Fr Vito Perniola S.J. celebrated his 99th birthday on 10th April 2012. Except for brief visits overseas largely for purposes of research study, Fr Perniola has been living continuously in Sri Lanka, for 76 years having first arrived in 1936. He was granted Honorary Citizenship of Ceylon in 1949, -in recognition of his services.
Fr Perniola was born at Santeramo [Bari] in Italy on April 10th 1913. Fr P ‘s parents were land owners and owned a ‘town- house’, in which they resided during the school term , retiring to their ‘country house’ during the school vacations. Fr V P was the fifth of nine children. As theirs was a small town, and there was no suitable school for his secondary education, he was sent to a neighbouring town, and was boarded there, with a "simple God-fearing family".
The young Perniola frequented the church close to his boarding –house, and attended mass on every Sunday and feast day. In Dec 1924, during the feast of S. Francis Xavier, celebrated over three days, he attended church services daily, listened to the sermons, prayed and reflected on what he heard. Fr Perniola says he became convinced at that time – at the tender age of 11+ years, that he had a "firm calling, to be a Jesuit Priest and Missionary" - and decided to commit himself to that divine calling.
When the young Perniola visited home that Christmas, he confided his thoughts in his father, and he states he remembers his father’s words very clearly -"If that is your decision, go ahead. If necessary we will make any sacrifice to help you achieve your goal. But woe to you if any shame were to come to our family on account of you".
From his school days he showed scholastic brilliance, coming first in class and receiving double promotions. In 1925, he joined the "Jesuit College Argento of Lecce". At the age of 15 he went to the Provinciate in Naples to start his religious training as a Jesuit. During the second year of his Novitiate, the Superior had taken a pile of Catalogues, and given to each student a copy selected at random, to study and to set out his observations in an essay. The catalogue which came to him related to a training course in Philosophy in Shembaganur, in S. India. He decided then that he will ask to be sent to Shembaganur to study philosophy, and then on to Sri Lanka, to join the existing Galle Mission of the Jesuits of SL. He felt convinced, "that is the place I have to go". He finished his Novitiate training on Easter Sunday 1930, and commenced studies in Latin, Greek, Italian and such subjects.
About that time he fell sick and had to have a tonsil removed, when, in a drawer in the sick room, he came upon a missionary review which he perused, and found an article about the same College in S. India, referred to earlier, and again felt the calling to go there. He feels these were not mere coincidences, but clear instances of Divine Guidance, which he experienced "again and again" throughout his life, influencing important decisions he had to make. Such divine guidance he feels, continues in his life – even today.
He left Naples, Italy for India on December 30, 1932, having visited his home for the last time, to attend the first mass of his brother. This moment of impending permanent separation from his family was tinged with pain for the young Perniola. He sailed by boat to Bombay, and then onward by train to Madras, and on to Shembaganur. He left for Colombo and sat for the Matriculation exam there, in 1936. In Sri Lanka he was initially attached to a missionary parish church and school in Elpitiya. He also started learning Sinhala, and he began "changing my attitudes from a western mentality to an Eastern mentality". While in Elpitiya, he learned that he had been successful in his Matriculation exam, and it was decided he will proceed to study for a degree. He decided to read for a BA [Hons] degree with Pali and Budhism, as the main subjects - and with Sanskrit and Hinduism as subsidiary subjects. This involved studying "two new languages from scratch." As there was no one available to direct his studies or to guide him, he needed to undertake a lot of research and self-study, but was successful in completing his BA [Hons] degree in July 1940.
Father Perniola observes that at first the Pali language was a dialect of Sanskrit, and the dialect spoken at the time, by the Buddha. As a result of this connection between Buddhism and Pali, Pali later developed into a literary language. FR. P observes that the relationship of Pali to Sankrit is very much akin to the relationship of Italian and Latin. No Pali grammar can be considered without reference to Sanskrit. While there was no good Pali grammar available at the time, he had access to an "excellent grammar in Sanskrit", which he observes was considered a ‘sister language of Greek’, both of which fall into the category of ‘Indo-European languages, referred to in Philology.’
FR Perniola began his theological training at the Papal seminary in Kandy in 1941, during World War 2. He states that during the war, Italians in India were interned in concentration camps, but in Ceylon, they were placed under civilian control, mainly due to the intervention of the "Saintly Benedictine Bishop of Kandy - Mgr Bernado Regno"- for whom the governor had great respect and regard. In 1943, FR Perniola was ordained a priest, and in Dec 1947, he was posted to the Jesuit College, St. Aloysius College, Galle, as a teacher. However as there was no Pali or Sanskrit taught at the school, it was decided that he would teach the subject, ‘History of Ceylon’. After study, he updated the available text book on this subject written by Fr. S.J. Perera, the first Sri Lankan Jesuit. He later served as Rector of the College, and also taught Pali at the school.
In 1954, a Catholic University College, Aquinas, was founded in Colombo. He was invited to lecture on Pali and Buddhism, commencing Jan 1953. For teaching the Pali language at the degree level, a good grammar was essential and so he set to work, and published the first edition of the Pali grammar, authored by him. He had to teach for the A-Level exam, the BA [General] and BA [Hons] University of London exams. He takes justifiable pride that all his students were successful.
He observes that students for the Arts degree at that time had to study a classical language. While the Sinhala students preferred to take Pali, the Tamil students preferred Sanskrit. By studying available literature, Fr P improved further the Pali grammar authored by him, and it is now the accepted standard grammar and has been printed by the Pali Text Society of Oxford. Amongst his students has been the Jesuit Fr Aloysius Peiris, who took a First Class [Hons] degree, and went on to become a respected theologian and scholar in Buddhist Studies. When the government stopped holding London University Examinations, in SL, Fr P took to teaching theology to nuns following the Vatican Council.
Later Fr P entered a new and very challenging phase in his life’s work- that of authoring books on the Catholic Church in SL. This was brought about by a dire need felt by many at the time to continue with and complete the good work commenced by Fr. S.G. Perera. The latter had taken advantage of his stay in Europe to visit archives in Rome and in Lisbon, and to collect documents relating to missionary work in Ceylon by the Oratorian priests of Goa who helped save the Catholic faith in SL during the Dutch period, one of whom was Fr Joseph Vaz. However his work was curtailed when a stroke left him paralysed in 1940, and although Fr S.G. Perera lived until 1950, he was unable to finish his work, of which 55 documents had already been translated and published. Since many were convinced of the need to translate all the Oratorian documents, and as it was expected that Fr. Joseph Vaz was to be Beatified, Fr. P. undertook the formidable task of finishing the work commenced by Fr. Perera. At the commencement, he was helped in this task by publications authored by several others – [Refer Preface to Vol. 1 – Catholic Church in SL –The Dutch Period - authored by Fr P.]. This volume can be considered the First Volume of Fr. Perniola’s "Magnum Opus" – titled the "Catholic Church in Sri Lanka" published in a total of 19 volumes, comprising the following,
A] Three volumes on the Portuguese Period 1505 -1658
B] Three Volumes on the Dutch Period 1658 -1795
C] 13 Volumes on the British Period 1795 -1922
The First editions of each of these 19 Volumes were published during the period between 1983 and 2010.
In order to collect material for these books, Fr. P. undertook visits to Archives in Goa, Rome, and Lisbon and also researched the National Archives in SL as also the Catholic Church Archives. He needed to translate into English all the original documents collected from Latin, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch. For this he had to learn these languages [but received valuable assistance in the Dutch language from a gentleman in the national archives]. He completed this work and the last volume No. 19 - was published in 2010. By God’s grace, Fr. Perniola has been granted long life and good health over a span of 99 years, to be able to complete this task in his life-time, which only a man of his unique linguistic skills and scholarship, would have been able to achieve, -a monumental unstinting labour of love.
Fr. Perniola has authored three valuable booklets of meditation titled a] Praying with Scripture , b] Abiding in Love , and Touching the Divine . There have been several reprints and revised editions of these booklets since then. Prior to these he also published a booklet titled "Light and Love". All these booklets have been translated into Sinhala. He has also contributed learned articles and reviews, and written to the newspapers, - on religious subjects, on historical events, on linguistics, and on literature.
This writer has had the honour of knowing Fr Perniola for over 15 years having first been introduced to him by a relative, who arranged for me to be Blessed by him, following a serious heart complaint, in 1996. Since that day Fr. Perniola has become a close family friend. I have found him to have an incisive mind, and a man who is able and willing to express his views candidly on any important matter – be it connected with Christian doctrine and Theology, or on Inter-Faith relations, or on National and International Affairs. As a practicing Anglican, I have gained much, both spiritually and in other respects from my conversations and my association with him. I have always found him to have well balanced and un-biased views, on any subject –and a heart overflowing with love. He is an embodiment in real life, of the essence of the Christian Faith, based on Gods Two Great Commandments, as taught by Jesus Christ , - "to Love God,- and to Love one’s Neighbour, -as oneself."
His mind remains clear, though he says he is becoming a bit forgetful, and despite a bit of a stoop, and failing eyesight, remains physically active – moving nimbly and speedily, on his feet. Although he is in good health, he has had his medical setbacks. An accident while traveling in a 3-wheeler a few years ago, and again when he was very seriously ill, about an year ago, - and had to be kept on saline for weeks by his doctor, a GP, [on whom he places great confidence]; - he recovered on both occasions by the grace of God, and the love and care of those who looked after him. He declined to enter hospital. Before his recent serious illness, while living in Kandy, -he traveled regularly to Colombo by bus –to visit the Archives and to get about his essential work. Fr P is a man of great faith in his Creator, and a man of simple needs, and a simple life-style.
We were honoured to be invited to attend Fr. Perniola’s 99th Birthday celebration at Jesuit House - a simple event. Mass was celebrated, with him as celebrant. The service was dignified and meaningful. Fr Joe de Mel, a senior RC priest, who delivered the homily, aptly described Fr Perniola as a "National Treasure" which he indeed, truly is. His services to Sri Lanka and particularly to the youth of this country have been immense, -as also to the Church. Above all he is a very saintly man living a life of contemplation and meditation, but finding time to continue working at his computer, and being accessible to those seeking his advice, and guidance. Even now, he is busy writing another book on an important historical subject. Some years ago, I took a fellow-Engineer, a Buddhist and a student of Pali, -to meet him in his sparsely furnished room; and when leaving, my friend told me in all sincerity, " I thank you very much. Today I have met a Saint". Such is the impact on any one who meets him or gets to know him.
Fr. Perniola has a an abiding faith in the all encompassing love of God , and firmly believes that God loves all human beings – irrespective of their differing creeds or beliefs or identity. We pray that God will continue to Bless , Guide and Protect Fr. Perniola, and we join with him in saying - "May Thy will be done".
The above biographical note and appreciation has been based on information gathered in conversations with Fr P, and the writer’s personal observations.