His new dwelling was named Suba Seth Gedara
“A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.”
This article is written to commemorate the 33rd death anniversary of Rev. Fr. Michael Paul Rodrigo OMI, affectionately known as Fr. Mike, who lived for 60 years and faced death on November 10, 1987.
It is significant that Jesus’ earthly life lasted 33 years—a number that coincides with Fr. Mike’s 33rd death anniversary. Jesus died at the prime of His life. He was wrongly accused, betrayed, charged, and crucified.
Following in Jesus’ footsteps, Fr. Mike too faced an untimely and undeserving death because he spoke openly for the poor and downtrodden. He empathised with the poor and stuck out his neck for them. His voice was silenced as he exposed the injustices prevalent in the milieu in which he lived.
He often quoted the words of William Penn: “I expect to pass through life, but once. If therefore there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again”. Kindness and goodness were qualities which epitomised his way of life
Incidentally on Holy Thursday this year, Pope Francis enacted what Jesus did. The Pope washed and kissed the feet of migrants of different nationalities and creeds, bringing tears to the emotionally-moved people. In his message the Pope emphasised, “All of us together Catholic, Coptic, Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu, Evangelicals are but brothers and sons of the same God who want to live in peace.”
33rd Death Anniversary of Rev. Fr. Michael Rodrigo
|Fr. Mike profoundly understood that as a follower of Jesus one should immerse oneself for the cause of the poor and challenge oppressive systems that crush people
||He lived with the firm conviction that Christians must live the way Jesus lived and serve the poor. The church not only must evangelize the poor but also allow herself to be evangelized by the poor
Serving the poor
Fr. Mike’s vision and calling to serve the poor in a Buddhist environment—creating an aura of brotherhood, love and goodwill—reflects the Pope’s sentiments. He was a much-loved priest who renounced prestigious positions offered to him in keeping with his double-doctorate in Philosophy and Theology. He rejected an enviable teaching post at the ‘Institut Catholique’ in Paris. Instead he opted to serve the poor and marginalised.
He chose the poorest province in Sri Lanka, the province of Uva. The poorest district being the district of Monaragala, and one of the poorest villages, Alukalawita, Buttala. His new dwelling was named ‘Suba Seth Gedera’, the house of love and good wishes—a name suggested by a visiting monk. His mission was prophetic; it involved the rigors and risks in discerning what God wanted of him through his inner promptings and through the perceived needs of others and challenges that go beyond one’s priestly life such as risks, doubts uncertainties. He was fully aware that his life too would be full of trials as he wanted to serve the people at all costs.
He lived with the firm conviction that Christians must live the way Jesus lived and serve the poor. The church not only must evangelize the poor but also allow herself to be evangelized by the poor. The ‘teaching-church’ first of all needs to become a ‘learning-church’, always reading the signs of the times.
Fr. Mike simplified his lifestyle to show his oneness with the peasantry of the vicinity. He wore the garb of the people, the sarong and banian. He mingled with simple people treating everyone alike, inculcating the profound values of love, compassion, care and concern. As an ardent scholar of Buddhism, he was able to relate meaningfully and mingle with Buddhist monks who were initially suspicious, but became affable and accommodating with time.
He believed the entire human race was one family of brothers and sisters without discrimination or distinction of class, caste, religion or race, and without social and political affiliations. He also believed Buddhism and Christianity could co-exist. The main ideologies—‘Metta’, loving kindness or melting heart; ‘Karuna’, compassion; ‘Muditha’, gladness at another’s wellbeing; and ‘Upekka’, equanimity—are embedded in Christianity too. The Gospel abounds with incidents where Jesus showed these qualities.
Suba Seth Gedara, the house of love and good wishes
Fr. Mike profoundly understood that as a follower of Jesus one should immerse oneself for the cause of the poor and challenge oppressive systems that crush people. He believed if you were not on the side of the poor, you were complying with the oppressor.
When structures and systems get crystalised in oppression, liberation is needed to de-crystalize these structures to harmonise the liberative process. Liberation must also be a constant ongoing process. Fr. Mike wrote and thought what he lived among the rural poor, and practiced what he preached—his very life was a message. He was influenced by Latin American liberation theologies, but believed there was an urgent need to recognise the authentic experiences of Asia and Sri Lanka where religious pluralism is a unique phenomenon.
Fr. Mike contributed seminally towards creating a synthesis of an Asian theology of liberation both by his living praxis and his writings. In educating the poor rural masses about their empowerment, he became the educator-par-excellence in Buttala. He established perfect rapport among Christian and Buddhist people as he had mastered both religious forms. His educational campaign could be named: ‘Education for Liberation’.
He also tried to educate his fellow priests and seminarians about the liberative potential of Christianity, Buddhism and other Asian religions. Ultimately it is to be understood that oppression is neither Christian nor Buddhist, and likewise true liberation is beyond Christian and Buddhist categories. Both Christianity and Buddhism are only paths to liberation and wholeness.
An authentic Christian is never a threat to Buddhists, and likewise a true Buddhist is never a threat to Christians. A true Christian or true Buddhist is always a blessing to other Christians and Buddhists. Fr. Mike was respectful and mindful of Buddhist values. He never advertised his religious doctrine. His main concern was to inculcate and live according to the authentic Christian values: love, mercy, compassion and kindness were the integral part of his life.
Fr. Mike’s final Eucharistic began with a cry of anguish: “Out of the depths have I called unto you O Lord.” (Psalm 130). After Communion his message is touching and relevant. It was the last day of his life; he would have had a premonition as if his inner thoughts prompted his words.
He encouraged the group with words of comfort. They had arrived at the decision to remain at Buttala at all costs at the request of the people. “After all, the lasting things in life are love and right relationships with the people. These things will last even in eternity. Don’t be afraid, we will commit ourselves to God.” As he finished saying, “Into your hands, I command my spirit”, he was shot by the assassin’s cruel hand, and his blood spattered on the altar, the very altar where he said Mass.
Jesus’ words, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) was exemplified. Fr. Mike loved the poor; for their sake and their concerns he laid down his life. Jesus says these words when He speaks of His death, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit”.
Fr. Mike’s undying message lives on even 33 years after his demise: he has touched the hearts of many during his lifetime, and like an undying flame his memory will last for eons to come.
(The writer is a liberation theologist who served with Fr. Mike and Sr. Benedict Fernandopulle in Alukalawita, and is a former lecturer at ‘Sevaka Sevana’ in Bandarawela)
Pics by Michael Meyler