The National Basilica: A union of faith and perseverance | Sunday Observer

The National Basilica: A union of faith and perseverance

25 August, 2019
Front view of the Basilica
Front view of the Basilica

The Annual Sick Day at Tewatte Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Sri Lanka will be held today at 1 pm, with Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, as the presiding prelate. The President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Gueltiero Bassette will also participate in the ceremony with other religious dignitaries representing dioceses from across the country.

Administrator of the Basilica, Rev. Fr. Victor Jayamanne said the devotees will not be permitted to put up temporary shelters this year as they used to do in the past, on account of the prevailing security situation. “We expect devotees to comply with our request and extend their support to maintain security at the Basilica grounds,” Fr. Jayamanne said.

To the Catholic community in Sri Lanka the Basilica of our Lady of Lanka or ‘Tewatte palliya’ is one of their most venerated shrines. It remains the iconic landmark of Ragama, and continues to remain as a desired religious site for faithful pilgrims.

On a sunny Saturday morning I set off to explore this vast sanctuary of solace. As we neared the main arch leading to the shrine devotees were already descending the cement steps. On the first landing there were statues of the two clergymen associated with the building of this magnificent church - Archbishop Masson and Thomas Cardinal Cooray. From this point there is a large garden where rows of Na trees offer shade, enriching the serenity of the Basilica. The green foliage reminded me of a quote by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven’.

A house of prayer

Along the pathway there were some verses displayed from the Holy Bible and the first one was from the book of John in the New Testament, where the risen Lord Jesus Christ said, “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. The beckoning promise of Jesus is indeed refreshing to all pilgrims, who come here with various prayer requests. As the scripture states, Jesus Christ is the way to the Father, the one who poured out his blood for the atonement of our mortal sins. Upon that cross he took on the burden of our sin and shame, and he is the ultimate source of spiritual rest and inspiration. The chirping of birds within the trees was a delightful natural chorus. The façade of the Basilica was outstanding.

The six pillars indicated the six diocese of the church in that era - Colombo, Chilaw, Galle, Jaffna, Kandy and Trincomalee. The crucifix glittering in the morning sun was a reminder of the love that Jesus had for all of us. Above this level one can see the form of a Greek cross, with its distinctive horizontal bars. The resident administrator Rev. Fr. Victor Jayamane was ready to share many historical facts. He explained, “Decades ago there was a small chapel built here in 1911 by Rev. Fr. Kieger, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. The people from the Ragama parish helped Rev. Fr. Collorec to extend the grotto in 1917. This was the humble beginning of the Tewatte church”.

Threat of an air raid

It is believed that during the period of the Second World War there was an imminent threat of an aerial assault by the Japanese, and most Ceylonese were engulfed with fear. The pious Archbishop Masson had prayed earnestly that all Ceylonese should be kept safe from the impending air raid and made a vow that a shrine would be built to Our Lady once this period of war had ceased. Subsequently, when the first Ceylonese Archbishop His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray took over the reign of the Catholic Church in Ceylon, he began to envisage this daunting project with much faith. It is recorded that the church owned a small land on which the old chapel stood. Another clergyman named Rev. Fr. Claude Lawrence had prayed that they would find some land next door, and shortly the estate named Orange Hill was up for sale. The church made the purchase. Plans and designs were needed and a prudent Jesuit monk named Fr. Heras designed the Basilica with some elements of Indian architecture.

We walked along the beautiful garden path and were joined by an elderly Franciscan priest. In keeping with the trademark humility of his religious order this friar declined to give his name, and invited us into the shrine. The massive walls were erected with dressed stone.

The kind old friar pointed towards the top of the altar, “Son, look at that small wooden cross. It is known as the San Damiano cross, the cross of the Franciscans. The Cardinal was very close to our order and he put our symbol there as a reminder of the good work of all our friars from that era”.

It reminded me of the words of Saint Francis of Assisi who once proclaimed in Latin - Deus Meus et Omnia (meaning My God - My All). I noticed another unusual feature at the wooden altar railing.

I realized that the portions of wood were from different trees - teak, iron wood, jak, red sandalwood and mahogany. It is said Cardinal Cooray was a botanist and he used this knowledge in the expression of this shrine. The late Cardinal had personally supervised the massive gardens and landscape, incorporating ‘eco friendly ideas’ which are being talked about today. The main altar had another unique display - two elephant tusks.

The story behind these tusks can be traced back to the period of uncertainty from the Second World War. Ceylon was facing a mild economic crisis and people took their liquid cash and invested in material things.

It is believed that the wise Cardinal had done the same and purchased the two tusks. Today, its presence embellishes the shrine with a strong Sri Lankan identity.

Religious orders

From here we walked down to the crypt, along with our Franciscan friend and the sexton. Part of the crypt has been modified into a chapel, and people were engaged in prayer. The body of Thomas Cardinal Cooray is in this crypt, with a life-like marble bust mounted on a pedestal. Once outside we spotted two nuns and decided to talk to them. Attired in blue Sister Regina began the conversation saying, “We are from the order called Sisters of Providence. Decades ago our sisters were working at the chest hospital in Welisara.

The sister superior was a French nun. They were invited to apostolic service at the Basilica and to date we take care of the Retreat house.” Along with them there are other religious orders at Tewatte - the Sisters of Clare, Rosarian Sisters and Sisters of Mary Immaculate. Within these massive premises one can also find a small granite chapel and a grotto. It is believed by many that the grotto is similar to the one found at the world famous pilgrimage site at Lourdes. It is recorded that the statue of Our Lady of Lanka was sculptured by one Thedim of Fatima and brought to the Basilica in December 1952. Cardinal Cooray had asked that three Na flowers be induced in the pedestal of the statue, enhancing the Sri Lankan expression.

As we were ready to leave Rev. Fr. Jayamane said, “This year for our feast on August 25 we selected the theme - We entrust our motherland to you - as our nation needs healing and divine guidance”. A fitting theme for our blessed motherland. “Cantate domino, canticum novum”- (Sing to the Lord a new song).

Thus the National Basilica continues to unite all Catholics in prayer and devotion.

Pix: Shan Rambukwella