Interviewed while at Microsoft years ago, I was asked about role models. The interviewer was puzzled when I responded with three Non-Corporate names (outside my phenomenal parents). Coincidentally, they were all Catholic Priests. I have been fortunate to have exposure to some of the best Corporate Leaders in the country, and globally as well. They had major influence on my life and thinking and indeed impacted my progress. These three individuals were all united in their love for God and Community, acted with Purpose and brought joy, energy and hope to those around them. They were Crusaders and Visionaries in their own right but yet so different. I was immensely attracted and spent many years working closely with them on their missions. Those experiences are still the best times of my life and have given me much meaning and purpose.
I was exposed to Rev. Fr. Mervin Fernando, when following a multi-day residential programme for youth at the Subodhi Institute, on the value of Integral Education. He believed the holistic development of young people in a physical, mental, social and spiritual manner was key. He was promoting Inter religious dialogue, racial unity, the Synthesis of science and spirituality, Astronomy, living in harmony with Nature, Education reforms and more. This was decades before these topics became fashionable!! He was madly in love with all that is Lankan and would encourage us to travel to the far corners of the country on a journey of discovery and curiosity. We would talk about the inner roads of Knuckles years before the “rest of the world” discovered them, and so many of our hidden waterfalls.
This Holy Trinity of Fathers Kuriacose, Mervin and Chrispin influenced me in many ways and one does not need to look towards corporate leaders to succeed in the business world
Sri Lanka was amidst tremendous social strife with terrorism and the JVP issues and as a young undergraduate whose university was never open, I had much time to dedicate to working with Subodhi. The annual Colloquia he hosted were an Intellectual Paradise for me to listen to the likes of Ven. Bellanwilla Wimalaratne Thera, Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, Fr. Dalston Forbes, Arthur C. Clark, Nihal Fernando and a younger firebrand Dayan Jayathilaka, in discussion on different issues. My mind became “curiouser and curiouser” by the day with every interaction.
During the initial programme, we went through a team survival exercise. 20 years later I was at INSEAD in France following an Executive Business Course and put through this exact exercise. Just a few years ago, CCL used it. Fr. Mervin was a Visionary. The ideas we used to share with Policy makers and Educationist on Reforms and modernization are only now seeing partial embracement in Sri Lanka. The Natural world is “back in vogue” while he professed it decades ago. Working amidstlarge groups of predominantly Buddhist and Rural folks at University drove home the value placed on Inter Religious dialogue, social exposure and exchange. I also gathered some of my best friends in life through Subodhi and thankful for enlightened parents who let me “hang around unemployed” doing these things for years rather than rush into a job.
Fr. Chrispin Leo, still works with the same passion I saw decades ago. He was Chaplain for the Young Christian Students Movement (YCS). Post schooling, I dedicated years as a “YCS Part Timer” working with youth from all over the country, under his direction. He is a true “fisherman of men” and has “everyday people” extending their love and hospitality to him in all kinds of little villages and rural communities. He is a passionate believer that youth are capable, accountable and should be entrusted with more responsibilities in society. He took the message of Christ to many groups, with a light heart, music, and insightful meditations and reflections of what Christ, religion and love meant. YCS created safe spaces for youth including many non-Catholics, to come together, share, exchange ideas and build fellowship. That energy was directed at the key social issues. Armed with faith, youthful energy, guitars, and a sense of idealism, we would travel all over Sri Lanka, setting up YCS units, conducting seminars and sharing our experiences. Fr. Chrispin showed simplicity in life and the value of the common touch.
The YCS grew but not everyone in the Catholic hierarchy wanted a stronger YCS emerging. The Establishment felt insecure and challenged by their very questioning presence. The YCS structure was disbanded overnight by the “Powers that be”and the stroke of a pen had sealed years of sweat and toil. The Movement never recovered its former glory, and even to day just sustains a status quo of much lower activity. We learnt how he took the setback in true Christian manner and continued to support youth in different ways within schools and communities. Sri Lankans pay too much reverence to the Cassocks and the Robes worn by religious leaders. What define the great ones are the people who adorn them, and not the trappings they cover themselves with. That is why the most wonderful thing which has happened to the Catholic Church is the emergence of Pope Francis. He may long live to inspire the world. Fr. Chrispin’s actions have taught me much but I find myself paling in comparison on most aspects.
My third role model was a priest with a silver tongue, a heart of gold, a sharp mind, quick-witted and a will of steel. Visionary, Intellectual and a natural Leader, Fr. Thomas Kuriacose came into my life through my parents. Fr. Kuriacose galvanized some people to join him and set up the Fr. Peter Pillai Memorial Scholarship fund. Their mission was to provide financial and mentoring support to our best young minds that were facing economic challenges. My parents were part of this merry band of followers who rallied around him to raise funds and administer this worthy cause. His faith could move mountains. Over three decades, the fund grew and supported over 350 young minds of all religions and ethnicities through University. People trusted this priest tremendously and supported willingly towards anything he put his shoulder to. His empathy for people was amazing. After reading a newspaper article of a humble injured man who had no way to support the children’s education, he tracked the family, raised the funds, and asked me to administer educational support for the child until she finished her schooling. Etched in my mind is how this young girl cried sorrowfully after coming all the way to Kandy for his funeral. Fr. Kuriacose underwent a bypass and later had a leg amputated but still fought for the things he believed in. In response to the Tsunami despite his condition, he undertook to build a rehabilitation centre for children orphaned by it. He spoke out on Social Justice and was not one to mince his words. Priests of this nature never make it up the hierarchy, but he stood tall in Social Respect and would inspire people towards God and socially oriented action with his wonderful sermons and tender advice. Over time, I had the pleasure of taking a more active role in the PPSF, and it uplifted my inner being, to be able to continue the work which my parents and Fr. Kuriacose believed in.
This Holy Trinity of Fathers Kuriacose, Mervin and Chrispin influenced me in many ways and one does not need to look towards corporate leaders to succeed in the business world. Organizations too need change, social justice, values and guiding principles. In Fr. Joe, former Rector of St. Peters, and Fr. Leo Perera, the former YCS Chaplain, I had further backing inspirations. Interestingly it was not the gift of Faith or love for Religion that I got from them – that part came from my home. It was a combination of exposures and outlooks that were worth many lifetimes. We can be inspired by the little things in different people around us from all walks of life, religion, age and ethnicity.
We don’t need the full package, or media publicized cult leaders to find inspiration. I have still so much to more learn and these COVID-19 times will inspire us to think differently about life, friends and family, success, values, the environment, and the future. Good luck to us all as we navigate these uncertain times.
The writer is a Corporate leader and Chairman of a premier government entity and is also actively engaged with several Chambers, Charities, Academic and other groups who further Sri Lanka’s development agenda.