26 February, 2020

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A Radical And Innovative Asian Theologian Passes Away

By AHRC 

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya OMI, a Sri Lankan Catholic priest who once came to the attention of the world due to his excommunication by Rome which was later lifted, passed away yesterday in Colombo. He had been unwell for some time and was 89 years of age at the time of his death.

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya

He was a trained economist and was ordained as a priest in 1953. He worked in many capacities such as the rector of the Aquinas University College, which was developed as an alternative for those who could not attend University, for many years and was the founder of the Centre for Religion and Society in Colombo. He played a prominent role in developing close links with all other religions and participated jointly with others in many progressive initiatives relating to various issues in Sri Lanka.

Beginning his career as a conservative priest growing under the tutelage of the then well renowned Fr. Peter Pillai, Fr. Balasuriya responded to the social changes that were taking place in Sri Lanka and began to call upon the Catholic Church to understand these changes positively and not to take a reactionary stance. His political acumen was, in fact, recognised by SWRD Bandaranayke, who later became a prime minister who invited Fr. Balasuriya to work with him. He refused and wanted to respond to the changes in Sri Lanka in his own way.

When Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s Fr. Balasuriya and a few others such as Bishop Leo Nanayakkara responded positively and, in fact, this Council’s teachings were to change their world views and their lifestyles. Later, other prominent persons like Fr. Michael Rodrigo, who was assassinated in 1987 and Fr. Alloy Peiris and many others took the same teachings as their guiding light for their lives and work.

Perhaps some of Fr. Balasuriya’s most active years in life were those immediately following the Vatican Council where he devoted his time to introduce these ideas to Sri Lanka and, in fact, to Asia as a whole. He was one of the pioneers of the Asian theological groups who were to approach the problems of religion with a deep commitment to society, particularly to the issues of justice. He also gained recognition as one of the most prominent writers on theological issues from this perspective in Asia.

His passionate pursuit of the Vatican perspectives led him to engage with the most progressive social thought of his time in many fields. He took the issue of gender seriously and studied feminist thinkers and theologians. It was his engagement on this issue which led to his excommunication relating to a book he wrote entitled Mary and Human Liberation. Though attacked on some technical expressions close observers say that the actual attack was on his agreement of the ordination of women as priests.

When the excommunication was announced he openly challenged it and demanded to be shown the issues on which he had erred theologically. This challenge was never answered. However, he was under severe pressure due to one of the most intense international campaigns in his favour which caused severe embarrassment to the Catholic Church. A team of theologians of his religious order arrived in Sri Lanka and had several days of negotiations with him and he was requested to make some statement for the sake of compromise. Later his excommunication was lifted. Perhaps this is the only excommunication in the Catholic Church which was to be lifted in such a very short period.

Fr. Balasuriya was essentially a thinker. He tried to provoke thought on national issues and also theological issues within the Church.

He lived the last years of his life very much in quietness as the overall environment within the Catholic Church had become hostile to the theological positions of the Vatican Council. However, to the last he remained a disciple and promoter of these teachings.

His work and writings will survive him and may contribute to the development of discourse in the future.

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was a friend of the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC played a very active role in creating a global protest against his excommunication.

May he rest in peace.

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    I mourn the death of a friend, a philosopher, an educationist, a teacher, a reformer and above all a Man of God who touched a thousand hearts. He had the courage to be iconoclastic – never minding the controversy, isolation and inconvenience it brought forth. He will be remembered for the many legal issues that he got deeply involved in that affected the right of all citizens in as much as the intellectual discussion he organised with the left-leaning atheistic minister-intellectuals of the 1970 UF Govt under Mrs B.

    Some of the finest lectures I have listened to in the past few decades have been at the Centre of Religion at Deans Road, Colombo – his fond creation. The Centre attracted both leading academics and intellectuals both from within and outside Sri Lanka.

    When I gave him one of the many rides from Neelan’s ICES to Deans Road I once asked him why he is so economic with his smiles. The great man retorted there is so little to smile for in today’s world infected with so much of poverty and injustice around. He often remind me of the great Greek Philosophers of old who remained poor, hungry, lived simple lives but were intellectual giants whose academic labour went out to shed light to humanity since.

    I come from outside the Christian/Catholic faith. I wish to conclude, bowing to him in reverence, with those resonant words of his whenever he got off my car “God Bless You” We’ll miss you very much, dear Father.

    Senguttuvan

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    As a student at St.Josephs College, Colombo during the nineteen fifties I remember the time when Fr.Balasuriya was the Vice Rector of the college.
    He was fondly referred to as ‘Billa’by the boys and was a strict disciplinarian.
    He was treated with much repect especially by the students who were unfortunate enough to get noticed on account of a display of school boy exuberance that may have exceeded tolerable limits on occasions like cricket matches etc.
    My teenage impression of Fr.Balasuriya was that when he spoke he used to speak almost in an undertone very fast which was reminiscent of bullets coming from a machine gun to hit the target spot on.
    After leaving college I did not not have any contact with him but had follwed his social and human rights activities and issues connected with his excommunication by the Vactican Council.
    His passing away has left a void in the field of Human Rights and Social Justice.He was a great man.
    ‘God Bless You’Father.

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    My relationship with Father Balasuriya is from the 1980s when my wife was flying by herself from New York to Colombo with our two eldest children, both infants then. Although he did not know my wife before, he knew our family and befriended them and carried a child whenever my wife could not manage them — which was for the larger part of the journey.

    We will always be fondly grateful to him.

    This write up above raises an interesting question about how accurate obituary appreciations should be. It fails to mention that in the reconciliation process after his controversial book he had to sign that “I realize that serious ambiguities and doctrinal errors were perceived in my writings and therefore provoked negative reactions from other parties, affected relationships and led to an unfortunate polarization in the ecclesial community. I truly regret the harm this has caused.” He also made a long confession of orthodox Catholic faith which was signed by him and witnessed and published in the Church newspaper. There is really no point in trying now to argue that he never expressed regret or even try to hide that.

    To me it is important that he was fully reconciled with the Church and her faith.

    I think it is important to write the entire record to reflect the full life of this great man. Arguments over his true record which would dishonor him, may thereby be avoided. As a Catholic priest, he would have been the first to say that he was not faultless and needed the sacraments of the Church as much as any of us.

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    Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was a militant Catholic cleric who earned the praise of tens of thousands of progressives of all faiths. He dared to challenge some of the archaic views of the church, one being something like, that only christians can gain salvation and others are not children of God. His argumements were so convincing that he was the only cleric that the Vatican lifted the order of excommunication issued to any. He was a rational thinker and a great fighter for human rights and justice. May his soul rest in peace.
    Subra

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    I had many an encounter with Fr Tissa, and he is indeed a front runner in making religion work for people in a progressive manner. Absolutely clear in his thinking, tempered by evidence on a number of issues, extremely well read, therefore not afraid to be radical,articulate, spirited – he gave absolute meaning to the Centre for Society and Religion. May his soul rest in peace.

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    During the period 1971 when Mrs. Bandararnyaka’s Govt along with so called Left parties staged a reign of terror against rural youths branding them as TERRORISTS and CHEGUARAS, the CSR was the only place really gave space for all progressive groups to meet and denounce the action of the Govt. Fr. Balasuriya was one of those who stood for the side of the poor youths who had been tortured and killed by the state machinery without mercy.He stood for rights of the people when some popular Catholic leaders were observing mum at critical situations in the country.He was very much worried when a war declared instead of resorting peace full means to resolve the ethnic conflict.I salute him and pray for blessings of the god.

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    I went today to the Centre for Society and Religion to pay my last respects to Fr Tissa Balasuriya, a person who dedicated his life for the cause of a just society. Many of us have been inspired by his work and life over the years.

    I was saddened however that Vasudeva Nanyakkara, Tissa Vitharana and Carlo Fonseka were allowed to make funeral orations in reminiscent praise of this great human being. It was only very recently, during the impeachment fiasco, that these three politicians behaved in a manner which was the very antithesis of the values Fr Tissa believed in.

    I thought it an ironic and great disrespect to the fallen hero that they should have been allowed to launder themselves in the aurora surrounding his casket.

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