Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith: A committed priestly scholar | Sunday Observer

Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith: A committed priestly scholar

30 August, 2020

In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna peninsula is famous for its rich varieties of mango, a popular tropical delight, often regarded as the king of fruits. ‘Jaffna Mango’ is one of the most luscious varieties of mangoes and the fruit’s sweet tropical scent and its distinctive taste is something that many have savoured through generations.

When ripe, the skin of the mango turns a brilliant orange-yellow, while on the inside, the soft, golden pulp, surrounding the seed of the fruit, provides refreshing and luxurious tastes. Significantly, mango trees blossom and bear fruit all over Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Province. Indeed, a heavenly gift that continues to relish its taste to all corners of the universe.

Joining the Church is a leap of faith. often in moving closer to the Lord, converts are stepping away from family, friends, work, and social situations they have been a part of for a long time. Old lives and old practices[D1] are voluntarily left behind to obey the Saviour’s admonition to “Come, Follow me” (Luke 18:22). Jesus Himself said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Such a sacrifice has not been asked of many, but will stimulate as they come unto Christ.

The fragrance of the ‘Jaffna Mango’ perhaps intuited the Church hierarchy in the Eternal City of Rome and Monsignor Anton Ranjith, born in Jaffna was chosen by the Holy Father, His Holiness Pope Francis as the third Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Colombo with the Titular See of Materiana on July 13, 2020. His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo ordained him and lovingly embraced him as one of his Auxiliary Bishops, at a Episcopal Consecrationat St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Colombo on August 29, 2020.

The 10th Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Colombo, Most Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith becomes the first student from the University of Jaffna to be elevated a Catholic Bishop in Sri Lanka.

He is also the first from St. Francis Xavier’s Seminary, Jaffna since its establishment in 1981 to be picked to serve the Lord’s Vineyard. He is also the sixth bishop from the village of Karampon, Kayts and the twelfth Bishop produced by St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna. I wonder whether there is any other school in the world that has produced a dosen bishops.

It is said, “A good Christian family paves the basic foundation and serves as a nursery for vocations.” The Most Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith was born in Karampon, Kayts on the island of Velanaitivu in the Jaffna peninsula.

Personal Glimpses of a Gentle Priest

It is a fertile land that has nurtured priests, who adorned with Purple Robe to sit on the throne to preach the Word of God. The village is rightly known as the “Little Vatican.”His parents were devoted Catholics and the new bishop grew up, mingling with the rich heritage of Jaffna, which would have helped him immensely in his mission.

The bishops who preceded him from the “Little Vatican” are the late Rev. Dr. Jerome Emilianuspillai, Bishop of Jaffna and the first Tamil Bishop of Sri Lanka; the late Rev. Dr. Leo Rajendram Antony, Bishop of Trincomalee-Batticaloa; the late Rev. Dr. Jacob Bastiampillai Deogupillai, Bishop of Jaffna, Rev. Dr. Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop of Trincomalee-Batticaloa; and the current Bishop of Jaffna, the Rev. Dr. Justin Gnanapragasam.

The Auxiliary Bishops who have served the Archdiocese of Colombo are the late Rev. Dr. Antony de Saram (1962-1965); the late Rev. Dr. Frank Marcus Fernando (1965-1968); the late Rev. Dr. Edmund Joseph Fernando (1968-1983); Rev. Dr. Oswald Thomas Colman Gomis (1968-1995); Rev. Dr. Don Albert Malcolm Ranjith (1990-1995); Rev. Dr. Vincent Marius Peiris (2001-2018); Rev. Dr. Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando (2012-2017); Rev. Dr. Maxwell Granville Silva (2012- To Date) and Rev. Dr. Jayakody Arachchige Don Anton Jayakody (2018- To Date)

I first met Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith some years ago.

As the Vice Rector at St. Joseph’s College he desired to invite me and my wife Carmel as the Chief Guests for the College Sports Meet and recognise us as parents of the Head Prefect.

He touched us and inspired us as a priest and our healthy relationship started to grow. We peers reviewed our dissertations and our friendship steadily flourished.

When I met him on August 21 in the hallowed portals of the Archbishop’s House, minutes before his departure for the Retreat prior to his Episcopal Consecration I found him much relaxed.

He fascinated me by entering into the usual friendly conversation on my son Shemal Jnr and three sons-in-law, Manoj, Shalendra and Sherveen, products of St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s though the clock ticked past his scheduled departure.

Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith joyfully shared, “When I look back, in my life, I have achieved so much through guidance and support from others. In Luke 5: 3-9, Jesus tells Simon to put out their nets into deep water and lower the nets for a catch but Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and have caught nothing! But at your command I will lower the nets.”

Simon never expected Jesus to be there with them on that day. My life too is full of such incidents. I have felt the presence or intercession of God throughout my life. I never expected to achieve this much in life. I did only what I was asked to do and I chose, “Dominus Est” (“It is the Lord”) as my Episcopal Motto for my Coat of Arms.

He said, “I have never even dreamed that I will become a Bishop in the Archdiocese of Colombo and it is the Lord who has chosen me, and this is ‘His Mercy’. The new bishop, who specialised in the sphere of education, shared the teaching mission in diverse schools of the Archdiocese of Colombo.

The teaching profession demands a broad knowledge of the subject and curriculum together with a caring attitude and tolerance towards the students. Having proved his competence in this field, he was chosen to shoulder an array of responsibilities in colleges.

He is a ‘Priest of God’ with admirable and noble qualities of virtue and wisdom and a ‘Priest of Principle’ and discipline, moved with students as one among them and knew many of them by name but was a strict disciplinarian. As the scripture says, “as gentle as a dove and wise as a serpent” (Matthew 10:16). While being patient, kind and calm he is firm in executing his decisions and dealings with authority. He is quite fluent in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English and found it easy to reach out to his students.

I found him an independent and disciplined thinker who will express his views and bow down in obedience to the superior’s intention. It is said that a bishop should have a special concern for priests, listen to them and use them as consultants and counsellors, ensuring that they are adequately provided for in every way, and defending their rights set forth in the Code of Canon Law. I am sure that he would be concerned about the brother priests and stand by them.

Birth, Family and Priestly Ordination

Anton Ranjith Pillainayagam was born on September 23, 1966 in Jaffna and baptised in his Parish Church of Our Lady of Refuge on October 20, 1966 by Rev. Fr. N. Joseph. His Godparents were Mr. S. B. Albert and Mrs. Benigna Albert.

His parents, Michael Anthony Pillainayagam and Miriam Dharma Selvadurai, both hailing from good Catholic families in Karampon, Kayts have entered the Sacrament of Marriage on October 20, 1965 and were blessed with twin sons Ranjith and Ajith.

The couple moved to Kotahena, Colombo in 1973 as the father worked at the Central Bank in Colombo.

Sibling recalls University days as twins

Ranjith was admitted to St. Benedict’s College, Colombo in 1973 and he lost his father soon.

After his death, their mother moved to Jaffna with the twins in 1974. Ranjith found admission at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, a school founded in 1850 by Roman Catholic missionaries.

He had received both Sacraments of the First Holy Communion on July 13, 1974 and the Confirmation on October 13, 1979 at the hands of the late Bishop of Jaffna, Rev. Dr. Jacob Bastiampillai Deogupillai.

His Vocation Director was Rev. Fr. E. J. Arumainayagam, his Parish Priest. He was at St. Patrick’s College until 1985, the year he sat for the GCE A/L examination.

He was a diligent, persevering and a brilliant student whilst at college.

His only sibling, Ajith Pillainayagam now domiciled in Canada with his family shared, “As not only his brother, but his twin, I have a very close relationship with Ranjith, which has only deepened over the years.

We spent most of our childhood in Jaffna; primarily as students in the same class for twelve years at St. Patrick’s College, and later as undergraduates at the University of Jaffna, until we moved to Colombo in the early nineties.

I could say that not only did we look identical, but also we were even following similar educational paths, as we both had a passion to follow mathematics for our higher studies. It was only after his Advanced Level in 1985 that our paths diverged.”

He said, “Ironically, when Ranjith joined the university, I was a third year student and that worked very well in his favour because he was able to escape some early ragging since students became confused between him and I as we looked so similar.

One of the most unforgettable memories was during a time when electricity was not available for many months because of the ongoing disturbances in our country.

University students were given the opportunity either to go the university for the night or to find their own way to study. We chose the latter and studied under designated streetlights posted by the Red Cross.

It reminds us of our perseverance and adaptability in situations of conflict.

I truly believe that his passion, zeal and determination in the pursuit of education was clearly reflected later in in his career, when he successfully adopted his various positions at different academic institutions.

I can proudly say that our mother was a driving force in our lives and much of our success could be attributed to her untiring efforts.”

Approaching the Holy Altar

As a candidate for the Priesthood, Ranjith studied Philosophy at St. Francis Xavier’s Seminary, Colombogam, Jaffna from 1985 to 1988. He was posted as an Assistant Lecturer in Mathematical Statistics in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Jaffna from 1988 to 1993.

He achieved a BSc (Hons) (Sp.) (Statistics) in 1993 and was elevated as an Assistant Lecturer in Mathematical Statistics and continued until 1994.

He was a much-sought private teacher in Pure Mathematics for Advanced Level students from 1990 to 1995. Once out of the university, he kept in mind his desire to realise his vocation to the priesthood.

His uncle, Rev. Dr. Kingsly Swampillai, then Bishop of Trincomalee-Batticaloa, who is his guardian since his father’s death, advised him to join the Archdiocese of Colombo where the late Rev. Dr. Nicholas

Marcus Fernando accepted him as a student at St. Aloysius Minor Seminary, Borella on April 1, 1995.Later, he entered the National Seminary, Ampitiya, Kandy in 1995 and completed his Bachelors in Theology. He served in the Parishes of Avissawella, Kotahena and Nittambuwa during his Pastoral Year of Formation in 1997/1998.

He was ordained a Deacon at the National Seminary of Our Lady of Lanka, Ampitiya, Kandy by the late Rev. Dr. Raymond Peiris, Bishop of Kurunegala on January 8, 2000 and was attached to St. Mary’s Church, Tudella for his Diaconate Ministry.

He was ordained a Priest in the Jubilee Year on September 16, 2000 by the then Archbishop of Colombo, Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena, Colombo.

He celebrated his First Holy Mass at his parish, St. Lawrence’s Church, Wellawatte on September 17, 2000.

Priestly Ministry from 2000 to 2020

Rev. Fr. Ranjith began his priestly ministry at St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, Colombo as a staff member. From October 2000 to August 2004, he held enormous responsibilities and rose to be the Vice Rector.

He obtained his Post Graduate Diploma in Education from the Open University in April 2003. He attended the Middlesex University, United Kingdom and pursued a MA in Education, which he completed in December 2005.

He was appointed to the staff of St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa and served throughout 2006.

He was appointed to St. Joseph’s College, Colombo 10 in 2007 as the Primary Principal. In 2008, he came back to St. Peter’s College, Colombo 4 and had a 6-year stint until 2014 serving mainly as the Vice Rector.

During this period, he held other key Ministries of Leadership. He was the Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Education Office from January 2009 to December 2010. Besides, he served as the Archdiocesan Coordinator of the Tamil Branch of St. Joseph Vaz Theologate from May 2006 to January 2011.

He was made Principal of St. Peter’s College Branch School, Udugampola where he served from December 2010 to May 2012. Then, he was elevated the Vice Rector at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo 10 for another 5-year tenure from February 2014 to April 2019.

He pursued his Master of Philosophy in Christian Civilisation at the University of Jaffna from 2012 to 2017.

His dissertation was styled, “The Missionary and the Educational Contributions of Cardinal Thomas Cooray in the Archdiocese of Colombo.”His first degree was Mathematics, yet his Philosophy and Theology background paved the way for him to do his advanced postgraduate degree in the Arts Stream.

In recognition, he was made the Vice Postulator for the cause of the Beatification of Cardinal Thomas Cooray in October 2015.

He served as the Rector of St. Joseph’s College, Colombo 10 from April 4 to July 24, 2019 and St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa from July 25, 2019until July 13, 2020.

It is of vital importance for the bishops and priests to be conscious of the changing realities and plan the missionary activities in a more relevant and realistic manner abandoning the age-old practices. I am sure the new Auxiliary Bishop would have the vision and the courage to have a futuristic apostolic approach that would meet the needs of the day.

Thus, I am confident that he would be an asset to the Cardinal Archbishop of Colombo by contributing his youthful and visionary ideas for an active and fruitful missionary church.

It is the ardent hope of all Catholics that the new Bishop with his enthusiasm and education, with his faith and humility, with his vision and vigur and the fact that he was born and bred in the North but chose to become a priest in the Archdiocese of Colombo would help the Church to open a new chapter in the missionary endeavur in Sri Lanka as a shepherd in the footsteps of the Chief Shepherd, Lord Jesus Christ. Ad Multos Annos!

The author holds a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; he is a recipient of National accolades for academic pursuits; his research interests encompasses a variety of subjects; and regularly pens exclusive stories