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"Mage Naththala Dugiyaa Bath Kana Daaya".....and The Father in the temple

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he 1983 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts

BIOGRAPHY of Marcelline Jayakody

Remembering his childhood in Sri Lanka at the turn of the century, Father MARCELLINE JAYEKODY wrote many years later:

"In our home, in moments of plenty or penury, my mother always spoke of 'When Nattal [Christmas] comes...' MY father� just a village farmer with a house to live in and a small farm to work in�smiled twirling his silver chain around his fingers.

He went to the farm. She went for firewood and water, I hanging on her. I may have been around four.

And now Nattal came at last. It was, I conjecture, December 24th 1906. MY mother was cooking kevum [sweet pastry]. My father brought bright clothes. The two looked wonderful in them, smelled fresh, rich and young which they were.

It was ten o'clock in the night. We all dressed. My father lit a torch as we set out.

Other torches joined us until it looked like a torch-light procession. Friends talked and women whispered. The farmers talked of beans and brinjals [eggplants].

Each family thought that they looked the best. 'Our silks rustled more, didn't they?' may have been one of the many questions. I looked around and felt proud of my mother. She was the prettiest of them all. She had no jewels. She needed none, for she was one.

We heard the church bells. It was eleven in the night. The church bell had some magic always, those days. It was considered to be the voice of God. The chatter stopped till the peal was over

There were eight U-shaped glass lamps four in a row in the church. They hung on ropes from the crossbeams and were lit by oil. When they swung to and fro the shadows danced.

People moved about in this Arabian night dream. Cloth-and-jacketed women, ringed and chained and betel stained, floated into the church. Some sat close to the wall so as to lean on it. Others sat under the lights to be seen, tucking their legs under like ducks . . . . Babies cried, and children ran around, some blowing tin whistles . . . .

The third bell rang. Eleven thirty. The choir seated under the main door broke into song. The violinist was there. The drummer was there. The singer was there. All three sang ignorant of sharps and flats. It sounded wonderful . . . .It was my first lesson in singing and rhythm.

I too found a place on the singing mat. Not for me the mass, the sermon, the candle lighting, for there was my paradise.

At midnight the bell rang and the mass began. The priest officiated. The annavi [lay reader] read. The choir sang. Introit. Kyrie. Gloria. Credo. Sanctus. Agnus Dei. Communion.

The last blessing was given and then the rush to the crib to kiss or touch the bambino, to light a candle or to drop a penny. So vivid and still it was.

We were the last to leave. My mother took me to the crib, made me kneel and whispered, 'You will be a priest one day and say a Christmas mass for me. I want to live to see it. Alas she didn't. She died when I was sixteen."

MARCELLINE JAYEKODY, the author of this evocative article and of thousands of essays, poems and songs plumbing the wellsprings of Sinhala culture and traditions, was born on June 3, 1902 at Dankotuwa village, located near Negombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Like many along the western coast his father's family had been converted to Roman Catholicism during the period of Portuguese colonial rule (1505-1664), and the boy received the foreign baptismal name of MARCELLINE.

Joseph Jayekody, his father, was a vegetable farmer and herbal doctor and his mother, Sarah Serasinhe, a hardworking housewife. "From my tall, dark-skinned father I got my height and from my small, fair-complexioned mother my skin," JAYEKODY remarks. The family moved to his father's home village of Pannala when the boy was about one year old, and when he was four to nearby Sandalankawa, his mother's village. Both moves were prompted by a search for employment and better land. The farm they finally settled on was about an acre in extentfully sufficient for an industrious couple to make a living on.

Since his only sibling, a brother, was five years older than he, JAYEKODY was often left alone with his mother who gave him his own way. Therefore he was eight before he began attending the village school at Madampe�a three-mile walk from his home. Even then, he remembers, "I used to do whatever I liked and the teachers couldn't bend me down." His church superiors would probably agree that this was to be a lifelong trait.

JAYEKODY was only 10 when a village celebration led him to choose his priestly vocation. When the newly ordained Fr. Arthur Jayamanne came back "to show his people the beauty of a son of the place who had become a priest," JAYEKODY reminisces, "I was the first 'victim.' " In the welcoming procession that met the young priest two miles from the church�as he came riding in a big horse cart�JAYEKODY was flag carrier because he was a tall, handsome boy. Seeing the whole community turn out to greet the priest, he remembers asking himself, "if I get the chance why not become one like that?" He knew his family's finances would not allow him to study at a seminary, but the idea grew, and he was delighted to be one of the youths chosen by Fr. Jayamanne to serve as an altar boy during mass. "In those days," JAYEKODY recounts, "the mass was in Latin, so I was given a book to learn the Latin responses. I never knew what they meant, I simply mumbled, but I learned them by heart and served mass every day for a month." By then satisfied that his faithful altar boy wanted to become a priest, Fr. Jayamanne offered to take the 10 year old with him when he was assigned to the parish of Bolawalana, near Negombo.

At the Madampe village school instruction had been entirely in Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese, the major ethnic group on the Island. Now, during the year he spent with Jayamanne, JAYEKODY learned a smattering of English and the elements of Latin. He was not yet 12 when, with his parents' ready permission, Jayamanne took him to Colombo and enrolled him at St. Joseph's College, one of the leading Catholic schools, and arranged for him to live at St. Aloysius' Seminary.

The student body at St. Joseph's was about 1,500. Founded in 1896 by a French bishop, the school was run by French missionary priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) order. Instruction through high school was provided in English.

At St. Joseph's the priests were very strict, JAYEKODY recalls. "We were taught to spurn what was Sinhala and intrinsically national and to despise Buddhism. Boys caught entering or even looking at Buddhist temples�where the majority of Sinhalese worshipped�were punished." Growing to early adulthood under the tutelage of French and other foreign priests�from whom he learned English, French, Latin, Greek and some German, but no Sinhala, and who openly looked down on the people and culture of Sri Lanka�JAYEKODY felt increasingly that his people were being separated by a religious wall. To these same priests he gives thanks, however, for nurturing his innate sense of music. "In the villages of my childhood," he explains, "there were troubadors, the groups with the violin and the drum. It was lovely flowing music . . . I heard it and did it, first by watching others and then by guidance. " At St. Joseph's he was introduced to Western classical and church music, and learned to play the piano, organ and violin.

It was a strain for his father to pay the fees and at the end of his sixth year at St. Joseph's (1913-1918) he was told that his accounts was in arrears and he must leave the school. He would be kept on the rolls, the rector said, and, if he could manage to complete his senior year study on his own, he could return to take the examination. He had no tutor but was able to borrow books and in 1919 came back to St. Joseph's to pass his senior examination with high marks and thus be exempted from the London matriculation. That same year he entered St. Bernard's Seminary where he was one of 21 students training for the priesthood. Called before the archbishop, whose approval was required for entry into the seminary, he was asked one question: "What is your caste?" Fortunately he belonged to the Goygama (highest) caste, for the church had found that villagers refused to kneel before or receive communion from a lower caste priest. For JAYEKODY himself, education and priesthood meant discarding caste considerations, and during his lifetime that prejudice in the church has disappeared.

At St. Bernard's, also an Oblate school, JAYEKODY became more acutely aware of the wall between the foreign-sponsored Christians and the native Buddhists. He knew by then that Buddhist monks were the best Sinhala scholars, but seminarians who dared suggest studying under them were reprimanded. Neither were seminarians allowed to visit Buddhist relatives on their festive occasions. JAYEKODY felt this prohibition intimately because the family of his mother�who had been converted to Catholicism when she married his father�was Buddhist. He knew that Buddhism was not as bad as the priests tried to make it appear, and observed that Anglican and other Protestant denominations were less restrictive; nevertheless a separation existed between them and the Buddhists as well.

However the "sense of superiority" of the French priests rankled him most, particularly when he heard them speak of coming as missionaries "to the savages." He was incensed when a group of French brothers sent to St. Bernard's brought with them needles, thread and nails, thinking the Sinhalese were too primitive to have these elementary items. Moreover, the priests were insensitive to the feelings of the seminarians: "If there were ten native and only two French priests, all of the conversation was conducted in French and we had to follow as best we could. That kind of separation was always there; they treated us as second-rate."

Inner rebellion, fueled by the loftiness of the French Oblates, led him to choose for his future apostolate breaking down the wall between the Sinhalese Christians (particularly Roman Catholics) and Sinhalese Buddhists. (Of Sri Lanka's population of 15.2 million, 7.5 percent are Christian; 7.6 percent Muslim; 15.5 percent Hindu and 69.3 percent Buddhist.) As a priest he vowed he would not simply say mass, hear confessions and perform other priestly duties, but would try to link his religion to Sinhalese culture and bring his people together in mutual understanding and respect. It was an apostolate that would win admiration and affection for him among his countrymen, but generate misunderstanding and bitterness toward him among some of his church colleagues.

His mother had died in 1918 while he was a student at St. Joseph's and with her death, he wrote, "the joy went out of my life. I brooded. Then like wild weeds grew in me a bit of song, a bit of music, a bit of poetry and a world of dreams." The sense of loss persisted but gradually, he said, "someone else was taking her place�the Madonna [the mother of Christ]. Almost in no time she had captured my soul. . . .my only Her was my mother and the Madonna. Some of my best songs are about Her."

Ordained in the Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate on December 21, 1927, the new priest chose to work in the missions�as the Oblates referred to the parishes they were responsible for�rather than to teach in the schools. Each mission consisted of 6,000-7,000 parishioners. For the five years or so that a newly ordained priest must serve as an apprentice to learn the technique of pastoral work, JAYEKODY worked under French priests at Kotahena (1928-1930) and Kandana (1931-1933). At both missions, suffering from the condescension shown by his superiors to him and to his countrymen, he continued to develop interests and talents in order to maintain his self esteem. At Kotahena he taught himself photography and began to take, develop and print his own pictures. Music, which was one of the acceptable interests of a priest, remained a source of consolation. "There are moments when a question mark can be visibly seen by the inward eye," he has said, "and I could always find the answer in music�just humming, strumming and vamping tunes from nadagams [traditional plays] or American Negro spirituals . . . . I got over my moods with music." But it was "a fight." "These three fingers," he says, holding up the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, "and a pen saved me." His real release came in writing�songs, poetry and essays�for the church and the popular media.

Fr. JAYEKODY was given his own parish at Paiyagala in 1933 and served at one-priest missions for the next 16 years�Duwa, Katana, Maggona. Soon after taking up his duties at Paiyagala he composed his first hymn, "Sapiri Sama" (Full of Grace), and quietly began to bring the Sinhala language into church singing. "I enjoyed writing verses in Sinhala, that was my family heritage," he explains, "and when the day came to write a hymn to be sung in church the words and music came fluently enough." From the beginning his themes were not restricted to the theological; he also found inspiration in all of nature. Speaking with his parishioners in Sinhala, he renewed his contact with his mother tongue and became actively aware of the motivations and cultural roots of his village people.

At Paiyagala he also began to write regularly in English for the Ceylon Catholic Messenger and for two major newspapers, the Times of Ceylon and the Observer. For these articles, with which he often supplied photographs he had taken and developed, he was paid from Rs.100 to Rs.150 each, "which meant a lot in those days." In the parish he had a place to live and received a "maintenance," which included income from coconut trees and other plants on the church property, members' contributions, and a subsidy from the archbishop, if necessary, to make up a total allowance of around Rs.600 per month. The earnings from his writings he kept separately in a bank account in Colombo. He recognized that priests are not supposed to have personal incomes, but he banked the money for future needs.

One such need was the long-term support of two nieces. When his brother died in 1946, leaving three children by his second marriage, JAYEKODY accepted responsibility for the two youngest. He arranged for them to study in convent schools, for one to attend the university, and "got them married." Both are now teachers.

In 1949 Fr. JAYEKODY was relieved of parish duties and assigned to Colombo as editor of the Catholic Messenger and its Sinhala sister paper, Gnanartha Pradipaya (Light of Wisdom). He had no problems with the Messenger for which he had been writing for 16 years, but he found the Sinhala paper "horribly bad." Gnanartha carried one and two month old news, and items such as, "a parish priest celebrated his feast day." Although these articles meant little to a reader, "Catholics had to buy it because it was a Catholic paper." To improve the standard of Gnanartha JAYEKODY began writing articles of general interest, but was informed by Buddhist friends that his Sinhala was "colloquial and ungrammatical." He was fluent in the vernacular as a result of his association with villagers, but he had no grasp of the complicated literary language of the educated elite.

It was his luck ("I have always been lucky," he asserts), to be able to call upon three great Sinhala scholars�Jayantha Weerasekara, Amarasiri Gunawardane and Arisen Ahubudu�who were learned as well in Sanskrit and Pali, the two languages upon which Sinhala is based. Though the three men were working as editors and teachers, they graciously came to his home during their spare hours to instruct him in the Sinhala classics�which had their roots, of course, in Buddhist culture. "How good those three fine Buddhist scholars were to a Catholic priest," JAYEKODY recalls warmly, and adds, "we liked one another very much."


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