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Less-known facets in the life of well-known Cardinal born 100 years ago

by Hector Welgampola

(Reproduced from the Sunday Observer of December 23, 2001)

December 29 marks the birth centenary of Cardinal Thomas Benjamin Cooray. The first Sri Lankan to be made Archbishop of Colombo, he was also a member of the Catholic Church's topmost council of papal consultors, the College of Cardinals. He goes down in history as the only Sri Lankan ever to participate in the election of a Pope. In fact, he voted in two conclaves that elected Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II. But he was no accident of history. 

Born into a poor but virtuous family of rustic Catholics in Periyamulla, just north of Negombo, the young Benjamin was known as a child prodigy even in his early days at St. Anthony's Sinhalese School in Dalupotha. 

Since his village did not have a school of its own, all boys and girls of the parish attended the Church-run schools in neighbouring Dalupotha, and the Cooray family lived on the Periyamulla-Dalupotha border. My father, just one year his senior in the school and parish, would often recall in later years about the brilliant contemporary of exceptional holiness who lived on the same "Weli paara," or gravel road, intercepted by the Chilaw Road. 

Under the guidance of parish priest Father Paul Alles, Benjamin joined St. Aloysius Seminary, Borella to begin his early training for the priesthood. 

Rustic origin made him a lover of the environment

As a seminarian, the young Benjamin would trek on foot for lessons at St. Joseph's College, Colombo. I have heard veteran Josephians recall with amazement the academic performances of Benjamin, who carried away most class prizes on College Prize Days. 

From St. Joseph's College to University College and then to Rome for ecclesiastical studies, the village lad gained a Ph.D. summa cum laude before returning home after the priesthood ordination. 

Father Alles welcomed young Father Benjamin Cooray for his first Mass at Periyamulla with prophetic words about a man made for greater things. Nonetheless, this was still the time of his "hidden life." and the young priest served in several positions beginning as a teacher at his alma mater St. Joseph's College, Colombo and Chaplain to Catholic university students. 

It was during this period that the man of classics amply displayed his love for nature and the environment while helping Father M.J. Le Goc to write a book on "Tropical Botany." Although the book became a standard school text, very few knew the role of Father Cooray played in collecting plant specimens and doing the spade work for the popular textbook.

In later years as Archbishop he took a keen interest in conserving the environment long before the environment became a public concern. He evinced a keen interest in the habitat of Church institutions and always insisted on the need to conserve nature.

On his travels overseas, he would sometimes bring rare botanical specimens and the Tewatta Basilica premises is rich in vegetation because of his great concern for the environment.

Many such facets in the late Cardinal's life and activities still remain as hidden as he was in the early years of his priestly ministry which were spent as formator of future missionaries of his religious congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, better known as the Oblate or OMI Fathers.

Experience in training future priests is often considered an added qualification for the episcopate, which involves working alongside priests. In those days of the foreign missionaries’ administration, however, the young priest's appointment as the first native Rector of the Oblate Seminary would have gone unnoticed.

Thomist Theologian, man of destiny

But, unknown to the world and even to many in the Church, he was being watched. His one-time seminary rector and later Oblate Superior, Father Aloysius Perrot, who spent his last years in my birth parish at Periyamulla, once told me that Father Cooray was watched by the Oblate leadership for many years. He was one of the first native seminarians hand-picked by the Oblate missionaries for university education and later for higher studies in Rome.

Though the unassuming priest led a hidden life as the first Sinhalese Rector of the Oblate Fathers' seminary, he was a giant in his own right. A Thomist theologian and a man of prodigious memory, above all he was a man of God committed to the care of people, as he later pledged in his episcopal motto - "ministrare non ministrari" - to serve and not to be served.

As Father Perrot said, Cardinal Cooray's greatness lay in his life of exceptional holiness and persistent love for the Church. His sense of the holy was rooted in the simple faith-based culture of his rural background and the rustic simplicity of his faith-filled parents and embellished by the Thomistic theology he imbibed in Rome.

Fragrance of sanctity

The personal holiness he radiated was a bonding link that kept him in communion with the faithful of the Archdiocese of Colombo and beyond. And that living fragrance of sanctity still continues to hold his memory sacred in the hearts and minds of simple Catholics of our country.

Whenever I visit my home in Ragama, I visit Cardinal Cooray's grave in the crypt of the Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka at Tewatta. Coincidence or not, on every such occasion I was not the only one to kneel in prayer at his grave.

Many of those who pray at his grave are simple village Catholics and every time I spoke with them I have gone away edified and impressed by the living legend of the "Apee Cardinal Unnaaanse" as they still call him. Though many Church people have forgotten him and others speak of him only in hushed and embarrassed tones, his memory and fragrance of sanctity still continue to be cherished by his people more than a decade after his death in 1988.

Fidelity to a predecessor's legacy

The Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka, where his remains lie, is in many ways a symbol of the Cardinal's three-decade-long leadership of the local Church, which even his severest critics now admit was a golden era.

Building a Basilica, however, was not a matter of choice for the Cardinal. He was fulfilling a vow made by his predecessor. In the early days of World War II Archbishop Jean Marie Masson, the last Frenchman to be Metropolitan of Sri Lanka, made a vow in 1940 to the Blessed Mother to build a Marian shrine in her honour if the country was saved from the ravages of the war.

Our country emerged unscathed and Archbishop Masson obtained Pope Pius XII's approval to build the Marian Basilica in Tewatta. That was not all the ailing Archbishop discussed with the Vatican. He reportedly requested the appointment of a Coadjutor Archbishop to assist him.

Although for the first time in the history of the Church in our country, a native Sinhalese, Bishop Edmund Pieris, had been appointed in 1940 to the newly carved out Chilaw diocese, many did not expect a native to be appointed Archbishop. The choice was considered to be limited to the numerous French missionaries holding high ecclesiastical positions in Colombo.

Pioneer of transition

But the Oblate superiors were thinking ahead of the times and Rome took most people by surprise by appointing a native son, Father Thomas Benjamin Cooray, as Coadjutor Archbishop of Colombo in 1946.

The following year, which marked the dawn of our country's political Independence, also saw the accession of Archbishop Cooray to the see of Colombo, following the death of Archbishop Masson. The first native son's accession to the country's main Diocese serving half its Catholic population was not all smooth sailing. The nativisation process came "more hurriedly than some circumstances were prepared to move" as cautiously worded by Father Claude Lawrence.

It was not an easy transition from centuries of French missionary-led administration to that of a native Bishop leading French and native missionaries. The young Archbishop found a great source of strength in the Superior General of his Oblate congregation, Very Reverend Father Leo Deschatelets. With prayer-filled hope and the wisdom of his native genius, Archbishop Cooray set about his mission of service with a deftness that took many Church people by surprise.

Pastoral vision and indeginisation

Gracious and magnanimous to a fault, the new Archbishop appointed Father Fortin as first of three Vicars General. Just as he selected the episcopal candidate as first Vicar General, thus ensuring continuity and honouring French missionaries, he named a Sinhalese and a Tamil as his two other Vicars.

While Father Fortin was responsible for overseeing the parish apostolate, Father D.J. Nicholas Perera, an educationist and patriot who in his student days in England had taken part in the country's freedom struggle, was appointed Vicar for relations with the State.

Father Peter A, Pillai, an intellectual prodigy, was Vicar for Catholic education. These initial masterstrokes were early signs of the new Archbishop's latent pastoral skills.

He knew the faith-beat of his people

Enrooted in the native Sri Lankan Catholic community's spirituality, throughout his life he had a symbiotic rapport with their simple faith. That was an innate strength of Cardinal Cooray that let him always act with supreme confidence, and one could always say that he knew the faith-beat of his people as much as they could relate to him on the same faithlength.

The Eucharist, Marian devotion and loyalty to the Holy See have for centuries been the base of our Catholic community's faith, and they were also the treasured consistencies of the late Cardinal's faith, the guideline of his three-decade ministry as well as his final legacy to his people.

Being well-integrated in the people's faith-culture, he had the capacity to lead them when leadership was needed and move hand-in-hand with them when their faith testimony needed only a facilitator as in the faith festival marking the Marian Congress in 1948 as well as in the critical times of the schools’ takeover in the 1960s.

Marian congress and faith fiesta

The Marian Congress held at St. Joseph's College to mark the centenary of Oblate Missionaries' service leading to the appointment of a native Oblate priest as the Archbishop of the country, was a spectacle of faith.

It showcased the missionary work of the Oblate Fathers as well as the Catholic faith's deep roots in the nation. The special hymn composed by Father Marcelline Jayekody OMI, for this Marian fiesta "Sri Lanka Rani Meeniyee" still sustains the memory of that faith festival as the hymn continues to be sung by young and old as the anthem of Marian devotees nationwide.

Though now forgotten by many, even the words of the English anthem composed by J.P. de Fonseka, a friend of G.K. Chesterton while in England, captured the mood of the times in words such as "Queen of this hour of Lanka's glory".

The young Cooray was a mother's boy. My father used to recall my granny rebuke him on several occasions citing the maternal devotion of Benjamin, the son of her friend, Marigidehaamine. All through his priesthood years until his last days as Archbishop, Cardinal Cooray never missed visiting his mother's grave whenever he passed through Periyamulla. Every time he recalled his mother, in public or in private, tears would well up in his eyes.

The Basilica became a people's project

His love for the Blessed Mother was even deeper and more profound. And he eagerly welcomed the honour of erecting the Tewatta Basilica in fulfilment of the vow his predecessor made in the interest of the country.

Cardinal Cooray did more than erect a Basilica. He used the project as a nationwide networking of Marian devotion-based faith solidarity. The post-war years were a time when people had to tighten belts even more than in recent times. But unlike many current initiatives to go West with the begging bowl for everything and obtain foreign aid even to erect Churches, Cardinal Cooray appealed to the people and they shared of their meagre resources.

The Catholic newspapers ran a weekly column acknowledging every cent contributed by the people for the Basilica Building Fund. Thus he made the Basilica a people's participatory monument of faith.

Every rock stone in it had a story to tell and the Marian plebiscite of the Marian Congress was entombed in the foundation of the Basilica. I interviewed him on the eve of the consecration of the Basilica and the Coronation of the Statue of Our Lady of Lanka. He told me with a great sense of public accountability that "every bit of gold offered by people as votive offerings was saved for the Mother's Crown".

The story of the Basilica had its painful side as well. A few rootless urban Catholics who got carried away by Westerly winds of secularization and misread the teachings of the Second Vatican Council sneered at the Basilica project. Ignorant of the faith-beat of our people, they called the Basilica a waste of money and energy. Today, at least some of them have survived to see the reality of the Cardinal's vision.

If their barbs hurt the Cardinal in his later years, he was not shaken by them. He was a leader who both respected and accepted the people's wisdom, but he also was a no-nonsense man who knew to distinguish between wisdom and prejudice. Today the Basilica has come to stay as a national Marian Shrine and his successor Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando himself has vowed in public to complete work on the edifice if the nation is saved from the ravages of the ongoing war in the North.

Cardinal Cooray was a paragon of integrity who knew when to act and how to act as a leader because he had no concerns other than the welfare of the Church and the nation. He was indeed "a servant of the Gospel and a sign of hope" to his people, decades ahead of the Synod of Bishops, which discussed that theme last October in Rome.

His memory was very much in my mind last month as I invited bureaus of my Church news agency to survey people's opinions whether their Bishops live up to the above theme - which re-echoed Cardinal Cooray's motto, "To serve and not to be served." 


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