Fr. Michael Rodrigo Crusader for Social Justice

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By 2017-12-06

Rev. Fr. Aloysius Pieris, S.J. delivered the Lectio Brevis on the occasion of the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the death of famed social activist Fr. Michael Rodrigo OMI at the Centre for Society and Religion on 6 November.

Here is the first part of his speech:

I have been put down to talk about Fr Michael Rodrigo's concern for social justice. That can be said in just one sentence: he was so concerned about it, that he died for it. But I think what I should do is something more substantial. I have to show how he developed his social awareness; refer to the historical events both in the church and in Sri Lankan society that led him finally to Wellassa; to his theological preparation and his spiritual that we could draw some lessons that the Phenomenon called Michael Rodrigo teaches all of us in the local church and the vision he has placed before us. For there are serious issues we must discuss frankly and self-critically when commemorating Michael's martyrdom to justice or else we are bound to miss the larger picture in which he alone makes sense to contemporary Christians.

I have to confess that I have never been Michael's colleague either as a student or a professor. Actually my real personal contact with him as a friend, brother and an academic colleague took place thanks to Bishop Leo Nanayakkara who happened to be the link between us. Furthermore, I met him with his dialectical counterpart, Bob Luckart. My memory cannot separate one from the other. I met Bob and Mike as complementary characters.

Most importantly, this long-standing encounter between me and these two Oblate professors took place at the tail end of the Conciliar renewal, when the conservative backlash had intensified.

With the demise of Pope Paul VI who steered the council through many storms and compromises into a relative satisfactory conclusion, we were pushed back to the status quo during the next two pontificates. The late Cardinal Murphy-O'Conner had quite wittily captured the way Popes of the Post-Paul VI era responded to Vatican II; he says that Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II pressed the 'pause' button on Conciliar renewal, while Francis on his arrival at the Vatican pushed the 'play' button.

Oblate Congregation

My association and friendship with Michael began during the pause button era, when Leo, the Bishop of Badulla was isolated, severely criticized, and reported to Rome. Mgr Carlo Curis the Apsotolic Nuncio (a Paul VI man) who supported Bp Leo and his programme of renewal was unfortunately replaced by a person called Nicolao Rotunno, a well-meaning but naïve clergyman who simply could not make head or tail of Bishop Leo's vision and work, specially the diocesan seminary, Sevaka Sevana which Leo built with the help of two stalwarts, Fr. Michael and Fr. Luckart.

Let us go back in history. For most of the younger generation need to know some historical events as well as the ethos which such events created for these men, especially for Fr. Michael and consequently for all of us in the local church. There were two periods clearly distinguishable in Mike's ministerial life. First was the period in which he served in the staff of the National Seminary which was then entirely under the Oblate Congregation. Let us note that the OMIs like many other Religious Congregations have been running seminaries elsewhere, too. Our Lankan Oblates had founded St Bernard's Seminary which produced the bulk of our clergy for decades. They were experienced teachers trusted by the Church both local and Roman. Transferred to Kandy in the mid-fifties of the last century, this seminary continued to maintain a high standard and within a decade it became the centre for the diffusion of the emergent theology of Vatican II.

There were two prongs in this Council's ecclesiological renewal: the Scripture and Worship. Joachim Pillai, the scripture professor at the Seminary spearheaded the biblical education of the laity and was largely responsible for awakening the sense of justice as a demand of God's covenant with us, whereas Michael Rodrigo, who taught philosophy, other religions and so on, took upon himself the renewal of the second prong of ecclesial renewal: worship - publishing a cyclostyled paper called 'The Liturgical Lifeline.'Bishop Leo represented the spirit of aggiornamento voiced by Pope John XXIII. Many others among the Religious and Clergy gave their support to him. The Kandy seminary under the Oblates was faithful to the Council and I repeat, Joachim Pillai and Michael Rodrigo were visibly active in the field outside the seminary.


Alas! Before long a polarization began to appear here, as was the case elsewhere in the World. There emerged a journal called 'The Rock' and its editors were two opponents of Bishop Leo, namely, Frs. Paulucci and Philippupillai of Kandy. But they started publishing it in Colombo. It often descended into vituperative vulgarity in its cartoons and jokes so that Cardinal Cooray decided to banish it from his diocese, forcing the editors to shift the seat of its publication to Montefano in the Diocese of Kandy where Bishop Leo tolerated it in consonance with his noble principles of church leadership. But the Jesuit Provincial, Fr. Vito Perniola could not help threatening legal action against a slanderous allusion to Jesuits in that journal and the Benedictine Abbot Tonini intervened and asked Paulucci to print on every issue of that journal that the Benedictines were not responsible for its publication.

That journal was a vehicle for a fanatical zeal to protect Tridentine reforms that were superseded by those of Vatican II.

Now who came to the rescue? A group of lay persons spearheaded by Dr W.D. Lionel, Patrick Fernando and of course, Mr. Victor Gunawardana the uncle of Dr. Nandani Gunawardana whose book on Mike is being launched today. Victor, a well-respected journalist, was the editor of the reader-friendly journal 'Outlook' which this group published to encourage those engaged in the spread of the Conciliar spirit. Joachim Pillai and Michael Rodrigo openly supported this effort of the laity (I, too contributed articles to it) The frequent meetings of the group were held in different places and one of their haunts was the house of Mr. and Mrs Eddie and Edna de Silva, where Bishop Leo would reside during his visits to Colombo and where, later Bob Luckart too found hospitality.

Then came a draconian intervention on the part of Thomas Cardinal Cooray, a scrupulous Oblate, who took over the administration of the Seminary into Episcopal hands. The bishops of the time were wonderful people with whom we worked closely, but they had no idea of running a seminary and not through their fault. The fact is that Oblates, who were experienced in theological education, became mere employees of the hierarchy. Some of them, like Dalston Forbes and Anselm Silva (to name the more significant among them) continued their teaching but the two major renewalists Joachim Pillai, a scripture scholar with a passion for justice and Michael Rodrigo an advocate of meaningful participatory liturgical worship faded away from the scene in the course of time.

Transfer of management

The seminary started becoming what it is today. What is at stake is not the qualifications of the present seminary staff (which could be excellent) but the quality of teaching which suffers from a lack of academic freedom for creativity under its Episcopal guardians.

Gaudium et Spes (62) of Vatican II speaking of theological formation of both clergy and the laity demanded that they 'be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry of thought and of expression, tempered by humility and courage.' This atmosphere recommended by Vatican II and maintained by the Oblates, disappeared from the seminary with the transfer of management to the bishops...though there were occasionally Rectors such as Fr. Harold Panditharatna and Fr. Joe de Mel who tried hard to remedy the situation as far as it lay in their power.

We know what happened not so long ago to the late Fr. Hilarion Dissanayaka, the best ecclesiologist we ever had and a theologian sparkling with renaissance humanism. He was a pianist with classicist taste and someone with a comprehensive grasp of the whole gamut of theology with a clear focus on social justice. He was sacked from the seminary without prior notice or an explanation, either to him or to his congregation and without observing the required canonical procedure.

It was an infringement of the civil, ecclesiastical and divine law. With my experience in lecturing in nearly twenty universities in the world including both Pontifical and Protestant Theological Faculties, I confess with great embarrassment and shame that such ugly interventions are unheard of except in the former communist regimes. I cite this example to demonstrate the difference that took over the seminary with the change of administration and consequently the suppression of academic freedom which Vatican II demanded in the document that I just quoted.


Hences Bishop Leo was justified in struggling way back in the seventies, to train his men away from that institution and this led him to start a diocesan Formation House under financially and ecclesiastically strained circumstances. Of course, many of us, especially among Oblates and Jesuits not to mention also several diocesan priests like Joe de Mel, Mervyn Fernando, Earnest Poruthota and a few others from Kandy and Badulla dioceses were on the same wavelength as Bishop Leo. But his closest collaborators in this new venture I repeat, were Bob Luckart and Mike Rodrigo. Sr. Milburga too joined the staff. The Seminarians visited the CSR, Tulana , Satyodaya and Subodhi for various programmes. But even that experiment met with resistance within the local church and from the Vatican administration of the Post-Paul VI era. The experiment had to be abandoned.

Here, I want to put the blame squarely, not on the bishops and their inexperience but on the Conference of Major Religious Superiors for not tapping their experience in creating an alternative ethos for the study of theology at least for their own presbyters. Hence, theologians of Michael Rodrigo'626s spiritual and intellectual calibre were deprived of the chance to contribute to the formation of theologically creative and pastorally committed Religious and Lay apostles.

Continued tomorrow



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