Scott Warden
December 6, 2023 // Diocese

Pope Appoints Father Wimal Jayasuriya as Bishop of Chilaw, Sri Lanka

Scott Warden

Father Wimal Jayasuriya came to the United States from Sri Lanka in September of 2019 partly to further his education, but also, he said, because he wanted to avoid the “limelight” that might come his way had he stayed.

After he arrived in Fort Wayne, Father Jayasuriya’s home diocese of Chilaw, Sri Lanka, laid vacant – without a bishop – for two years, and he knew Church leaders there were putting together a list of priests who might be “bishop material.” With his extensive education, pastoral experience, and a heart for his flock, Father Jayasuriya had all the qualifications – but none of the desire – to be a bishop. Plus, he figured, he was half a world away.

But you can’t hide from the pope.

On Wednesday, December 6, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has appointed Father Jayasuriya as Bishop of the Diocese of Chilaw, Sri Lanka. On the weekend of December 9-10, Bishop-elect Jayasuriya told the St. Mary community that he would celebrate his final Mass there on Monday, January 1 – fittingly, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, patron of the parish. He is scheduled to be ordained and installed as Bishop of Chilaw in Sri Lanka on Saturday, March 2.

Father Wimal Jayasuria prays with those gathered for the Thanksgiving meal this past November. – Krista Stockman

“No priest would be after this [appointment] at all because of the heavy responsibility involved,” Bishop-elect Jayasuriya told Today’s Catholic. “I am responsible for my soul, I am responsible for the People of God, for the priests, I am responsible for their well-being, I am responsible for the maintenance of the diocese. What you see in a bishop externally is one who presides over Mass with ornate clothes, and he is always the center of attention. But we cannot forget that he is a human being like everyone else.”

“Our diocese was vacant for about two years,” Bishop-elect Jayasuriya added. “I was happy that I was in the United States not getting involved in the discussion [of possible appointees]. I did not want to be in the limelight. In fact, the nuncio was telling me it was one of the reasons why they chose me as the candidate.”

Bishop-elect Jayasuriya said the papal nuncio of Sri Lanka called him in late November to tell him Pope Francis had appointed him Bishop of Chilaw, which is located on the western shore of the island nation located in the Indian Ocean off the southern tip of India. The priest didn’t immediately accept, telling Archbishop Brian Udaigwe, the pope’s diplomat in Sri Lanka, that he needed some time to pray and discern.

“The call came at night,” Father Jayasuriya said, “and immediately I was on my knees leaning against the bed. There’s a picture of Jesus where I pray every day. There were tears in my eyes. I was asking, ‘Who am I to succeed apostles?’ As I continued to pray about it, I just felt the assurance of Jesus’ presence in me in taking up this task, and that He was promising, ‘Do not worry. I’m with you.’”

After growing up within a devout Catholic family, Bishop-elect Jayasuriya began seminary at the age of 15. Following his ordination to the priesthood in 1997, his first assignment was to the largest parish in the diocese, spiritual home to 30,000 parishioners and served by only two priests. Several years later, he received a scholarship for higher education in Rome. Though he originally intended to study Greek and Hebrew Scripture, his bishop saw a need and switched his field of study to canon law. After earning his doctorate in Rome, he returned at the age of 35 to Sri Lanka, where he was appointed to serve as Judicial Vicar. He also held the position of Executive Secretary for the Diocese of Chilaw’s diocesan synod.

He has continued to utilize his skills as a canon lawyer, serving on the Tribunal during his time in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Along with his doctorate in canon law, Bishop-elect Jayasuriya holds two bachelor’s degrees and four master’s degrees. He said he pursued his education “not for titles, but for knowledge, so that knowledge could be utilized for the people. So, like a father and a mother, they totally dedicate their life for the family. My duty as a priest is to spend each second of my life for the people. So, that is what I was preparing for.”

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. Bishop-elect Jayasuriya refused the typical privileges given to those 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 of the village – some of whom he refers to as “the poorest of the poor.”

In his current position as Pastor of St. Mary Mother of God, he has continued to serve, as Pope Francis has said, as a priest “with the smell of the sheep.” As he did in Sri Lanka, at St. Mary, a parish known for its outreach to the poor, Bishop-elect Jayasuriya has rejected even the most basic conveniences, including that of a car, which would have been made available to him by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

“Before coming to the United States, while I was in Sri Lanka, I was already living with the poor – not by appointment, but because I felt it was best to be with the people. I gave up the so-called privileges; I lived with the poor. Mainly, St. Mary’s is for the poor. I wanted the people to know the pastor also lives a poor life. So, I voluntarily gave up the vehicle. But like the poor here in Fort Wayne, I know what it means to be without a vehicle. I know what it means to walk on the snow. I know what it means to walk in the rain.”

When asked how he would apply this lifestyle to his new role as bishop, he said: “I’m a shepherd, and a shepherd has no favorites. Each sheep is important.”

Erika Barron contributed to this report.

Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Chilaw, Sri Lanka.

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