When Jaffna Oblates coveted the rest of Ceylon
Growth pangs of Catholic Church in 19th century

Book review by
Victor Gunewardena

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka
The British Period. Vol. 4.1856-1863
The Vicariates of Colombo and Jaffna
Original documents translated into English
V. Pernicla S.J.
The Ceylon Historical Journal Monograph Series Vol. 20 Tisara Praksakayo Ltd. Dehiwala

This volume marks yet another stage in the documentation of the history of the Catholic Church in this country by Fr. V. Pernicla, an Italian Jesuit. The period covered in his larger research is from the inception of the Church in 1505 until 1925, after which the archives have been closed. Eighty-nine-year-old Fr. Pernicla has already authored three volumes on the Portuguese period, three on the dutch period and three on the British period. The present work is the first of three more volumes on the third period.

The author explains that the documents in this volume were selected from the archives of the Archdiocese of Colombo and of the Diocese of Kandy and material from the Diary of Bishop Stephen Semeria, OMI, the second Vicar Apostolic of Jaffna, who succeeded Bishop Orazio Bettacchini, OMI, in 1858.

The documents were in Latin, French, Italian or English and were chosen so as to reflect "the growth of the Church in the Island and the difficulties it encountered". Except in the Introduction to the volume, the author has refrained from interpreting the documents. Rather, he lets them tell their story, revealing in the process the lack of in-depth understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism by the European missionaries of the period and their misinterpretation of he culture and morals of the indigenous population.

Additionally, the volume reveals little known aspects of the character of some bishops and priests, including their pride, prejudices and other human frailties. For instance, one is shocked that even the founder of the religious order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and its Superior-General, Bishop Eugene de Mazenod of Marseilles, should have resorted to language unbecoming of a person in his position in his accusations against Bishop Jospeh Bravi, the second Vicar Apostolic of the Vicariate of Colombo, made in letters to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome. That body was responsible overall for the running of the missions of the universal Church.

The information revealed in this study presents a picture of the Catholic Church in Ceylon in which the majority of priests were European and whose knowledge of and attitudes towards the indigenous population, especially towards non-Catholics, was clouded by contemporary western Catholic perceptions. They generally considered the non-Christian population as "pagans", "heathens" or "infidels" and were hostile to Protestants and their schools, which they perceived as "evil".

Portuguese period

During the Portuguese period (1505-1658) the Catholic missionaries belonged to four religious orders, namely, the Franciscans, Jesuits, Augustinians and Dominicans. None of them recruited indigenous clergy. The Dutch (1658-1796) expelled all Catholic missionaries, proscribed expression of Catholicism and took over its churches, schools and other properties.

However, in 1687 an Indian priest, Fr. Jospeh Vaz, from the Oratorian Congregation of Goa, came to the Island in disguise and braving severe hardships, ministered together with a small number of Oratorian colleagues, to the needs of Catholics. To them, in particular to Fr. Jacome Gonzalvez, the Church in this country owes the origin of Catholic literature in Sinhala and Tamil. Administratively, the Church under Fr. Vaz functioned almost independently of the Diocese of Cochin, of which it was juridically a part at the time.

With the advent of the British administration freedom of religious worship and practice was restored to the Catholic Church. But owing to the suppression of all religious institutes in the Portuguese colonies in 1836 and the seizure of their properties, no new Oratorians could come from Goa. However, the first Vicar Apostolic of Colombo was an Oratorian, Bishop Caetano Antonio, who had come here in 1812.

Juridically, the Catholic Church in this country continued to be administered by the Diocese of Cochin until 1836. From 1836 to 1847 it came directly under Rome and the Vicariate of Colombo served the entire Island. In 1849 the Vicariate of Jaffna was separated entirely from Colombo. At the head of each Vicariate was a bishop, designated Vicar Apostolic.

Rome’s views on future of mission

In 1855 Propaganda Fide was of the view that "it is very difficult to ensure the progress of a mission unless it is entrusted to a religious institute which can continually send new supplies". Accordingly, it decided to entrust the Vicariate of Colombo to the OMI order, some of whose members were already working in the Vicariate of Jaffna.

However, that decision was not implemented because Mgr. Bravi, who was then Coadjutor to the Vicar Apostolic in Colombo, while in Rome in 1856 requested Propaganda to entrust the Vicariate to the Order of Sylvestrines (later known as the Sylvestor-Bendictines (OSB). Propaganda agreed to this, but suggested that he appeal to Bishop de Mazenod for some Oblates.

De Mazenod sent four Oblates, but one of them had to go back soon. The others, according to Bravi, formed "a kingdom within a kingdom". Fr. Pernicla says: "They never identified themselves with the priests of Colombo, their loyalty was always to Jaffna; they even collected money for Jaffna, they highly praised the priests and the institutions of Jaffna, though they had never seen them with their eyes. They were French: the Sylvestrines were Italians! The content of many of the letters of de Mazenod with reference to the Vicariate of Colombo were clearly derived from the information supplied by these Oblates to their founder".

The soured relations between the two Vicariates would appear to have originated with the failed expectations of de Mazenod that the entire Island, forming a single mission, would be entrusted to the Oblates. He persisted with the objective until Propaganda was obliged to reply, according to Fr. Perniola, that "it was the question of the honour of a Religious Family that had deserved well of the Church and that could not be put aside without doing injustice to it".

The declared objective of the Oblates was to achieve uniformity in discipline and regulations and to adopt a common policy towards government schools and "all other important matters affecting the common good of religion in both vicariates".

Deplorable manner

It was the manner in which the Oblates, including their Superior-General, persisted in achieving their objective that was deplorable. Not only did they make false accusations against Bravi and depict the Vicariate of Colombo as being in a state of spiritual neglect, but also alleged that the Bishop appeared to have powerful patrons in Rome, who sided with him. Owing to the contentious situation and being dissatisfied with the reports of the two Bishop Visitors whom Rome had appointed to obtain a clear picture of the situation, Rome appointed Bishop Garcia Valerga, Vicar Apostolic of Quilon, as administrator of Colombo in August 1863, two years after the death of Bishop Bravi.

Having gathered the relevant information Bishop Valerga in his report to Rome "avows that he found Colombo, under every respect, one of the best Vicariates Apostolic of India" and that all the personnel of he mission are "worthy of the highest respect" and that "all of them fulfil heir ministry". He suggested to Rome that Abbot Hilarion Sillani, OSB, whom he praised very highly, be appointed Vicar Apostolic of Colombo. Pope Pius IX formally approved the recommendation of the cardinals of Propaganda in September 1863.

According to a document of Propaganda dated 28 July 1862, till de Mazenod died "he never stopped asking again and again, in and out of season, for the handing over of Colombo to the Oblates, going even further and asking for the amalgamation of the whole of Ceylon into one Vicariate". Even after the death of their founder the Oblates did not stop making the same request. "The greater importance of the southern vicariate, the more abundant resources, the fact that the Governor resides there, the culture of the inhabitants, and so many other reasons, have led them to keep alive the great desire of possessing it".

Thus Bishop de Mazenod, who since 1856 had written repeatedly to Rome seeking for the Oblates the Vicariate of Colombo, too, with Bishop Semeria from Jaffna as is head, wrote in his last letter, on 6 April 1861, in shaky script: "For the love of God, do not forget Ceylon or our excellent Bishop Semeria". He died with his cardinalate in abeyance and his wish unfulfilled until some 20 years later. Eventually, with the creation of the Archdiocese of Colombo and of the Dioceses of Kandy and Galle, the Oblates were entrusted with Colombo, the OSBs with Kandy and the Jesuits with Galle.

The perceptions of Catholics of the present day about the Vicariates of Colombo and Jaffna could be misleading. Each was several times more extensive than either the present Archdiocese or the present Diocese of Jaffna, or of any of the other nine dioceses.

Vicariate of Colombo

According to data published in 1861 the Vicariate Included —

i. Western Province (4,000 sq.mls. and population 560,000)

ii. Southern Province (2,000 sq.mls., population 370,000)

iii. Central Province (5,200 sq.mls. population 260,000)

The total area was thus 11,200 sq.mls. and the population 1,190,000, of whom only 91,000 were Catholics.

The Vicariate was divided into ten ecclesial districts — Colombo, Negombo, Moratuwa, Kalutara, Alutkuru Korale, Pamunugama, Hewagama Korale, Siyane Korale, Kandy and Galle. There were 136 churches in all, an increase of 21 since 1846. There were only 23 priests including the Bishop and the Vicar-General of that number only three were Oblates. The priests were fluent in English, but preaching in that language was generally not required. All priests could preach in Sinhala, some in Tamil and Portuguese as well. Each priest was responsible for seven to twelve churches, all of which were visited at least once a year. The distance between the first and last church was 180 miles from north to south and 40 miles from west to east. Parish churches with resident priests were the exception.

Travel from one place to another was on foot, by bullock cart, boat, horse carriage, horseback and latterly by train, depending where it operated.

The Vicariate had 38 Catholic schools, of which only three were for girls. The Government paid the Bishop a subsidy of 100 a year for a Catholic school in Colombo. However, many Catholic children attended government schools. Bishop Bravi was himself a member of the Central School Commission, which sought among other things, to ensure that there was no violation of the Conscience Clause regarding the teaching of religion.

In 1861 alone there were 557 conversions, of whom 311 had been Protestants. The income of the Vicariate was largely from collections from lay Catholics. Each year the two Vicariates received a subsidy from the Propagation of the Faith. Between 1856 and 1863 Colombo received a total of 84,711 francs, while Jaffna received 165,215 francs. Annually Jaffna’s receipts were larger than Colombo’s. The Government subsidy for the Jaffna school was 150, 50 more than that for Colombo. Jaffna also received from the Government 100 for the missionary of Trincomalee as chaplain to the Catholic soldiers. In Colombo the Bishop declined payment for chaplains on the ground that they did not want to be considered as government servants.

Strict censures and punishments

Bishop Bravi, like his predecessor, Bishop Caetano Antosnio, was very strict in the censures and punishments he imposed for certain transgressions. They included denial of the sacraments and public penance. He also forbade Catholics participating or assisting in nadagam, the use of indigenous musical instruments in church as accompaniment to hymns in the local language, restrictions on the dramatic presentation of certain sacred mysteries and prohibition of women singing and reciting prayers loud in church. His priests were also forbidden to hear confessions before sunrise and after sunset because he perceived dangers to both penitents and priests and the possibility of scandal.

One understands Bishop Bravi’s concern, either because of what happened in the Vicariate of Jaffna or to preclude such occurrences. Bishop Orazio Bettacchini of Jaffna in a letter to Propaganda Fide in September 1856 brought to its notice that a young French Oblate had been guilty of several acts of solicitation in the confessional and that the matter had become public. The incidents had taken place in Kayts, six years after the Priest’s arrival in the Vicariate. At the formal inquiry seven women testified that they had been solicited by the priest, who had also absolved them after soliciting them. The priest was suspended and sent back to Europe.

The Bishop goes on to comment that Bishop de Mazenod "sends them (Oblates) here too young, as soon as they are out of the novitiate, having been ordained priests with little knowledge and less experience".

One year later Bishop de Mazened asked Bishop Semeria whether he could send back the priest concerned, to work in some place distant from where he gave rise to scandal. This was refused.

Vicariate of Jaffna

According to data published in 1860 the Vicariate covered three of the six provinces into which the civil administration was divided at the time. The Northern Province (5,400 sq.mls., population about 300,000) included the civil districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Wanni, Nuwara Kalaviya and Delft. The Eastern Province comprised the civil districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Tamankaduwa and a part of Bintenna. Its area was 4,700 sq.mls., population about 76,000. The North Western Province, covering about 3,400 sq. mls. with a population of nearly 2000, comprised the ecclesial districts of Kalpitiya, Chilaw, Kammala and Kurunegala.

The Vicariate had a total of 238 churches or chapels and about 30 parish houses. The multiplicity of churches in the Tamil areas was because each caste had its own church or chapel. Of six English schools, five were for boys and one for girls. There were 46 Tamil and Sinhala schools, of which tow were girls schools — one in Jaffna and one in Trincomalee. Owing to various perceived dangers to the faith Catholic children were forbidden to attend government schools. Protestant schools were considered "the greatest evil and a real plague".

Of a total population of about 576,000 in the Vicariate only 57,874 were Catholics. Of the 25 priests 19 were Oblates. There were two Ceylonese priests. All priests were expected to learn Sinhala and Tamil.

Regular reports to Rome

A feature of both Vicariates was the regular reports to Rome giving particulars of the sacramental life of the laity, including baptisms, marriages and conversions. In both Vicariates the paucity of priests meant there were very few residential parish priests. Consequently, laymen were appointed to recite prayers and conduct various devotional exercises even on Sundays and other feast days, priests not being available. In some areas confessions could be made only once a year, when the pries visited those churches. During the rest of the year many tended to neglect the practice of religion. However, the people supported the church with their offerings and tithes, where these had become a practice.

Much of the documentation contained in this volume is correspondence between the respective bishops and Rome. It is in such letters and in those of Bishop de Mazenod and the two Bishop Visitors that the human frailties of their authors are most evident. Accusations, subsequently shown to be false, slander, meanness, misinformation and bias are among such weaknesses. The tone of some letters is akin to specious pleading.

Fr. Perniola’s monumental work comprising twelve volumes on he history of the Catholic Church during colonial rule fills many gaps in the history of the Church. While some scholars had covered certain sections of the colonial period of the Church before him, the twelve-volume series is unique in that it is the first time that a single scholar has covered all three periods — Portuguese, Dutch and British. Church and society are enriched by the information placed at our disposal. One has a better understanding now of how Catholicism evolved in this country, the origin of devotions and growth of pious associations and the development of the Catholic school systems. One also has a an understanding of the nature of the hardships experienced by priests then in covering long distances to reach their flock. The study affords many lessons to bishops, priests and laity, all of whom owe the author a deep debt of gratitude not only for his scholarship but also for his moral courage in presenting unpleasant episodes in the growth of the Catholic Church during the particular period of its history.