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
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
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
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
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
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.