Amid Sri Lanka’s poor: the life and death of Michael Rodrigo

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
16 Nov 2012

The tenth of November 2012 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Father Michael Rodrigo in Sri Lanka. The life and death of this remarkable man still has something to say today, when all too many people live precariously in a divided and often violent world.

Born in 1927, Rodrigo was educated in Colombo, Rome and Paris, where he was awarded a doctorate. Invited to become a professor at the University of Paris’ Institute Catholique, he taught instead in a seminary in Sri Lanka, worked at the Centre for Society and Religion and was drawn to Badulla, in the south.

How did it begin? I don’t know
I was looking into villages
And what I found burst in on me

he wrote, and

Somehow I found out Christ
I went to the village and was converted
because he was present

His verse reflected his attentiveness to, and concern for, those marginalised by the local and international economic and social order, and his passion for justice, as well as his sense of humour.

In 1980 he set up a Christian-Buddhist dialogue centre, Suba Seth Gedera, in the village of 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, and the nuns and lay workers who worked alongside him, became trusted figures, undertaking educational activities and caring for their neighbours.

Though most of those in his neighbourhood were Sinhalese and Buddhist, Sri Lanka has long been ethnically and culturally diverse, and he wrote with empathy of people of other communities, including Tamils – some of them wretchedly poor – and Muslims, as well as Veddhas, the now marginalised first inhabitants of the island. To him, the lives of those often ignored, exploited or maltreated were deeply significant.

He was a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and had friends in many places, and visitors came from elsewhere in Sri Lanka and abroad, despite the conditions:

There were leeches in the breeches
Which brought frowns upon their features
But brave it all they did
For Him who is their all

But the island was gradually being engulfed by violence, as an increasingly dictatorial and divisive government shut off opportunities for democratic dissent, driving many towards rebel groups which, in turn, terrorised hapless civilians. Much has been written about the “ethnic conflict”, but many of the killings were of Sinhalese by Sinhalese, or Tamils by other Tamils.

While the military killed rebel fighters and civilians unlucky enough to be in the line of fire, state-sponsored paramilitary squads detained, tortured, assassinated or “disappeared” suspected dissidents. Some Sinhalese youth joined the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which at the time sought to overthrow the government by violence.

JVP fighters attacked civilians who did not support them as well as battling government soldiers. The Tigers not only carried out terrorist attacks against other ethnic communities but also wiped out rival nationalist groups and anyone who got in the way of their brutally authoritarian leadership.

Those who held firm to human rights for all often found themselves isolated and targeted. There were people of various faiths, and not particularly religious, who were among the heroes of that time. They drew on various resources to avoid being overwhelmed by the dominant culture of fear and violence (it is frightening how easily ordinarily kind and decent people can be seduced into accepting atrocities against those portrayed as enemies of society). For Rodrigo and his companions, faith was central.

Reportedly, after a local businessman was shot at by suspected JVP insurgents, armed men claiming to be from the police searched Rodrigo’s hut and 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.

On 10 November 1987, as he celebrated the Eucharist, he was shot and killed.

Much changed in Sri Lanka over the following quarter century, including restoration of democracy in the South and, in recent years, the crushing defeat by government forces of the Tigers, though the victory was marred by atrocities on both sides. The United Nations has admitted its failure to protect civilians, tens of thousands of whom may have died during the last stages of the fighting in 2009.

In recent years in Sri Lanka, there has been some development benefiting rural areas. However deep class divisions remain, and the state has failed to assure ethnic minorities that they are fully valued and equal citizens: quite the opposite. Critics of the government have been attacked and even murdered, and democracy is once more under threat.

Each day brings further disturbing news, including struggles over the independence of the judiciary, also a feature of the early 1980s. The past has surely taught that, unless prompt action is taken, the situation is likely to deteriorate further, with potentially devastating consequences.

However, Michael Rodrigo’s life and witness reflect the importance of perseverance, hope and faith in a better future. At Communion that last night, reportedly he said, "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”, adding, "Into your hands O Lord I commit my spirit". Ultimately, love and justice will prevail.

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© Savi Hensman, who was born in Sri Lanka, is a respected Christian commentator on religion and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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