‘Melody’ that harmonised church and temple
106th birth anniversary of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody
falls on June 03:
About eight decades ago, a young priest was much criticised in Church
circles for offering some Lotus flowers at the wedding mass of one of
his relatives. Since then much water has flowed under the bridges in Sri
Now the national culture is given its due place in the Catholic
Church. And the then young priest involved in the controversy is now
regarded as an exponent of indigenous culture.
He is none other than Fr. Marcelline Jayakody OMI, the well-known
Catholic priest, musician, lyricist, poet, author, journalist and
patriot whose birth anniversary falls on June 03. A household name in
our country, no other Catholic prelate or priest has touched the hearts
and lives of people in Sri Lanka than Fr. Marcelline Jayakody.
Nevertheless no other Catholic priest in Sri Lanka has been so
harassed and humiliated by the Church authorities as Fr. Marcelline
Jayakody. A priest ahead of times, he was stronger in defeat and all his
defeats later turned out to be victories. He passed away at the ripe old
age of 96 on January 15, 1998, after leading a life full of
Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was born on June 03, 1902 at Dankotuwa in the
outskirts of Maha Oya. He had his early education at Madampe Sinhala
School and secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. He
entered St. Bernard’s Seminary in 1920 and was ordained a priest on
December 20, 1927 by Dr. Anthony Coudert, the then Archbishop of
At the beginning of the 20th century, slavishly imitating the West
was the order of the day. At the same time there was a national
resurgence initiated by the patriots like Anagarika Dharmapala,
Walisinghe Harischandra and Piyadasa Sirisena. The higher strata in
society who believed in the Western way of life were severely criticised
by novelist Piyadasa Sirisena.
Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who always had the love for the country in
his veins too was drawn towards the stirrings of nationalism. He read
the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena with interest and drew inspirations from
Fr. Jayakody served as an assistant parish priest in places such as
Kotahena, Pamunugama, Kochchikade (Negombo) and Kandana. He served as
the parish priest in Payagala, Duwa, Katana and Maggona. As the parish
priest he gave the altar a national aura bedecking it with Gokkola and
When Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was the parish priest of Duwa, the
Duwa’s Passion Play was performed with images of sacred personages based
on the centuries old Nine Sermons in the Dukprapthi Prasangaya written
by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez. In 1939 Fr. Marcelline revised and recast the
Duwa Passion Play based on Dorothy Saeyers famous work Born to be King.
While maintaining the traditional outlook, he used human actors for
all the scenes except for Christ and Mary. He also composed all the
hymns of the play in addition to the traditional ‘Pasan’.
Since then the fame of the Duwa Passion Play spread far and wide. At
that time the colourful Duwa Passion Play enacted with over 250 actors,
all drawn from the island hamlet of Duwa was considered as the greatest
Passion show in Asia.
It is in the sphere of Church music that he excelled most. In the
1920’s the normal practice was to dub Sinhala words to Latin hymns and
Western tunes. At the beginning Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too wrote
several hymns specially Carols adopting Western music. However, in 1934,
he composed the hymn Sapiri Sama Asiri Soma and the Christmas Carol Raya
Tharu Babalanawa set to his own music.
These hymns became very popular and are still sung in churches. Since
then Fr. Marcelline Jayakody never looked back and composed hymns set to
his own music.In the 1940’s and 1950’s specially around Independence,
there was a national awakening in Sri Lanka. This national consciousness
had its effect on the Catholic Church as well.
Accordingly Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too composed outstanding hymns
such as ‘Ronata Vadina Bingu Obay’, ‘Nelum Pipeela Pethi Visireela’ and
Suvanda Jale Pipi Kumudiniye with a national fervour. These magnificent
hymns with their superb lyrics, sweet music and local setting captivated
the hearts of all.
The hymns of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody contain both Christian aspects
and national sentiments. They are ever popular in churches and
appreciated by the non-Catholics as well. They are a striking example
for the cultural adaptation in its true perspective.
In 1949, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was invited to train the choir for
the song Namo Namo Matha for the 1st Independence commemoration as its
composer Ananda Samarakone had gone abroad.
Fr. Marcelline Jayakody rose to the occasion, trained the students of
Musaeus College and presented it to be acclaimed by all. There is no
doubt that this wonderful performance had paved the way to adopt ‘Namo
Namo Matha’ as our national anthem
.In late 1949, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was appointed the Editor of
the Gnanartha Pradeepaya, the official Sinhala Catholic weekly in Sri
Lanka. He set the Caption in the journal in a traditional cultural
background. This Caption is still being continued. He also increased the
pages from 08 to 12 and introduced new features with an indigenous
Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not stay long in Gnanartha Pradeepaya.
The manager insisted that Fr. Jayakody should closely follow the English
Catholic weekly the Messenger. But he refused. The manager took up the
issue with the Archbishop of Colombo.
The Archbishop ordered Fr. Marcelline Jayakody to present news and
articles in the Messenger in Sinhala. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody again
bluntly refused explaining that it would amount to translation and not
journalism.He then left Gnanartha Pradeepaya on his own and went to
Shanthinikethan in India.
Today Gnanartha Pradeepaya is not a mere translation of the
Messenger. It has its own identity and the stand of Fr. Marcelline
Jayakody is vindicated.Fr. Jayakody underwent training at
Shanthinikethan, the famous oriental arts centre set up by Rabindranath
When he returned to Sri Lanka, he was sent to Tolagatty in Jaffna for
leaving the country without the permission of Church authorities. Later
he served in the staff of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna.
Fr. Marcelline Jayakody made use of his stay in Jaffna to make a
study of Hindu religion and Tamil culture. He wrote a series of articles
to the Times of Ceylon journal on Hindu culture, simple and serene life
of people and the beauty of Jaffna. He also presented a Passion play
with the students of St. Patrick’s College.
In 1953, he was appointed to the staff of St. Peter’s College,
At St. Peter’s with the assistance of Heenbaba Dharmasiri he set up
an oriental arts centre and introduced indigenous fine arts to this
leading Catholic school in the metropolis.
The film Rekawa presented by Lester James Peiris in 1956 was a
landmark in Sinhala cinema. This was the first Sinhala film with a real
indigenous outlook and it won several international awards. Lester James
Peiris got Fr. Marcelline Jayakody to write lyrics for songs in Rekawa
and Sunil Santha to provide music for them.
When Fr. Mercelline Jayakody entered the film world, many raised
their eyebrows as Sinhala film had not reached that standard for a
Catholic priest to get involved. However, at a poll conducted by the
Sunday Observer Fr. Mercelline Jayakody was selected as the leading
personality in Sinhala cinema for his fascinating lyrics for songs in
Dr. W. Dhanayake, the then Minister of Education who presented the
award said, “If I could write a single song like this, I consider it a
greater achievement than being a Minister”.
In 1976, when Cardinal Thomas Cooray retired after reaching the age
of 75, the post of Archbishop of Colombo remained vacant for nearly one
year. Several priests aspired to the post and there were various
factions suggesting different qualifications.
There was petitioning to the Vatican too.At that time Fr. Marcelline
Jayakody was writing a column in the Messenger. He had been continuing
it for four years and even sent articles from abroad.
He watched the power struggle in the Archdiocese from a distance and
wrote in his column that the best qualifications for a Bishop are found
in Gospel values preached and practised by Christ.
This created a ripple in the bastions of power in the Catholic Church
and they discontinued the popular column of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody in
the ‘Messenger’. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not be thwarted in that
manner. Instead he wrote a series of poems to ‘Kaviya’ magazine
extolling the Buddhist way of life and Sinhala culture.
Muthu was a collection of his poems carried in Kaviya.. Muthu won Fr.
Marcelline Jayakody the Presidential Award for the best poetry work in
1979 and in 1983 the famous international award the Magsaysay Prize.
That is not all. Fr. Jayakody has presented many other prose and
poetry works both in English and in Sinhala. A well-known journalist he
wrote columns in both Catholic and secular press.
He was an active member of the Hela Havula and for many decades until
his death, he was the President of the Sinhala Poets’ Association. Fr.
Marcelline Jayakody appreciated Buddhist culture and was close to the
bhikkus. He took pride of being called ‘Pansale Piyatuma’ (Catholic
priest of the Buddhist Temple).
In 1995 Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera presented the book
Malpale Upan Pansale Piyatuma on the life and achievements of Fr.
Marcelline Jayakody. This is the first book in the whole world written
by a Buddhist Bhikku on a Catholic priest.
Nevertheless Fr. Mercelline Jayakody never betrayed the Christian
doctrine. He did not approve introducing extraneous forms of worship and
practices into Catholic churches. In his columns in the Messenger he
once remarked that there are some Catholics who try to become more
Buddhist and Hindu than the Buddhists and Hindus themselves.
Fr. Mercelline Jayakody was honoured with the ‘Kalasuri’ title by the
State and ‘Kithu Nandana Pranamaya’ by the Catholic Church in
appreciation of his magnificent contributions to arts and culture in Sri
Lanka for over six decades. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody whose prose was
poetry and words were songs was a legend in his own lifetime. He is the
proud boast of Catholics as a national artiste and patriot.
The writer is a former High Court Judge and Vice-President of the
Newman Society Alumni Association