Sri Lankans work to finalize the little details for Pope Francis' visit

Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka, greets a family Sunday near the altar where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass on Wednesday. (CNS/Anto Akkara)
This article appears in the Francis in Sri Lanka feature series. View the full series.

Colombo, Sri Lanka — Hours before Pope Francis was to arrive in Sri Lanka, people in Colombo were busy with final preparations.

While Sri Lankan and papal flags fluttered along the 20 miles of road from the international airport to downtown Colombo, giant posters of Pope Francis were put up around the city.

The Laccadive Sea sparkled in the background as hundreds of police officers kept close watch on the workers who put finishing touches on the giant altar stage at the Galle Face Green in Colombo, where the pope is expected to draw the largest crowd.

"This is a historic visit. We are trying our best to make it memorable," Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka, told Catholic News Service on Sunday. Pope Francis is to arrive in Colombo on Tuesday morning.

"This visit of Pope Francis is going to be historic. It will be a tremendous boost for the Catholic community as we are in the midst of several challenges," the cardinal said.

"We will have our own saint with the canonization of Blessed Vaz, who founded the church once again when it was dying," said Ranjith, referring to the Oratorian priest who moved to Sri Lanka in 1687 and is known as the apostle of Sri Lanka.

Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Vaz on Wednesday at Galle Face Green -- the same place where St. John Paul II beatified him in 1995. A half a million people are expected for the Mass.

"The pope is coming to Sri Lanka after we have come out of a 30-year-old war and are in the process of seeking reconciliation. This process will be certainly helped by the papal visit," Ranjith said.

After the canonization, Pope Francis will fly to the Marian shrine of Madhu, about 170 miles north of Colombo, where he will meet victims of the ethnic war after praying the rosary at the shrine.

Catholics fled following persecution of Catholics and Dutch Calvinists in the 1600s. Carrying the statue of Mary with them, some Catholics built the Madhu church that has become the biggest pilgrim center in Sri Lanka.

During the closing stage of the protracted war in 2008, the historic statue had to be removed from the shrine when it came under crossfire.

Reinforcing the theme of reconciliation, the vestments for the canonization Mass have been stitched and woven by war widows of Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil rebels, said Fr. Tony Martin, deputy secretary-general of the bishops' conference.

"The whole church of Sri Lanka is involved in the preparations. Each of the two dozen committees have bishops, priests and others from the dioceses," Martin said.

Fr. L.G. Priyantha Silva, Colombo archdiocesan consultant for ecclesial art and architecture, told CNS he designed the canonization altar in the historic architecture style of Kandy, from where Blessed Vaz carried out his re-evangelization of Sri Lanka.

"Most of our people will reach Madhu to see the pope," Bishop Norbert Andradi of Anuradhapura told CNS while standing near the choir rehearsing for the papal Mass on the green. "Compared to Colombo, Madhu is much closer [geographically] to our people."

As he spoke, Bishop Joseph Fernando of Kandy was giving instructions to the choir members, drawn from several dioceses. The choir will sing in Sinhalese and Tamil languages as a sign of the county's ethnic diversity and unity.

"I hope I will get a chance to see closely the pope, who is dear to all, said H.R. Nirmali Jenifa, a Sunday school teacher and law student from a suburb of Colombo. "Everyone is speaking about his concern for the poor and the children."

She said her parish has arranged half a dozen buses to transport parishioners to the canonization.

The Sri Lankan government has released hundreds of state buses to parishes to transport the Catholics to canonization; 20,000 security personnel will be deployed for crowd management.

"Even non-Christians are excited with the papal visit," Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando, media coordinator of the papal visit, told CNS. He said more than 500 Buddhist monks, Hindu and Muslim leaders and non-Catholic church officials will greet Pope Francis when he addresses an interreligious meeting his first evening in the country.

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