A PETERITE PRIEST AND MARTYR – by Algi Wijewickrema

A PETERITE PRIEST AND MARTYR – by Algi Wijewickrema

Algi Wijewickrema

Source:Peterite – pre 70s FB

18th of November has come round and in the run up to the Peterite centenary falling on 18th January 2022, having covered the notables among the Rectors (including the first Peterite to be Rector, Fr. Claver Perera), today we commence publishing brief details of notable alumni.

What better way of presenting notable alumni than to commence with those who served in the Vineyard of the Lord.

Since the death anniversary of Rev. Fr. Michael Rodrigo fell on 10th November (30.6.1927 – 10.11.1987), we begin our posts of Peterite alumni who opted to serve in the Vineyard of the Lord, with him, a Priest martyred for his services to God’s poor.

There are many martyrs that the Catholic Church has recognised and elevated to Sainthood but never has there been a martyr from Sri Lanka – a son of the soil – recognised by the Church although there should have been many, considering the persecution of Catholics in different periods of Ceylon’s chequered history.

Though unrecognised by the Church yet, among those considered martyrs from Sri Lanka there is Rev. Fr. Michael Rodrigo OMI or simply Fr. Mike to his many friends, Priest – a Peterite – who is claimed by many, including many non-Catholics in Sri Lanka, to be a martyr and Saint.

Volumes have been written by Sri Lankans as well as foreign scribes on his life, thoughts and actions which have touched millions but I will limit myself to giving some details about his family at the end of this article will and quote from a few tributes received from many dignitaries who spoke at his funeral or wrote about him after his assassination 33 years ago.

* Sr. Milburga Fernando

Sr. Milburga was one of the two Rev. Sisters who was with Fr. Mike the night he was assassinated and worte in 2007 “Even today, 20th years later they speak so poignantly of Fr. Mike’s life among them. Whatever teaching he did had depth and meaning. Fr. Mike was tireless in his efforts and he paid the price with his life”

* Rt. Rev. Dr. Viani Fernando – Bishop of Kandy

“But his spirit will live on not only in his beloved people but as an inspiration to spur thousands of others to opt courageously for the poor and the oppressed”

* Rev. Fr. Paul Casperxz SJ (Sathyodaya)

“To the extent that Fr. Mike’s poesy and prophesy continue to live in those inspired by him, his assassin must be bitterly disappointed. He killed someone whom he could not kill”

* Rev. Fr. Dalston Forbes (His life long friend from Dehiwela and St. Peter’s)

“Fr. Mike was moving ahead of his time in his thinking and praxis concerning people’s power. We owe him a debt of fidelity and honour to keep his memory bright and burning and develop his teaching on the Power of the People”

* Rev. Fr. Derrick Mendis SJ

“By his life, work and example, Mike has outlined for us a model to be emulated by every priest who wishes to be an effective instrument of Christ”

* Rev. Soma Perera (from the Anglican Communion)

“He will be remembered as a genuine friend in whom there was no guile and his life was one of deep commitment, service for others, transparent sincerity, genuine love and rare beauty and we thank God for it”

* Nalin Swaris

In a tribute in prose titled ‘To Michael’ Nain Swaris wrote:

“For a brief moment Michael

in the Christian Church of Lanka

life and reality became one.

When the gun roared,

ravaged your gentle face

and deep dark engulfed you,

In the flash of light

the Temple veil was rent

and the Christ event became clear to the poor”

* Ven. Aluthwea Sumanasiri Thero (from Waguruwela, Buttala)

“He was a great humaniser and carried on an extensive and profound campaign of humaniseation. He is not dead for he lives in our hearts, specially in the hearts of the poor”

* Prof. Anton Meemana (in 2010)

“His compassion was of a universal sweep, embracing the whole creation. He died so that there may be many more like him in the future”

Family life

Michael Paul Rodrigo was born on 30th June 1927 to a lower middle class family domiciled in Dehiwala. He being the youngest in the family of a brother and three sisters, was the attraction of everyone’s love and attention.

His mother having died when he was quite young he grew up under the love and care of his sisters and brother Sam, who was also a Peterite.

His education at St. Peter’s College was from 1935 to 1946 and he also served in the tutorial staff of College for a short while before he entered the OMI Novitiate at Bambalapitiya on 1st September 1947.

He was influenced by the then Parish Priest of St. Mary’s Church, Dehiwela, his home parish, Rev. Fr. Romauld Fernando and the Eucharistic Rally held in 1945 of which organising committee he was part of as a member of the Boys Town. The vocations that sprang from Dehiwela after this grand Eucharistic Rally is still talked of and Fr. Mike, fellow Peterite classmate and life long friend Fr. Dalston Forbes were two of those who were so inspired to serve in the Vineyard of the Lord.

A late bloomer, Fr. Mike was recognised as a bright seminarian by the OMI congregation and along with his friend, Fr. Dalston Forbes was sent to study at the Gregorian University in Rome and on completion of his studies he was ordained on 4th July 1954 in Rome.

Upon returning to the Island in 1955 he was appointed to teach at the National Seminary, Ampitiya, Kandy where he was not only a respected professor but also a much loved and admired counselor. He was subsequently posted to serve at the OMI Scholesticate also in Ampitiya. Fr. Mike was an artist, a poet, and a prolific writer who contributed regularly to the Catholic Messenger and published several books on the Mass, liturgy, prayer and the Eucharist.

He was an erudite scholar who had many offers from western Universities but not for him was the lure of the grandeur of the west. Rather than accepting the many lucrative offers that came his way from many a foreign University, Fr. Mike, preferring to emulate his Divine Master as best as he could, he chose to offer reparation for the wanton destruction wrought by the western Christians in Wellassa, Sri Lanka, by choosing to live and work in rural Buttala.

It was through identifying himself with the poor of Christ – as he put it – that he dedicated his life to them. Finally misunderstood by those who saw his work to alleviate the suffering of the poor as a threat, like his Master, he paid the ultimate price on the 10th of November in 1987 when he had just finished the sacrifice of the Mass, when he was shot at point blank range.

Heartwarming News – On 9th November 2020 (the day before his death anniversary), at a Webinar organised to commemorate his 33rd death anniversary, the Provincial of the OMI community, Rev. Fr. Roshan Silva announced that the Church in Sri Lanka has initiated the process for canonisation of this martyr. While there is a long way to go with this process, we are happy that the process has been initiated even after 33 years.

May Fr. Mike, the only Peterite to receive the crown of martyrdom, be an inspiration to the Peterites who read this to love and serve the poor irrespective of race or creed.

Algi Wijewickrema

Pics – Fr. Mike with his family after returning to Ceylon after his ordination and as he was in latter days in his priestly service among the poor of Buttala.

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