Rev.Fr. Tissa Balasuriya dies – the colossus of an era passes away
Posted on January 18th, 2013

by Mario Perera, Kadawata

Last night while watching the 10 p.m.Sirisa news broadcast, I was treated to a rude jolting shock; the announcement that Rev.Fr.Tissa Balasuriya had died. That death comes to all is no secret. But the one that just died was no ordinary man. Besides being an intellectual and moral giant his death represented the closing of an era both for the country and the Catholic Church.

Fr. Tissa will be remembered by the thousands who received their higher education at Aquinas University College. His was the second greatest of the two great names associated with that celebrated institution of learning; the first being the immortal Fr. Peter Pillai. The impact he had on that establishment was rendered most evident by the fact that the priest who took over, a well know historian and a former rector of St.Joseph’s College failed in his endeavour to run the institution, resulting in its closure for a long while.

What was it that went wrong? “the killing of the University Spirit” would be he appropriate answer. Fr. Tissa had a profound commitment and understanding of the spirit of the undergraduate and graduate world, which the man who succeeded him did not have. An example would typify his attitude towards youth. There occurred, (his rule was in the 1970’s) a student debate at Aquinas regarding a matter that involved students’ responsibilities towards the institution. Taking the floor for the proponents was the portly figure of a well known ex-priest then a law student Dr. Quintus Fernando. That he stood for the rule of law was obvious. The gallery that had formed in the back benches of the auditorium began to hoot him. Then rose the rector, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya. He condemned in a resonant and impassioned voice the behavior of the miscreants. He said inter alia: “I could turn around, identify those responsible for this hooligan behavior and impose sanctions on them, but I will not do that. They could have stood on this platform and proposed their views, but they took resort to hooting which is most disgraceful and condemnable”. That was all. But what did his successor do. In similar circumstances, the only action he took was to close down Aquinas! In other words he threw away the dirty bath tub water with the baby inside!

To say that Fr. Tissa was a controversial figure is no over statement. He lived in an era when, in politics, everything categorized as being “ƒ”¹…”left’ was taboo to the Church. This turned Fr. Tissa into a loner among his peers in the sacerdotal ranks. He was looked at with suspicion by the lesser mortals in robes especially those in coloured costumes sporting heavy rings on their fingers. They would wait till their day came, and when it did come they struck him down as we shall see further down in this article. Fr. Tissa with his penetrative insights into the nature of “ƒ”¹…”Ceylon’ politics of that time drew a discerning line between the “ƒ”¹…”left movements’ and religion. In this he was on all fours with the great Buddhist monks who sided with local Marxist parties in their campaign to rid the country of the foreign yoke. One of the greatest moments of Fr. Tissa’s life was when he opened the portals of Aquinas to leftist speakers during the 1970 election campaign which finally ushered in Mrs. Bandarayanake as the Prime Minister.

Fr. Tissa’s action was praised on the floor of the Aquinas auditorium by the greatest leftist leaders of the time, the likes of Dr.Colvin R.de Silva and Peter Keuneman. They called Fr.Tissa a man of prophetic vision, a trait the Catholic Church never had especially at that time, the hierarchy being a bunch of religious bureaucrats living within iron walls. We all know the vehement campaign waged by the Catholic bishops to keep the UNP in power in order to save and conserve their privileges, especially the administration of the Catholic schools. Fr. Tissa was not concerned with the election results. He acted democratically in affording the left leaders the premier Catholic seat of learning. By his action on that occasion Fr.Tissa paved the way for those Catholics who supported the school take over and consequently, the culmination of the movement for free education. I remember, during his speech, Dr.Colvin R.de Silva hailing Fr, Peter Pillai as “ƒ”¹…”a rare comet that flashed across the skies of this country’. They praised Fr.Tissa in the most lavish terms. The SLFP returned Fr. Tissa’s compliment by taking the unprecedented step of inviting His Holiness Pope Paul V1 to the Island. All the great political leaders of that time, headed by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranayake were there to greet him on arrival and departure. Such a step the UNP would never have taken through fear of offending the Buddhists. To the credit of the country’s Buddhist leaders, the monks, they whole heartedly endorsed their Government’s action.

Fr. Tissa’s life abounded in controversy. His whole endeavour was to bring about a rapprochement between all sectors, especially the intelligentsia, whether religious of civil, of the country. While being rector of Aquinas he wrote an article titled “ƒ”¹…”Buddhism and Christianity’ that caught the public eye like would a forest fire. No one simply thought that there could be similarities. The Catholic mentality of that time was: “we are we, we can never be like them because we are the only ones that count. We are the way, the truth and the life, the one and only”. Fr. Tissa’s life was devoted to blowing off the lid of that contention.

On leaving Aquinas he founded “ƒ”¹…”The Center for Society and Religion’. There too, he found no worthy successor. His successors were career men promoting self and their hierarchical ambitions. With his retirement the Center lost its luster and its impact.

It was during his stay at the head of the Center that Fr.Balasuriya received the attention of the world, especially the Catholic world in an unprecedented way and for the wrong reason. He wrote a book about the Blessed Virgin and her relevance to the modern world. This book was written within the framework of a new theological movement that had showed its head in the poor Latin American countries. Just like our Buddhist monks of the colonial era, Catholic intellectuals whose initiatives were held down under the iron heel of the Vatican, finally rose up in protest against the imposed dogmatism of a theology entirely based on western values, which necessarily and essentially catered to the rich and promoted their goals. They now linked theology with economy basing it on Marxist doctrine. Fr, Tissa turned his reflections to the question: how would the Blessed Mary have acted if born today to a poor third world family? Fr.Tissa spoke his mind (as he had always done) in a book of very limited circulation but of very thought provoking content. The book and its contents would have got into the hands of a select like minded few and gone on its way into the archives of libraries. It was hardly a book that would have dislodged faith in Mary’s Immaculate Conception or virginity.

But lo and behold, some junior bishops, once again to curry favour with the Vatican with a fervent show of orthodoxy, and aspiring to promotions up the hierarchical ladder (which one of the “ƒ”¹…”defenders of the faith’ finally achieved), made a mountain of a mole hill or turned a match stick glow into an all engulfing conflagration. The Catholic Messenger had recourse to half baked “ƒ”¹…”theologians’ to destroy the image and reputation of the great man. It was a vile campaign of unprecedented hate. Lilliputians had finally found a way of binding and gagging Gulliver! Fr. Balasuriya was excommunicated without ever having been given a chance of being heard. His entreaties for a hearing especially to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Pope Benedict XV1, fell on absolutely dear ears. The junior bishop who led the vicious destructive campaign, came out literally in flying enhanced colours though his appointment as His Eminence the Cardinal. One cannot but recall the betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver.

Such was their enthusiasm that that failed rector who succeeded Fr. Tissa at Aquinas became most vociferous in his condemnation, even demanding that Fr.Balasuriya pay compensation to the Church! In his outflow of false righteousness the then archbishop made a statement that would have made all books of classical Catholic theology rattle in their shelves with indignation and every great theologian turn in his grave with wrath. In a state of high elation he blabbered: “Fr. Balasuriya is no more Catholic priest”¦.” So rang the summary death knell of Fr.Balasuriya which theologically speaking was nonsense. Such was the hasty, ill considered and unwarranted and in the final analysis short sighted and foolish reaction of a society built as a memorial to the “ƒ”¹…”Lord of mercy and compassion!’

One who deplored the attitude of the then bishop of Ratnapura the leader of the inquisition, was Fr. Dalston Forbes perhaps the greatest theological brain to emerge from local Catholicism. He deplored the attitude of that junior bishop in confrontation with the illustrious senior priest. Fr. Balasuriya in his state of an excommunicated Catholic priest became a more painful thorn in the side of the Church and the Vatican than before receiving the world wide attention that he did. The excommunication was lifted within one year, being the shortest ever excommunication imposed by the Church. That was subsequent to the signing of a document of compromise which the distinguished Catholic intellectual and journalist Eymard de Silva Wijeyeratne termed “ƒ”¹…”ecclesiastical humbug’. Since then Fr.Balasuriya lived an exemplary religious life in dignified retirement and scorning the limelight.

Fr Balasuriya is dead going the way of all mortals. He was the one the builders rejected but who became a corner stone of the edifice. It is with immense sadness that all men of goodwill of this country mourn his irreparable loss.

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