Greeting Pope Francis in Sri Lanka
By sheer chance, we arrived in Sri Lanka during a pivotal period in the island’s history. First we were witness to a historic election, one that defied all expectations and set an important precedent for peaceful democratic transition. And, a few days after the election, another piece of once-in-a-lifetime history: The visit of Pope Francis. The Pope had two major stops in the same day. First, a huge mass at Galle Face Green, the large open expanse in the center of the capital Colombo, on the shore of the Indian Ocean. (There, he would canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint.) Later that day, he would fly to the Our Lady of Madhu shrine in the recently war-torn north of the country. We timed our visit to the north to coincide with the Holy Father’s so we could experience a little history first hand.
The Pope’s visit to the north has a huge symbolic significance. No Pope has ever visited this part of Sri Lanka; the Madhu church is important to both Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics, as well as Sri Lankans of other faiths. The church was originally built in the 16th century by Catholics fleeing persecution in the northern Jaffna kingdom. During the civil war of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it once again became a refuge for those fleeing violence. It was here that the Pope would deliver a message of reconciliation to the Sri Lankan people, and where an estimated 300,000 people were gathering as we pulled up with Prathap, his parents, and their driver in our van.
Madhu church isn’t in a town – it’s basically cut out of the woods, with nothing else around. As we drove along the only road approaching the church, there were already literally hundreds of buses, vans, and cars parked on the grass alongside.
Security was tight – hundreds of uniformed “Special Task Force” police greeted all comers at an impromptu security checkpoint (separate for men and women), and I was very intimately frisked before getting a sticker on my shirt and being ushered through. Although it was only noon, three hours before the Pope’s scheduled arrival, tens of thousands of people were already camped out on the huge lawns around the church – all the best real estate was occupied. Entire families were sitting or napping under makeshift tents set up to block the punishing midday sun.
Sri Lanka is 6% Catholic, but it was instantly clear that Sri Lankans of all faiths were in attendance. The mood was festive and heavy with anticipation – people knew that this was likely a once in a lifetime event. Out of the estimated crowd of 300,000, Mila and I were two of maybe 6 or 7 white people. We shamelessly took advantage of this, as some policemen who were cordoning off some paths saw us and motioned for us to cross – we pulled our Sri Lankan friends in with us and found ourselves in an area with less crowding, but still nowhere to sit.
With over two hours left until the big show, I suspected Mila wouldn’t last long, and I was right. Crowds, sun, and Mila – these three never mix well, and she decided she’d be best off chilling in the van with a book. I walked her back to our spot before heading back to Madhu – which meant another tender plumbing of my undercarriage at the security checkpoint. I didn’t find the Sooris where I left them and text messages weren’t going out (the local towers must have been completely swamped), so I decided to just try and find the best spot along His Holiness’ route, which was becoming more clear as the police started to clear all the paths of people. I exercised White Guy’s Privilege again to break through a cordon, and that’s where I saw a few dozen brightly dressed Catholic schoolchildren being prepped to cry “Papa Francisco, we love you!”. This seemed like a good a spot as any to post up, and post up I did.
It was still about an hour and a half util go time, but there was plenty to watch. The schoolkids, having been paraded out and rehearsed, were now facing the full sun. Every one was given a water bottle and then made to face the fence to prevent sunstroke. Bishops and nuns were bustling around, boyscouts were handing out Pope flags. An older gentleman next to me was clinging a bible to his chest. I asked him if he was Catholic and he nodded.
“And you? Catholic?”
“No,” I said. After a pause, I decided to add: “I’m Russian,” by way of explanation. This response seemed to make sense to him, as he cheerfully told me, “It does not matter. Same thing. One Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now we were cool.
In the meantime, the police started clearing the area where we were standing. It happened gradually, and for a while, I was purposefully ignored. Once a police bigwig showed up, my White Guy’s Privilege officially ran out. I was very politely told to get my entitled ass behind a barricade, where people were already sardined in. I did find a spot with a bunch of kids hanging on the divider and climbed through there, to a spot where I could stand behind them and still see the road. At 5’9″, it’s not often I get to feel tall, but Sri Lanka is great like that.
Vans started to arrive. First a van full of Catholic bishops, then a mini bus carrying the traveling Vatican press corps. We could tell the hour was nigh. When we finally heard the helicopters overhead, the crowd let out a huge cheer. The Pope was touching down! Three helicopters landed somewhere behind the church, a couple of minutes apart from each other. I wonder if two were decoy helicopters… maybe a decoy Pope?
By this time, I could tell who was really in charge of the security situation, and it wasn’t Mr. Sri Lankan Police Chief. It was a couple of big, harried, ex-military looking types in suits and ear pieces. The Pope’s security detail. I was hoping they’d be dressed in the harlequin costumes of the Swiss Guard, but they just looked like Secret Service goons, and they were ordering everyone around. The adorable uniformed kids were unceremoniously shoved behind the barricades opposite ours, and not a single soul was allowed in the road. Then it came: the Popemobile!
In addition to his other humane, humble, liberal-leaning actions and pronouncements, Francis has eschewed the bulletproof snowglobe of Popemobiles past, opting for an open convertible model. They still drive that thing pretty fast, and I had just a couple of seconds to shoot (I mean photograph!) the man as the Range Rover (the Popemobile is a Range Rover!) rushed by.
I’m not religious and definitely not a fan of the Catholic church, but even as a layperson it’s hard not to appreciate Francis, and this moment was pretty thrilling. Experiencing it together with hundreds of thousands of jubilant Sri Lankans was a pretty one-of-a-kind opportunity.
The car went on to the church and, as there was no chance of pushing any closer from where I stood, and I didn’t care about sticking around for the speech, I started making my way back to the car. As did many others – apparently seeing the man was enough for us. We’d all been waiting in the sun for a long time.