Sunday, September 28, 2008

Drawn to the Cross

Sure, conflicts might be raging in some corners of the Subcontinent... but even so, this month's feast of the Triumph of the Cross saw yet another trans-faith throng converge on yet another Sri Lankan shrine:
More than 150,000 Buddhists, Catholics and Hindus came to the shrine of the Holy Cross, situated in the middle of a cemetery near the town of Marawila, on Sept. 14....

Many people consider it a place of healing. Pilgrims make vows and give offerings, hoping for the healing of not just sickness or disabilities, but also family problems.

Godfrey Amaratunga, 65, chief administrator of the shrine, says its popularity dates to a reported miracle in 1947. A contagious skin disease was spreading quickly along the coast, and one mother brought her suffering child to the shrine. She is said to have washed the feet of Jesus on the cross, used the water to bathe her child, and then had her child drink the water.

As news spread that the child had been healed, neighbors flocked to the shrine, Amaratunga narrated. Ever since then, devotees have come to apply oil to the feet of Jesus and then apply the oil to their bodies, he said.

A middle-aged Hindu woman who identified herself as E. Uganeswari recounted that a relative's family had a dispute and broke up 20 years ago. But after one of the family members came to the shrine and prayed for some time, the family was reunited.

"From that day onwards, the family members and most of the relatives made it a habit to come to the shrine every year," she continued. "We come here as it is a place we can receive blessings."

She told UCA News that although she is not a Catholic, she comes to the shrine every year. "I came here from Colombo with more than 75 Hindu people for the feast" this year, she said.

A. Selvaratnam, 50, a Hindu priest who also had come from Colombo, called the shrine "a peaceful and powerful place."

He said he has "no misgivings" about going to worship places of other religions and is "happy to come every year with all these people."

Casmira Fernando, 54, a Buddhist, who was kneeling on the sandy floor of the shrine near the beach, said she and her husband, Ajith, have been coming for five years. "I experience a sense of security and unity here, and my husband says his business has grown after coming here and praying," she shared.

According to Father Felix Colombage, the Marawila parish priest, the shrine is open 24 hours a day for pilgrims. "We keep the place as simple as we can and allow all faithful to pray in silence, so they do not disturb others," the priest said.

He welcomes non-Christian pilgrims. "We know that a good number of Buddhists and Hindus come here due to miracles," the priest said, adding that sometimes "they come and meet us" and "we help them with their vows and offerings." However, he qualified, "we never ask them to embrace our religion."

According to Amaratunga, 65, it is not just the feast day when the shrine attracts pilgrims. Almost every Friday thousands gather, "a good number of Buddhists and Hindus among them," he said. "But they do come here and pray. They speak with us and share how they have been healed of serious sicknesses after praying here, and how they have overcome family problems and other problems."