The fallout from the Easter Sunday bombings in three Sri Lankan cities has reached one local Catholic church.
“Our whole parish is shaken,” said Father Joseph Kelley, pastor of St. Monica in South Philadelphia.
Father Kelley was set to travel to Sri Lanka to attend the planned May 4 ordination of Sheron Fernando, a seminarian who had served at St. Monica for four years while studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.
The Cinnamon Grand Hotel, where Father Kelley had intended to stay, was among the structures targeted in eight April 21 blasts that destroyed two Catholic churches, an evangelical church and three luxury hotels. More than 250 people were killed, with some 500 injured.
According to news reports, alleged mastermind and radical preacher Zahran Hashim blew himself up in the attacks; his father and two brothers were killed in a police raid on April 26. Hashim was the founder of National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a now-banned Islamist group that is suspected of coordinating the attacks with the help of larger terrorist networks.
Under orders from Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Church has halted Masses and Sunday schools in Sri Lanka until security conditions have improved. A number of mosques canceled Friday prayers on April 26 in a show of solidarity. Cardinal Ranjith celebrated a private Mass on April 28 that was broadcast live on both radio and television.
Father Kelley said that being unable to attend Mass has been “a big, big shakeup” for Fernando and his fellow seminarian Shalindra Kotikwatte, who had also returned to Sri Lanka for ordination after serving at nearby St. Richard Parish in South Philadelphia.
(See a 2014 CatholicPhilly.com profile story on Fernando and Kotikwatte here.)
Neither seminarian lost family members in the attacks, but their ordinations and their futures remain on hold for now. Meanwhile, parishioners at St. Monica have been anxiously inquiring after the well-being of their former seminarian.
“He was so loved,” said Father Kelley. “You know Italians; they fall in love with you. I have stockpiles of cards that I was going to take with me for his ordination.”
The parish embraced Fernando all the more tightly since Cardinal Ranjith had stipulated that his seminarians were to remain in the U.S. for the duration of their studies, even during holidays and summer recess.
“I think the fact that he couldn’t see his mother for four years was hard, and the whole parish became his mother,” said Father Kelly, who regularly invited the seminarian to his own family’s holiday gatherings.
Given the uncertainty in Sri Lanka and his own pastoral obligations, Father Kelley is not sure that he will be able to travel to Sri Lanka to attend Fernando’s ordination when it is ultimately rescheduled.
Although he remains in contact with the seminarian via cell phone, Father Kelley said it was Fernando’s daily presence at St. Monica, rather than communications technology, that expanded his parish’s worldview.
“It changed the parish so much, because we tend to be so parochial, and we say, ‘These are my parish boundaries and it doesn’t go beyond here,’” said Father Kelley. “But we had a guy here from half a planet away, and we shared the same kind of faith, which is a cement bond.”
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