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Fr. Marcelline Jayakody – a legend in his lifetime

by W. T. A. Leslie Fernando

(January 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The death anniversary of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody OMI, the well known Catholic priest, musician, poet, author, journalist and patriot falls on January 15 (today). A household name in our country and a legend in his lifetime, he passed away on January 15, 1998 . He lived long till the ripe old age of 96.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was born on June 3, 1902 at Dankotuwa on the outskirts of Maha Oya. He had his early education at Madampe Sinhala School and secondary education at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo. In 1920 he entered St. Bernard’s Seminary and was ordained a priest on December 20, 1927. He had an eventful career replete with ups and downs. He was a priest ahead of the times and all his defeats later turned out to be victories. No other Catholic priest in Sri Lanka had touched the hearts and lives of the people in our country like Fr. Marcelline Jayakody.

There was always the love for national culture in his veins. At the beginning of the 20th century slavish imitation of the West was the order of the day. At the same time there was a national resurgence led by patriots like Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra, Piyadasa Sirisena and John de Silva. The higher strata in the society believed in the Western way of life and were severely criticized by the novelist Piyadasa Sirisena. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody read the novels of Piyadasa Sirisena with interest and drew inspiration from his works.

As a young priest Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was criticized in Church circles for offering some Lotus flowers at the sanctuary at the wedding Mass of one of his relatives. Since then much water has flowed under the bridges in Sri Lanka. Now the national culture is given its due place in the Catholic Church and Fr. Marcelline Jayakody is considered an exponent of indigenous culture.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody served as an assistant parish priest in places like Kotahena, Pamunugama, Kochchikade (Negombo) and Kandana. He was the parish priest at Paiyagala, Duwa, Katana and Maggona. While serving as parish priest he gave the altar a national aura, bedecking it with ‘Gokkola’ and ‘Ralipalam’.

Fr. Jayakody was the parish priest of Duwa where the Duwa passion play was performed with the images of sacred personages based on the centuries- old Nine Sermons of the ‘Dukprapthe Prasangaya’ written by Fr. Jacome Gonsalvez. At that time no one dared use human actors in Passion Plays in churches. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody boldly broke with the tradition.

He used human actors for all the scenes except for Christ and Mary. He revised and recast the play while maintaining the traditional outlook. He also composed all the hymns, in addition to traditional ‘Pasan’.

Since then the fame of Duwa Passion Play has spread far and wide. The colourful Duwa Passion Play, enacted with over 250 actors, all drawn from the hamlet of Duwa, was considered the greatest Passion show in Asia at the time. It was considered second in the world only to the famous Passion Play at Oberamargaus in Western Germany, performed once in 10 years.

In the 1940s and 1950s, especially around Independence, there was a national awakening in Sri Lanka. This national consciousness had its effect on the Catholic Church as well. Accordingly Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too began to compose hymns with a national fervour. The outstanding hymns of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody at the time like, ‘Ronata Vadina Bigngu Obay’, ‘Nelum Pipeela Pethi Visireela’ and ‘Suvanda Jale Pipi Kumudiniya’, with their superb lyrics, sweet music and local setting, captivated the hearts of all.

These hymns of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody were simple and close to the people. They are appreciated by even non-Catholics. They contain both Christian aspects and national sentiments. They are a clear example for cultural adaptation in its true perspective.

In 1949 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was invited to train the choir for the song ‘Namo Namo Matha’ for the first independence celebrations as the composer of the song Ananda Samarakone had gone abroad.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody rose to the occasion and trained students of the Museaus College, to be acclamimed by all. This splendid performance paved the way to adopt ‘Namo Namo Matha’ later as our national anthem.

In the late 1949 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was appointed editor of ‘Gnanartha Pradeepaya’, the official Catholic weekly in Sri Lanka. It was Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who designed the caption ‘Gnanartha Pradeepaya’ in a traditional cultural setting and this caption is still used. He also increased the number of pages from eight to 12 and introduced new features with an indigenous outlook.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not stay long at ‘Gnanartha Pradeepaya’. The manager of the journal insisted that Fr. Marcelline followed the English Catholic weekly, the ‘Messenger’. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody refused. The manager took up the issue with Rev. Dr. T. B. Cooray, the Archbishop of Colombo.

The Archbishop ordered Fr. Marcelline Jayakody to present the news and articles contained in the ‘Messenger’ in Sinhala. Fr. Marcelline bluntly refused again, explaining that it would amount to translation and not journalism. He then packed up and left. ‘Gnanartha Pradeepaya’ is far for being a translation of the ‘Messenger’. It has its own identity and the position taken by Fr. Marcelline Jayakody is vindicated.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody underwent some training at Shanthinikethan, the famous oriental arts centre set up by Rabindranath Tagore. When Fr. Marcelline Jayakody returned to Sri Lanka he was sent to Tolagatty in Jaffna as punishment for leaving the country without the permission of the Church authorities. Later he served as teacher at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody made use of his stay in Jaffna to make a study of the Hindu religion and Tamil culture. He wrote a series of articles to the ‘Times of Ceylon’ on Hindu culture and the simple and serene life of the people and the beauty of Jaffna.

In 1953 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was appointed to the staff of St. Peter’s College, Colombo. At St. Peter’s he set up an Oriental Arts Centre. He got Heenbaba Dharmasiri to teach traditional dancing and introduced indigenous fine arts to this Catholic school in the metropolis.

In 1956 ‘Rekawa’ presented by Lester James Peiris revolutionized the Sinhala film world. Until then most of the Sinhala films appealed only to the gallery. This was the first Sinhala film with a real indigenous outlook. Lester James Peiris got Fr. Marcelline Jayakody to write the lyrics for songs in ‘Rekawa’ and Sunil Santha to provide music for them.

At a poll conducted by the ‘Sunday Observer’ Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was selected the leading personality in the film world in 1956 for his magnificent lyrics for the songs in Rekawa. Dr. W. Dahanayake, the then minister who presented the award said, "If I could write a single song like this, I consider it a greater achievement than being a minister."

In the 1970s Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was writing a column in the ‘Messenger’. He wrote it for four years and even continued it from abroad. In 1976 his popular column was suddenly discontinued over a controversial article. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not be thwarted in that manner. He wrote a series of poems to ‘Kaviya’ magazine, extolling Buddhist Sinhala culture.

Later he published the book, ‘Muthu’, containing the poems in ‘Kaviya’. ‘Mutu’ won for Fr. Marcelline Jayakody the Presidential Award for the best poetry book in 1979 and in 1983 the famous international award, the Magsaysay Prize.

That is not all. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was the author of several books of prose and poetry, both in Sinhala and in English. He was also a well known journalist who has carried columns in both Catholic and secular newspapers. He was also an active member of the ‘Hela Havula’ for several years. Until his death he was the president of the Sinhala Poets’ Association.

Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera has written a book on Fr. Marcelline Jayakody titled ‘Malpale Upan Pansale Piyatuma’. This is the first book in the whole world written by a Buddhist prelate on a Catholic priest.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was awarded the Kalasuri title by the state and Kirthi Nandana Pranamaya by the Catholic Church for his outstanding contributions to the arts and culture in Sri Lanka.

Sincere to God and sincere to man, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody is the proud boast of Catholics, as a national artist and patriot.

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