The echo of a Great VoiceOctober 15, 2011, 5:22 pm
By Jayantha Dhanapala
A year has gone by since Father Claver Perera passed away and a great tenor voice in the country was stilled. But his music lingers just as the influence of his gentle personality continues with those whose lives he touched. And they came from a wide spectrum of our society drawn by the instant rapport he was able to establish and the generosity of spirit that led him to help others long before he took priestly orders.
He was the youngest in a closely knit family deeply rooted in a strong Catholic faith and traditions. Educated at St.Peter’s College, Fr.Claver was to come back, years later, as the first old Peterite to be appointed as Rector of the school. Entering the University of Peradeniya in 1956 he made an immediate impact on the cultural scene taking part in theatre, singing in the choir and publishing his poems in the University magazine. Our families had been linked as neighbours when we were boys but, after a lapse of several years, it was in Peradeniya that our friendship based on common interests was forged. Fellow undergraduates from different parts of Sri Lanka and different social strata mingled equally amidst the beautifully landscaped campus thanks to free education. Throughout his four years at Jayatileka Hall a diverse group found Claver an unlikely friend and confidant always ready to help with advice and assistance. Steering clear of the undercurrents of student politics he nevertheless took a principled stand when it was necessary to do so earning the respect of all with his sedate and unruffled demeanour. Amidst the bawdy baila and pop songs of the conventional campus get-togethers a deeply appreciative silence would fall as Claver sang an Italian aria or an English ballad in his deeply rich tenor voice.
Claver knew deep within him that his mission in life was to be a priest devoting himself to his faith. It was a quiet but firm conviction and no one would dare dissuade him. Graduating from Peradeniya he moved in a seamless transition to the Ampitiya Seminary and then on to Rome. He enjoyed the opportunity to develop his huge talent for music there while he pursued his religious education. Returning to Sri Lanka he was parish priest at St.Mary’s Bambalapitiya and teacher at the Ampitiya Seminary. In both places he trained and conducted a choir that sang memorably. Happily modern technology has preserved Claver’s voice and the choirs he directed in the several CDs that were produced. He made "English Day" at the Ampitiya Seminary an event to be looked forward to and plays produced by Haig Karunaratne showcased the talents of the seminarians.
Fortunately Claver did not confine his singing talent to the Church. Joining with the other great voices at the time - Lylie Godridge, Lorraine Abeysekera and others - he performed for the public enriching the cultural life of the country. Much as he enjoyed his singing it was in his relationships with his parishioners, students and friends that he made his greatest impact. He showed compassionate understanding and infinite patience for people with problems and had wise counsel to give at all times. There was always an air of tranquility about Claver. But even he could not be spared when our country turned into a cauldron of violence. In the insanity of ethnic violence Claver was assaulted in a case of mistaken identity. He bore it all stoically.
His admiration for Pope John XXIII for the personal warmth he exuded and his informality was deep and abiding. He was no blind supporter of the Papacy or the Church but he could not be a revolutionary reformist either. He bore my jokes about the Church with an amused tolerance. On his several trips abroad he visited friends in many countries -a welcome guest in their homes as he was in mine in Geneva and New York. Inevitably he was persuaded to sing and however tired he might have been, Claver obliged. Falling ill, his tenure in Ampitiya ended abruptly and he was welcomed to spend his last days at All Saints’ Church in Borella assisting the Vicar when needed. He spent his time reading extensively and his only requests of me in this period were for books that he had heard of and which were not available in Sri Lanka.
As we observe the first death anniversary of Father Claver some may find consolation in the lines of the 19th century English Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from his poem "Spring and Fall" –
"Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for, "
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