“Vocation is a mystery and a gift,” said Father Wimal Jayasuriya, as he reflected on the journey that brought him to the priesthood. This year marks the 25th anniversary of ordination for Father Jayasuriya; 25 years of serving the needs of his community, continuously learning and dutifully allowing the Lord to lead him wherever he is most needed.
Growing up in Sri Lanka, his love of Christ was instilled from an early age. He had God-fearing parents who germinated this love, which was further cultivated by the community – in particular, the exemplary priests of his parish, who lived out their holy vocation in devout service to the people. “It has become so emotional for me to even recall. They were such good shepherds,” he reflected. Seeing this devotion in his priests lead him to become an altar server in the parish, further nurturing this budding sense of vocation.
His parish was one of historical importance, at one time being served by Sri Lanka’s first saint, Joseph Vaz, a priest and missionary from India who was credited with reestablishing Catholicism in the country. The parish also became a center for the first missionaries to Sri Lanka. This history was an important inheritance for the community, both clergy and lay faithful alike.
Sri Lanka is a densely populated island nation off the tip of India where Catholics made up around 7 percent of the population. Here, priestly formation begins with seven years in the minor seminary and seven years in the major seminary. The National Seminary serves the whole of Sri Lanka, with students coming from 13 different countries to study for the priesthood. Father Jayasuriya began seminary at the age of 15. After ordination, his first assignment was at the largest parish in the diocese, spiritual home to 30,000 parishioners, and served by only two priests.
Several years later, Father Jayasuriya received a scholarship for higher education in Rome. Though he originally intended to study Greek and Hebrew biblical scripture, his bishop saw a need for canon lawyers in the diocese and requested he switch to that. Receiving his doctorate in Rome, he then returned to Sri Lanka at the age of 35, where he was asked to serve as Judicial Vicar.
Seeing how underprivileged people were treated both in Sri Lanka and on his studies abroad inspired him to work toward change, beginning in his own office. Father Jayasuriya refused the typical privileges given to those in higher positions within the Diocese of Chilaw, including residence in the bishop’s home. He opted instead to live in a small room in the sacristy. Here he was able to meet the people, some he refers to as “the poorest of the poor.”
His first goal was to change the misunderstanding that annulments were a service only provided to the rich, a sort of costly favoritism. He began to grant annulments efficiently and without asking for money, so much so that more and more people came to seek his aid. This prompted the realization that instead of granting annulments, there must be a better means of prevention through preparing people thoroughly for marriage, beginning at the age when children receive their first Communion.
From this, Father Jayasuriya began a program called Life Formation. Dedicated to teaching the young people of the diocese in a doctrinally sound and appealing way, the youth program was called “What is Love, Sex and Marriage?” This program became so successful that it was not uncommon for a stadium to be packed with upwards of 7,000 young people. The successful program prompted a similar one, this time aimed at Sri Lankan taxi drivers and business professionals.
Father Jayasuriya spent what free time he had in his work for the Lord building houses for the homeless in the community and providing education and resources to children, regardless of their religion. He was made Executive Secretary of the Diocesan Synod, which became much like a local Vatican II. He visited all the parishes in the diocese within a year and a half, preparing them for the synod.
A man of great education, Father Jayasuriya holds a Doctorate in Canon Law and Master’s in Sociology, and served at the National Seminary as the Dean of Theology and Professor of Canon Law; Theology; Ecclesiology; and Spirituality.
The Lord led Father Jayasuriya to the U.S. on sabbatical and ultimately to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Here he began serving as an Associate Pastor at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne and First Court Judge in the Tribunal.
He professed that he can be happy “anywhere because our happiness does not lie in where we are or what we have. It is who we are.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades asked Father Jayasuriya to take over as Pastor of St. Mary Mother of God Parish in downtown Fort Wayne. After receiving approval from his own bishop in Sri Lanka, he accepted the task.
St. Mary Mother of God Parish has been serving the needs of the poor in the very heart of Fort Wayne for many years, which was a fitting assignment for a priest with a heart for the needy. Next year in fact, they celebrate the 40th anniversary of the St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen, a mission shared by the parish, the diocese and the Christian community as a whole. Father Jayasuriya reminds his parishioners, “The way we do everything should be an example. If we want to change the world, we must change ourselves first.”
Leading by example has been a common thread in Father Jayasuriya’s life, and he has exercised this with a deep humility and gratitude for the many opportunities the Holy Spirit has placed before him. When asked what his greatest achievement in his 25 years of priesthood has been, he responded, “To serve as a priest, that is the achievement.”
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