Pope Francis appointed him bishop two days ago. He will meet diocese’s staff to understand its most urgent needs. The province is still feeling the consequences of the country’s civil war. The new bishop plans to continue in the footsteps of his predecessors. Politics and religion do not mix, but it is urgent to defend people.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Mgr Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando is the new bishop of Mannar, a diocese in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, scene of major fighting during the country’s civil war. Pope Francis appointed him two days ago.
His appointment will give him an opportunity to serve the Tamil people, "use my mother tongue and help the people in Mannar who are looking for a leader, who need someone who can speak to them, who can listen to them." The new bishop plans to be close to those who " lost their land" and to the relatives of those who "disappeared" or were "killed".
Born on 20 May 1948 in Jaffna, he was ordained in January 1973. In 1987 he obtained his doctorate in Moral Theology from the Catholic University, Washington. In February 2012, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Colombo. He has held several positions, including professor, vice rector and rector at the National Seminary, Kandy.
Here is his interview with AsiaNews.
Your Excellency, what is your impression of this new appointment?
Well, I know Mannar is a big diocese. More than one hundred thousand Catholics. More than one hundred priests and also many religious. I have to serve this diocese so I look it as a big task given to me. I have to take on this responsibility and be prudent. Thus, I can only prepare myself with the help of the Lord to handle this huge task.
What is your plan for new pastoral work in the diocese?
Although the appointment was made three days ago I have not yet met the priests there, so I will work on a plan for the diocese only after I meet the priests and the religious in the diocese. I need to know what its urgent needs are, what its priorities are. Only afterwards will I be able to lay down a plan.
How are you going to identify the need of the people, especially the Tamils who suffered because of the long civil war?
I have recently visited Mannar and I know that it still has lot of problems. After the war, they [the Tamils] lost their land, their dear ones who disappeared. A lot of people were killed. Families have been suffering as a result of the absence of family members, especially the heads of families. They are still in a situation that has not yet been settled. There are a lot of things that need to be solved. Therefore, we have to help them find solutions to the many different types of problems they are facing.
For example, in some places their homes are near churches, and have been occupied by soldiers. So, they have to travel two, three kilometres just to come to church. We need to find various solutions to this kind of problem.
Your Excellency, previously you were auxiliary bishop in the south, in Colombo. Now you are going to take on a big responsibility as the bishop of Tamil people, in the northern part in the country. Soon after hearing about your appointment, some people, especially in social media, raised questions as to why a Sinhalese bishop was chosen for a Tamil area and Tamil People? They wonder: “What does he know about Tamil people to serve them . . . So what is your take on this challenge?
People who really know me, know that I studied at St Benedict's Collage in Tamil, in Kotahena, Colombo. So, I have a firm foundation in the Tamil language. I took pains to study Sinhalese in order to be close to the people in Colombo. It [Sinhalese] is not my mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil. And I would love to serve Tamil speaking people. I did that in Colombo, wherever it was possible to serve the Tamil people in Colombo. In fact, I feel sorry that I have to leave them because they depended on me for Tamil services in Colombo. But now I have the opportunity to use my own mother tongue and help the people in Mannar who are looking for a leader, who need someone who can speak to them, who can listen to them.
Bishop Rayappu Joseph led the diocese of Manar for a long time, and will never be forgotten. People wonder if the new bishop will follow his path.
Yes, in the Catholic Church, it is not like politics. When we accept a task, our main duty is to continue what our predecessors did. Mgr Thomas Savundaranayagam was the first bishop of Mannar. What he did was deepened by Bishop Rayappu Joseph who succeeded him. So, it is now my duty to continue from where Bishop Rayappu Joseph left off. I don't know whether I have the talent and the capacity to do so. It is up to God to give me the strength, to help me in continuing what Bishop Rayappu Joseph did for his people.
I of course will be very careful of not mixing politics with religion. Whatever we can do for the people, we will do. Even speak on their behalf. Speak of their rights. That is all that we will do. I have the support of other bishops. About three or four bishops have been with me at the National Seminary, either as staff or students. So, I know them. I also have the support of His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith with whom I have served for many years. Therefore, on that score, the Catholic Church has seen it all before I was appointed to this important position.
My message is that God has entrusted me with a huge task. It is an episcopal ministry of very high order. I would be grateful to people who will cooperate with me, people who will pray for me, people who will give me a hand.