Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, OMI

Tissa Balasuriya OMIFather Tissa Balasuriya is a member of a religious order, like the Benedictines, and the Fransciscans. Numerically, the largest religious order of priests in the country are the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), and this is the congregation to which Father Tissa Balasuriya belongs. Founded in 1816 in France as a missionary and educational order, the Oblates came to Sri Lanka in 1847. Father Tissa was excommunicated from his church in 1997 and fought to have the excommunication lifted the following year.

Conscience and Compassion

Tissa Balasuriya, Sri Lankan Catholic Priest

born 1924

Excommunicated 1997

Excommunication lifted, 1998

Sri Lanka

Civilisation in Sri Lanka goes back a long way. The Sinhalese people came to Sri Lanka from the northern or north-eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal,four to five centuries before the Christian era. Originally, they only occupied the Jaffna Peninsula and the northern plain of the island, and they were well established in their capital Anuradhapura in the central north,when Buddhism first came from India in 307BC. A large majority of Sinhalese are Buddhist.

Is it a country at war?

To the outsider Sri Lanka seems like a country at war with itself. Yet paradoxically, away from the areas of conflict in the Jaffna Peninsula and the north and east of the country, the island is apparently remarkably peaceful and, despite omnipresent military checkpoints, and elephants walking the roads, people are open and friendly. But even this is deceptive, as continuing political violence and assassination attempts on the president and other political leaders during election campaigns have shown. Neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) shows any signs of compromise, despite intermittent efforts by various parties to bring about a truce and eventual peace. The roots of the civil conflict are incorrectly assumed by outsiders to be between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, who are thought to have been brought into Sri Lanka from south India by the British colonial authorities to work the tea plantations. But the reality is much more complex, and Tamils have been on the island for over a thousand years.

Sri Lanka, not Ceylon

The word ‘Tamil’ is the generic term for the Dravidian peoples of south India. While there had been both constant trade and warfare between the Sinhalese kingdom in Ceylon and Tamil south India for hundreds of years, in 992—93AD a major Tamil invasion occurred. In 1505 the Portuguese arrived and rapaciously dominated much of the western coast of the island for a hundred years. This is when the first Christian conversions occurred. From the beginning of the seventeenth century the Dutch were the predominant colonial power although, like the Portuguese, they never really penetrated far into the centre of the island. In 1795—6 the British defeated the Dutch and took over control of the coastal areas. By devious means they finally captured the kingdom of Kandy, and in 1815 brought the whole island under their colonial control. Sri Lanka attained independence in 1948.

Ethnic and Spiritual blends

In 1999 the population of Sri Lanka was 18.3 million. Seventy-four per cent were Sinhalese, 13 per cent Sri Lankan Tamils, 5 per cent Indian Tamils brought in by the British for the tea plantations, with mixed-race Burghers making up most of the rest of the population. In terms of religion, the Buddhists are the largest group with 69 per cent, Hindus comprise 15 per cent, Muslims make up 7.5 per cent and Christians 7 per cent. The vast majority of the Christians are Catholics, who number 1.2 million, people of both Sinhalese and Tamil background having converted to Catholicism. While tolerant of all other religions, local Catholic converts were persecuted under the Dutch, and then began to prosper again under the British. As in India, the Church emphasised education. A very high percentage of the clergy are indigenous.

A Catholic Mission

Father Tissa Balasuriya is a member of a religious order, like the Benedictines, and the Franciscans. Numerically, the largest religious order of priests in the country are the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), and this is the congregation to which Father Tissa Balasuriya belongs. Founded in 1816 in France as a missionary and educational order, the Oblates came to Sri Lanka in 1847.

Fr Balasuriya

Born in 1924, Tissa Balasuriya attended schools and university in Sri Lanka. He was a member of the student catholic movement at university and he wanted to be close to Jesus Christ. He joined a religious order (Oblates of Mary Immaculate) and was sent to Rome in 1947 for study and was ordained a priest in 1953. After ordination, he returned home to Sri Lanka. He went to work as a teacher in what was to become Aquinas University College, teaching economics and theology. Aquinas was developed as an alternative for those who could not attend University.

The function of the Church

Father Balasuriya was influenced by the movement for independence from the British. Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) had universal suffrage from 1931 and independence from 1947. There was no struggle for independence, no Mahatama Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. There was concern about how a majority comprised of Buddhists would treat minority Christians. Father Balasuriya had concerns about the missionary approach of the Church presuming that through conversions, great religions like Buddhism would disappear and Christianity would be triumphant. In 1961 all private schools in Sri Lanka were nationalised. By 1964 Father Balasuriya was writing in favour of openness toward other religions. At a national conference in 1969, he found that the native Sri Lankan Church was not supportive of his views and the leadership was formed in the old mind-set, with the primary function of the Catholic Church to “save souls”.

Centre for Society and Religion

In 1971 Father Balasuriya resigned from Aquinas College and formed the Center for Society and Religion in Colombo. It was here that Balasuriya was able to be in touch with people from different parts of Asia and develop a broad knowledge of what ws happening in the Asian Church. Many people in Asia have difficulty with the notion that people are only saved through Jesus Christ. It would imply that the vast majority of people are not saved, in hell. The more Father Balasuriya studied the issue, the more he felt this issue did not originate with Jesus. He concluded the Church was fitting God and people into its own categories. He raised these issues in his books he wrote in the 1970’s and matters came to a head with his 1990 book ‘Mary and Human Liberation‘.

Summary Condemnation

This book suggested a change of attitude in devotion to Mary and it questioned the myths around Original sin and the purpose of the church the presentation of its teaching that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and the Church. In 1992 the Sri Lankan church notified Father Balasuriya that he was under investigation. He was asked to appear before a small panel, at which a bishop read out a condemnation of his work. No one else on the panel knew what was to happen beforehand. What followed was the sad tale of Father Balasuriya referred to the modern version of the Roman Inquisition, and excommunicated.

The Inquisition

Pope Paul III established the Roman Inquisition in 1542. This was not the same as the famous Inquisitions in France or Spain which burnt thousands of heretics and witches at the stake. The purpose of the Roman Inquisition was to defend Italy against the Protestant Reformation. At the same time the ‘Index of Forbidden books’ was established. This was a list of dangerous books that Catholics were not permitted to read. The Roman inquisition was particularly careful on questions concerning witchcraft and never gave way to the communal mania that saw many women judicially murdered in Northern Europe, in Salem and other places in Puritan North America. By the mid Eighteenth Century it had become less influential and abolished when the French occupied the Papal States and Rome in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. It was restored after Napoleon was defeated, and had little impact. The Index was its primary instrument. In 1913 it was renamed the ‘Holy Office‘ and in 1965, renamed ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

One author summed up the activities of this Roman Inquisition: “A survey of the thousands of surviving sentences suggest that.. milder forms of punishment prevailed. Most frequently encountered are public humiliation in the form of abjurations read on the cathedral steps on Sundays and feast days before throngs of church-goers, and salutary penances, fines or services for the benefit of charitable institutions and a seemingly endless cycle of prayers and devotions to be performed over many months or years … only a small percentage of cases ended in capital punishment”.

Draconian penalty

With the gradual loss of the Papal States to a unified Italy, the interests of the Inquisition were increasingly focussed outwards to the Universal Church. More recently, it had prevented the publication of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s works until after his death. Even more recently, Anthony De Mello has been criticised and condemned. It has excluded millions from the Church for cooperating with Communists and became a bureaucracy completely above appeal or control save that of the Pope. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith operates from within a considerable cloak of silence and it was not until the second level of investigation was complete that Father Balasuriya received notification that his book Mary and Human liberation contained “opinions erroneous and contrary to the faith” and that he was requested to withdraw these opinions. His religious superior was asked to oversee this. The CDF process against Balasuriya led eventually in 1998 to the radical and draconian penalty of excommunication. He is the only theologian to have been so drastically treated since the Second Vatican Council. Yet Balasuriya’s consistency and strength of character, as well as worldwide public pressure, forced the CDF to compromise and abandon the excommunication a year later.

Hanky Panky?

Father Balasuriya commented on the very first meeting and suspected that some “hanky-panky’ was going on. As a consequence he had to develop faith in his own conscience. He took careful notes at meetings and wrote them up. He was able to show that various church Bishops and officials misrepresented and distorted his texts, largely through selective quotation. Balasuriya tells that the pattern of distortion became a common phenomenon throughout the whole process. “My refrain became “I have not said what you say I have said”, he was to later write. The central issues of existence, nature of original sin, the divinity of Christ and Christ the only saviour, were issues that the hierarchy were not prepared to let go of. It threatened the way the Church presented itself to the world.

A fortunate error

By a fortunate stroke, Father Balasuriya was to reply to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith with objections to how they had read his work. He received the original observations in Italian, and asked for an English translation. He was sent this including footnotes with quotations from his book. He was to later comment, “Then it suddenly dawned on me: This is not what I wrote. Their translation did not correspond to the English text of my book, and I was able to show that in the process of translating English into Italian and then back again, they had actually injected heresy into what I had said.” As a canonical correction, Father Balasuriya was asked sign a profession of faith that had a clause missing, and had been sent to him anonymously. He repeatedly asked for an auspice for this document and was ignored. Instead he signed the profession of faith of Pope Paul VI and despatched that to Rome. It was rejected.

Father Balasuriya was to comment: “Right through this period the superior-general of the Oblates, Father Zago, kept telling me that I should conform and accept the decision of the Church authorities. He advised me that submission was ‘good for my spiritual development’. That remained his line until after my eventual excommunication, when he saw that I was not budging and that something had to be done. The local Oblates were divided: a few thought I had been treated unjustly, a few thought Rome was right, and most of the others did not seem to understand what it was all about. They tended to adopt the ‘spiritual’ line: ‘God’s will has to be accepted’ and It is better to obey than to discuss all these issues’. I was told, ‘You will never succeed with Rome.’

What to do?

In fact, it was interesting to reflect on peoples’ response to the whole affair. It really revealed the different types of personalities that make up the Church. The majority of people have goodwill but they surrender their intelligence to authority. They say that anyone going against authority or contesting a situation is wrong. Others say there must be something wrong with you personally. They try to find all types of reasons: ‘You are not a theologian, you are an economist. You don’t know what you are talking about.’ Some are more sympathetic and say: ‘What has happened to this poor old fellow after fifty-one years in priesthood? He must be disappointed, or disloyal to the pope, or have hang-ups!’ Still others claim, ‘He is too confrontationist’, or ‘proud’, ‘arrogant’ or ‘conceited’. They say, ‘His replies are too long’, or ‘Too negative’, or they ask, ‘Why is he going public?’ Others say you are ‘all emotional’, ‘obstinate’, ‘breaking the promises of ordination’, ‘ambitious’, or ‘not sufficiently supernatural’. It is a strange type of situation; you simply cannot win.

Then there are those who give you advice: ‘The Church is right; therefore, you must accept.’ Or they tell you: ‘The Church is human, you must accept that you are criticised or misunderstood.’ You get these suggestions in various combinations: ‘Live in peace as an old man and look after your health.’ Or: ‘Go to a retreat house and spend four months there.’ I was warned: ‘You should not upset the simple faithful.’ I was advised: ‘You can think these kinds of things, but you should not publish them.’ I was asked: ‘How many people will lose their faith? And you will be responsible for them going to hell.’ ‘What will the Buddhists think?’, or ‘the Marxists?’ I was often told: ‘The pope is the ultimate authority. You must submit’. Then there was the ‘club argument’. It goes : If you are in the club you must accept the rules of the club. If you don’t accept, you can leave. You can always found your own Church.’ Finally, I was told: ‘Just sign the Profession of Faith and get it over and done with. You don’t have to believe it.'”

Conscience First

Father Balasuriya refused. He was later to hear of his excommunication on the BBC radio whilst eating his breakfast cereal. Father Balasuriyas’ refusal was significant. He was trusting his own conscience and confirming what he knew to the the truth, that God is a God of Love and not an engine of oppression. He was to later write:

“A terrible problem of conscience arises. One cannot accept the blunders and untruths perpetrated constantly by Church authorities.They were imposing not only social and ecclesiastical ostracism, but also implicitly threatening eternal damnation. I then had to make a decision — between trust in God and Jesus and fidelity to my conscience, and acceptance of the right of the authorities to impose sanctions which are binding. As I told the BBC television program ‘Absolute Truth’, this all turned out to be ‘a terrible engine of oppression that must be changed’. It is necessary to remedy this situation for the sake of the Church herself, for the sake of the pope and papacy. I saw how much the pope was used as a spiritual bogeyman to oppress people and cow them. I had to make a decision that, come what may, I would not give in to terror tactics. I had long struggled against injustice in civil society, and I had faced death threats from the Tiger Tamils in Sri Lanka. Now it was a question of facing the threat of being cut off from the Christian community and all the services and activities of the Church to which I had given my life. As a result of the excommunication I could not participate in any Church ceremonies such as weddings or funerals, let alone mass or any other liturgical service. On the one hand, I felt like I was being treated as a spiritual leper by people with whom I had lived my life. On the other, I had affirmation, support and solidarity from people from near and far.”

World Outcry

Fr Tissa Balasuriya, OMI
What turned the tables for Father Balasuriya to be reconciled with the Church? Was it the worldwide outcry and the extensive media coverage that followed the excommunication, or was it the work of the Oblates, or what? If fact it was the fruit of several components in the process: the Oblate general house in Rome initiated the reconciliation. They had received a lot of critical letters. There was also a consciousness and conviction among senior people in Rome that they were wrong and had handled the whole thing badly. There was no way that they could escape from the calls for an independent tribunal, even a secular one, to come to grips with the fact that Father Balasuriya had not said what the CDF had accused him of saying. It was also realised that they could not avoid the problems involved with the doctrine of original sin, salvation outside the Church and women’s ordination. Also, the threat to take the Archbishop of Colombo to the civil court for defamation over the pamphlet “Mary and Human Liberation — the Other Side” (a pamphlet issued by the Sri Lankan bishops attacking Father Balasuriya) put pressure on Church authorities to resolve the issue.


Eventually, the Vatican agreed that a process of reconciliation might occur, but insisted that some form of Profession of Faith be made, that regret be expressed, and that he submit future works for Church approval. So the Oblates set up a week-long process in Sri Lanka to explore the possibility of reconciliation. An agreement was reached which was nearly sabotaged by poor media handling. Father Tissa Balasuriya was reconciled with the church by the Archbishop of Colombo on 15 January 1998.

Past is Past

Father Balasuriya’s process with Rome is significant for many reasons. Many spiritual traditions understand that good people meet opposition. Father Balasuriya has done a significant work. In the modern world, the methods of the Spanish Inquisition with conquest of new territories and the sword forcing conversion to Christianity will simply not wash. We have the global village, and the United Nations will support the right of religious freedoms to exist in any country. The Church can not longer present a message of damnation to humanity. It simply will not be believed.

A Church Reflects

Father Balasuriya excommunication and subsequent reconciliation has helped the church to find a new means of presenting its message to places where the Church is a minority. This is crucial where the Church has to co-exist with other religions. God is one but the names of God and the paths to God are many; the truth is one, but the paths to truth are many. In Asia, where Christianity is a minority religion, peoples cannot accept that the whole of humanity is in original sin in the sense that they are alienated from God. Peoples cannot accept that all their forebears are in hell.

Father Balasuriya’s reconciliation has opened a door to allow some sunshine in; the Church may find ways to co-operate with other religions and affirm that all paths lead to the one God, whatever name is used. The question of what salvation is, from what, to what, by whom and how, remains a focal point for Asian theology.

In remaining faithful to his conscience, true to his words and patiently standing up to an Inquisition which had burned heretics, Father Balasuriya has been a loyal son of the Church and a servant of humanity at large, in enabling a means for the church to present Jesus and salvation in a fresh manner to other cultures.

Fr. Balasuriya OMI died in Colombo on January 17, 2013, aged 89. He had been suffering from illness for some time. His funeral was due to take place on January 18, 2013, at the General Cemetery in Borella after Mass at the Fatima Church.


Oblates of Mary Immaculate
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