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Fr. Tissa Balasuriya at 80 : At intersection of society and religion by Ajith Samaranayaka

In the memory of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya who passed away on 16th January 2013.

”He has led most of his adult life in a state of quiet rebellion against the shibboleths of his inheritance, both as a Catholic priest as well as a socially-conscious citizen,..” Ajith Samaranayaka

Fr. Tissa Balasuriya is 80 years old today and if that suggests the image of an elder statesman, that is not quite in keeping with the central motif which has dominated most of his life.

For Fr. Balasuriya’s life has never been placid or comfortable or conducted within the grooves of clerical respectability or aspired for the applause of the eminent and the great. He has led most of his adult life in a state of quiet rebellion against the shibboleths of his inheritance, both as a Catholic priest as well as a socially-conscious citizen, and it is a measure of his success that the ideas he has sought to convey about the nature of Jesus Christ and his teachings and how they can be best embodied in our quite different milieu should have percolated deep and spread wide even if some of those ideas should have brought the wrath of the Establishment down on his head at times.

It is in the nature of the media and the ersatz public opinion it manufactures that it is the more sensational public activities of a person (which more often than not touch only the surface of life) that capture the public spotlight while his or her more worthwhile work which cannot be dramatised or sensationalised is neglected or forgotten.

And so it was that Fr. Balasuriya’s book ‘Mary and Human Liberation’ received considerable notoriety and brought the full ire of the Vatican on him while his much larger corpus of work where he had sought to relate the historical Christ to the lives and concerns of the Third World poor and Asians in particular is known largely by the cognoscenti only.

If the first two paragraphs seem to contradict each other, there is good reason. Fr. Balasuriya’s thinking might have touched people elsewhere without penetrating very much into the country of his birth. It is not merely that a prophet is not honoured in his own land, but that in recent decades, we in Sri Lanka have been taken in by the bogus and the counterfeit, the flashy and the evanescent at the expense of those who have been solid and have possessed depth and substance in our national life.

By a strange paradox, the future Catholic priest was born on August 29, 1924 at Kahatagasdigiliya in the outskirts of the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the seat of the ancient Sinhala kings and the focus of post-Independence Sinhala nationalism.

His parents William and Victoria, however, were from Andiambalama in the Negombo district so that Fr. Tissa was first educated at Maris Stella College, Negombo before, like many academic aspirants from the North Central Province, making his way to Jaffna where he studied at St. Patrick’s College.

He completed his secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo from where he entered the University of Ceylon at the age of 17. Graduating in Economics in 1945 and winning the prestigious Khan Gold Medal, he entered the Novitiate of the Oblate Congregation the same year and was ordained a priest in Rome in 1949.

Future world outlook

These were the years which served to lay the foundation for Fr. Tissa Balasuriya’s future world outlook. From the Gregorian University in Rome he obtained the licentiate in philosophy and theology and did post-graduate studies in agricultural economics at Oxford University.

At Oxford he was so dissatisfied at the way in which capitalism was extolled by the academic Establishment, says a biographical sketch, that he dropped out and went to Paris to study at the Institut Catholiq and the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Paris. He looks back to the 1960s as the time when he finally said goodbye to Aristotelian philosophy and Thomist theology.

The two pillars of Fr. Tissa’s life have, of course, been the Aquinas University College and the Centre for Society and Religion. At the age of 29, he was appointed Registrar to Fr. Peter Pillai at this former institution and became Rector on his death in 1964. As Rector, he broadened the scope of the curriculum and introduced courses in technology, business, law and agriculture. Many future politicians and journalists such as Gamini Dissanayake, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Lucien Rajakarunanayake studied at Aquinas during this period.

In 1971, the year of the JVP-led Insurrection, Fr. Tissa left Aquinas to found the Centre for Society and Religion, a unique experiment in studying the proliferating social, economic and political problems of Sri Lanka. Although a sprawling complex today, the Centre at its inception was modestly housed at the same premises as today at Dean’s Road, Maradana and brought together, perhaps for the first time, politicians, academics and students of all persuasions but with a pronounced radical bent, to discuss the problems of the day.

As a young reporter during the 1975-77 period, I remember covering seminars regularly at the Centre where all the political and academic heavyweights of the day joined by such aspiring intellectuals of the time as the young Dayan Jayatillaka did regular combat with one another. A whole series of seminars during the waning days of the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government was devoted for example to the multinational corporations, then an emerging hobgoblin on the economic front.

Realities of life

Society and Religion or Religion in Society have therefore been Fr. Tissa’s abiding concerns. Here he exemplified a growing movement among the Catholic churches of the Third World to relate the teachings of Christ to the realities of life in the poorer parts of the world, which were in marked contrast to life in the affluent western countries from where Christianity had originally come to Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Not only were these western powers colonialist and had exploited the Third World economically and culturally, but the image of Christ that they had projected and propagated in these countries was that of a westernised cultured gentleman.

Catholics brought to Asia a Christ as understood by the Europeans while the Protestants brought with them an Anglo-Saxen version of Christ. What is more, both were part of the western colonialist project and western expansion was treated as divine intercession for propagating the gospels among the native heathens.

The need therefore was to return to the gospels and interpret Christ in terms found within them rather than in the ‘conformist, domesticated and apolitical’ manner in which He had been interpreted by the established Church.

This led logically to a concern with the surrounding political, economic and social realities which impinge on any religion in our times. Here Fr. Tissa had to take account of two sets of factors. To begin with, the western approaches to theology which were then practised by the dominant Church were no longer compatible with the rising Buddhist nationalism of the times.

This was a sensitive area, for while the Buddhist nationalist critique of the Church was not always valid, the Church itself had done little to change with the realities of the time and therefore fed this very critique. There was a need then to diffuse this isolation of the Church from the mainstream of national life and attune it to the political and cultural realities of the day.

Hence the lone battle Fr. Tissa had to wage in which he was misunderstood, misinterpreted and lampooned both by sections of the Church as well as the political Establishment. Once, when he had roused the holy ire of the Emperor no less, President Jayewardene, I remember the respected Daily News so departing from tradition that it thundered in an unusual page one editorial ‘Go unfrock yourself’.

The reprimand, of course, was directed at the Director of the Centre for Society and Religion who had made it a habit to go about in ordinary dress travelling by bus and trudging along the roads and generally eschewing the mystique of priesthood.


Most recently as many will remember, the Catholic Church itself collided head on with Fr. Tissa over his interpretation of the mother of Jesus where he offered a dynamic Mariology quite different from the traditional interpretation.

As he sees it, traditional Marian spirituality downplays the humanity and the maturity of a woman who participated actively in the life and ministry of Jesus and who ‘offered the life of Jesus as a sacrifice’ and he concludes that ‘it is this type of woman that needs to be central to Christian spirituality.

At 80 therefore, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya offers the profile of a quiet rebel who has not feared to challenge the long-held shibboleths of both the Church and the political Establishment, who has not feared to speak out his mind on the issues of the day without self-dramatisation or the extravagant narcissistic gestures of a showman or an impresario.

He is very much a product of his times, being born into the pre-Independence milieu and arriving at maturity in our own turbulent times but questioning and challenging some of the most sacred tenets and articles of faith embedded both in religion and politics in the present post-capitalist age.

A sharp critic of the iniquities of the global capitalist system, he has sought to reconcile the liberative teachings of Christ with the quest for social justice the world over. His has been a struggle well worth it even as we are still caught up in that same struggle and quest in a new century.

Written on the 30 august 2004: on the occasion of T. Balasuriya’s 80 th birthday in  “The  Sunday”


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