Sri Lanka Today: My Visit to the Oblates – By Rev. Fr. Gilberto Pinon Gaytan OMI, Assistant General , (An article Originally published in “Oblatio”)

What follows is a resume of my impressions during my first visit to the Oblates of Sri Lanka with Fr. Clement Waidyasekara, omi, General Councilor for Asia-Oceania: March 2011. Father Clement and I were doing the Consultation for Provincial of the Oblate Province of Jaffna. Thanks to Fr. Paul Mariampillai, omi, Provincial Superior for organizing the trip assigning each of us to visit different oblate communities we visited.

Monday, March 21st – First day:

I arrived in Colombo, the Capital City of Sri Lanka. As I came out of the airplane, I was happily received by a very courteous man, friend of the Oblates. He accompanied me through Immigration and baggage claim.  Everything seemed very easy, thanks to this friend of the Oblates. Outside the airport I was met by Father Angelo D. Wijewickrama omi, the Provincial House Superior.

I mention this, not because someone was waiting for me in a Country where I had never been before, but because being courteous and hospitable is very characteristic of the Sri Lankan people. I had experienced this quality of Sri Lankan life ever since I met the Sri Lankan Oblates in the International Roman Scholasticate in the 1960’s. It’s so natural to them, like breathing! I was happy to be there, especially after hearing many interesting stories about our European missionaries who arrived in Ceylon in 1847 and saw the growth of the Sri Lankan Church; many of them becoming Bishops, Archbishops and great personalities on both Jaffna and Colombo. Pope Paul VI created Monsignor Thomas Cooray, omi, Archbishop of Colombo, as Cardinal, who’s Cause for Sanctity is presently studied in the Archdiocese of Colombo. The presence of the Oblates is an essential part of the social historical and ecclesial development of Sri Lanka.

At the Provincial House I had the traditional Asian tea with Father Rohan Silva, OMI, Provincial Superior, and the other oblates, Jagath, Srinath, Dalpadado, Gilbert, and others whose names I learned to remember only later! After lunch I had a Sri-Siesta. The name is my own, sinceSri means “beautiful” and “blessed”!

That evening I went with Father Provincial to a 50th Anniversary of Ordination celebration of Father Fraccid Anthony, omi. The Celebration was very festive and lots of food for all. The local Bishop and two Archbishops Emeritus were present, with many local clergy and lay persons. For me it was a very good occasion to meet many Oblates from the Colombo Province.

One young Oblate impressed me very positively: Fr. Stephen Ashok, omi. He has finished his Law Studies and works in the Colombo Law Court System, defending the poor.  Probably, what impressed me more was not the work he is doing, but his enthusiasm in expressing the convictions he has as a missionary oblate doing this ministry for the poor.

The weather was perfect: warmly-hot. It helped me remember my summer days in southern Texas. The green tropical vegetation was like Southern Mexico, where we work with Indigenous People. If it weren’t for the Tamil and Singhalese languages, that I didn’t understand, I would have thought that I was in Oaxaca or Veracruz in my own home country. I can surely say that the oblates there are happy and their gladness is contagious!


Tuesday, March 22nd – Second day:


By 8:30 Father Clement Waidyasekara, omi, General Councilor for the Asia-Oceania Region, and I were off to visit two Oblates that do Hospital Ministry in Colombo’s 7 Government hospitals. These Oblates live at the Archbishop’s House and from there they visit not only Catholics but also persons from other Christian denominations and Buddhists and Hindus.  Talking with them I could not keep from telling them that that ministry was very “Oblate”. It takes us tour very roots of foundation with the Founder and, of course, to the experience of the Son of God in Judea.

Then we visited the Senior Oblates at Marian Grove and the St. Joseph’s Juniorate nearby. In this short visit one can experience both, the hope of having served God’s People well in the past and the hope of wanting to give one’s life to the poor in the future. We had lunch in the Oblate Community of Fatima Parish and with the Oblates that do social work from the Center for Society and Religion (CSR), founded by Father Tissa Balasuriya, omi. If you want to see the interesting work of Father Tissa, just write his name in Google: Tissa Balasuriya. In the 80’s he was very much in the eye of the Vatican for his theological writings, especially one on questions on Mary. Now he is enjoying the life of a wise man, still active, writing theological and social articles in his computer. I had a long talk with him, remembering the 80’s and sharing our “dreams” on what the Church should be in the future.

By late afternoon we were back in the Provincial House. Father Clement had still another meeting with Father Provincial and other Oblates and lay persons. I was told that later on we would have still another meeting… with something to eat and drink!


Wednesday, March 23rd – third day:

I was the main celebrant at the 6:30 am community Mass at the Provincial House Chapel with the people from the neighborhood who attend Mass everyday. Since my Singhalese and Tamil is limited to saying “Ayubowan” and “Vanakkam” to greet people, I celebrate Mass and preached in English.

After breakfast I had the opportunity to visit briefly the family of Fr. Renard Lawrence, omi. This gave me the opportunity to experience the ever gentle hospitality of a Tamil family, showering me with good wishes and a Sri Lankan gift.

Later on in the morning I went with Mr. Russel, one of the Provincial Secretaries, to the Cathedral in a motor tricycle and met an elderly French Oblate, Father Andrè Didon, omi, who told me that he had known Padre Francisco Aguirre, omi, when he was an Oblate student in France and Francisco was in exile in France from Spain by Generalissimo Franco. It was from France that Father Aguirre went to Mexico and died there on June 25th, 1964, after serving faithful for many years. Father Aguirre was a real authentic Basque and an excellent teacher in our Seminary in Mexico City.

Before going back to the Oblate Provincial House, we stopped by the Sanctuary of Saint Anthony, in downtown Colombo, a huge church, visited by many Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists alike.

What more can I tell you? In the afternoon Father Jagath, Provincial Bursar, took me to visit Brother Kamal Mendis’ Mother. This visit was a real treat for me. I enjoyed the company of a Sri Lankan family and experienced their love for their oblate relative serving in Rome. With this family experience the third day was gone and it was good.

Thursday, March 24th – fourth day:

At 8:00 am, Fr. Clement and I started preparing our questionnaire for the personal interviews during the Official Consultation of the Jaffna Province. We worked most of the morning.

In the afternoon we left Colombo by car to visit the Oblate Preaching Band (Nazareth Community) in Wennapuwa, on the west-south coast. Before arriving there we stopped by the house of Brother Deacon Shivanda’s parents. They were sorry that we did not announce our visit earlier, so that they could offer us dinner since we arrived unexpectedly. Shivanda’s smaller brother and father are musicians and they sang and played the guitar for us, while we enjoyed the conversation and some sweet bread prepared by Brother Shivanda’s Mother. After a very short visit we proceeded to the oblate community.

The community was waiting for us with a “gaudeamus” before dinner. The oblates there looked quite young, very dynamic and happy with their preaching ministry. I must say that they have a very busy preaching schedule during the whole year. We had to make the visit short because we had a busy day ahead.

Friday, March 25th – fifth day:

Father Clement presided the early morning Mass at 6 am, and after breakfast we started our trip up north to Anuradhapura, where we met Oblate Bishop Norbert M. Andradi, omi. He impressed me very positively. Our visit was not long but that morning was enough to see that he has a clear view and firm pastoral position on social issues. He was firm in his convictions to speak out in favor of the poor. He spoke of the many sufferings of the people in his Diocese and how the present social-economic situation of the country has affected many and made them vulnerable. By the end of my visit in Sri Lanka, after listening to other priests, oblates and diocesans and even Bishops, I could tell that all are very proud of Bishop Andradi’s Episcopal pastoral service in favor of the most abandoned. The visit included lunch with the Bishop with a traditional delicious food in very natural surroundings. I must say that Brother Kamal’s Rice and Curry back in Rome was just as good as the one I enjoyed eating in Sri Lanka. So I must congratulate Bro. Kamal for his culinary qualities!

Before leaving Anuradhapura, the birthplace of the Buddhists Kings of Sri Lanka, we visited some Buddhists Gardens, where the archeological remains of the King’s Palaces are still visible.

We arrived at the Oblate Preaching Community of Vavuniya by supper time.

Vavuniya is a Tamil town in northern Sri Lanka. This town was often referred to as the gateway to Vanni. It was the front line town in the ethnic war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army until May 2010 when the 25 year old war ended. Clashes between different Tamil militant groups and the Army have resulted in social and family instability and great suffering for Tamil persons. For many years, because of the closure of the A-9 trunk route, the North was disconnected from the South of Sri Lanka.

There are still internal refugee camps around the city, and official passes are needed to travel from the Capital City of Colombo. The Sri Lankan Army is still in constant patrol, and heavy security is apparent.

After supper, Fr. Fredrick Anton Thevarajah, Superior of this preaching community, and the other young oblates shared with me their dreams and toils in that part of the country. Their pastoral experience truly gives testimony to being near the most abandoned and in favor of the poorest in society.

Night arrived and the fifth day was also very good!


Saturday, March 26th – sixth day:

The interviews with the Oblates continued till the afternoon. These young oblates dedicate themselves to the preaching of Parish Missions in almost all the Dioceses of the Country. That afternoon three of them left with the Superior for a Tamil preaching assignment in a parish in Colombo City. After them, I left with Father Meno Basti Jayantha, the Provincial’s Secretary, for the Island of Mannar in northwest Sri Lanka.

As we entered Mannar, we stopped by the house of Father Basti’s parents to greet them. Since I like to work with wood, Basti’s father was happy to show us his carpentry shop. We had some tea and continued to the local Government Hospital to see Father Vincent Patrick, who had been hospitalized that morning. He seemed very grateful of our visit and tears were visible in his eyes as I blessed him in the name of Father General, whom I was representing throughout my visit.

We arrived at the Pre-novitiate community in Gnanodhayam in time to have supper with the Oblates and students (five from Pakistan, three from Jaffna and two from Colombo). After dinner I had more interviews with the local Oblates and went to bed around midnight, not before praying for all the persons whom the Oblates serve. I am convinced that it’s their heroic witnessing that is drawing many young men into our ranks as Oblates.

Sunday, March 27th – seventh day:

At 7:00 am I presided over the celebration of the Eucharist with the students and oblates of the formation community. This was my first celebration of an inculturated Sri Lankan Mass. Only the Celebrants had chairs. All the students were sitting in floor-matts. The musical instruments harmonized very well with the Tamil liturgical songs. After breakfast I had interviews until lunch and still more afterwards.  Some of the Fathers had to leave for Sunday Masses in their respective communities.

By midafternoon I was free to visit the local Diocesan Parish. It is interesting to notice that in all the places where I’ve been, many oblates and also diocesan priests have been through the General House in Rome.  All of them have invariably said: “I have been by the General House in such and such a year and please give my regards to so and so”

Before returning home we visited Father Vincent (whom we had seen in the hospital the day before) at his Rehabilitation Center from Alcoholic Anonymous and Drug Rehabilitation. He was much better. With the other oblates we visited the Center and Father Vincent explained to us the rehabilitation program for alcohol and drug addicts. If this is a social problem in any given modern society, can you imagine what it’s like here after a 25 year old war? The Center can handle 30 resident patients at a given time and receive treatment for 60 days.


On our way home we went to buy fish by the seashore, where the southern coast of India can be seen on a clear day. We were 13 miles away from India, at the very tip of the Island of Mannar, in Pier. That night all the Oblates living in the area joined us for supper. Thus we finished the seventh day.


Monday, March 28th – eight day:

The students had to be ready for classes early Monday morning. After breakfast with Father Basti and two other Oblates, we went to the East side of the Island of Sri Lanka. By lunch time we were in Trincomalee, in the eastern-northern coast. That same afternoon and evening I met with most of the oblate community.

The rest of the evening was very peaceful . . . except for the mosquitoes!


Tuesday, March 29th – ninth day:

After meeting with the rest of the community, before lunch I visited Saint Joseph’s School, previously run by the Jesuits and now by the Government, with an Oblate as it’s Director. In 1986 the National Government nationalized all Private Schools in the Country. The Principal now is Father Jeevanathas Fernando, omi, who is also the local Oblate Superior. There are 1,100 students, from grade I to 12th. Most of the students are Catholic (67%) and the rest are Hindus (30%) and Buddhists (7%). About 70% of the professors are Hindus. Almost all the students are Tamil.

I had lunch in an oblate Parish, run by the Oblate Province of Colombo and afterwards we went to visit one of the most important Hindu Temples in Sri Lanka. By the time we came home, another Oblate had arrived for his interview.

We had supper with all the Oblates from the area, while we watched the Semifinals of the Cricket World Cup: Sri Lanka and New Zealand. It was a very interesting match, with Sri Lanka winning 218 to 217 runs in five wickets. With the Cricket World Cup going on and Sri Lanka participating in the championship game, I have become unconsciously a fan of Cricket!


Wednesday, March 30th – tenth day:

By 8 am with Fathers Basti, Thuram, Jesuthasan, Loshingthon we were on the road towards the famous city of Kandy. We stopped on the road to visit the “Golden Buddhist Temple” and by lunch hour were in the Inter Provincial Scholasticate in Ampitiya. Frs. Leopold and Jerome were there to receive us. That afternoon I gave a talk to the Scholastics and Staff on “Conversion and Formation”. After “Oraison” we had supper and watched the end of the Cricket match of two rivals: Pakistan and India. As the game proceeded I was imagining how my brother oblates in these countries were watching the game.


Thursday, March 31st – eleventh day:

Here in Sri Lanka, as in many other places in the world where the weather is hot, the best time of the day is the early morning. So every oblate community starts the day with Morning Prayer around 6 am.  I learned today that if I want milk in my tea, I need only to say: “I want tea.” and if I don’t want milk, I should be saying “I want plain tea”.

So, by the end of the day, after meeting with all the Scholastics from the Jafna Province I had finished about six delicious “plain teas”.

Before dinner, the Superior invited all the visitors to a “Gaudeamus” with the Staff of the Scholasticate and after supper, I thought I was free to rest in my room . . . but, to my surprise, an ex-novice master, now retired in the National Diocesan Seminary, next door, invited me to visit the Mayor Seminary. It was very interesting for me to hear the many stories that go with so many years of Oblate History, since the days of Father Fredrick Sackett, omi, from Texas, who was the first Rector of the National Mayor Seminary of Sri Lanka. Those stories made me proud of being an Oblate and felt good having known some of them. This last comment about “feeling good about knowing some of them old oblates” is just another way of saying: “I am getting old too!”

So my Consultation Visit ended with the interview of the Scholastics of the Jaffna Province. Fr. Clement Waidyasekara, omi, General Councilor for Asia-Oceania visited the rest of the Oblate Communities of the Oblate Jaffna Province.

Now I can rest till tomorrow morning at 5:30! But before I went to bed my mind and my heart found their way to Kilinochchi, where I met Father Anthony Sylvester, omi, a young Oblate who was much engaged in the rehabilitation programs for the resettling families in great need in Vanni, where the epicentre of the war caused the most suffering and destruction. I was also feeling with the Oblates of the Jaffna Province who were serving with dedication through the Children’s Homes or Counseling Centers caring for war affected young and old. I could not but say “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .”

Gilberto Piñón Gaytán, omi.