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Bishop Cyril was a true shepherd of people

The Bishop Cyril Abeynaike Memorial Lecture on ‘Child Abuse’ will be delivered by Justice Shirani Thilakawardena on Thursday 8 May 2008 at 6.00pm at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour at 368, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7.

Bishop Cyril Abeynaike, the 10th Bishop of Colombo, a sincere saint of God who was a true shepherd and a genuine theologian in all respects, was born on 22 February 1911. He was called home to God and to his eternal rest on 8 May 1991 at the age of 80, on the eve of Ascension Day. At his consecration service on 30 September 1971, after having given his consent subsequent to much persuasion and deliberation to be the Bishop of Colombo, he stressed on the fact that the saintly and leadership position that was bestowed on him was ‘neither desired nor deserved’. This was his unassuming nature and simplicity in a position he held for six years. The project on building the Anglican Cathedral in Colombo that was initiated by Bishop Harold de Soysa was completed by Bishop Abeynaike with much yearning and concentration. Some of the impressive features of this marvelous edifice are ideas set forth by Bishop Cyril and he was a very happy man the day he consecrated this house of worship on 07th November 1973.

Bishop Abeynaike had his early education in a convent in Ratnapura and thereafter continued and completed his primary and secondary education at Royal College, Colombo where he was an outstanding student excelling in many a sphere. He subsequently received a scholarship to the University of Colombo where he continued his superior performance and obtained an Honours degree in History from the University of London. After this brilliant performance, he was expected to join the Civil Service, but instead he opted to join the ordained Ministry in response to God’s call. He was obviously influenced by a godly home and the parish of his youth, St. Paul’s, Milagiriya. He then joined the Colombo Divinity School and studied under some of the "Anglican Giants" such as Dr. G. B. Ekanayaka, Bertram Wickramanayake and then went to King’s College, London to sit for his degree in Theology. He was made Deacon in 1936.

Bishop Cyril Abeynaike, in his pastoral life always chose to work amongst the poor and under-privileged children in remote areas. At St. Michael’s and All Angels Church, Polwatte, very fittingly he earned the name "Priest of the slums" because in addition to his pastoral duties, which he carried out with extreme dedication and obedience to his Master’s call he also identified himself as one of the poor who lived in near slum conditions. He was always conscious that his directions came from God and therefore he willingly accepted very junior positions the experience of which added a rich quality to his own life and to those with whom he came into contact. He also opted to be a Deacon for 10 years, prior to being ordained a Priest in 1946.

Amongst the many ‘firsts’ of Bishop Abeynaike are the first Assistant Curate to be appointed Rural Dean, first Assistant Curate to be appointed Archdeacon of Colombo, first Archdeacon of Colombo, who continued as Assistant Curate, first married Archdeacon of Colombo and the first student who was appointed Principal of the Divinity School.

I first met this unique man of God ‘with a gentle touch’ at St. Michael’s and All Angels Church, Polwatte. He was serving as Assistant Curate of the Sinhala congregation and I became his altar server at the age of five years. Wherever he preached people flocked to listen to his sermons which were always short and so full of godly substance. The simplicity of his words was such that even children were able to fully understand his descriptions.

Bishop Cyril was a true shepherd of the people and regularly visited homes and knew his flock intimately having a rare and admirable quality of interacting with little children. On his first visit to a home he always went by himself to get to know his flock personally and on subsequent visits he took his lay officers with him so as to cultivate a very personal bond between these officers and his congregation. His visits to homes were always brief just like his sermons and always ended with a very meaningful prayer with the family.

I still remember a very controversial issue that arose at St. Michael’s with the day school at that time. The decision Bishop Cyril took with the Vicar was not acceptable to a larger group of Michaelites. That was my first experience in a church conflict which blew completely out of proportion. Subsequently, all who were part of the conflict gradually understood the wisdom of the decision and apologized to Bishop Cyril for the pain he had to go through with the dissident group. Even in such a conflict situation his humility and forgiveness was overflowing which was so clearly seen at the reconciliation meeting.

To Bishop Cyril, the driving force that made his ministry fruitful was his dear wife Fidelia. Both of them together contributed immensely to the life of the church. Personally, both my wife and I are greatly indebted to Fidelia for the training in lyrics she provided to the St. Michael’s choir. She always made choir practices compulsory but at the same time was extremely kind and a true mother to us all. This article will not be complete without mentioning Bishop Cyril’s two children, Lakshman and Shanthi who have been tremendously supportive of the church and the Diocese at large.

It is a coincidence and a rare blessing that I was ordained both to the Diaconate and the Priesthood by Bishop Cyril. He also officiated at our wedding at Christ Church, Galle Face where he was Vicar after retirement.

"A little child on a summer morning stood in a great Cathedral. The sunlight streamed through the beautiful stained glass windows, and the figures, in them of the servants of God were bright and brilliant in colours. A little later the question was asked is a saint" and the child replied "a saint is a person who lets the light shine through". It was Nathan Soderblom who once said "saints are persons who make it easier for others to believe in God". This was the type of Anglican saint that Bishop Cyril was, simple and full of humility. His unassuming nature at all times and his extraordinary teachings are a rare model for us to carry through in the Diocese in the future years.

Children were foremost in Bishop Cyril Linden Abeynaike’s thoughts and work and he strongly believed that a substantial part of a child’s upbringing was essentially from his home life. He always stressed that for such grooming, parent education was a primary need and that religious bodies had to play a major role.

It is very fitting that this year’s Memorial lecture will focus on the child and in honour of Bishop Cyril Abeynaike the lecture will be very ably delivered by Justice Shirani Thilakawardena, a Supreme Court Judge of international acclaim whose expertise in legal issues has been eagerly sought by organizations all over the globe. Her lecture on ‘Child abuse’ will not only be of interest to all individuals and organizations that deal with children and their issues but to all those who are inspired by their presence and firmly believe that the children of today are the future of tomorrow.

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