Once every three months, each one of us taking turns to host the meeting and plan the day with topics for study and discussion, such as the fascinating New Story of the Universe and other I was delighted when Sr. Áine asked me to contribute an article for the Unit Newsletter Family Links. During my long years in London and, as one without another priest to associate with in the Holy Family, it was the Sisters, especially the ones at Woodford Green, who helped me to keep my identity as a Priest Associate. It is they who made me feel at home in the spirit of the Good Father and kept me updated with new ideas and the emerging trends that would make the apostolate meaningful and relevant. I am therefore, in a way, duty bound to ‘report’ on how I am faring now here in my home diocese.
It’s three years since I returned to Jaffna. I was appointed to the same parish where I had served before going to London three decades ago. The parishioners themselves were evicted from their traditional homes in 1990 by the security forces as the ethnic conflict intensified and were allowed resettlement twenty-eight years after their eviction and nine years after the end of war. Resettlement was never going to be easy.
Made welcome :
As I took charge of my new mission, I was given a pleasant surprise by the Priest Associates in the diocese. They came together at short notice to welcome me into their fold. There were fourteen of them.
They came with a truck load of plants to begin a tree planting campaign as part of one of their projects. I was happy to be part of a team once more. Before the pandemic we used to meet current issues related to our ministry.
At national level, we are about fifty Priest Associates and ‘Live-in Sessions’ are organised once a year. These sessions help deepen our understanding of our charism and spirituality in the light of the vocation we have received and to review our life and mission in order to make it more fruitful and meaningful. The fifty of us come from the two major ethnic groups that have been at war for so long and yet the friendly atmosphere that is created by the familial spirit is one the Holy Family could always be proud of. In our own way, we set the tone for peace and reconciliation and are an example especially among those priests and religious who find it difficult to be open and understanding of each other.
Disappointingly, the attitude of some of the diocesan bishops in the country towards the Association is at best ‘tolerance’. They seem to feel that the diocesan priests’ spirituality is good enough for our sanctity and ministry and that there is no need for another association which, in their judgement, is a distraction.
The matter was discussed at one of our meetings and the host of the day rightly pointed out what Pope John Paul II had to say about this attitude.
“Other insights or reference to other traditions of spiritual life can contribute to the priest’s journey towards perfection, for these are capable of enriching the lives of individual priests as well as enlivening the priesthood with precious spiritual gifts. Such is the case with many old and new Church associations which welcome priests into their spiritual family”. (Pastores dabi vobis1992 no. 31).
As for my Parish ministry, I have had to deal with two major issues. The first is the resettlement of my parishioners and the second is helping my people cope with the lockdowns and their impact on every aspect of their lives.
During the long-drawn-out war and multiple displacements, these people had lost access to their productive assets. The painful reality is, that returning to what was their traditional area, they still feel ‘displaced’ because there were no land marks left to identify their home places.
Their houses, Churches, schools, convents and even cemeteries had been bulldozed and razed to the ground for reasons best known only to the Security Forces.
Headline housing schemes and vocational training centres alone cannot provide solutions to people who have been subjected to brutal violence and displacement. It takes a far more comprehensive approach and a thoughtful strategy to rebuild a war-battered community. It must be one that appreciates the intimate link between the lives of a people and their land and livelihoods, and in keeping with their current realities. But my parishioners have had to and continue to put up with a rather messy resettlement process, counting only on their resilience.
With their harrowing experiences over the years of war and multiple displacements, they had lost all sense of belonging to a community. This has continued to be a serious drawback that needs to be addressed as a matter of utmost importance by pastors like me committed to their cause.
The Impact of Covid19:
The restrictions imposed to prevent or minimize the risk of Covid-19 have made matters even worse for my already beleaguered community. Without the means to earn an income during lockdowns many are unable to feed themselves and their families. This could further exacerbate undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
I have six village communities to look after –around 450 families – all of them struggling to get settled and now to survive through the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic. The task is heavy and multifaceted.
People have come to depend on their priest to take up their cause with the authorities in matters of housing and resettlement, of their right to life and livelihood security, facilities for the education and well-being of their children. And now, during the pandemic, they depend on us to seek and provide relief assistance from the State, NGOs and well-wishers.
My little parish house has become a haven for people irrespective of caste and creed where they feel their woes are listened to and, where possible, addressed with sincere devotion.