Roman Catholic Identity with Fisherfolk in the Coastal Areas

In the Christian community of Sri Lanka, one of the strongest identities that the Christians have with the working class is that of this group of fisherfolk in the coastal areas, especially Moratuwa and Negombo. The following analysis is of the fishing community in Moratuwa.

Almost all of this Christian community belongs to the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka. Before they became Christians in the colonial era this community did not have a prominent or an important place in the Buddhist or Hindu societies. They were from so-called low castes, and others disregarded them as sinners. Even economically they belonged to the lowest class of Sri Lankan society.

However, after they became Christians they began to develop a culture of their own in the context of Roman Catholicism in Sri Lanka. The Roman Catholic Church gave them a sense of identity in their trade, removing the guilt that they had experienced in their earlier faith. The Christian faith resolved the contradiction that existed between the real and ideal cultures, namely that according to the ideal culture in the context of Buddhism all killings are prohibited, including the killing of fish. Yet in the real culture, for their existence, they had to fish. This issue no longer affected them in the community that they formed in the context of the Christian faith.

Perhaps the fact that most of the disciples of Jesus were fishermen gave them a sense of importance in their trade. The church, which is necessarily community- and fellowship-based, brought the like-minded fisherfolk together. To lead these communities there were highly educated and disciplined priests within the communities. Under these priests, the members of these communities got the chance for leadership which was not possible in their former religions. In these Christian communities, they could raise their voices in solidarity with regard to the common issues faced by them. The school network started by the Roman Catholic Church educated at least some members of the community, enabling them to take up leadership at the national level. The fact that this community had a Christian identity enabled them to influence the political matters of this country. Up to a certain extent, more than with regard to other Christians in Sri Lanka, the faith of these Roman Catholic fisherfolk has become part of their way of life in the everyday matters of their communities.

As with many other rural and peasant communities, this community is also religious in its outlook. The people are strongly linked with nature and natural events. In their struggle with the natural realities such as sea, wind and thunder, which are humanly uncontrollable at times, they depend on their God for help. This dependence minimises their tension and disturbance, giving them courage and determination in their uncertain and unpredictable employment. As this community is strong in their we-feeling that represents the common interest of the group, when they became Christians they did so as a group in the context of their faith. Therefore in the areas in which they live permanently, they have a sense of belonging together in their faith. In their community individuals depend on each other physically and psychologically. This binds the community together, and this is one of the most important bases for a religion to exist in society effectively and meaningfully. This physical and psychological dependence keeps the community together in their faith, binding them together as a strong faith community.

Where the characteristics of this community are concerned, it is mainly a homogeneous community. Unity and uniformity, which are visible in social life, are also visible in religious beliefs. Agreement and consensus with regard to habits, opinions, morals, customs, values and religious beliefs are a common feature in the community. In their relationships, they are informal, personal and inclusive. At the same time, community spirit becomes more important than individual interests. Therefore a sense of belonging holds this community together. In this community spirit, the family is the smallest unit of society. The importance that the individual holds in the urban areas is not prominent in this community. Therefore family events such as birth, marriage and death are very important in this community. For these events, the neighbourhood comes together to share the joys and sorrows, and to assist each other. As all of these domestic events are important and coloured with Christian beliefs, the community comes together for these events in and around the Christian church, in the context of their faith in God.