Priesthood was the last thing on his mind

As Rt.Rev. Duleep De Chickera steps down as the Bishop of Colombo, he recalls the beginnings of his journey in the service of God
By Chandani Kirinde, Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

In his growing up years, young Duleep De Chickera’s ambition was either to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a lawyer or join the army like many of his schoolmates. But all that changed when he sensed God’s calling to him to be a priest.

Ironically, Rt.Rev. Duleep De Chickera who stepped down as the Bishop of Colombo on December 31, 2010 after the completion of ten years of ministry as Bishop had “absolutely no intention of becoming a priest” while schooling at Royal College in Colombo but it was a “particular close friend” he met at school who later helped him understand the Christian faith and Christian life in a new way which put him on the path to priesthood.

“Until then I was a ‘superficial Christian’, saying the Lord’s Prayer before bedtime every night and going to church three or four times a year, ” he recalls.

Born in 1947, he grew up in a “very supportive family” environment where books and good conversation were always encouraged among the family members by his parents. At Royal College, he played basketball, took up cadeting and debating and enjoyed a full school life. “ There were only about 1200 students at Royal back then and there was a cross section of students from different ethnicities, religions and social backgrounds.” One teacher Dudley De Silva in particular had a “tremendous impact” on Duleep De Chickera’s life, so much so that he was the attesting witness when the young priest wed years later.

It was after leaving school that he sensed that his destiny lay in the service of God. But his first instinct was one of resistance as he had other dreams. He found the guidance he needed to “interpret God’s calling’ in Rev. Clarence Peiris, the parish priest of the church at Thimbirigasyaya to which congregation the De Chickera family belonged.

Once he took the decision to become a priest, he underwent the mandatory theology training and was ordained in 1974. “My family members were very surprised by my decision but they were very supportive. My father had passed on by the time I became a priest but if he had been alive, I know he too would have supported my decision,” the Bishop recalls.

Their surprise at his decision to dedicate his life to the service of God was probably to do with the fact that he did not come from a particularly religious background with a mother who was “reasonably devout” and a father who supported a secular way of life and had a strong inclination towards the Left.

It was also in a Christian setting that he met his future wife Geetha when they both attended a Christian Youth Club. It was, however, after five years of courtship, during which time he was studying in the seminary to become a priest and she was attending Law College, that they were married. “She married a poor priest and then had to give up her law practice and become a teacher to assist me.” He credits her unwavering support for being the reason he has been able to sustain his priesthood as well as all other aspects of his life.

In the service of the Anglican church, Rt. Rev. De Chickera has travelled the length and breadth of the country. Besides serving as Chaplain and Sub Warden at S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia for over 14 years, he recalls his time spent as Parish Priest at Mulkawala, an impoverished area between Matugama and Bulathsinhala, as being among his most memorable.

“There were Sinhala peasants and Tamil plantation workers living there. I learnt about the spirituality of the poor, the evils of poverty and the dignity and sense of community among the poor. It was a deep learning experience.”

It was while serving here that he was appointed the Bishop of Colombo in 2001 and looking back at these past ten years he describes it as a “fulfilling experience”. “There have been very trying times particularly during the tsunami and then during the time of the war when things were beyond anyone’s control. I listened to my conscience and the voices of the people and did what little I could do to relieve human suffering.”

It is the everyday situations and experiences of people he encounters that Bishop De Chickera uses in his sermons to best illustrate the message of God. “Jesus did the same thing. He used everyday situations to get a message across to people.” The inspiration for some of his sermons these days is gathered during the time he spends with his two grand children, four and one and a half years in age. “When my small granddaughter comes running, I have to stoop down to her level to pick her up and then we stand up together. This is what God does for us too. He stoops down and picks us up when we need to be picked up.”

The tradition of good conversation he keeps alive in his family with “chat time” a common practice in the De Chickera household. “While my wife and three children are very supportive, it’s not blind support. They are my greatest friends but also closest critics and I value both.”

A strong advocate for building inter-faith relationships, Bishop De Chickera counts among some of his best friends, members of the Buddhist clergy and of other religions. “It is to the advantage of all the people if our religious leaders can co-operate and work together. The united voice of all our religions has much to contribute towards reconciliation.”

After his successor takes over as the new Bishop of Colombo, Bishop De Chickera and his wife hope to spend a short sabbatical abroad before returning home to continue their work in the service of God. He will continue to serve the Diocese of Colombo in Sri Lanka as the Metropolitan’s Commissary and Vicar General of the Diocese with effect from January 1, 2011.

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