By Eymard de Silva Wijeyeratne
"Ah look at those lovely people
Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church
Where a wedding has been,
Lives in a dream,
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she
Keeps in a jar by the door, who is it for?
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was
Buried along with her name.
Fr. Mckenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands,
As he walks from the grave,
No one was saved." (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)
It is with a sense of indignation mixed with sadness that I write this memorial note on the life and work of Fr. Michael Rodrigo, who was assassinated on 10th November 1987. I do this, not merely to sing the praises of a Catholic priest, but also to draw attention to the social commitment of a man who sacrificed his life in the process of reducing his own dimension to enhance the dimension of national life devoid of religious and ethnic divisions.
The life of a Christian priest, especially a Catholic one, is a damming of a stream of consciousness into segmented parts: one part, articulated with spiritual exercises and routines of discipline that control emotions and abjure participation in worldly activities, and the other part spent in ordering spiritual activities that deal with liturgical services and rites relating to the needs of the faithful. Unfortunately, in the routine run of life, when ordinary men and women toil hard to feed their children, and struggle to keep body and soul together in conditions of abject poverty, there are others, who because they are anaesthetized by wealth and political/social influence, function as ‘sapient sutlers’ (T.S. Eliot) of the lords. At this point they get disengaged from the throbbing mass of humanity, which they are expected to serve but to which they scarcely belong. Fr. Michael was a rare exception.
Family and Social Background
Fr. Michael was born of a middle class family that had no special claims to the fruits of the earth. The secret of his unusual character as a Catholic priest was perhaps that his father was a virtuous man of Methodist stock, while his mother held on to the austere values of the Magnificat – a woman, who could through her steadfastness, say that everything in creation had done great things to her. A large part of those great things was her beloved son.
He was educated at St. Peter’s College, Colombo; the school I was privileged to attend. This school imparted a sound education to generations of students, among whom were those who belonged to less privileged families that lived beyond the boundaries of the South of Colombo. After being ordained as 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.
His Mission and His Message
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 realised that Christianity as conventionally practised in Sri Lanka as well as other parts of the world, lacked the sublime Jesus-vitality that has a benign influence on humanity: this being his macro-interpretation of the second part of what Jesus called the greatest commandment "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10: 25- 28, Matthew 22: 34-40).
If Christians constitute a very small percentage of Sri Lanka’s population, he asked how one could explain the meaningful balance of God’s creation. With the approval and assistance of Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, Fr. Michael established a Christian-Buddhist Dialogue Centre which he called Suba Seth Gedera, in Alukavila, Buttala in lower Uva. He maintained close contact with the people in the surrounding villages, engaging in ceaseless activity as their mentor, counsellor and companion in distress.
He also maintained a running dialogue with Buddhist monks in the area. At the start of his mission in Buttala, the villagers and Buddhist monks in the area were sceptical about his motives and those of his co-workers. In fact one monk is said to have remarked that it would not be long before he started pouring the waters of baptism on unsuspecting villagers. The sincerity of his motives and his carefully designed programme of work in the village finally convinced these monks, that in him they had found a loyal and sincere partner in pursuing the goal of moral regeneration and joint social validation of religion.
The major feature of Fr. Michael’s life and mission was that he tried hard to teach Christians the distinction between claiming to be Christian and trying to become Christian through finite, but unceasing attempts to practise Gospel values. A true Christian, as Fr. Michael so effectively demonstrated through his life and mission, is a person, who after an initial leap of faith, engages in the continuous process of becoming Christian and in doing so gets progressively closer to God. On the other hand, he endeavoured to teach non-Christians that being true to the values of their own religion was more rewarding than to switch religions for the sake of personal gain.
His Passover to Martyrdom
According to those who lived and worked with Fr. Michael, a businessman of area was shot at, by persons alleged to be insurgents, on 4th November 1987. This incident took place at the height of insurgent activity in the South. The same night at about 11.30 p.m. about 12 armed men are said to have surrounded Fr. Michael’s lowly quarters and called out to him, saying that they were the police. When he opened the door, the armed men had told him that they had information that he was hiding the businessman’s assailants.
The armed men had then searched the quarters and looked through all documents, which included his theological treatises, poems and other writings, in the hope of finding evidence that would have incriminated him in insurgent activity. When they had failed to find such evidence they had left the premises.
The next morning (5th November) the armed men had turned up again and said that they were the ones who had come the previous night. They had told Fr. Michael that they had received several petitions against him. He had responded by requesting them to ask the people in the village about the type of activity he was engaged in. The armed men had replied saying that JVP indoctrination classes were being conducted in his house. Fr. Michael and his co-workers had explained to these men that the classes they conducted were literacy-enhancing and farmer-education programmes. This process of investigative visits and interrogation had continued for a few more days, with a final threat that he should abandon his mission.
Fr. Michael was more overwhelmed by the suffering, which poor villagers were forced to endure than by the threats made by the armed men. He made the abject poverty of the villagers a part of his own life. He was convinced that the type of market-economy of which the government of the day was enamoured, would in no way alleviate their suffering. He thought that their citizenry was being threatened to the point that they were expected to provide the grist for the market-mill that will grind them as supply-side fodder. Their suffering was made unendurable by the fact that they, especially the young boys, were under constant suspicion of being insurgents.
The brave NGOs whose hearts undergo spasms of conscience-flutter at the mention of the word ‘refugee’ were nowhere in sight to plead on their behalf. At this point of time Fr. Michael and his small community of helpers realised that they risked death if they continued with their work in the area. When threats were directed at him on the grounds that he like his Master, was undermining the Pharisaic social establishment, he had sufficient warning and time, to run away to a well-manored religious house, where life as well as peace of mind would never be under threat and where spirituality would be confined to meditation, prayer and a constant vision of an idyllic after-life.
The community had to take a prompt decision whether to abandon their life’s mission at Suba Seth Gedera or to carry on with their work. Before doing this they realised that their mission demanded discussion, meditation and prayer, as well as taking into consideration the wishes of the villagers, whom they had decided to serve. Fr. Michael told his co-workers that he would abide by their collective decision even though his personal preference was to stay on and face the consequences of his commitment.
The people of the village had also declared their wish that Fr. Michael and his community should remain. The final decision was to be taken after the celebration of the Eucharist by the members of the community on 10th November 1987. As though in the grip of a premonition of his fate, Fr. Michael had, with overpowering anguish, intoned Psalm 130; "Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; Lord hear my voice"! While bringing the service to a close, he had exhorted the members of the community in the following words, "After all, the lasting things are love and relationship with people. These things will last even in eternity. Don’t be afraid, we will commit ourselves to God. He added, "Into your hands O Lord I commit my spirit".
It was nearly 7.30 in the evening, when the sound of a gunshot at close range reverberated in the room. Fr. Michael’s skull and brain lay shattered on the floor. His flesh was laid impasto on the walls of the room and his blood splashed on the vessels used for the celebration of the Eucharist. His Passover from a purposeful life to an avoidable death was accomplished. Meanwhile, the mitred ones had chosen the easy path of wiping the dirt from their hands, in the way that Fr. Mckenzie of the Beatle ballad did. Fr. Michael was buried alone with his name.
His Sublime Theology – God in the Midst of His People
Fr. Michael sacrificed his life, not for stubbornly defending dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, but for living Christ in the intimacy of unshakeable faith: by motivating, energising, showing concern for and defending every human being irrespective of his faith. As far as I am aware, the officialdom of the Church to which he belonged and loved so much, did not appear to have been moved by his death. Perhaps it may have been a little relieved in the subconscious depths of its much-vaunted magisterium that an un-Roman source of embarrassment to its illusions of grandeur, had been struck off the roll.
Fr. Michael was in the habit of making notes of the intimate thoughts that found their way into his mind as he engaged himself in dialogue with the peasants with whom he associated. The language he used was quaint but simple. It was as he himself said in many of his writings, dislocated into meaning. He favoured the metaphor of the Passover: moving imperceptibly from the revelation of lamb-blood sprinkled on door-posts as a sign of protection, to human blood, shed to protect and sustain truth.
His own precious blood, splattered on the altar on which he celebrated the Eucharist, proclaimed the final chapter of a Passover, which the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has failed to celebrate as the noblest and finest Jesus-entrenching event in the history of that institution, in 20th Century Sri Lanka. When going through these notes, one experiences the exhilarating shock that God had decided to journey downwards to savour roots and enjoy the fragrance of soil that that has been turned over with human hands to produce bread that is also the work of human hands. Fr. Michael’s concern for the environment was enchantingly bucolic rather than pretentiously technical. It reminds one of what a Latin poet once said: "Vitaque mancipio nulli datur" (Nature does no more than lend). He spoke to people about living and sharing what they imagined as being their exclusive possession.
Now let me dwell on the relevance of the Beatles ballad, which is quoted as an introduction to this essay of appreciation. It describes the routine time-table of the average priest, who in compliance with commands from the top is expected to defend territory rather than to serve his people with sense of anguish for their needs, hopes and fears. The lovely but lonely people, who take their faces out of a jar on Sundays, days of obligation, feast days, put them back on other days when Jesus Christ is not in focus and is therefore ecclesially dead.
Where do all these lovely people come from and where do they all go? Their lives, their loves, their hunger and their thirst are not Fr. McKenzie’s business. Being always vigilant, alert and ready for vertical take-off, he must through no fault of his own, only talk about God. He too is lonely because he is curbed by the trivial unctions and the exaggerated sense of pomp and propriety to which he must subscribe.
Yes, Fr. McKenzie cannot shepherd his flock together; he cannot lead them to pastures green. In their pilgrimage from the sublime to the ridiculous, they move from ‘pastures green’ where sheep may safely graze’ to laity-mowed lawns, at which holy cows may safely gaze to enjoy a pleasing prospect in the midst of an asphalt jungle.
(November 10th is the 23rd anniversary of Fr. Michael Rodrigo's assassination. This article appears in "The Island")