis was not granted. To give the excuse if Father Benedicts wish is granted all the priests in Christendom will want to be buried in churchyards is frivolous usually expected from politicians not theologians. Father Benedict was the victim of the ferocity of one man. It is time for Catholics to put the brakes and check the spiritualists and faith healers who have turned the priesthood into a career more interested in power plants than the welfare of the church. If the vast multitude the halt and the lame who came to pay their last respects is a measure Father Benedict was no ordinary priest even - though some red hats with buckle shoes who pretended to be his friends were conspicuous by their absence, Bishops he had helped at a great cost to his health because their ageing vicar generals were stone deaf. When Hippo was under siege by the Vandals St. Augustines remains were removed and re-interred in the churchyard of San Pietro in Italy to save the body from desecration.
There is a lesson here for Catholics. It is their sacred duty to put right the injustice and return Father Benedicts body to the Church of St. Anthony Nainamadama. Whims of individuals are irrelevent. It was St. Anthony of Padua who upbraided "And as for you there in the Mitre".
There is something in human nature that rebels and chafes when perennial truths are under attack. Virgils writings bear witness to this when he speaks of the "sighings" of the Sybyls the priestesses of Apollo. Recently the Gnostics at the Ampitiya Papal Seminary levelled the charge that Father Benedict and Catholics like him are trying to be more Catholic than the Pope. This is an odious and overly Promethean outburst. Gnostics should hold their tongues if they cannot distinguish between sense and vulgar nonsense. Stupidity presents a formidable obstacle to human conversation with those who do not keep the faith. "I kept my faith" were the words of Father Benedict when I last saw him in an infirmaary in Colombo propped up in bed reading the breviary the book containing the Divine Office for each day and compulsory reading before the Conciliar decrees of Vatican 11 made it unfashionable.
While I was putting the finishing touches to this tribute I received a remarkable document from a devoted polymath, a multifaceted PhD. Whats in that document written by a highly regarded American intellectual is outside the scope of this modest tribute. But here is a relevent piece. "A confidant of the present Pope describes the international destruction of the Catholic Church from within. We may all live to see true Christians thrown to the lions for indeed they are truly the only force left to resist the power so visibly concentrating in the small elite herein described. They openly exult Lucifer. Never has there been an age where it is easier for evil men to acquire wealth or more dificult for honest people to keep the rewards of their toil".