His Grace Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Marcus Fernando : Illustrious Son of ‘Little Rome’
Four score and six is a glorious innings in these cricketing days. One wonders how it feels to be 86 years of age in this twenty-first century for a colossus of the Catholic Church. Though ranked among the ‘80 Club’ and bestowed with ‘Emeritus’ status, His Grace Archbishop Most Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando was at the helm of Sri Lanka’s flock as the Chief Shepherd for well nigh 25 years.
Little has changed in that familiar exterior at ‘Emmaus’ in Tewatte where he spends his retirement in the environs of the Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka. Archbishop Fernando, as he is still affectionately referred to, does not look a day older than when he opted to call it a day at 69 – 17 years ago. He is very relaxed and fit, but prefers to respect ‘old age’ and to be identified as a ‘senior citizen’. In the annals of Christianity in Sri Lanka, he truly played a decisive role as the Chief Shepherd of the Archdiocese of Colombo, despite his comparatively young age of 44.
He was respected as a scholar, a man of integrity and a linguist of no mean repute. He was fluent in English, Sinhala and Tamil and had a command of many other languages as well. With constancy and care, Archbishop Fernando laboured along with the priests, religious lay catechists and the faithful during his tenure as the Chief Shepherd, not only for the effective promotion of evangelisation of the people, but also for the provision of earthly needs of the flock and social progress of all classes.
Glimpses of a shepherd
I am truly blessed to have sailed the early years of my life on the course steered by Archbishop Fernando. We were born as parishioners of St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo; christened at St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo; educated at St. Mary’s College, Grand Street, Negombo and grew up in the confines of St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo.
The life-long reminiscences for a Maryite of that era could be the beautiful bronze statue of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary that occupied the niche of the Main Block of the College, the life-like statue of the founder, Rev. Fr. J. B. Vistarini that stands before the façade of the church, and the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in the precincts of the church.
Rev. Vistarini was the Parish Priest of the majestic church and was considered a ‘living saint’. His last resting place is at the side altar where his grave is identified with his statue in repose. After his death, hundreds of sons of Negombo were named after him and he shall always remain in the hearts and minds as their first saint.
Reverting to the life of Archbishop Fernando, I was the Head Prefect at St. Mary’s College, Negombo, when the good news from the Holy See in Rome of his elevation reached the city of Negombo, well known as ‘Little Rome’. I vividly remember how the bells of the grand old church peeled and how the people of all walks of life in Negombo united to share the joy of producing the first son of the parish as the Archbishop of Colombo.
Ever since, I was privileged to associate with the then serving Archbishop of Colombo, all along my career as a Naval Officer. During my schooldays, he was my ‘hero’. In my youth, I preferred him to be my role model. As the years rolled by, he became my mentor and later spiritual director – a unique bond of friendship that has now flourished for 40 long years.
Year after year, I have never failed to wish His Grace on his Patronal Feast and Birthday and His Grace reciprocates as our birthdays fall on December 6 and 16. His Grace never fails to contact me whenever he reads anything I have penned, to congratulate, to inspire, and to motivate me. He has always been pleasant, unassuming and easy to talk to.
As I linger down memory lane, many nostalgic events of my association with him flash before my mind and I would like to share a few. His Grace installed me as the youngest President of the OBA of St. Mary’s College, Negombo. I was privileged to confer on His Grace the prestigious ‘Award of Excellence for the Old Maryite of the Century’.
Then, I was privileged to deliver the keynote speech at the book launch to mark the Silver Jubilee of his Episcopal Ordination and to lend a helping hand for him to settle down at ‘Emmaus’ in retirement. His Grace always reminds me of our unforgettable pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Vailankanni amidst a severe threat of floods.
His Grace kindly consented to preside at the first-ever Joint Christian Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving of the Sri Lanka Navy in 1991 and immensely helped me to conduct the service for 25 uninterrupted years amidst ups and downs. He was present at All Saints’ Church, Borella, to renew our wedding vows when Carmel and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
Birth and divine call
In the Register of Baptism at St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo, that boasts a legacy of 455 years, the name ‘Nicholas Marcus’ appears as the 115th entry in the year 1932. He was christened on December 13, in the presence of his beloved parents, Wilfred Severinus Fernando and Mary Lily Margaret Fernando, with Theophilus Fernando and Maria Harriet Fernando as God Parents.
He was born a week earlier on December 6 in the renowned fishing hamlet of Munnakkara. Incidentally, it was on their feast day and the church and the city are dedicated to St. Nicholas. Thus, his humble and pious parents who cherished the proper endowment of spiritual values to their children would have been encouraged to name him after St. Nicholas.
Archbishop Fernando is the second child in the family and he has seven siblings. According to the order of birth, they are Frank, Archbishop Nicholas Marcus, Benzy, Camillus, Victor, Beryl, Nicholas Alexis and Maureen. Archbishop Fernando had his primary education at the Roman Catholic Mixed School in Munnakkara.
Then, he entered the leading Catholic educational institution, St. Mary’s College, Grand Street, Negombo, where he was beckoned by God to His vineyard to enable him to fulfil his allotted vocation. The effusive showering of talents and the providential timing of his birth made young Nicholas Marcus more and more conscious of his obligations before God. These ideas and ideals which matured in him from childhood made him what he became.
Responding with devotion to the Divine call, he entered St. Aloysius Seminary, Borella, in 1945 and passed the SSC Examination with exemption from the London Matriculation in 1949, the London University Inter-Arts Examination in 1951, and the London University BA Examination in 1953, and entered St. Bernard’s Major Seminary in 1953 for his Philosophical studies.
In the seminary, he set his goals straight and charted the correct path. His perfection was to seek God’s will and fulfil it and as a result, glory and honour followed him – as the day follows the night. And the day dawned for young Nicholas Marcus to approach the altar.
Ordination and priesthood
He was sent to Collegio de Propaganda Fide in Rome in 1954 to pursue his studies and obtained Baccalaureate and Licentiate degrees in Philosophy from Urban University in Rome in 1955 and 1956 respectively, and a Baccalaureate in Theology in 1958. He was ordained a priest by His Eminence Cardinal Agagianian on December 20, 1959, in Rome. Later, he obtained his Licentiate in Theology as well from Urban University in 1960.
Fr. Nicholas Marcus returned to Sri Lanka and was appointed to the staff of St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, in 1960. Later, he was appointed to the staff of St. Aloysius Seminary, Borella, in 1963 and was elevated as the Rector in 1965. In 1973, he was sent back to Rome to read for his Doctorate in Moral Theology which he achieved with a Summa cum Laude in 1976.
He was appointed to the staff of the National Seminary of Our Lady of Lanka in Kandy in 1976. With his elevation as the Archbishop of Colombo on March 30, 1977, by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, he became the youngest to be appointed to the office at the age of 44. He also became the first Diocesan Priest to be appointed an Archbishop.
A scholar, preacher and spiritual colossus, Archbishop Fernando, during his 25 years as the Archbishop of Colombo from 1977 to 2002, expanded the Archdiocese in several directions. He was a spontaneous and a compelling priest, whose interests gave him new strength and greater depth.
Archbishop Fernando welcomed Pope John Paul II to Sri Lanka on January 20, 1995, for a historical visit during which the Beatification of St. Joseph Vaz took place in Colombo. He celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his Episcopal Ordination at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Colombo, on May 14, 2002.
It is indeed a rare blessing and a privilege for one to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Priestly Ordination and His Grace thought it fit to bestow the honour to the parish that nourished him and it was befittingly celebrated with pomp and pageantry and with the participation of all the bishops and hundreds of priests at the beautiful St. Mary’s Church, Grand Street, Negombo, on December 20, 2009.
Archbishop Fernando is a man of utter simplicity, disarming humility and of patient holiness and piety. All along his long and distinguished religious duty spanning 59 eventful years, he endeared himself to the poor and the rich alike.
He continues to keep fit and fine and maintains a good rapport with his bishops, priests and friends, to their admiration. His entire life has been nothing short of miraculous. Archbishop Fernando was like the good and faithful servant in the parable – he was faithful in small matters, therefore, he was put in charge of great matters.
I will never forget or cease to appreciate the pivotal role he played in my life as my mentor. His grounding and counsel has stood me in good stead and given me strength to overcome many tribulations. My thoughts and prayers for him on this 86th birthday are God’s abundant blessings and good health to notch up a century.
Ad multos et faustissimos annos!