Why weep my beloved Wellassa: Remembering Fr. Michael Rodrigo OMI on 34th Death Anniversary
by Sr. Milburga Fernando
On the eve of November 10, 1987, as the sun went down on the crimson west, dragging and drowning with it all the hopes of the people of Buttala, Father Mike was gunned down at Suba Seth Gedera while he was engaged in the offering the sacrifice of Communion on the altar with his community in the little Chapel.
As soon as the ripple of news spread, the people came with haste, sobbing their hearts out to pay their respects to their great leader, lying peacefully on the altar of sacrifice, a true testimony, of a laying down of his life for his friends whom he had loved and served for seven whole years. That evening, before the sacrifice, he stood at the foot of the altar, read an excerpt from St. Oscar Romero, the former Bishop of El Salvador, paraphrasing and interpreting it to make it his own. “I have often been threatened with death, I must tell you that as a Christian I don’t believe in death without the Resurrection, if they do kill me, I shall rise up in the hearts of the people. I’m not boasting, I say this with great humility.
As a priest, I am obliged by divine command to lay down my life for those whom I love. This means all the people, especially the poor of Uva Wellassa, with whom we have bonded together in our origins and our destiny, and in short, the whole inhabited earth, “for all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” For God is self-emptying love who is enfleshed in the neighbour, through whom God becomes really present. Martyrdom is a grace from God which I don’t think I have earned, but if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be the seed of freedom and a sign that hope may soon be a reality to our people. If they do kill me, tell them that I forgive and bless those, who do it. I shall die, but may my people never perish.’’ True to his words, he continues to live in the hearts of the people as their testimonies confirm:
on the martyr’s body blurted, “Sisters, why are you desolate? Why do you weep? It is absolutely clear that Father Mike’s life shines as a brilliant light in this obscure situation in Buttala. He will continue to give us life, light and hope. Now we are not afraid to face death. He has courageously set the example. His memory will live on to eternity as we go on being witnesses to it’.
testifies, “Father, you are living forever, when death threats were closing in upon you, you confided in your close associates in your own words, “There are death threats to me, but I am not afraid to die. If I’m killed, may my blood be the seed sprouting forth freedom and hope for the people.’ Beckoning Sister Benedicta and Sister Milburga and the others, Fr. Mike prayed invoking God’s immeasurable love and mercy. His own life was secondary to him. His love for humankind was uppermost in his life and it was a totally self-emptying love.
The passing away of this great humanitarian, was ratified on the altar, what more can one expect of this life? The life and death of this Saint will be etched in the history of Wellassa for us and our children and their children, will go on remembering and reliving this history forever. The brilliant light of the saint who kindled the village, is seemingly extinguished. Nay, it will go on shedding its brilliance eternally to overcome crime violence and oppression levelled on us by the evil forces of the powers that be.
We thought that it is quite an unnatural occurrence for Christians to come to a village that is predominantly Buddhist. But soon, they took to us with much ease. They began to associate with the people in a very inclusive and friendly manner which won the hearts of the simple village people by, and by, Suba Seth Gedera became the people’s second home. There were many reasons for this. Free medical services were available for the needy, was one of them, a combination of both Eastern and Western medicine. The youth, naturally frequented the place to read and enhance their knowledge as there was a mini library and sufficient newspapers, providing an all-round news bulletin, the village had never heard of before.
The person responsible for this treasure trove, the one who identified with the villager, wearing the villagers’ attire was Fr. Michael Rodrigo, affectionately called Father Mike by the people. He was so unassuming and simple, that it took us some time to find out that he was one of the most learned stalwarts in the various sciences, even having a doctorate in Buddhism. It didn’t take long for the Buddhist clergy and the people to accept his group into their milieu. Father Mike treated everyone with profound respect, sensitivity and humanity. He studied the needs, problems and aspirations of the people, working out solutions with the people themselves.
Soon, the villagers were engaged in their health and educational concerns, finding solutions and engaging themselves in interesting livelihood projects. This is what alarmed the miscreants totally engaged in violent, oppressive, illegal and malevolent deeds to put an end to Fr Mike. One can emulate Fr. Mike’s good example, epitomise qualities like simplicity, humility, sincerity and honesty. I was able to learn many a lesson from him, to make my life successful. We learnt that the green light for the official procedure towards his Sainthood had been given. But the people of Buttala rose up with one voice to call him blessed on the day he gave up his life on the altar of Sacrifice. He was profoundly human and Christ-like, a meeting point of the Divine and the Human so said the people in one voice. We salute you Fr. Mike. Our tribute will continue in history forever.
recalls with much nostalgia that it was a pleasure to work with Fr. Mike. I became acquainted with him, as I admired his wealth of knowledge, his affable qualities, his scholarly familiarity of Buddhism and his catchy humour. I thought to myself that Buttala will be blessed if there were more people like him. Fr. Mike had a passion for Education, he always advocated that education is the key to find solutions to the burning problems that villagers face. He complied with the stance of Nelson Mandala `that Education is the most powerful weapon which can be used to change the world’. Jinadasa further adds, how Fr. Mike at a meeting `Minis Samagi Havula’ discussed the importance of Education.
Education should be the vehicle to teach humanness and human values. The school creates the atmosphere, it provides the ambit to share and experience these values. People like him are too good for this world. He was a true leader, who felt the pulse of the people, he was committed to serve the poor and bring some solace to them, his life was snuffed out but he has left indelible foot prints on the soil of Buttala and lasting memories etched in the hearts of the people he served.
Father Mike was a multi-talented priest with a double doctorate in Theology and Philosophy. He was offered a prestigious position in the Institute Catcholique in Paris. A big climb in the ladder of success with honour, power, wealth and global connections where he himself would be writing the drama, producing, directing and starring in it as it were. Verbally, he had already accepted the offer, a little while later comes a second offer, an appeal from the late Bishop of Badulla, Rt. Rev. Dr. Leo Nanayakkara. It was to serve the poor in the Diocese of Badulla. The Bishop defines his context with the two realities of Asia, as the continent of the poor and the continent of religions and cultures.
It was an appeal to initiate direct and recast a programme of contextual theology in his newly founded School of Ministries (including the priestly ministry) as a response to the double challenge of poverty and dialogue. Saddled between these two opposites, Fr. Mike wrestles between his ego-drama and God’s field-drama. (Hans Urs von Balthasar). He then retreats to deep prayer and reflection and confesses to his elder sister, that God is asking him to sell all what he has in order to buy the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. Further quoting the Bible, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose himself’? Since then, he stood firmly with Jesus at the Cross with profound faith and faithfulness firmly convinced that the Resurrection of Jesus has conquered death Fr. Mike committed himself to this way of proclaiming the Good News to all of humankind and especially to the poor.
He studied the problems of the area with great intensity, the past history of Colonial rule by the British cannot be overlooked. History has recorded Uva-Wellassa was an agriculturally thriving land known as the granary of the Kandyan Kingdom. It was not only famous for rice, it also abounded in other edible crops such as jak, breadfruit, coconut and yams that were invaluable for the village people. Besides there had been libraries containing technological resources and engineering skills, ancient irrigation skills and hydrological resources, medical know-how and in addition strips of rain forests replete with medicinal trees and herbs. One could say it was a miniature or replica of the Garden of Eden. Incidentally, a professor of Egyptology in London in his excavations in Egypt, has even found the real garden of Eden, a most beautiful place still surrounded by mountains, valleys and springs with beautiful fruit trees all around leading down to an inner sea. Brutal force was unleashed to crush the 1818 Rebellion.
Under the then Governor Robert Brownrigg. Every form of livelihood came under attack, the British went on rampage scorching the fields, crops, cattle, homes and a large number of youth were mercilessly killed. This area of plenty was ravaged and left desolate. The people of Uva Wellassa even after the elapse of 165 years could not erase this bitter experience etched in their memory, anything new specially an alien religion earned their aversion and suspicion This still hangs as a big block on our reputation.
It is against this backdrop, Fr. Mike and his band of faithful supporters had to forge ahead. First and foremost, they had to win the confidence of the Buddhist clergy and the 99% of Buddhist people; hence with much patience perseverance, and constant dialogue, their efforts were rewarded. The ‘tide turned’ by Vesak 1982. Fr. Mike and his group with the collaboration of an eloquent lyricist farmer’s help re-wrote the Buddhist Devotional songs based on the ‘Saradharma and Dasaparamitas’ the ten perfections, closely reflecting the values of the Kingdom. It was listened to by about 700 devotees. This event cleared all suspicions and their sincere effort received much recognition and appreciation by Venerable Alutwela Sumanasiri and Koteneluwe Upatissa and other monks of the area. On May 1987, he officially affirmed his collaboration in the village effort of the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue and conscientization by placing his signature to the constitution and agreement.
With this assurance he engaged himself with several livelihood projects targeting different groups, the farmers, the youth, the women, health workers, etc. His main focus was to impart knowledge and form a nucleus who could reach out to the various strata of society and teach them to come out of strangulating poverty. One way was the monthly, ‘Story Hour’. He used to read excerpts from E.F. Schumansher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’. The ideas expounded were very much in alignment with Fr. Mike’s ideas which gave him added impetus to integrate them in his endeavours as he too believed in sustainable development which should go hand in hand with environmental protection. He looked upon the environment specially the forests, as the home for the village people, as the poor depend on the environment for fuel, fodder and animal stock. He also discerned the stark reality of poverty and malnutrition, the vicious circle in which the poor are trapped, and the only viable solution is to improve the rural agricultural and ecological mechanism Fr. Mike discovered that the ideas suggested by Schumancher and his own perception on sustainable development were complementary and would be beneficial to the rural community.
He envisaged smaller working units and communal ownership utilising local labour and resources, while the emphasis is laid on the person and not the product. He was averse to massive projects involving increased specialisation resulting in profit maximisation causing irreparable harm to the environment carried out by multi-national organizations wherein the human becomes a mere cog in the wheel. It is this liberative approach as against the Trans-National Corporations’ approach that stirred up suspicion and hostility with the would-be powers. Fr. Mike looked at development from a different perspective wanted to impart the right kind of knowledge which will make the poor free and independent.
After studying the needs of the people and assessing the traditional methods of the farmers which were liberative he got the farmers and the University students in the field of Science and Agriculture on to the same platform to share their knowledge. The students contributed their scientific knowledge, while the farmers their indigenous traditional methods. The result was the enhancement of conservationist, eco-friendly, lucrative farming methods. Fr, Mike’s aim was to find affordable locally appropriate sustainable solutions to the most pressing needs of the people while preserving the environment. The fertilizer needed for agriculture was successfully met, recycling raw materials from the village itself. According to a familiar saying, ‘give a man a fish, it is a short-term help, if you teach him the art of fishing, he can help himself and his family’
A comprehensive study of Fr. Mike in his involvement with Buttala goes beyond the concept of he being a Catholic priest who loved and served the people of Wellasa until his untimely death in 1987. There is another vital dimension which has been neglected in the tributes written about him annually. From the very inception, of Suba Seth Gedara, Father Mike was very much an environmentalist steeped with profound respect for God’s creation made him creatively involve in sustainable development which was centered around agro-ecology that was rationalized by Buddhist and Christian thought. Father Mike combined indigenous farming methods with science to develop that alternative economic structure, that went against the then national development models of the state with their Trans National Corporations.
In his last monthly reflection and prayer when the community gathered together in His Name. ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20) Father Mike said, “The sword of Damocles is hanging over us, we are overshadowed with death threats, interventions by the secret police, the military and the CID. At a time like this is there a court of appeal and what do we do? Let’s turn to Jesus. I can clearly hear his voice. ‘Why are you afraid, don’t be afraid O ye of little faith.’ If we examine the charge sheet against us: It is crystal clear that we have only stood firmly against crime, violence and oppression levied on the people by death dealers the local, national, and international middlemen and the sociopolitical leadership, dealing death to the – Anawim Yahweh (The poor of God). They little realize that every heartbeat of theirs becomes a calculated drumbeat on their march to the grave. But every move to prevent crime, violence and oppression will bring about a fullness of life for our people. ‘For he came that we may have life and have it to the full.’ This is eternal life and abundance of life destroying death and death dealing. We are living life and not death. Let us choose life and death will not touch us.’ These were the passionate sentiments of Fr. Mike, the prophet expressing the passionate feelings of God the Supreme Prophet in whom is summed up the whole purpose of prophesy.
Doctrine of immunity in Emperor’s Clothes
By I. P. C. MENDIS
Ranil Wickremesinghe has emerged as the chief “dramatis personae” in the current constitutional deadlock drama. Whether the stars had foretold the event is not known. He was never a man in a hurry. He was cool as a cucumber when he was sacked as Prime Minister by the latter and seeking the help of the apex Court regained the position. He has chosen to confront the Supreme Court in what appears to be a battle of wits as to who has the whip-hand – the Executive President or the Supreme Court. The SC ruling in respect of the release of funds for the local government (LG) elections has opened the door for many a fundamental issue, not the least being the question of immunity and that of effectiveness and priority for SC decisions. The presidential circular does not list election expenditure as an essential item. Indeed, a direct confrontation prima facie.
One does not need much grey matter to realise that as far as the government is concerned, it does not have an iota of interest in conducting the relevant election. The pointers came in very clear terms through the “machinations” of the Government Printer, the IGP and the Secretary to the Treasury. And in this time-consuming and futile exercise, the EC through its own volition reduced itself casting away its so-called independence to be nothing more than a pen-pusher – a far cry from the Deshapriya’s lion roar of yesteryear asking violators of election laws to be shot at the head. Fair enough for the EC to write to the Secretary to the Treasury (the custodian of state coffers) but when it was clear that there was a questionable delay, it had a duty and responsibility to bring the issue to the notice of court to which it is bound by ruling to hold the elections. The Secretary to the Treasury is bound by the Constitution to perform his duties under the direction and control of his Minister and has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. He has no leeway to pass the buck or to treat a SC ruling as subordinate to any other source. Nothing of the sort has happened before. The Minister of Finance may hold the office of President substantively but that does not ‘ipso facto’ imply that he enjoys the immunity he enjoys in his substantive office while performing duties in areas other than those in Presidential office. If not anything else, this episode has the potential to become a dangerous precedent. It has to be immediately resolved once and for all.
Immunity of Parliamentary Proceedings
The question arises as to whether the immunity prescribed is limited to parliamentary proceedings. There is also the relevant issue of “absolute”and “qualified” immunity which has to be examined and argued with due reference to authorities such as Erskine May, the SL. Constitution and other such Constitutions. And who else is qualified to do it but the relevant professions, including the legal fraternity? The question arises whether the immunity is limited to parliamentary proceedings. If so, any action initiated or proceeded with by the Hon. Speaker in entertaining a motion of “Privilege” and any follow-up action thereon in tabling it, etc,. could be construed as “contempt of court” We have had the sad and unfortunate episode of Shirani Bandaranaike, which nobody wants to repeat and make SC judges the hunting ground of politicians of one hue or another. No-one wants our judiciary to be reduced to being a plaything of politicians. The judiciary expects unequivocally and requires no repetition of the treatment of Shirani B or Neville Samarakoon.
Legal Fraternity and the BASL
The BASL has proudly felicitated President Wickremasinghe on completion of 50 years at the Bar (yet not in practice). The country would not certainly seek to deny him the accolade. Yet, the BASL and the “Black-coated” gentry in particular, who thought it opportune to invade the courts of justice in their hundreds unsolicited to defend the Aragalaya demonstrators without a fee almost exercising undue influence vicariously in the course of justice, and the frenzy in which they took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mohan Pieris, was conspicuous by its absence in strength vocally and otherwise except through a tame letter.
Casteism, the canker!
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
The malign influence of casteism was well explained in the editorial, “Canker of clientelism” (The Island, 14 March) wherein it was stated: “Caste-based politics has stood many crooks in good stead, and led to the presence of so many semi-literate politicians in Parliament, which has control over public finance. Some of these characters such as former chain snatchers, pickpockets, hooch dealers and cattle rustlers also claw their way to the Cabinet, and control vital sectors. The caste-factor is so dominant in Sri Lankan politics that it is well-nigh impossible to get rid of these unsavoury elements at elections owing huge block votes at their disposal; political parties are dependent on them to win elections. Religion and ethnicity also blind electors to reality and tribal instincts drive them to vote for some misfits.”
For the title, the editor has used the most appropriate word, though not in common usage nowadays, canker; derived from Latin ‘cancer’ and old French ‘chancre’ which is defined in dictionaries as ‘a malign and corrupting influence that is difficult to eradicate.’ How better can the role of casteism be described, not only in politics but also in many other vital spheres? Though such a division based on trades practiced may have had some significance in the past, it is a totally outmoded concept in the modern era. Though I have had a fair share of experience in my youth and was hoping that casteism would soon disappear, it has not happened, unfortunately, being perpetuated by politicians and, rather paradoxically, by Buddhist priests.
In fact, I became aware of the caste system due to the involvement of my father, C Justin Wijayawardhana in politics. Though the Matara branch of the UNP chose him as the candidate for 1952 and 1956 parliamentary elections, the high-command turned it down and parachuted a businessman of dubious repute from Weligama for the 1952 election and a retired district judge from Colombo for the 1956 election. Apparently, it was done because Matara was considered an electorate dominated by the caste they belonged to! Surprisingly, this kind of the baptism of Matara electorate had been done by the comrades of the Communist Party itself!
Looking back, I wonder whether my eligibility for the Commonwealth Scholarship for postgraduate studies in medicine, in 1969, was overlooked because of caste discrimination rather than political pressure. A few days before the interview, my father dropped in our flat, on his way to meet PM Dudley Senanayake over some issues in Matara, and inquired whether he should mention my scholarship to Dudley. I told him not to as I wanted to get selected on merit. I was the only applicant under the age, it was stated preference would be given. I had a Distinction in Medicine in the final examination in addition to a distinction in Pharmacology in the 3rd MBBS examination. A candidate older than I, above the age for preferential choice, and had only one distinction (Pathology & Bacteriology in 3rd MBBS) was awarded the scholarship! The chairman of the selection panel and he were from the same caste, which may be a coincidence.
The next setback is my career was also due to caste discrimination. Having missed the Commonwealth scholarship, I was in the UK on a Health Department scholarship to obtain MRCP, which I did in 1971. Prof. Varagunam informed me that a vacancy for a senior lecturer had arisen in the Department of Medicine in Peradeniya when I applied. However, as I could not afford to return for the interview, I sent an appeal to the selection panel to consider my application in absentia and was surprised to get a registered letter informing me that I had been selected.
I returned in January 1972, ready to settle down in Kandy, but my hopes were dashed on reporting for duty to Dr D A Jayasinghe, Assistant Director of Hospitals, when he told me that the DHS, Prof R (real name withheld) had refused to release me. He could not explain why, though he agreed that up-to-then it was routine for specialists to be released for permanent teaching positions in the university. I am indebted to Prof Varagunam for keeping the position open for almost two years but I neither went pleading to Prof R nor sought help from politicians to secure my release. Instead, I opted to go to Badulla as Consultant Physician and took a step down in June 1973 to join Dr Wallooppillai as his Registrar in Cardiology Unit.
Prof R was well known to be pro-Sinhala Buddhist and I had done nothing to antagonise him. Therefore, I was baffled by his decision till the subject clerks at the Health Ministry informed me of his antipathy towards one particular caste. They pointed several instances where he had given top positions to doctors of his caste over more senior and better qualified from other casts. Worse still, he had granted overseas study leave before confirmation in post, breaching the Establishment Code, to a young doctor of his caste! It was sad and so disappointing to see such puny behaviour from an academic.
The worst form of caste discrimination is the caste-based Nikaya system, which is the biggest affront to the Buddha, who preached equality twenty-six centuries ago, but our Mahanayakas indulge in discriminatory practices even today! What is the justification for Siyam Nikaya to offer higher-ordination only to Govigama caste and exclude others? The Amarapura Nikaya to have about 21 sub-divisions based on caste and creed?
Casteism is a canker, a malign and corrupting influence that is difficult to eradicate, which muddles politics but has it got a place in religion? Is it not the time for all the Mahanayakas, of which there are many, to come together and declare that casteism has no place in Buddhism and higher-ordination is open to all in all Nikayas? The ideal would be the abolition of all Nikayas with one Sanghanayaka, but unfortunately that is not likely to happen!
Sri Lanka is fast creating a Viyathmaga II. When observing how various categories of professionals – teachers, musicians, artists, officers from armed forces, doctors …. are getting on a single stage, it reminds us how Viyathmaga was formed and what they did and finally how its choice carried the whole country towards disaster. Whatever happened later, their choice had some reputation gathered during the war against the LTTE.
The chosen Party of Viyathmaga II does not have any past to boast of but they show themselves as an uncorrupted group. But corruption comes with power and without any power there cannot be any opening to involve in corruption. Even if a few persons already known could be considered trustworthy though inexperienced, a government is an assembly of many and there could be many who are unheard of.
Listening to tales criticizing one’s enemies and how they are going to be punished may be music to ears, but those vows cannot be fulfilled easily and quickly, and also will not bring people a country with Kiri Peni. Sri Lanka has no time to experiment and “This time we’ll vote for them and see” will bring more disaster.
Every political party has capable and incorruptible members and what we need urgently is, all opposition parties to join up to form a government with such people. Any party which has a genuine love for the country, at this moment should not act with over-evaluation of their capabilities or popularity and bring more disasters.
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