Fr. Michael Rodrigo Crusader for Social Justice (part II)

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By 2017-12-07

Rev. Fr. Aloysius Pieris, SJ 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.


Already sometime in 1980, I addressed the CMRS begging it to fill this lacuna for we religious have both the experience and the resources others do not have. Fr. Michael was still alive then. My words fell on deaf ears. Later in the same decade, I made a second appeal. It fell on rocky soil. The text of that talk has been published in Vidyajyoti Journal of Religious Reflection and it was distributed at a third meeting in which I repeated the same request that the CMRS should take up the task of providing an alternative theological education. This third appeal fell by the wayside and birds swallowed it.

Then came the Asian Institute of Theology organized with the collaboration of OMI and CMF congregations, with the veterans Bob Luckart, Dalston Forbes and Anselm Silva, leading the movement. (Fr Mike was no more by then). As a member of that team, I appealed to my Higher Superiors in Rome and arranged for the possibility, under some easily manageable conditions, to give AIT the status of an RTC (Regional Theological College) of one of our Jesuit Institutions so that the AIT students here would study for Pontifical Degrees. But soon we found the AIT being restricted only to Oblates of the Colombo region. The opportunity slipped by.

The CMRS is sleeping. We Religious are self-centred and cannot come together to exercise our charismatic leadership in the local church unlike in many other countries.

Alternative Theologate

I cannot speak of this hostile period that brought about these series of failures without mentioning both Mike and Bob, because they joined Bishop Leo in offering an alternative theologate which the CMRS failed to provide when it was at their door-step. But their relationship and their cooperation in theological formation of seminarians was dialectical rather than dialogical.

Bob was one of the best academic guides that Sri Lankan seminarians ever had. He was not an eloquent speaker as Mike was. But he had a way of creating independent and self-confident thinkers among those seminarians who were bold enough to profit by his pedagogical method. He could create the type of seminarians that Gaudiumet Spes expected. But he did not have Mike's rhetorical skills; for Mike had a flair for coming down to the level of the hoi polloi when he gave a sermon or delivered a lecture.

His English was mellifluous and could burst into poetry. Responding to the signs of the times, Mike began to realize already as a National Seminary Professor that he had to come down from his English-speaking middle class platform and become as fluent as possible in the vernacular. The greatest difference between them was in the way each approached the poor and their poverty. Bob was more vocal about his disagreement with Mike than Mike was. Bob Luckart revealed to me his personal anxiety about Mike's alleged obsession with economic and social justice. By now Michael had made a theological synthesis between worship which he once taught in the seminary and social justice which his sojourn in Badulla awakened in him. Bob thought that Mike's radical socialism made him condemn even a poor man as a capitalist if he bought a bicycle. I am quoting Bob's own words. That was not Mike at all, but that was how Mike's rhetoric sounded to Bob's ears.

Martyr to justice

No wonder that many who did not have the IQ that Bob possessed, went to the extent of condemning Mike as a supporter of the remnants of the violently extremist movement of rural youth, a movement which was crushed way back in 1971. By this time Michael had fearlessly taken the risk of being misjudged as an extremist both in the ecclesiastical and the political milieu of our country. Thence forward, Michael was under suspicion and he knew there was no turning back. Incomprehension mounted, especially among the clerical and religious class of that time.

In taking his stand, Mike was only responding to his Master's call. When I think of Mike's bold option I think of Jesus in Galilee as depicted by Sean Freyne, one of the great Scripture scholars of our time. In the book he wrote before his death Sean Freyne shows how the Galilean peasants were exploited by local political leaders, the Herodians, the stooges of their foreign Masters in Rome whose economic policies created enormous destitution among the rural farming populations. Jesus ministered there, antagonizing the Herodians, the local politicos. Mike did just that in Wellassa and faced death threats from our Herodians who served the open economy policies of their foreign masters, and it was at their hands that he became a martyr to justice.

It is not too late to recognize Michael Rodrigo's sanity and sanctity which I think is the purpose of today's meeting and the expected outcome of this book on him: For Mike answered that call when he decided to satisfy his thirst to be poor, and be with the poor, a Galilean among the Galileans, a peasant among the peasants. He fulfilled this yearning when he founded Subha-seth-gedara, at Buttala while Bob Luckart, a pedagogue who inspired creativity in his students continued training the seminarians of the Badulla diocese.

Self-effacing humility

Mike's entry into Wellassa as a learner rather than a teacher was undramatic compared to his exit from Wellassa as a battered corpse. His unique mode of entry into the predominantly Buddhist ethos of Wellassa reveals something of his holiness. I am referring to the way he approached the Buddhists and their monastic custodians. Though a priest and a Religious and an academically qualified intellectual, he did not rub shoulders with Buddhist hierarchs as colleagues and equals as most of us do.

Whenever he visited a Buddhist Temple (as related by more than one witness) he presented himself as an ignorant nobody, taking the lowest seat, and showing a deference that touched the heart of monks and the laity. As far as I know, no Catholic Clergyman had ever exercised such self-effacing humility as a constant principle of inter-religious dialogue. Thus his incarnation among the poor rural folk in Wellassa was a true kenosis, a self-emptying, a reflection of his Master's humility, as I have duly acknowledged in my preface to the Book that is launched today. I was in Manila, giving my annual lectures there, when a phone call from Tulana announced the brutal murder to which his concern for justice led him. I whispered to myself: "Mike, too late have I known thee." For the occasion to have a close-range observation of his inner life and his true self - dawned on me only towards the final years of his life when he, not infrequently, spent the night with us during his visits to Colombo. That was an unforgettable experience for all of us at Tulana. I also have in our archives some very heart-revealing communications penned by his own hand which too gave me a glimpse into the inner impulses that he had received from the Spirit. They revealed to me a man ready to face any challenge in order to be faithful to the option he had made in response to the unique calling he had received from the Lord.

Sense of humour

Before I conclude I like to draw a very important and attractive feature in Mike's character which prepared him for martyrdom. I mean his sense of humour. Let me warn you: Do not work for social justice if you do not have a sense of humour; or else you will end up as a pathological messiah. Mike's emotional richness and its concomitant hyper-sensitivity was tempered by his ability to see the grotesque in the most serious event or occasion. I am not referring only to his play with words which provoked peals of laughter. All remember his pun "I succeed only in the Mango Season." - I suck mango seed.

Let me insist that I am not referring to his jokes and puns as such. The subtle humour I saw in Mike was an essential feature of his authentically Christian spirituality. Humour is an ingredient of the theological virtue of HOPE; for hope is the anticipation of a joyous finale experienced in the midst of pain. Humour is an eschatological virtue. We who believe in the God of the Bible as revealed in Jesus can face martyrdom only if we are capable of 'remembering our Future.' He who remembers the future laughs at the present threats and even at possible death. This is what Christian hope is about.The characteristic of a mature human personality is this way of living in the light of a Future Glory anticipated as the present moment. Hence, an authentic human person is defined as one who has eyes fixed on the horizon. Aristotle warned his students that anyone who was incapable of seeing the future is not just a non-human but a pig. A pig! His students challenged him, so the legend goes. Why single out pigs?

Aristotle explained that all animals can raise their heads and see far ahead on road. Only the pig has a stiff neck and cannot see anything beyond what its snout touches in front of its feet. Most of us according to Aristotle are pigs. It was only small coterie of stiff-necked clerics (for whom Aristotle had an apt nickname) that accused Mike of being a victim of his own political naiveté rather than a martyr to justice.

Rooted in hope

Yes, even in the face of death, we can raise our head and see the horizon, we can delve into the Eternal Now of God, where our future is already available for celebration.... only if we are a people rooted in hope. All martyrs had developed this theological virtue of smiling at the imminent disaster. In the monastery of Lerins in France and in the Xavier Castle in Spain, we have a sculpture of the crucified Christ with a serene smile illuminating the tortuous features of his bleeding countenance. It reveals the Hope of Resurrection radiating from death. This is the mark of all martyrs: they are driven by a hope that brings future glory to the present moment so as to allow themselves to challenge death itself. That is what facilitated the martyrdom of Fr. Michael Rodrigo, however threatening it might have appeared to him initially.

Right before the imminent annihilation of his work and life, he refused to run away from death, but faced the bullets, pouring his blood into the chalice wherein a moment earlier Christ had poured his own. He who taught liturgical worship in the seminary once upon a time has demonstrated what all the Major Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea have repeatedly and unanimously shown, namely, that true worship overlaps with justice to the poor. His death which sealed his commitment to justice was his final act of worship.

Ite missaest, thundered the assassin's gun. "Go (ite), this community is sent (missaest)." It was sent on a mission, a mission begun by the martyrdom of a prophet. Mike is sending us to the poor to be with the poor, to be Galilean among the Galileans, peasant among the peasants. His witness unto death is ever echoing in our hearts; his blood cries to heaven not for vengeance but for more and more men and women who can give hope to the poor helpless peasants of Wellassa and everywhere, and today, particularly in the North, but not as prophets of doom but as heralds of hope, with their faces illuminated by eschatological humour and beaming with the victory of resurrection. Michael has left us a mission and also a message. In the book that is launched today, its author, Dr. Nandini Gunewardena challenges the readers to dig out and reflect over our martyr's last will and testament written with his blood. The launching of that biography is the climax of the day's agenda, which all are eagerly waiting for. To allow this programme to unroll, towards that inspiring finale, I press the 'pause button' on my lectio brevissima. Thank you for your kind attention.



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