Calling to Uva-Wellassa: A man with an indomitable smile and a charisma

7 August 2020 04:34 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • It was this young man who was the first to be ordained from Pamunugama to the diocese of Badulla in Uva-Wellassa or any other diocese
  • We discussed deep into the night that we should train the future priests to be priests of the soil and of the people and not to be priests pleasing to any other model

A young man, Raveen Perera was being welcomed into his native village on18th July 1992 to be ordained a priest in the very church where he was once baptised as a baby. Even though the Catholic bastion of Pamunugama peninsula (Western province) has produced two bishops with over thirty priests and over fifteen religious women, yet it was this young man who was the first to be ordained from Pamunugama to the diocese of Badulla in Uva-Wellassa or any other diocese. It was the second religious bishop of this diocese, his Lordship Edmund Fernando OMI who was going to be the ordaining prelate on this beautiful day.   

Celebrated heritage

The last ordination at this venue at St. Joseph’s Church, Pamunugama was in 1969 when His Emminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray ordained the illustrious and the exemplary servant-priest, Fr. John Nanayakkara of Pamunugama on the 100th year Jubilee celebration of the devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus (the statue of precious blood indicates a devotional desire of the people of this village), something that makes Pamunugama Catholic folks unique as a ‘religious tribe’ of the Christian population in the Western Province (an attractive subject matter for an anthropological study). It was also the first priestly ordination ever St. Lucia’s cathedral during the tenure of the late cardinal Cooray.  
I vividly remember that day in July 1992 when this young man walked into the church because I happened to be with the microphone at the alter with my commentary which was a personal request made to me by the late Fr. Raveen Perera despite some objections by the incumbent parish priest of the parish of Pamunugama at that time. However, the ordination was well attended also was a tribute to the deeply dedicated Perera family which is de facto, a legacy of Pamunugama in the person of late Annavi (Catholic community leader) Martin Perera, the late Fr. Raveen’s grandfather as well as his own father the late Philip Perera (a leading community leader of Pamunugama). Young Raveen Perera, was ordained a priest amidst honour and great delight and was walking to his home with his family, relatives and friends from the church for next part of the festivities at his ancestral home in Mahawatte with his infectious smile which became a forte of his mission subsequently for twenty-eight years. He taught most of us by his serenely learnt but formidable character traits of resilience and fortitude drawn from his formative years within his family circle and of course in 
the seminary.  

Warm home 

He was to serve a diocese of historic significance with a scanty and widely spread out population of Christians among the majority Buddhists of the Uva province. He, during the grand lunch at home in that July of 1992, hob-nobbing in the large garden whispered to my ear ‘thank you ayya for the commentary at my ordination’, while gifting his precious smile to me, all I said was ‘any time for you Raveen’. We parted in comradeship in the priesthood, each on our own way and style. The rest became memorable dialogue of vision and friendship and different history his and mine.  
He passed away with on 25 April 2020 after a great health struggle fought side by side by his beloved and only sister-doctor Roshini Perera. She had the unique intervention doctoring, nursing and mothering him which was a rare reception for anyone in such a precarious health condition. His life was being celebrated almost from January 2020 - until his untimely death at end of April, the height of Covid-19. His warmest abode during his ill health was in Pamunugama in between hospitals and not Badulla to be specific here. His remains were taken to St. Joseph’s Pamunugama on the evening of the same day in April where he was both baptised and ordained. This time I was faced masked like anybody, silent with no commentary, sobbed in my heart as I condoled lamenting sister Roshini, and his two beloved nephews. However, instead of burying him alongside his beloved parents in the revered precincts of historic steadfast Christian faith over 150 years  in Pamunugama peninsula, the unilateral decision was taken to bury him in Badulla.   

Peep into history

I am confident that the raison d’etre to succumb to such an option in my mind was in perfect line with what I said in the commentary at his ordination in Pamunugama on 18th July1992, “brother-priest Raveen you will go from Pamunugama to the unknown world of Uva, battered and beaten by the forces that came along in our history but their inner resilience was unbeaten. However, your ‘mission’ will be to witness to the man from Nazareth in the tradition of Leo Nanayakkara OSB and Michael Rodrigo OMI.” This he reminded me later in one of my encounters with him in Ampitiya in later years “ ayya (elder brother) you told me that I should be part of Uva-Wellassa’ but I am like stuck here in Kandy” (referring to his over a decade in priestly formation in Ampitiya). Then we discussed deep into the night that we should train the future priests to be priests of the soil and of the people and not to be priests pleasing to any other model. That we must seek ‘Asianising Christianity rather than Christianising Asia’ (to borrow Aloy Pieris’ intentional phraseology in ‘doing theology’). We agreed to disagree on some areas that night, but he mesmerized me with his smile yet again, “good night ayya”, the same smile he offered me at the lunch reception at his ‘warm home’ on 18th July 1992. Then we slept through it, but continued to meet until my last telephone conversation in the middle of March 2020 when he was convalescing at his beloved sister’s ‘warm home’ in Pamunugama. I was determined to visit him but we could not as Covid-19 was severely assaulting us and any unnecessary intrusion would have further compromised his already vulnerable health condition.   

"The same church brought Mike’s body from Buttala to be buried in Colombo and Raveen’s body was taken from Pamunugama to Badulla, a discrepancy and a policy untenable to the intelligent and critical minds"

Uva-Wellassa saga

I together with many finally reconciled the decision that his remains to interred in Badulla on 26 April 2020 in the proud land of unbending forthrightness and indigenous heroism in the history of Wellassa. The rebellion was infectious ingredient of the people of that era just like the way Raveen impacted on the future Christian leadership of Sri Lanka as a pedagogue and a formator in the hallowed portals of the National seminary, Ampitiya Kandy. It is for this reason perhaps why some of the farsighted senior Catholic prelates might have thought that he even could have been a potential candidate to the episcopacy of the global church and perhaps to lead a diocese in the up country, the last bastion to fall to the military and the commercial grip of the British in 1815.   
The people who gathered under the leadership of Keppetipola Maha Disave, Madugalle Disave, Willbawe led the abortive rebellion. With many others in the fields of Wellassa fighting, the rebellion in 1818 was ruthlessly crushed by the governor Robert Brownrigg with no accountability to the crown. The Bhikkhu Wariyapola Sri Sumangala took with him the Tooth Relic of the Buddha from Kandy for safety into a hideout in Hanguranketha. It is in this humiliated and disheartening backdrop that equally forthright Christian leaders like Nanayakkara and Rodrigo experimented a new ethic to indigenise the Christian story in Uva-Wellassa among the historico-Buddhist cultural precincts and sound bites authentically. Of course it was a tough ‘mission route’ as Christianity was always identified with something foreign, but Raveen’s last parish in Moneragala, he indeed experimented what it meant for him ‘to incarnate’ (to immerse) among the people after years of work on formation of future priests and in administrative affairs in Ampitiya, Kandy. I believe the best of his priestly life as he wrote in various pamphlets and explained to me whenever we met during his post-Ampitiya era was full of Moneragala.   
Though two visits of mine were scheduled to Moneragala, we just could not make it happen. An interesting video was circulated by his sister-doctor just before he passed away where he himself sings with full gusto a popular modern patriotic song (Hela Jathika Abhimane, originally sung by C.T. Fernando, lyricist unknown) to our delight. Many agreed that Raveen’s voice infused into the perennial murmur of the patriotism of Wellassa heroes and heroines, as if he was invoking them in the heart of their battle ground of heritage and the indigenousness (apekama), something that is identified as being nationalist, therefore ugly by some groups unfortunately in political discourses of today. They are yet to tell the nation whether such a claim is opposed to be a good citizen (would be an interesting case study for a sociology student).  

Be (longing)

Raveen did not belong to any of these groups, even when an uninformed and a misguided Bhikkhu who challenged him at the district council precincts of Moneragala over some matter based on gossip and not facts, his smile told the bhikkhu too what it means to be a good religious person. A genuine smile as a charismatic offer to win even a potential enemy for him perhaps was a ‘Jesus formula’ and a ‘Buddha ethic’ in my reading. It’s a longing to be belonged in the native soil, he deployed indeed.  
There were bishops, priests, relatives and friends who appeal to the highest authority of his diocese to hear their wish; that his remains to be buried in Pamunugama, but unlike like the wish of the old Uva-Wellassa was silenced, the above silenced themselves as if in obedience but with a subtext and an interpretation. They gave into the voice of the ‘Badulla’ promptings and let Raveen’s infectious smile and the charisma be buried among the bones that found fodder to the earth of the historic land where Michael Rodrigo’s body succumbed to his life-witness at the gun point of an assassin. Strangely the same church brought Mike’s body from Buttala to be buried in Colombo and Raveen’s body was taken from Pamunugama to Badulla, a discrepancy and a policy untenable to the intelligent and critical minds.  
More disturbing was that an abiding love and a wish of a mothering and a nursing sister was debilitated because of power and policy not love, because a stubborn policy had to be carried out even if it negates love. There is a serious theological problem for some in the Catholic leadership in some of these scenarios because it seems that they should be exposed to the ‘on the ground-theology’ anew and properly, and alongside study a course funeral undertaking ‘on compassionate grounds’. It seems to me that they are yet to study both in the light of these discrepancies as seen by fair minded people who witnessed the illogical funeral arrangements of late Fr. Raveen Perera of the diocese of Badulla in Badulla in 2020 and Fr. Michael Rodrigo OMI in 1987 in Colombo.   

Learning lessons

The gains and losses of Fr. Raveen’s untimely death must be assessed if we are to learn lessons from the witness of the person who has left us after 28 years of service to this nation. In 2022 we would have been celebrating Raveen’s three decades of service, a mile stone of a person whose life had been dedicated to the path seeking in the tradition of his master, Jesus. He even could not celebrate his 25 years of his priesthood, as it was also someone’s policy, but we were looking forward to creating a new policy where service is recognised by the people even if the leadership cannot do so for subjective and for insubstantial reasons. Raveen participated in every single celebration of his classmate priests as they celebrated their quarter century service to people in Sri Lanka since their ordination in 1992. He did not because he smiled with his superior and went about with his charisma of non-confrontation, and fully participating in the ‘ordinary’ just like his father Philip Perera despite the heavy right wing political pressure on him in his village, yet remained the calmest person of Pamunugama, continued his yeomen service to the church and the village.   

Signatured soul

I was concerned as a relative elder brother at every single moment when Raveen’s simplicity in the ministry and taken even taken for granted by those in authority and power. He remained unruffled at depth and did not wish to rock the comfort zones of other people, a real Mahatma - a great soul - we lost for Pamunugama, among the clergy, to the church in Sri Lanka, a rare breed of an indigenously modern Christian who as a serene pedagogue taught many of us including some of his superiors.   
There was no choice for some of them except to speculate him to be part of the episcopacy but I suppose with a different brand in the order of Leo Nanayakkara OSB and Edmund Fernando OMI with Michael Rodrigo’s salient thinking from Uva, but from Pamunugama this time - an alternative blend. There seems no other alternative to ‘Raveen’s work zone’ he silently evolved, even unknown to many in his diocese which he shared, of course with some of his close comrades certainly with me on several occasions we met.  

Worthy salutation

Brother, priest, colleague and friend Raveen, inspire our people whom you believed are the potential agents of change in the reign of God, be it Pamunugama, Ampitiya, Moneragala or Badulla because they cannot fail in what they believe as the late bishop Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil reminds “ with us, without us, perhaps despite us people will take their path to freedom.”  

(‘in memoriam’ of Fr. Raveen Perera called to rest in late April 2020)  

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