Thirtieth death anniversary of Fr. Michel Rodrigo OMI: The saint who braved out | Page 2 | Daily News

Thirtieth death anniversary of Fr. Michel Rodrigo OMI: The saint who braved out

Fr. Michel Rodrigo OMI
Fr. Michel Rodrigo OMI

I am a Catholic in my religion, but a Buddhist in my culture.  - Rev. Fr. Michel Rodrigo O.M.I

Thirty years ago, on November 10, 1987, while Rev. Fr. Michel Rodrigo OMI was celebrating the Holy Eucharist, he was shot and killed at his small shelter in Alukalawita, Buttala.

Fr. Michael was born to a middle class family. He was educated at St. Peter’s College, Colombo. After being becoming a priest, Fr. Michael continued with his theological studies; obtaining a doctorate from the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP). On returning to Sri Lanka he was appointed a lecturer at the National Seminary. Soon thereafter, he received an offer from ICP to be a Professor of Theology. He declined this offer in order to work with Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, in the Badulla Diocese.

In 1980 he set up a Christian-Buddhist dialogue centre, Suba Seth Gedera, in the village called Alukalawita, Buttala. Local Buddhist monks were initially suspicious of the tiny Christian community of which he was part, but came to recognise that he was not a rival. Fr. Mike, the nuns and lay workers who worked alongside him, became trusted figures, undertaking educational activities and caring for their neighbours.

It was the terrible time of insurgency in 1987-89. Reportedly, after a local businessman was shot at by suspected insurgents, armed men claiming to be from the police searched the small house of Buttala, Alukalawita community headed by Fr. Michel Rodrigo. They threatened him, though he pointed out that the activities of their centre were peaceful. Reluctant to abandon the villagers, but concerned about his companions’ safety, he asked them to decide whether the community should leave or stay, though his own preference was to remain. The community was to take a decision at this particular Holly Mass.

It was a few days before the assassination of Fr. Michael Rodrigo. I wanted to see him at Suba Seth Gedara. I used to see him together with my wife Ramya at least once a month. We both came all the way from Passara to experience the real life with community of Alukalawita Buttala. We did a lot of educational and cultural programmes in the village together with Fr. Mike and other members of the community. When I came there all the members of the community (except Fr. Mike) had left the village. When I asked why he did not leave the village he said that he was compelled by his conscience not to leave the helpless villagers in this hour of crisis.

Community members

Fr. Michael was more overwhelmed by the suffering, which the poor villagers were forced to tolerate than by the threats made by the tragic situation prevailing at that time in the country. Many friends had asked him to leave the area at least for a shorter period. He did not do so because he voluntarily accepted the miserable poverty of the villagers, a part of his own life.

After some time he prepared some tea. He gave one cup of tea to me. We had tea and discussed many things regarding the pathetic situation. He had been highly worried that the previous night some armed officers had come to the adjoining house and hammered an old mother asking for her son. He had been shocked on seeing the way they had tortured the innocent mother. It was about 12.30 in the afternoon. A small poor village boy came with a small basket of food. When the community members were away, villagers used to share food with him. He invited me to share his lunch. It was a mallum (herbs) and a curry of sprats with rice. He divided the food into three parts. One was given to me the other was for the pet animals that were hanging around him. He ate the smallest portion. He expected the community members would be back soon.

After lunch I said good bye to him. It was the last time I saw him alive. A few days later I got the message that he had been assassinated. When I went there together with Fr. Joe Fernando, the body was still lying in blood on the small alter on which he used to say Holy Mass. We carried the body for the post-mortem.

This is the social as well as spiritual commitment of a man who sacrificed his life in the process of reducing his own dimension to enhance the dimension of the life of the poor devoid of religious and ethnic divisions. Those who held firm to human rights for all often found themselves isolated and targeted.

During this period the island was gradually being overwhelmed by violence, as an increasingly dictatorial and divisive government shut off opportunities for democratic opposition, driving many towards rebel groups which, in turn, terrorized hapless civilians.

Religious institution

While the military killed rebel fighters and civilians, state-sponsored paramilitary squads detained, tortured, assassinated or made disappear suspected dissidents. Some Sinhalese youth joined the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which at the time sought to overthrow the government by violence.

Fr. Michael was a rare exception in that he opted to exercise his priestly duties outside the limits of a parish, a school or other religious institution. He realized that Christianity as conventionally practised in Sri Lanka as well as other parts of the world. He wanted to be realistic in his mission and to abide by the second greatest commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10: 25- 28, Matthew 22: 34-40) of Jesus. So with the approval and assistance of Bishop Leo Nanayakkara O.S.B then bishop of Badulla Diocese, Fr. Michael established a Christian-Buddhist Dialogue Centre which he called Suba Seth Gedera, in Alukavita, Buttala in lower Uva. He maintained close contact with the people in the surrounding villages, engaging in ceaseless activities as their mentor, counsellor and companion in distress. Fr Mike wanted the villagers to be real Buddhists. He was totally against mere conversion. He believed and taught us that inner transformation of a person is the most important. For this, a person does not need to change his religion. He or she has to change his/her wrong attitudes and seek and abide by the deeper values of his / her own religion instead.

Fr. Mike used to say, if one is not taking sides with the poor then one is certainly on the side of the oppressors. Fr. Mike would never have come to death if he had been willing to compromise with injustice. 


 

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