INTRODUCTION: [Editor's Note: After our editorial last week, we are so pleased and privileged to have permission to bring you what happened "beneath the surface" in the reconciliation of Father Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, who was extradicted from Holy Mother Church by Rome on January 2, 1997 and was embraced fully again this past January 15, 1998. The story is the most accurate anywhere for it is written by Father Tom Singer, OMI, the Vicar Provincial of the Central Province for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He was called in by a colleague to be the facilitator and...well, let's let Father Tom tell it...


by Father Tom Singer, OMI

     By now, many of you have heard of Father Tissa Balasuriya the Sri Lankan Oblate who was challenged by the Vatican for doctrinal positions in his book, Mary and Human Liberation.

      Last year, on January 2, Fr. Balasuriya was notified on his excommunication. This January 15, during a moving ceremony in the private chapel of the Archbishop of Colombo) Sri Lanka), Fr. Tissa was officially reconciled with the Church. I was privileged to be present for that event and have been asked to share some of my impressions.

No joking matter

      My involvement began a week before Christmas with what I thought was a practical joke, Father Ron Carignan, our General Councillor for the United States, called from Rome and asked if I wanted "to get some frequent flyer miles." Ron is a personal friend, so I listened with a curious but also suspicious ear! He explained that a "reconciliation team" was going to Sri Lanka in early January to meet with Fr. Balasuriya.

      The reconciliation team, Fr. Carignan added, was the Superior General - Father Marcello Zago, OMI, the Vicar General and himself. They were looking for an outsider, he said, who could facilitate the meeting, and would I be available? At that moment, I went from curious and suspicious to nervous!

And so I prayed

      Personally, I’m never quite sure when something is providential or simply coincidental: I had previously blocked out the first half of January for a vacation with my sister and niece, but shortly before the call from Rome, the arrangements had not jelled, so we canceled our plans. Thus, my calendar was wide open. However, I was not brave enough to say "yes" right away, so I asked for 24 hours.

      In turn, I immediately consulted our provincial, Fr. David Kalert, and we both agreed one really has to have a good reason not to accept such a request from the general administration...

      In my fax reply to Ron, I asked what preparation I should be making, and the response was the ultimate of brevity: pray!

      The starkness was somewhat tempered by Ron’s further assuring me that "It will not be an easy task, and the reconciliation we hope for is a long shot. But we’ll do the best we can and make the most of the opportunity."

      I did pray, and those long-shot odds proved both consoling and liberating for me. Much of the pressure was off; after all, who expects to win with odds like that?!

How to Argue

      On the flight to Rome, providence seemed to speak again: The airline magazine featured an enlightening article by lawyer Alan Dershowitz of O.J. fame. Although the article was entitled "How to Argue," it was very conciliatory. It spoke of the Socratic style and stated that "The true object of an argument isn’t winning, but getting on the same side as your opponent. That means learning to think like he does - to put yourself in his position." It dawned on me that, although I did not see Fr. Balasuriya as an opponent, the Dershowitz strategy seemed most applicable.

Our first meeting

      Soon after I arrived in Rome, there was a meeting with the reconciliation team - Fathers Zago, Corijn, and Carignan, along with two canon lawyers, Fathers Alexandre Tache, the Procurator General, and Frank Morrissey. Another wake-up call for me: The situation was much more serious than I had believed. Father General shared with us a letter he was sending to all the OMI major superiors, wherein he stated:

      The general team had arranged to be in Sri Lanka from January 10-16, which I thought would allow considerable free time and perhaps some sightseeing. Again, wrong!

A willingness to reconcile

      However, from the time of our arrival, I sensed a general willingness to reconcile. Maybe it was the graciousness of our hosts: I heard myself theorize that "Sri Lankans have inculturated hospitality."

      Perhaps it was the makeup of the group: The nine other participants, all Oblates, were a group of generous, open, concerned and honest people, as well as worried and deeply affected by the excommunication and by the inability to resolve differences.

      Not only were Fr. Tissa and the other Oblates willing to reconcile, but it seemed so were the Archbishop, the Apostolic Nuncio and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Building trust

      My overall appraisal of the situation was that it was basically a case of miscommunications and of mixed interpretations. Therefore, a very "unfortunate dynamic" had resulted, I thought, and many of the parties simply got sucked into that. From my slight familiarity with the material and the correspondence, I knew that the group would go nowhere unless there was some trust-building along with lots of listening.

      There were several moving moments during the six days of meetings, because there had been some deep hurts and wounds and fears. One of the most profound moments was the afternoon of prayer after two days of listening.

      Soon after that, it seemed the group was ready to hammer out a statement of reconciliation. The value of a laptop computer cannot be overestimated; some of the documents went through at least nine drafts! The last evening, the group and the phone were both busy until 11 p.m.

What we learned

      Typically, I like to conclude meetings with "the learnings." After six days, what were some of our learnings?

      One called the experience " a school of dialogue," explained that Christ becomes present where two or three are gathered in his name, and thus it was an experience of the presence of the Lord.

      Another saw it as an example of corporate effort, of teamwork, including the working of the Holy Spirit!

      Another learning was the power of prayer. A much larger number of people than I had thought had been praying for this event. The group itself had a long prayer session mid-way, and we started our meetings with prayer.

      We also realized the serious need for mechanisms when problems like this occur. For instance, the U.S. bishops have had a document since 1989 entitled, "Bishops and Theologians Promoting Cooperation, Resolving Misunderstandings."

      Another learning was that reconciliation is not an event, but an ongoing process and therefore, a constant challenge.

A message from Tom Hayes

      After an article on the reconciliation appeared in National Catholic Reporter (NCR), one of our Oblates, Father Tom Hayes, wrote a consoling and insightful letter:

      So, my thanks to Tom Hayes and my thanks to God, for this was indeed a moment of generosity on the part of many and a moment of grace for me.

March 11, 1998 volume 9, no. 50        BENEATH THE SURFACE       DAILY CATHOLIC