Newsletter of the District of Asia

 Jul - Sep 2001

The Second Apostle of Sri Lanka
Archbishop Christophe E. Bonjean O.M.I.

Mgr. Bonjean O.M.I.
1st Archbishop of Colombo


Christopher Ernest Bonjean was born in Auvergne, France on September 23, 1823. He grew up in a home where both his father and mother had no religion, though born Catholics. The other child of the family was an older sister, Emily. She was a religious person and in that respect had an influence on her younger brother. The boy conceived the idea of becoming a priest and a missionary. He joined the Foreign Mission Society in Paris, and after training and ordination was sent to India in 1847, the very year in which a band of missionaries from a French religious order called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.) came to work in Jaffna.

He worked as a missionary in Coimbatore for nine years, and having heard of his countrymen of the Oblate order who were in Jaffna he came there in 1856, joined the order, and served Sri Lanka for the rest of his life, becoming one of the greatest missionaries the country has known. Fr. Bonjean had a good command of English and he made use of his pen to fight for the rights of the Catholics, especially on the subject of education, since the British government had entrusted education in the country to the Anglican clergy, providing them with grants. The School Commission that was set up in 1834 was also in practice a Protestant body. The Catholics were left out. In 1860 Fr. Bonjean published a pamphlet, printed in Madras and entitled A Few Words on Catholic Education in Ceylon in which he lays down the principles that should govern Catholic education and calls upon the country's Catholics to rise to the need of providing their children with the education they needed. Fr. Bonjean was a critic of the government mooted system of 'common mixed schools' in which Christian children of various denominations were to be taught a common form of Christianity. He wrote letter after letter against this proposal, which were published in The Examiner, a powerful and influential paper. Fr. Bonjean advocated instead a denominational system of education. The letters were later published as a book of 185 pages under the title Denominational vs.Common Mixed Schools (Examiner Press, Colombo, 1861). These letters need to be unearthed in today's ecumenical whirlpool in which churchmen have put the Church. We give here extracts from one such letter of Fr. Bonjean.



Bollawatte, January 2, 1861



What delightful and refreshing words! They fall on the ear as sweet music. We at once fancy all men united in the bonds of the same faith, and the realize to ourselves a state of society akin to what we read of the first Christians, who had but one "heart and one soul": But the jarring sounds of religious disputation soon dispel the fond illusion; the sweet dream vanishes away; we find ourselves once more with stern reality staring us in the face, and our disappointment becomes extreme, on perceiving that the beautiful words are but a sham, a cloak under the folds of which every error is afforded shelter.

Common Christianity in our Schools. Admirable! Capital! Only, gentle reader, that there is in this a small difficulty, to begot over, an enigma to be solved, which I fear will tax your ingenuity to no inconsiderable degree. For, how, allow me to ask, shall we be able to draw with sufficient precision, a line of demarcation between those doctrines, which belong with certainty to that general Christianity, and those which do not? For instance, in what category should we place the doctrines of the Blessed Trinity, of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and of the Incarnation? Let us be plain and sincere and call things by their name. That general Christianity is in sober truth, nothing more than a word without meaning; it may dazzle the ignorant, and throw dust into the eyes of the unreflecting; but it represents no fact, no reality, which an inquisitive mind could apprehend. It is a mere abstraction, a pure fiction, a bright phantom which becomes evanescent, the moment you stretch out your hand to catch it.

And here, let me tell those who, on reading this, may feel inclined to quarrel with me, for what they may think my uncalled for onslaught on their cherished dreams of a common Christianity, that it does more credit to their hearts than to their heads; it shows them to be peacefully disposed citizens indeed who will not put the world in a blaze, but withal, Christians not very strongly grounded in their faith, persuasion, opinion, or whatever that may be, which makes one belong to one church rather than the other, or to no church at all. It shows them to be little conversant with the essential features of Christianity, which are, unity in the principle, union in the parts, harmony in the whole, and to know very little of the analogy of the faith, by which each truth is so linked with all the others, that you cannot remove the least -if least there be- without destroying the order of the whole, without endangering the safety of the entire fabric, and without exposing yourself to be led from negation to negation into a general-known nothingism" and universal negation; an extreme consequence, which some only avoid; by a fortunate inconsistency.

I know that most of the advocates of general or common Christianity instinctively shudder at the mention of unity. They well see the necessity of it; but they fear the restrictions under which they fancy unity of faith would place them in other matters, and they fear they may have to surrender their cherished intellectual independency. It may tend to allay their groundless fears to know, in the first place, that although Truth be the mother of Unity, Freedom is also the offspring of Truth, according to the words of our Blessed Savior to the Jews. "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you Free. "(John VIII, 32) (...)

To these remarkable words, I may add as an argument ad hominem that the very yearnings after real unity, from which those clumsy attempts at the union of all sects under a common Christianity most undoubtedly spring, although they do so in a silent, unobserved and even unfelt manner, prove more than anything else could do, that man can find no rest, no repose, except in the bosom of the Unity of Truth. Unity, if it be anything more than a vain word, must be positive, not negative. But man, warped by early-imbibed prejudices, misled by false lights and opinions, seeks unity where it is not and cannot be, and through moans which cannot promote it. The gentle-hearted Protestant thinks that by the sacrifice of one truth or so, he paves the way to unity, not seeing that what he gets thereby is, no unity at all, but a disgraceful compromise between truth and error, which opens an abyss underneath his feet. Unity is no where but in the plenitude of Truth. But man's aspirations after truth are so cogent, so positively irresistible, that, when he does not seek for it where it is, he must needs seek for it, with an ardor worthy of a better cause, in quarters where it is not. Hence, in the social order, centralization which absorbs the individual and the family in the unity of the state; communism which tends to absorb private property in an unnatural common properly. Hence in the political order; the sacrifice of nationalities to schemes of impossible political unity. Hence in religion, the notion of a no less impossible common Christianity; with the corollary in education, of Common Mixed Schools.

It was with feelings of the greatest surprise, that having, some time ago, chanced to cast a glance at a "Report of a meeting of the Colombo Auxiliary Bible Society," I read the following statement.

" Mr. * * * said it was for him a matter of extreme gratification to notice, that no distinction of religious creeds had prevented us from uniting to diffuse as widely as possible, the Bible, God's own book: he rejoiced to see persons of all religious creeds pressing forwards in the name of our Common Christianity."

The Protestant reader, accustomed as he is to such phraseology, cannot imagine how startling it was to me. What, I asked myself, can that Common Christianity be, which allows of a distinction, not merely of opinions, but of creeds too? And how can people whose faith is not the same - for such is the import of the word distinction - unite in a Common Christianity, that is, in a common faith? Is it that what Mr. * * * calls distinct religious creeds," is no more than the minor differences of which the Revd Mr. * * * * spoke in the same meeting? Distinction, difference, almost the same. But then, it were scarcely worthwhile to keep up different churches, to have any separation, division, distinction, difference. If the points of disagreement are minor, why should you divide at all? If they are material, how can you coalesce into anything deserving the epithet of common?

In the 26th Report of the Jaffna Auxiliary Bible Society, Rev. Mr. Pargiter says:

'There are no divisions amongst us, though there may be diversities of operations. We all belong to the one Church - the Church of Christ - and acknowledge one standard of faith, doctrine and practice, the infallible Word of God, the Bible, around which we rally, and the truths of which we proclaim as essential to man's salvation.'

My answer is short. If you have only one standard of faith, and if that standard be a standard at all, how is it that your faith is not the same everywhere; that it varies, that it differs, that it is contradictory in many essential points? For, not only are your operations diversified, but your very doctrines differ. Not to go out of the Church of England, some of its adherents behave in baptismal regeneration, and some do not; some believe in the inspiration of the Bible, and some do not ; and, as truly said, the " No's" have it, notwithstanding Convocation and the 8,000 protesting Clergymen," as plainly shown by the 12 editions of Essays and Reviews.' Indeed, the catalogue of your doctrinal variations and varieties would fill volumes. What a many-colored prism your standard must then practically be!

The Bible, indeed, is infallible; but how fallible your Bible expounders Without going the length of the modern Essayists and Reviewers, who does not see that the Bible is no infallible guide to me, unless in as far as it is infallibly expounded to me; that, as all written documents, it requires a living authority to interpret it; that, otherwise, it is no more than a dead letter; that, the famous principle, the 'Bible alone', whilst untenable in practice, would admit in theory the AYE and the No - Truth and Error, to equal claims? And how does not my Revd friend see, that if acted upon, it must lead to his admitting in his one Church, not only the Socinian who denies the Divinity of Christ, the Unitarian who denies the Trinity; but also, proh dolor! the very Romanist? I asked myself many more things besides, especially with reference to that Bible which could not be diffused, without a sacrifice of those distinct creeds, which if creeds at all, must needs have their foundation in the Bible. (. . .)

Allow me to say a word or two more, about that general or common Christianity, to which I own, I owe a grudge, because I am afraid, when I hear it so much spoken of, so much cried up, that it may end by depriving us of the reality of true and saving Christianity; and that, not unlike the animal in the fable, which let drop the meat in his mouth to catch the shadow of it in the water, our society may, at last, preserve nothing more of Christianity than an empty shadow. Tell me, my dear sir, are we really earnest about Christianity? I mean Christianity, as a body of sublime truths to be believed, and as a code of strict moral duties to be performed?

Is it anything else for us than some venerable antiquity, or a social conventionality? In speculation, we admire it; its poetical side speaks to our imagination; it has something grand, majestic; and thus far; it commands our respect; in our social habits, we put it on, a consequence of old habits; but practically do we believe? Has it lost nothing of its hold on our hearts, and of its blessed influence on our lives?(...) Believe me, etc.

(Denominational versus Common Mixed School, Rev. Ch. Bonjean O.M.I. Examiner Press, Colombo, 1861, pp. 29-34)

In 1865 the Legislative Council appointed a sub-committee to go into the question of education in the colony and make recommendations. Fr. Bonjean, still only a priest, was one of those consulted by the committee. His report was a thorough and comprehensive one. It was published as a book of 96 pages in 1867. Fr. Bonjean again called for a system of government-aided denominational schools. On the recommendations of the Legislative Council's sub-committee, the government decided in 1869 that any religious denomination could open schools for its children and that a government grant would be given to all such schools, which provided a sound secular education.

Something Catholics still very much lacked was a collegiate school for the education of their children. As one who had all along been interested in education, Archbishop Bonjean was very keen on opening a college in Colombo. He took great pains to make this a reality. He raised funds, bought a large piece of land, and made plans for the institution, but before the buildings could be constructed he passed away on August 3rd, 1892. Not merely the Bonjean Hall of St Joseph's College but the whole institution of St Joseph College shall remain a living monument to this great churchman.

There is very much more to be said about Bonjean, which a brief sketch such as this will not permit. Fr S. Gnana Prakasar has called Bonjean 'the Second Apostle of Jaffna', the first being of course Bl. Joseph Vaz. In respect of Colombo too we might say the same. Archbishop Bonjean has done for the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, for the north and the south, for Jaffna and Colombo, what no other missionary has done since Bl. Vaz. We would be right therefore in hailing him as the Second Apostle of the Church in Sri Lanka.

(Adapted from some articles of Msgr. W. L. Don Peter in Historical Gleaning, Colombo 1992, pp. 161-166; and Current Comment, Colombo 1998, pp. 177-183)

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