December 20, 2011

Rev. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody OMI - A Legend in His Own Lifetime

(By courtesy of, 23rd May 2004)

The birth anniversary of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody OMI, the well-known Catholic priest, musician, poet, lyricist, author, journalist falls on June 03, Lesley Fernando talks about his life as a priest and his varied contributions to the arts drawing on indigenous cultural roots.

A household name in our country, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was a priest far ahead of the times. He led an eventful life replete with ups and downs. He was stronger in defeat and all his defeats later turned out to be victories. He had the Midas touch and everything he handled turned into gold. He lived long, till the ripe old age of 96 and passed away on January 15, 1998 after making an indelible stamp on contemporary society.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was born on June 03, 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. He had to suspend his education for one year at St. Joseph's Colombo, because he could not afford to pay the school fees.

In 1920 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody entered St. Bernard's Seminary. He was ordained a priest on December 20, 1927 by Dr. J.M. Masson, the then Archbishop of Colombo.

There was always the love for national culture in his veins. At the beginning of the 20th century, slavishly imitating 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, John de Silva and Piyadasa Sirisena.

The higher strata in society who aped the Western way of life was severely criticised by the well-known 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 criticised 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 as an exponent of indigenous culture. As the parish priest in different areas he served, he gave the altar a national aura bedecking it with gokkola and ralipalam.

At that time, the churches were set up on a caste basis. It is so even today in some churches. In one parish the people who belonged to one caste had refused to accept Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who belonged to a different caste for their parish priest. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was adamant and never moved out. Later he won over the parishioners and served the parish with much acceptance.

As a parish priest Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was able to tame tough characters, diffuse caste issues and succeeded in tactfully dealing with the problems in the parishes.

When Fr. Marcelline Jayakody became the parish priest of Duwa in 1939, the Duwa Passion Play was performed with images of sacred personages based on the centuries old Nine Sermons in the Dukprapthi Prasangaya written by Fr. Jacome Gonsalves. At that time no one dared to engage 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 re-cast the play while maintaining the traditional outlook. He also composed all the hymns in addition to the traditional Pasan.

Since then the fame of Duwa Passion Play spread far and wide. At that time, the colourful Duwa Passion Play, performed with over 250 actors, all drawn from the island hamlet of Duwa, was considered as the greatest Passion show in Asia.

The credit of introducing Catholic hymns with both Christian aspects and national sentiments should go to Fr. Marcelline Jayakody.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the normal practice was to dub Sinhala words to Latin hymns and Western melodies. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too at the beginning wrote several hymns specially the Carols adopting Western tunes. However, in 1934 Fr. Marcelline Jayakody composed the hymns Sapiri Sama - Asiri Soma and the Christmas Carol Raya Tharu Babalanava set to his own music. These hymns became very popular and are still sung in churches.

In 1940's and 1950's specially around Independence there was a national renaissance in Sri Lanka. This national consciousness had its effect on the Catholic Church as well. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody too began to compose outstanding hymns like Ronata Vadina Bingu Obay, Nelum Pipeela Pethi Visireela and Suvanda Male Pipi Kumudiniye with a national fervour. These magnificent hymns with their superb lyrics, sweet music and local setting captivated the hearts of all.

The hymns of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody are simple and close to people. They contain both Christian themes and national outlook. They are appreciated even by non-Catholics. They are a striking example for cultural adaptation in its true perspective. Most of the popular hymns sung in churches today are compositions of Fr. Marcelline Jayakody.

In 1949, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was invited to train the choir for the song Namo Namo Matha as the composer of the song Ananda Samarakone had gone abroad. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody rose to the occasion, trained the students of Musaeus College and presented it, to be acclaimed by all. This fantastic performance went a long way towards making Namo Namo Matha our national anthem.

In late 1949, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was appointed the Editor of Gnanartha Pradeepaya the official Sinhala Catholic weekly. He increased the pages of it from 8 to 12 and introduced new features with an indigenous outlook. It was Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who designed the title Gnanartha Pradeepaya and this title still continues.

However, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not stay long in Gnanartha Pradeepaya. The authorities insisted that he should closely follow the English Catholic weekly the Messenger. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody refused and left Gnanartha Pradeepaya on his own for Shanthinikethan in India.

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

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody made use of his stay in Jaffna to make a study of Hindu religion and culture. He wrote a series of articles to Times of Ceylon journal on Tamil culture, the simple and serene life of people and beauty of Jaffna. He also presented a Passion play with the students of St. Patrick's College, Jaffna. From Jaffna in 1953, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was appointed to the staff of St. Peter's College, Colombo. At St. Peter's with the assistance of Heen Baba Dharmasiri he set up an oriental arts centre and introduced indigenous fine arts to this leading Catholic school in the metropolis.

The film Rekawa directed and produced by Lester James Peiris screened in 1956 was a landmark in Sinhala cinema. It was the first film presented with a real indigenous outlook and it won several international awards. Lester James Pieris got Fr. Marcelline Jayakody to write lyrics for songs in "Rekawa" and Sunil Santha to provide music for them.

Rekawa generated such enthusiasm in Sinhala cinema, that the Sunday Observer conducted a poll to select the leading personality in the film world in 1956. It was found from the beginning Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was leading the poll. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who did not want to take any undue credit made a declaration that he only wrote lyrics and Sunil Santha set the music for songs in Rekawa. But that did not make any difference.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody won the poll defeating such stalwarts in Sinhala cinema as Rukmani Devi, B.A.W. Jayamanna, Laddiee Ranasinghe, Sirisena Wimalaweera and Mohideen Baig. Dr. W. Dahanayake the then Minister of Education 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 1970's Fr. Marcelline Jayakody as writing a column in the Catholic weekly Messenger. He wrote it for 4 years and continued it even from abroad. In 1976 the authorities suddenly discontinued his popular column over a controversial article. But. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody could not be thwarted in that manner. He wrote a series of poems to Kaviya magazine extolling Buddhist culture.

Muthu was a collection of poems published in Kaviya. Muthu won Fr. Marcelline Jayakody the Presidential award for the best poetry work in 1979 and the famous international award the Magsaysay Prize in 1983.

That is not all. Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was the author of several other works of prose and poetry both in Sinhala and in English. He was a well-known journalist who carried columns in both Catholic and secular press. He was also an active member of "Hela Havula" initiated by Munidasa Kumaratunga for the correct usage of Sinhala. For several decades until his death Fr. Marcelline Jayakody 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 Piyathuma". This is the first book written by a Buddhist prelate on a Catholic priest.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who had to suspend his education for lack of funds in one instance, praises the Free Education Scheme in no uncertain terms mindful of the fact the then Catholic Church did everything possible to sabotage it. He also believed that Christ lived some years in India.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was a priest who practised what he preached. He used a share of the money he received from the Magsaysay award to set up an arts centre for the under-priviledged. He donated another share for the Sinhala Poets' Association. He set apart the balance for scholarships to poor students. He led a simple life with the barest of necessities.

Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was honoured with the Kalasuri title by the State and Kithu Nandana Pranamaya by the Catholic Church for his outstanding contributions to arts and culture for over six decades.

No other Catholic prelate or priest in Sri Lanka has touched the hearts and lives both Catholics and non-Catholics alike like Fr. Marcelline Jayakody. Sincere to God and sincere to man, Fr. Marcelline Jayakody was a legend in his own life time.

You might also like:

A rare collection of Christmas Songs recorded in 1975. Written by Rev Fr Marcelline Jayakody OMI & Ivan Alwis. Vocals: Rukmani Devi, Dayaratna Ranatunga & Amara Ranatunga.