By Rehan Fernando –
Prof Michael Paul Rodrigo OMI, a farmer who cultivated dialogue of life in Sri Lanka; In Remembering his 35th Death Anniversary
He was murdered by a wrong turn structural political ideology in the late 1980s. He was an innocent person who committed himself to the liberation of humanity, especially the people at Alukalavita, Buttala. He only wished for the common good of ordinary men and women. Dialogue was the central part of the mission for which he worked and gave his life. I think, his mission has been properly understood by us through annually remembering him. He is not in a graveyard like many of us who are dead and gone, he lives even today in different ways and means. It is truly a radical praxis of life. I am not here just to mention a few details about Michael Paul Rodrigo, rather this article will elaborate on Mike’s full radical mission, which is to be reflected and taken into any ground-level work in this country.
A letter that paved the way for his death
Michael Rodrigo wrote a letter to late president JR Jayewardene who was playing havoc with his superfluous neo-liberal economic policies (The letter was written 11th March 1986 to bring certain issue into president’s attention. However, the result of this letter was not a good paradigm shift by making the errors of the prevailing government, but the death to the person who wrote it). Rodrigo had well explained the basic mission at Buttala. It was also well articulated with his option for the poor in serving them to understand the crises of their lives. Hence, he challenged the government for the burdens put on the shoulders of those ordinary people due to the immoral policies of multinational economic procedures, especially the subcultures of the government itself.
Rodrigo was suspected of helping JVP party members. Yet, in the letter, he has given a full account of how had taken the conscientious duty to assist the youth who were suffering from structural political and economic issues. His purpose was to educate them about good moral behavior especially relying on Buddhist Dhamma and its praxis. Therefore, as a Christian priest, he initiated a dialogical method and village-level effort to save the people at Buttala.
Rodrigo’s dialogical fellowship
His praxis of dialogue is a conscious effort for the upliftment of the people and their ordinary lives. It is obvious through these words; “we need to move to the village and learn things from them that we don’t know. There must be a development process with what they know. If that happens one day, they would be happy with what they did on their own” (කාන්ති ශිරානි ද සිල්වා, ගැමි ජනතාව වෙනුවෙන් දිවි පිදු මයිකල් පියනම (ශ්රී ලංකාව: සමාජය හා සාමයික කේන්ද්රය ), 02)
For years, Fr Rodrigo had been attempting to work out principles for a dialogue of life between Christians and Buddhists. The key theme, therefore, was Christ’s self-emptying and compassion. Eventually, he practiced this principle in a village-level effort in collaborating and educating ordinary men and women toward the liberation of life. Although Buddhist monks and Buddhists of the village were initially suspicious of his motives, eventually he won their trust and respect. So, preaching bana at times in the Buddhist temples and celebrating the Eucharist at the altar were part and parcel to live his life for many.
The small house “සුබ සෙත් ගෙදර” (the house of good wishes) where he resided was a place of simplicity and people came to see him irrespective of gender, language, caste, class, position, and so on. His dialogue was not artificial as if the prevailing catholic church did at that time. When the catholic church authorities promoted Euro-Western colonial Christendom in their liturgies with pompous vestments, Rodrigo was wearing a Sarong and kamisa to serve his people. He reflected on his praxis of simplicity in this regard: “what a joy that I live like an ordinary man among these people” (ඉන්දු පෙරේරා , රැජිණ , 1996 ඔක්තෝබර් 25, 1 කොටස). It reminds us how he promoted his dialogue of life with simple gestures of life being more simple and human.
The church failed to understand him
As a matter of fact, the church always fails to understand to read the signs of time and space. In other words, the church is too slow to understand the radical praxis of some men and women whose missions have been effective at times worldly and affected a lot of missionary activities. Rodrigo faced the same crisis even though some personalities were assisting him. Even his congregation hides things behind today without exposing their errors now. His congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate was reluctant to recognize Rodrigo’s praxis of liberational work for the poor.
Michael Rodrigo is considered and respected today as a saint, but when he was alive, his dialogical praxis for the poor and his option as a pastor were not fully understood by the official church.
But, when we step into Buttala and meet the people who are closely associated with Rodrigo, we clearly understand how these people respect him and appreciate his work that was done for their well-being (I interviewed nearly 10 men and women from 18-25 July 2018 and realized how Rodrigo’s work with those people has been well taken. Most of the people respect and remember him as a spiritual leader who made a radical option for the suffering people of Uva province) I heard some of the authorities of his congregation today attempting for Rodrigo’s canonization but there is no need for such an official process. He became a saint at his very death point as he was shot and killed on 10th November 1987. The church has constantly failed to understand his voice of justice which was entirely reserved for the poor and neglected. It so happened to Oscar Romero once in the 1980s, and a few years later to Michael Rodrigo, and it might happen to us tomorrow. At the same time, the so-called authorities of the church would still fail to realize that martyrdom.
Buddhist-Christian dialogue and conscientization
Fr Michael was a man who always respected “otherness.” He first gave his priority to the Buddhist community. He lived among them without using his own Christian identity. His Christian praxis of life was exercised by giving everything that he had to the majority of Buddhists. That was his dialogue and conscientization (The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire uses this term “Conscientization” (in Portuguese conscientização) in cultural dimension of the fight for liberation. Further, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he explicates the term in a wide angle and in scientific-practical application for the society as such. For him, it is also a critical thinking which is connected to ‘action reflection’ [word=work=praxis]. Further he also speaks of sacrifice of action and sacrifice of reflection. See. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Bloomsbury, 2000), 87-124. When this term “Conscientization” is applied to Sri Lankan context, it was Michael Rodrigo OMI who practiced at the village level, especially in Uva-Wellassa even giving his life as a ransom)
In my research, as I am doing my doctoral studies with his case study, I have encountered some effective methods of Rodrigo for better community building (I have published a research article about community building titled “A New Conscientization for People Building” which first published in the journal SOCIAL JUSTICE and then in the COLOMBO TELEGRAPH, which became so debitive in number of discussions. Link is found here A New Conscientization For People Building – Colombo Telegraph). Sri Lanka requires some effective methods of building communities, unfortunately, we don’t have any substantial method presented by any political party. Rodrigo’s conscientization implied better political-management but not political-governing. Regrettably, we live in an era in which we come across many subcultures of political governing. I think, therefore, we have entirely lost some effective methods of conscientization for people building after the loss of Fr Michael Rodrigo.
Nobody will be able to think as if Rodrigo thought of his mission for his country. He will not be replaced by any human agency again. Before the concluding remarks of this article, I must mention something directly. He was murdered when JR Jayewardene was in power and was exercising his super prestige. Rodrigo was considered and named as a man who directly assisted the JVP faction, but it is a meaningless argument and unreliable sources paved the way for his death. If JR Jayewardene’s killing regime is directly responsible for the murder of Fr Michael, then for sure, those responsible people will have to pay price, or they might have paid by now perhaps. Sri Lankan armed forces have massacred the innocents of this country to fulfill the orders of political killers. It happened to Rodrigo and even nearly 30 youths disappeared just after his death. This land is full of such bloodshed, so it cries from time to time. JR Regime wanted to get rid of the most educated man in Uva Province who came forward to protect the rights of the ordinary people of Buttala. So, he was shot in the head. Doesn’t matter how he was shot, but Michael Paul Rodrigo lives in our hearts and minds even today as the man who sacrificed his life for many. It gives us the courage to live and even to give our lives at any cost to humanity. JR Jayewardene is dead and gone, nobody likes to remember his name and his dirty political era, but we still remember Fr Michael with cheerfulness.