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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez - creator of Catholic culture in Sri Lanka
 

ON July 17, Catholics commemorate Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez, who could be considered as the creator of Catholic Culture in Sri Lanka.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez was born in the year 1676 in Goa and was ordained a priest of the Oratorian Order in 1700. He relinquished the post of lecturer at the University of Goa, to join blessed Joseph Vaz in the missionary activity in Sri Lanka.

When Blessed Joseph Vaz landed in Sri Lanka in 1687 under the guise of a coolie, Catholic activity had almost disappeared in the island due to the Dutch persecution.

The Sinhala and Tamil works of the Portuguese missionaries were not there. He realised that the faithful should be provided with sufficient Sinhala and Tamil prayers and religious literature more specially because, the Catholic priests were not allowed to officiate in the Dutch territory. He entrusted this task to his assistant, companion and successor Fr. Jacome Gonasalvez.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez like Blessed Joseph Vaz, was a Konkani Brahmin by lineage.

He had some knowledge of Tamil when he landed in the country. He improved this knowledge by reading Tamil classics. He studied Sinhala classics under Buddhist bhikkus and scholarly laymen like Gaskone Adikaram. At the same time he could appreciate folk literature, art and music.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is accredited with 22 books in Sinhala, 15 in Tamil four in Portuguese and one in Dutch. Although he was a foreigner, rather than translating or imitating Christian works in the West, he presented original works to suit the cultural traits of our country.

The most admired Sinhala prose work of Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is "Deva Veda Puranaya". It is a compendium of sacred history with stories from the Bible. His masterpiece in poetry is "Veda Kavya" which is a splendid attempt at a synthesis between Christian themes and Sinhala poetic diction.

In presentation and in style it resembles the popular works like "Guttilaya", "Buduguna Alankaraya" and "Kusa Jathakaya".

"Christiani Alayam" written by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is supposed to be the oldest Tamil prayer book in Sri Lanka. The most popular Tamil work of Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is "Viyakula Pirasangam" which contains soul-stirring sermons on the Passion of Christ.

Sinhala and Tamil Catholics in Sri Lanka owe their Christian vocabulary to Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez. He evolved a langauge and style to express Christian ideas and ideals to suit both the erudite and the commoner.

It was Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez who wrote popular prayers like "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" in Sinhala and Tamil. These are still in use and have stood the test of time.

It was Fr. Jacome Gonaslavez who introduced "Pasan" a form of plaintive chants still sung during the season of Lent. He embodied them in a book called "Pasan Potha" or the Book of Dirges.

The Tamil counterpart of Pasan known as "Oppari" was also composed by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez. They contain pathos said to be seldom found in prose or verse in any langauge.

An accomplished musician Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez composed Sinhala and Tamil hymns set to Carnatic ragas and folk music well known to the soil.

His work "Mangala Geethaya" (Canticles for Festivals) contained hymns set to folk music found in Seth Kavi, Nelum Kavi and Pel Kavi. The concluding hymns were composed in the Jayamngala metre.

It was Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez who evolved a chanting style for our prayers. Even today his prayers like "Kayaduskara Prarthanava" is chanted, it moves the faithful to the depths of their soul with devotion. Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez has also written a series of sermons similar to Buddhist "Pin Anumodanava" which Catholics could chant at funerals to communicate merit to the dead.

The influence of Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez is seen in Nadagam, the earliest form of recognised drama in Sri Lanka. Some of the themes for Catholic Nadagams were drawn from the works of Fr. Jacome Gonslavez. His compositions are also found in lyrics and songs of Nadagama.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalves who came to the island in 1706 spent the rest of his life - 36 years - full of religious and allied cultural activity in Sri Lanka.

During this period, while teaching and preaching all over the country he also set about a synthesis between Christian ideas and ideals and indigenous cultural patterns.

Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez passed away in this island on July 17, 1742 and his mortal remains were buried at the St. Mary's Church, Bolawatta.

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