by Rajan Philips
“My legs have carried me for 90 years. Now they have earned their well-deserved rest”, he would tell his visitors at the Jesuit House in Akkara Panaha, Negombo, where he spent the last years of his life confined to his bed and a wheel chair. Now his entire mortal coil has earned its rest. Fr. Paul Caspersz, a priest of the order of the Society of Jesus for 65 years, died last Wednesday at the age of 92. His funeral was in Kandy, where he lived for over 40 years, and he was laid to rest at the Lewella Jesuit cemetery.
It was difficult to see Fr Paul unable to walk, although he was otherwise his usual self. Tall and handsome, he was well proportioned in physical appearance. He was equally well adjusted in his character and in his bearing. He was inspired as a teenager to become a Jesuit and to go to Oxford as a Jesuit “after reading a page or two about Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits in the context of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation”, in the unlikeliest of sources: ‘A History of England’ by T.F. Tout. He accomplished both and remained true to his faith, his celibate life, and the fierce commitment of Jesuits to the first cause that inspired them. Fr. Paul was much more.
Along with Kumar David, Marshal Fernando and many others, I belong to a group of people who have known Fr Paul for over 40 years ever since he started the Satyodaya institute and movement in Kandy. I am privileged to write these words of appreciation on their behalf as well as mine. We were associated with Fr Paul quite closely in the world of the secular rather than the domain of the sacred. He would have scoffed at the false dichotomy because to him one was suffused with the other.
At the time of his ordination in 1952, in Naples, Italy, he was the youngest person in the world to be ordained a Jesuit priest. I did not know this until it came up during my last visit to see him, in August last year. The record may still be intact because the process of ‘Jesuit formation’, or training, is the most rigorous and the longest program, usually lasting well over 10 years, for preparing priests in the Catholic Church. The formation involves about four stages of training and the taking of multiple vows, and one is usually well past 30 by the time of ordination. Fr Paul started his ‘formation’ at 17 and was ordained at the age of 27. He politely attributed it to luck because he was allowed to skip the ‘Regency stage’ during which Jesuit brothers work in Jesuit schools and institutions. When I suggested it might have been due to his being an exceptional student, he chuckled.
In his own words, what attracted him to the Jesuits was “their spirit of being spiritual in the very fortresses of the secular, their sturdiness and what seemed to me a complete absence of pious sentimentality, the breadth of their vision which seemed to encompass the whole universe.” He would later discover through his own experience that the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a false distinction. What he wrote in his obituary of Fr Thani Nayagam, 37 years ago, is entirely applicable to Fr Caspersz: “As a humanist, scholar and priest, he was in the line of great priests and monks of our time and every time who have immersed themselves in the secular because to them the secular was suffused with the sacred.” It must be added that their accomplished immersion in the secular was often despite the Catholic Church, but never in defiance of the Church.
Fr Paul’s life was a life of inspiration and discipline. A highly inspired life unfolded from one stage to another as if it had been carefully pre-scripted. The Jesuit training was transparent. He had deep wells of inspiration, but he also had the discipline to trim the flights of inspiration to meaningful goals, the determination to achieve them, and the method to achieve them more perfectly than most people. What is unique about him is that he sustained this exceptionally high level of inspiration and achievement for over 70 years from the time he joined the Jesuit Noviciate at the tender age of 17 to the day he retired to the Jesuit Retirement Home at the ripe old age of 90. For someone who lost his father when he was a three month old baby, Fr Paul lived a long and healthy life, never afflicted by any serious illness, except, as he would jokingly say in later years, “the incurable illness of aging.” His last years would have been painful, but he endured them with priestly forbearance and prayers in the company of fellow Jesuit Fathers. His only regret, he said, “I am not able to meet as many people as I have been used to as a daily routine.”
New Culture, New Society
In 2005, the Jesuits of the Sri Lanka Province honoured Fr Paul Caspersz by publishing his selected writings as a beautifully edited book, entitled: “A New Culture for a New Society – Selected Writings 1945-2005.” The book was released on December 2, 2005, as a mark of the Sri Lankan Jesuits’ con-celebration of the triple jubilee of the Society of Jesus: the 450th death anniversary of Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit founder; and the 500th birth anniversaries of Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, two of St. Ignatius’s most famous companions. On the same day there was a global gathering in Loyola, Spain, to celebrate the triple jubilee. For those of us who knew Fr Paul and his work, the book provides a clear window to a life time of inspirations, organization and achievements. Thirty six out of more than 300 writings have been selected and fittingly divided into five sections: Plantations, The Inter-Ethnic Question, Socio-spiritual Issues, Personal Reflections and Memories, and Development.
The book outlines his life trajectory: early education at St Benedict’s College and St Joseph’s College, Colombo; Philosophy at the Jesuit noviciate in Shembaganur, Madurai, Tamil Nadu; Theology and Ordination in 1952, Naples, Italy; Politics and Economics at Oxford; teacher and Principal at St Aloysius’ College, Galle (1958-71); and the founding of Satyodaya with Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, in Kandy, in 1972. From his Reflections and Memories, we learn about his upbringing by a strong mother who became a widow after the sudden death of her 34-year old husband. Fr Paul was a three month old baby. As a teenager he told his mother that he wanted to become a Jesuit and go to Oxford to study, emulating Edmund Campion, the English Jesuit, he had read about in Tout’s history book. He kept his promises to his mother and to himself.
When he returned from Oxford, he was well prepared to play a leading role in the field of education that the Jesuits are famous for in every country in the world. But Fr Paul was also well prepared to play a path breaking role in the wider Sri Lankan society. He had no precedent to follow, and he has set an example that will be daunting for others to emulate. After a long stint at St. Aloysius’ College in Galle, Fr Paul started a new chapter in his life with co-founding, with Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, the institute of Satyodaya (literally, the dawn of truth) in Kandy, dedicated to the purpose of “Social Research and Encounter.” For 40 years, he presided over, expanded, worked with and trained hundreds of young women and men at Satyodaya.
The physical expansion of Satyodaya is a testament to Fr Paul’s meticulous planning and organizational abilities. He transformed an old bungalow on a hill into a complex of multiple buildings with winding access roads, a self-supporting farm and its own sources of sustainable energy. The institute provides accommodation to volunteers, activists and visiting researchers and scholars. Equally impressive are the library which he carefully cultivated and nurtured, and the auditorium and training rooms for conferences and workshops. Whatever original intentions that Fr Paul and Bishop Leo might have had for their fledgling institute, they were soon overtaken by political events and social crises first in the tea plantations and later in the entire country. Fr Paul led Satyodaya’s responses to these broader crises providing both humanitarian help and political organization.
Foundational to these responses was the Marxist-Christian Dialogue, which Fr Paul and Kumar David organized as a two-day residential program at the Lewella Jesuit House, in May 1974. As Fr Paul has recorded several times, the event took a practical turn after Hector Abhayavardhana’s inspirational after-dinner intervention, that “the liberation of Tamil estate workers from their own material alienation was the necessary precondition of the liberation of all the people of Sri Lanka from their general socio-historical alienation.” Out sprang the Co-ordination Secretariat for the Plantation Areas, to help both the Tamil estate workers and Sinhalese peasants in adjacent villages affected by food scarcity and the unintended consequences of the 1972 and 1975 land reform measures.
In 1977, Fr Paul responded to the island-wide communal riots by launching the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE). He was the moving force behind all the activities and initiatives of MIRJE, its fact finding missions to Jaffna, its publications and public communications to government and political leaders. When the forces of chauvinism and exclusion became too powerful to push back, Fr Paul did not give up. He kept up the fire of hope burning in spite of efforts by the state to silence him and close Satyodaya. He who founded and built the institute, protected it from being eliminated, and has left it in the good hands of the Jesuits to continue to be of service to the community.
In 1999, Fr Paul joined a group of us – Silan Kadirgamar, Kumar David, Marshal Fernando and I, to felicitate Hector Abhayavardhana on his 80th birthday. “Arma verumque cano (Now is the time to praise men)”, Fr Paul opened the proceedings quoting Virgil. We were able to return the favour in 2005 when Fr Paul turned 80. To end on a personal note, Fr Paul was one of three public figures who had an influence on my intellectual and cultural development. The other two were Fr Xavier Thani Nayagam and Hector Abhayavardhana. Fr Thani was also my maternal uncle and Hector Abhyavardhana was Sri Lanka’s foremost Marxist intellectual. They did not know one another, but Fr Paul knew them independently and was a good friend of both. I was fortunate and I am thankful to have been associated with them in one way or another. Each one was unique, but Fr Paul’s uniqueness is especially fascinating. He was a Jesuit socialist.