«Liturgy and the poor, the treasures of the Church»
An interview with Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith chosen by Pope Benedict XVI as Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
Interview with Malcolm Ranjith by Gianni Cardinale
30Days asked him to go into various aspects of his life history.
Don Albert Malcom Ranjith
ALBERT MALCOLM RANJITH PATABENDIGE DON: I was born into a family of good Catholics. Ours was a parish in which the wholesome and good tradition of the Church was lived with joy, where daily mass was a widespread practice among many ordinary faithful. It was run by a good French missionary, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, Father Jean Habestroh, who gave everything for Jesus and for His Church. A true model of dedication. And so, within this intense life of faith in the family and in the parish, the call to devote myself fully to the service of the Lord came early and ripened when I was an altar boy, almost in a natural way.
Where did you study?
RANJITH: In a De La Salle Brothers’ Christian school, an excellent school where the devotional life was very intense. Each day we recited the Rosary, and we were almost all members of the Legion of Mary. I was lucky because in these schools I not only grew in learning and knowledge of culture but also in the spiritual life. And the De La Salle Brothers were exemplary guides.
You attended the national upper seminary in Kandy from 1966 to 1970…
RANJITH: I was eighteen when I entered. At the beginning my father was not very happy because I was the firstborn and only male child. But then, thanks mainly to my mother, my parents agreed to letting me enter the seminary. After studying philosophy and a period of time spent outside the seminary, the first and only cardinal that Sri Lanka had, Thomas Benjamin Cooray, sent me to Rome, to the College of Propaganda Fide, to complete my theological studies.
And you were ordained priest in Rome.
RANJITH: Yes,on 29 June 1975. We were more than 350 deacons ordained by Paul VI for the Holy Year. Afterwards I studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute where, four years later, I gained a licentiate in Sacred Scripture. During those years I also had the good luck to be on an eight-month course at the Jewish University of Jerusalem, where I received from the rabbi teachers a great sense of love toward the Word of God. The Holy Land is full of God and of His love for mankind, a love that in those places one can almost touch with one’s hand. So every day that I breathed that air my priestly vocation was enriched with new spiritual strength.
Who were your teachers?
RANJITH: I was a student of the then Father Carlo Maria Martini, an intelligent and able man: he taught the Gospel of Saint Luke and textual criticism. One of my teachers was another Jesuit, who is now a cardinal, Father Albert Vanhoye. He was my supervisor in 1978 when I wrote the outline of my thesis for the licentiate in Sacred Scripture on the Epistle to the Hebrews. I remember from the Urbanian the figure of Father Carlo Molari: he presented dogmatic doctrine in a different, but interesting key, that aroused debate and opened our eyes to the real value of theology. There were many other good teachers also. I remember Monsignor Stefano Virgulin and the Combonian Father Pietro Chiocchetta: they taught not out of books, but with an intense faith in Jesus.
When you finished your studies you went back to your own country in 1978.
RANJITH: I acted as assistant parish priest in an area that wasn’t very developed, in a fishing village, all Catholics. And there I began to see the connection between theology and the daily life of believers through the great vehicle of the liturgy. Those who celebrate and pray intensely are helped to put what they celebrate into practice. Then I was parish priest again in other fishing villages. They were very poor but they had great faith. And it was precisely through contact with those situations that I discovered the need for the Church to get involved with social justice also. Since then love for the liturgy and love for the poor, two true and proper treasures of the Church, one might say, have been the compass of my life as priest. Even if at the time I would never have dreamt of one day becoming Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship…
How did you help those people?
RANJITH: I made use of the acquaintances I had made in Rome and Germany. I called on my old friends and, thanks be to God, help arrived. It’s thanks also to that work that, in 1983, I became national director of the Pontifical Missionary Works. A post I held for ten years. And in that role I participated in many meetings with the other directors of the Pontifical Missionary Works throughout the world. Those meetings have helped me get a truly Catholic, universal vision of the Church.
In 1991 you were appointed auxiliary bishop of Colombo. How did you experience your first episcopal post?
RANJITH: As auxiliary bishop I was able to be in touch with all the dioceses and so work together with my bishop. I also discovered that the Christians want to feel close to their pastors from whom they expect a way of life that reflects that of the Supreme Pastor, Jesus. During that period, on the request of the episcopate, I coordinated with the government and the Holy See the preparation for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka in January 1995. That, too, was a great experience. It was very moving to see our ordinary faithful crowding round the Pope with a great sense of affection.
The young man Don Ranjith as curate of the fishing village of Kepungoda in the archdiocese of Colombo
RANJITH: No, thirty years earlier, in December 1970, Paul VI, on his return to Rome from Australia, made a stopover in Colombo, where he said mass at the airport. At that time I was a young seminarian and I still remember the joy with which the Catholics, but not only they, gathered round the first Pope to set foot on our island.
At the end of 1995 you were called to lead the new diocese of Ratnapura, where you remained up to 2001.
RANJITH: They asked me to deal with a new diocese, just set up, situated well inland. And I accepted. They were five very happy years, despite the problems there always are, above all when one has to construct a whole structure. I learned to keep close to the clergy – that in Ratnapura was a little split internally – and to the faithful, the majority of whom were and are very poor. It was no longer a matter of fishermen but of workers in the tea plantations.
How many Catholics were there in Ratnapura?
RANJITH: Only two percent. But relations with the rest of the population, in the vast majority Buddhist, were excellent. When I arrived in the diocese as bishop, I went to visit all the Buddhist temples of the city and meet the monks. From the first day we created a body for purposes of discussion and of cooperation in the area, such as social work, where that was possible. I formed firm friendships with some of those monks. Sometimes, when we were building new churches, we have asked advice and suggestions from them.
And yet recently in Sri Lanka there has been debate about laws to prevent conversion from one religion to another…
RANJITH: It is a question debated at national level and due to the years-long war between the Tamil minority, mostly Hindu, and the Singhalese majority, mostly Buddhist, and due also to the dubious activities of various Christian fundamentalist sects. The Singhalese-Buddhist majority is afraid that the minorities, the Tamil-Hindu but also the Christian communities both among the Tamil and also among the Singhalese, are aiming at a dominant position in society, and so is reacting and trying to check it, sometimes creating the sense that they are being oppressed. That on the general level. But when I was bishop of Ratnapura, the situation there was calm not least because it was away from the center of the clash, which is in the northeast of the country.
The year 2000 saw the publication of the Dominus Iesus declaration, on the salvific uniqueness of Jesus. Did it create problems in the dialogue with Buddhism?
RANJITH: To tell the truth, an earlier problem had arisen in 1994, when John Paul II published his book-interview with Vittorio Messori entitled Varcare la soglia della speranza [Crossing the threshold of hope], in which there were phrases about Buddhism that caused reaction. But the people who spread those statements were outsiders who came from abroad. It was they who supplied the prominent headlines in the Sri Lanka newspapers saying that the Pope had attacked Buddhism in his book. There were articles inflaming the issue even if many hadn’t even read the Pope’s book. But a Buddhist monk, whom I knew, wrote in the Daily News, the main English language newspaper of Sri Lanka, an article in defense of the Holy Father. The monk wrote that, according to the sayings of Buddha, all teachings are to be subjected to criticism, including his own. And hence the Pope had every right to point out what according to him was negative in the Buddhist religion. Paradoxically various Catholic theologians were more critical of the Pope than the Buddhists themselves. The same thing happened more or less with the Dominus Iesus: the worst attacks came from Catholic theologians and not from others. Often in these things one lets oneself be led by one’s emotions rather than by analysis of the facts. And so unpleasant and pointless situations get created.
However the Buddhist leaders didn’t come to meet John Paul II during his visit to Sri Lanka in January 1995…
RANJITH: Not the leaders, but very many Buddhist believers participated joyfully. I must point out that the main altar at which the Pope said mass, in the open space of Galle Face, had been designed and built by a Buddhist monk, a friend of ours, who refused in that way to be manipulated by others.
Let us return to the present. What do you think of the attempt of bring in laws against conversion in your country?
RANJITH: First of all we Christians say clearly to the Buddhist majority that we have no desire to subvert the religious and cultural traditions to which the majority of the people of Sri Lanka belong. And then, even if a law of that sort gets approved, the consequences may not be altogether negative. It will mean that the Lord wants to test our faith and that with His help I don’t doubt the faith of our Christian people will grow stronger.
Don Ranjith during a meeting to promote the childhood mission, when Don Ranjith was director of the Pontifical Missionary works in Sri Lanka
RANJITH: In 1995, as well as being of bishop of Ratnapura I had also become general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference and president of the Bishops’ Commission for justice and the peace. Along with the vice-president of the Commission, the bishop of Mannar, Joseph Rayappu, a Tamil, I worked hard to get the Colombo government and the Tamil Tigers around the negotiation table and that led to the ceasefire, broken, alas, this very summer. I remember that with Monsignor Rayappu we managed to take 26 Buddhist monks into the area controlled by the Tamil to try to break the hostility animating both the Buddhists and the Tamil against each other because of the atrocities committed by both in the past. The encounter between the two groups was a very happy experience. Precisely while I was very busy in those peace initiatives, the apostolic nuncio called me to tell me of the Pope’s decision to nominate me assistant secretary to Propaganda Fide and to ask whether I consented. I said yes to the Pope’s request. So I came to Rome to carry on my mission in the Congregation under the guidance of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe.
Where you remained for about two years.
RANJITH: It was a very interesting period. For me it was a bit like a continuation of the work that I’d already done as director of the Pontifical Missionary Works in Sri Lanka. Almost two years in which I tried to be as genuine, loyal and sincere in my work as possible. I tried to make the most of the role of the national directors of the Pontifical Missionary Works in the varied local Churches, and to ensure absolute transparency in all the delicate financial questions concerning those works.
On 29 April 2004 your nomination as apostolic nuncio to Indonesia and East Timor was made public.
RANJITH: After a period of reflection I was asked to become apostolic nuncio. I accepted with great enthusiasm. Even if it was a new experience for me, in a field that was still mysterious to me. As bishop I had collaborated with the nunciature in Colombo, but I had not had the special training that nuncios have. I would say that it was a very rich experience and I tried to be close to that Church and to its pastors and so show the closeness of the Holy Father to them.
It was precisely during your stay in Jakarta that South East Asia was hit by the terrible tsunami. What was that experience like?
RANJITH: The archbishop of Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a dear friend of mine, was staying with me at the time. When we heard of the tragedy, we abandoned the program already arranged for him and we went to Banda Aceh. It was an extremely difficult journey, but we managed to arrive and visit the stricken areas. It was a terrible spectacle: death and destruction everywhere. We spent two days with missionaries, we slept where we could, without running water and without light. But we were content to be near the small Catholic community of Banda Aceh and also of the island of Nias. The voice of Cardinal Schönborn speaking on the European media from the area and telling of his experience was also decisive for the solidarity shown from all over the world. Later through the Caritas network and the help of the Holy See we managed to set up a solid aid program for those peoples. The Indonesian Caritas was inactive and so with the help of the cardinal archbishop of Jakarta and of Caritas internationalis we managed to reactivate that ecclesial body and to set up aid projects for the rebuilding of those areas. I remember that we took part in endless but important meetings thanks to which we were able to make our contribution as Catholic Church to the people stricken by the monstrous tragedy.
Shortly before your nomination as nuncio, L’Osservatore Romano of April 26-27 2004 printed an article of yours commenting on the Redemptionis Sacramentum instruction «on some things that must be observed and avoided concerning the Holy Eucharist», published shortly before by the Congregation for the Divine Worship in agreement with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith…
RANJITH: I wrote the article on the request of the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze. I had found the Redemptionis Sacramentum very useful and necessary, and hence I was very glad to comment on it.
It was a prophetic article, so to speak, given the post you hold today…
RANJITH: I don’t know. But as I’ve already said, I’m always interested in the liturgy above all in its pastoral aspects, and I’ve always tried to read and document myself on those aspects. And I remember that when I happened to meet the then Cardinal Ratzinger, we often ended by talking about liturgy.
How did you meet Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger?
RANJITH: In connection with a question concerning Sri Lanka, that of the theologian Tissa Balasuriya, who had written a book, Mary and human liberation, which contained a theological analysis hardly compatible with Catholic doctrine. I was a young bishop then, just appointed, I took an interest in the book and brought together an episcopal commission specially created to scrutinize the text. In 1994, at the conclusion of the Commission’s work, the Bishops’ Conference released a communiqué in which the faithful were told that the book did not mirror the doctrine of the Church. The communiqué provoked a worldwide press campaign against us and in favor of Father Balasuriya. The controversy was so loud that Rome also began to investigate. And so I was summoned to the Vatican to explain what was happening to the Pope and to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger. Father Balasuriya’s claims were so serious that in January 1997 they were formally condemned by the Congregation and he himself, since he wouldn’t withdraw them, suffered excommunication latae sententiae. An excommunication that was withdrawn the following year, after a solemn public declaration by Father Balasuriya.
So it was in that context that your familiarity with Cardinal Ratzinger began…
RANJITH: Yes, I met him several times and on those occasions I had the chance to tell him of my impressions and my concerns as bishop especially in regard to the question of inter-religious dialogue and also liturgical questions. When I was then called to Propaganda Fide, I had the opportunity of meeting Cardinal Ratzinger more frequently, also during everyday business of the department to which he also belonged. So, apart from being an avid reader of his books, I learned in person to esteem his human gifts. I’ve always seen a great theologian in him and in his words not a pedant, but essentially a person close to the Lord.
So you were in Jakarta a little less than two years. On 10 December 2005 your nomination as Secretary of Divine Worship was made known. Were you expecting the new call to Rome?
RANJITH: I remember that Benedict XVI summoned me to an audience at Castel Gandolfo during the summer of 2005, it was mid September, and he asked me whether I wanted to accept the nomination as secretary of the Congregation for the Divine Worship. I said yes. I’ve always had an interest in the liturgy, which I’ve always considered the key of the relationship between faith and life, because as the liturgy is celebrated so the Christian faith is lived. On the one hand the liturgy externalizes faith, on the other it feeds it. To be able to offer my modest contribution on this point, which is something close to the heart of Pope Benedict, has filled my heart with joy.
Monsignor Ranjith with Father Uwe Michael Lang, author of the book Rivolti al signore. L’orientamento nella preghiera liturgica [Turned to the Lord. Orientation in liturgical prayer] (Cantagalli, Siena), at the book launch, 27 April 2006
RANJITH: I had already read the book and the very fine preface by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. Then when I received the invitation, I immediately accepted. Because it was the occasion to create a very positive debate within the Church. There’s a lot of talk of the faithful’s participation in the liturgy. But do the faithful participate more if the priest celebrates versus populum or if he celebrates toward the altar? It’s not in fact certain that participation is more active if the priest celebrates toward the people; it may be that then people become distracted. As is it real participation when, at the sign of peace, great confusion is created in church, with some priests at times going to give their greeting down to the rear pews? Is it the actuosa participatio, wanted by the Vatican Council II, or simply a big distraction that doesn’t at all help to follow the subsequent moment of the mass with devotion – apart from the fact that at times the saying of the Agnus Dei is forgotten… I repeat, Father Lang’s book has been and is a most useful provocation, starting from the introduction in which Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that the Council never asked for the abolition of Latin nor the revolutionizing of the direction of liturgical prayer…
An interview of yours in La Croix of 25 June, entitled The liturgical reform of Vatican II has never taken off, attracted a lot of attention. Can you clarify your views on the liturgical reform put into effect after Vatican Council II?
RANJITH: Those words have been taken out of context. It isn’t that I judge negatively everything that has happened after the Council. I said instead that the result expected from the liturgical reform has not shown itself. One wonders whether liturgical life, the participation of the faithful in sacred functions, is greater and better today compared to that present in the ’fifties. There has been criticism of the fact that before the Council the faithful didn’t really participate in the mass, but were passively present or engaged in personal devotions. But do the faithful today really participate in a more spiritually elevated and personal way? Did it really happen that many who were outside the Church queued up to get into our churches with the new liturgies? Or hasn’t it happened instead that many have gone away and that the churches have emptied? What reform are we talking about therefore?
The result of secularization…
RANJITH: Certainly, but the situation is also the outcome of the way in which the liturgy has been treated or, rather, mistreated … In practice, according to me, the sacrosanct expectations of the Council for a better understood and therefore more spiritually fecund liturgy, have still not been realized. And so there is still much to do, so that the churches fill again with new faithful who really feel touched by the grace of the Lord during the sacred liturgies. In a secularized world, instead of seeking to raise hearts toward the greatness of the Lord, the effort, rather, I believe, has been that of lowering the divine mysteries to a trivial level.
Monsignor Ranjith, just after being consecrated auxiliary bishop of Colombo, is greeted in his native parish
RANJITH: I never met Monsignor Marcel Lefebvre because of the age difference, because he belonged to another epoch. But I certainly have had contact with some of his followers. But I’m not a fan of the Lefebvrians. Unfortunately they still haven’t re-entered into full communion with the Holy See, but what they sometimes say about the liturgy they say for good reason. And therefore they’re a goad that should make us reflect on what we’re doing. That doesn’t mean that I can be described as an adherent or a friend of the Lefebvrians. I share some points with the so-called No-globals on social justice, but that doesn’t mean I’m one of their adherents… On the other hand the Tridentine mass is not the private property of the Lefebvrians. It is a treasure of the Church and of us all. As the Pope told the Roman Curia last year, Vatican Council II was not a break, but a renewal in continuity. One does not throw away the past, but one grows on it.
Does that mean that the so-called mass of Saint Pius V has never in reality been abolished?
RANJITH: The fact that the Holy See has recently approved the institution, in Bordeaux, of a society of apostolic life of pontifical law characterized by the fact of using exclusively pre-Council liturgical books [the Institute of the Good Shepherd which includes some former “Lefebvrians”, ed.] unambiguously means that the mass of Saint Pius V cannot be considered abolished by the new so-called missal of Paul VI.