By Robin Gomes
As churches and communities around the world usher in Christmas of 2019 with Masses tonight, Pope Francis will do so in St. Peter’s Basilica here in Rome. But for Christians in Sri Lanka, this Christmas assumes a special poignancy and pathos. This is because it comes 8 months after the terrible Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks on 3 churches and 3 hotels that killed more than 250 people.
Most of the casualties of April 21 took place in St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church Negombo of Colombo Archdiocese, where 113 died. The other churches hit were St. Anthony’s Shrine Kochchikade of Colombo and the Evangelical Zion Church of Batticaloa in the eastern coast.
In a Christmas message, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo Archdiocese urged Christians to visit families of victims of the Easter Sunday tragedy over the festive season and to “refrain from noisy gatherings, parties and waste”, in solidarity with them.
The faithful have responded very positively to the cardinal’s appeal says Father Jude Raj Fernando, the administrator of St. Anthony’s Shrine, that was attacked on Easter Sunday. Speaking to Vatican Radio on the phone, he said that the Church is showing its closeness not only to the victims of the families of the bomb blasts but also to the poor and the needy.
In doing so, Fr. Fernando says they are heeding to the call of Pope Francis who urges Christians to look at the poor and be in close touch with them. In this regard, St. Anthony’s Shrine helps and shares happiness with the poor.
Besides being close to the Easter Sunday victims, the priest said, the shrine is also helping more than 1,500 poor families and an equal number of children. Amid suffering and painful experiences they went through, they want to bring hope in the lives of people because Christ brought hope to humanity. In this spirit, St. Anthony’s Shrine wants to spend this Christmas with the poor, the needy and the marginalized.
Fr. Fernando says that St. Anthony’s Shrine has specially invited all the families of the victims to attend the Christmas midnight Mass and the singing of carols together with others. The shrine has also been accompanying the families of victims in a “faithful journey” through a hard time since Easter.
The Administrator of St. Anthony’s Shrine says that security has been provided by Sri Lanka’s police, army and navy alongside the church’s own measures. With heightened security, he says, people feel safe and have been coming to the shrine in large numbers, demonstrating their trust, faith and hope. Fr. Fernando believes they will all come together tonight to celebrate the feast of Christmas.