Shaping his destiny in the service of God

Tuesday, 27 October 2020 00:37 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In conversation with Bishop-designate Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo

By Renuka Jeya Raj

Bishop-designate Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo


The People’s Bishop has been appointed to the Anglican Church in Sri Lanka at last. The official announcement that Rev. Dushantha Rodrigo is to be the 16th Bishop of Colombo was made by Archbishop of Canterbury and Metropolitan of the Church of Ceylon, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, on Monday 28 September, ending weeks of speculation and innuendo. 

At the Special Session of the Diocesan Council held in August to elect the next bishop, the votes for Fr. Dushantha from the house of laity (67%) far exceeded the required constitutional majority of 60%, but a shortfall of just seven votes from the house of clergy necessitated the intervention of the Archbishop to decide on the candidate of his choice. 

Following his consecration scheduled for 28 October, Rev. Dushantha will take the helm of the Diocese of Colombo. This is by far the larger of the two dioceses of the Church of Ceylon and extends from the northern peninsula of the island to the farthest reaches of the south.

Rev. Dushantha, known as ‘Fr. Dushy’ to all and sundry, celebrated 25 years in the Christian ministry last year. He was asked about his journey in the service of God.

Maritime discipline and family dynamics

The Bishop-designate spent his early childhood as a ‘military brat,’ his father having joined the Navy at a young age. Although Anglican, his parents married in the Methodist Church in Jaffna because most of their friends were Methodists, and were stationed in the north and east of Sri Lanka during the 1960s. 

The youngest of three, he was an unexpected arrival to parents who thought their family replete with the requisite quota of a son and a daughter. “My mother suddenly discovered she was pregnant again and was not very happy to have a third,” he explains. “While in Trincomalee, she came for the confinement of my two older siblings to Colombo, but she couldn’t be bothered to travel to Colombo for me, so I was born in the Base Hospital in Trincomalee. I’m happy I drew my first breaths among the poor in that hospital.”

Family dynamics revolved around naval discipline in a highly-regimented household run with clockwork precision. His father was a formidable figure who inspired complete obedience in his children. It was his mother who created the balance in the family by providing them with love and affection. These formative years ingrained in him the discipline that has stood him in good stead throughout his ministry. 

His parents were insistent that their youngest should be baptised in the Anglican Church, so his baptism was delayed until the family relocated to Colombo. He was baptised over a year after his birth at his parent’s home parish of Christ Church, Galkissa, and named after the son of a friend in the police force in Trincomalee. All three children attended the church’s Sunday School regularly.

He schooled at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, a privilege his father had been forced to forego due to the untimely demise of his own father, which left the widow, his grandmother, with financial constraints and the challenge of taking care of six children. Thus, her firstborn was taken out of school during his first year. This made Rev. Dushy’s father determined to give his children the privileges he had lacked in early life, and he provided his sons with a Thomian education. 

A learning experience. Rev. Dushantha says his journey in the ministry was shaped by a steady stream of mentors. “They built my confidence by pushing me to areas into which I would otherwise not have ventured,” he declares, “and every assignment I undertook was a preparation for the next.”

The appeal of the church

The appeal of the church was evident from the tender age of 11 years. He would visit Christ Church regularly on his own to attend almost every service. The persistent presence of the young child caught the eye of Vicar Rev. Lionel Peiris, who invited him to be an altar server. He became the youngest among the friendly altar servers who, he reminisces, “towered over me like giants”.

It was while serving at the altar that he felt a ‘tug in his heart’ of the Lord calling him to the ministry. “Fr. Lionel had an amazing way with all age groups, he noticed people,” he recalls. This rare talent Rev. Dushantha has himself acquired, and is a secret of his popularity among young and old from all walks of life and faiths. 

The departure of Fr. Lionel left a void, filled later by Rev. Sunil de Silva, Chaplain of S. Thomas’. Young Dushantha responded to the Chaplain’s invitation to join his confirmation classes. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, he also responded to Fr. Sunil’s call for at least one of his confirmation candidates to offer himself for ministry, and confided his heart’s desire to the Chaplain. He was invited to join the Servers’ Guild of the school chapel.

Fr. Sunil was precise and meticulous in every detail and instructed the eager young lad on the traditions and ceremonies of Anglicanism which provided him with a solid grounding for his future ministry. But Rev. Sunil departed to the UK, taking with him the cherished secret of his young communicant, or so he thought. 

One day, however, Rev. Duleep de Chickera, sub warden of the school, called him and said that Fr. Sunil had told him about his interest in the ministry. The keenness with which he pursued his dream prompted Fr. Duleep to take the youngster under his wing.

“Fr. Duleep had a remarkable way of dealing with the young vocation,” recalls Rev. Dushantha. Fr. Duleep would take every opportunity to inform him of an event and invite him to get involved. He also advised the teenager to follow classes in classical Greek, an essential Biblical language, conducted by Fr. Kenneth Fernando, at the Ecumenical Institute of Study and Dialogue. “Fr. Kenneth was a fantastic teacher, anything he taught stayed in your mind, I still go to him,” declares Fr. Dushy. 

Rev. de Chickera invited him to follow his weekly Bible study classes as well, which were attended by senior professionals, now ‘big names’ in their chosen professions. Bishop Duleep continues to be a mentor to this day. “He reminds me that there is always another way of looking at something, He taught me how to turn a negative thought into a positive one and to say the most negative thing positively.”

It was Rev. Duleep who first exposed him to parish life. He asked the teen to accompany retired priest Rev. V. S. D. Sathianathan, and help him officiate at a service at St. John’s, Kalutara. Rev. Sathianathan subsequently taught him to read the Bible in Greek. 

This was during the episcopate of Bishop Swithin Fernando. It was Bishop Swithin who bestowed on him the moniker ‘Dushy’ and urged him, “go and learn the way of the world. You are too young for the ministry. If you are truly called, nothing in the world will prevent you from coming back.” Although heartbroken, he followed this sage advice. He trained at Ford Rhodes, Thornton & Co. for two years, having been placed there by senior partner Rajan Asirwatham who was known to Fr. Duleep.

Answering the call of God

By this time, Bishop Jabez Gnanapragasam had succeeded Bishop Swithin on his retirement, and the young aspirant returned to the diocese, the lures of the world having failed to entrap him. Bishop Jabez was a man of few words and taught him a lot, admits Fr. Dushy. “I especially learnt how to be simple.”

The Bishop called him one day and told him he could ‘sink or swim’ because he was to be assigned as a lay worker to the Sinhala parish of St. John’s, Mattakkuliya, under vicar Rev. Jayasiri Peries. This was in 1989 at the height of the JVP insurrection. It was also the first time that he had left home. 

After one lonely night at Mattakkuliya, the young lay worker high-tailed it home on his push bike to spend the next night with his mother. But his mother was firm in her resolve to return her son to his calling. Admonishing him firmly, she told him that since he had made his decision to answer the call of God, there was no turning back now. His mother has been a tremendous strength to his calling. Over the years he would remember her words, “either be a good priest or not at all, don’t be disrespective of the church”.

He returned to Mattakkuliya with his brother in tow to keep him company while settling in. 

Divine providence

From here began a journey of myriad challenges and opportunities, during every stage of which he experienced the power of God’s providence.

He remained in Mattakkuliya for one year and in 1990, Bishop Jabez selected him to train at the Theological College Lanka (TCL), Pilimatalawa. Bishop Jabez was succeeded by Bishop Kenneth Fernando during Rev. Dushantha’s last two years at Theological College. Bishop Kenneth did not set much store on examination results but emphasised, instead, the importance of Formation, namely, the process of forming oneself to becoming a disciple of Christ. 

Rev. Dushantha was ordained a Deacon in May 1994, and was informed of his first appointment to Christ Church, Ragala and Holy Trinity, Nuwara Eliya, on the morning of his ordination. The sudden posting to a distant parish brought on mixed feelings, but the novice priest decided that the church could determine what it wanted to do with him since he had given his life to the church. 

However, he was provided with a three-month respite following his ordination, to study at the Cathedral Institute at which the bright eyed and bushy-tailed young novices were ‘put into shape’ by spiritual stalwarts of the calibre of Rev. Lionel Peiris and the Very Rev. Sydney Knight, who taught them the tools necessary for their ministry.

Fr. Dushy then took up his posting in the hill country, serving under Archdeacon John Daniel. The archdeacon was reputed for being a hard taskmaster, and few assistants survived for more than a few weeks with him. But the new deacon remained in the post for 1½ years and lived with Ven. Daniel and his wife Eunice who treated him like a son, since their own two children were in boarding school in Colombo. Their son Lakshman is now a priest in the Anglican Church.

Next followed an appointment as Chaplain to St. Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa, during which time he married his wife Shehara whom he had first met while at Mattakkuliya. His next posting was for one year at St. John’s, Nugegoda, as assistant curate to Fr. Lloyd Weerasuriya, where he also taught Christianity at St. John’s School.

His first appointment as a vicar was to the Church of the Ascension, Matara, in 1999, which necessitated considerable upheaval since Shehara was working full-time in Colombo. Matara was a poor parish and breakfast for the children was sponsored every Sunday by a parishioner who now lived in Colombo. The meal they ate at church on Sundays was probably the only substantial meal the parishioners enjoyed for the week, supplemented by the breadfruit from the tree on the parish premises, which Fr. Dushantha picked and delivered to them on his scooter.

The church was in need of extensive repair. Despite the scepticism of the wardens, he collected Rs. 1 million for its renovation, from contributions that poured in from former parishioners living overseas or elsewhere on the island. Their earlier parish in Nugegoda also supported the repairs with cash contributions and engineering skills. While in Matara, Fr. Dushy was once again able to indulge in teaching, a pursuit he enjoyed, and taught English at St. Mary’s convent.

Rev. Duleep de Chickera was appointed Bishop of Colombo following the retirement of Bishop Kenneth. Bishop Duleep’s dream was to send his young protégé as Chaplain to his alma mater, S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, but this dream was not to be realised in the immediate future. 

To mark time, the Bishop transferred him for one year as vicar to Christ Church, Mutwal, the first Anglican Cathedral. However, at the end of the year, the parishioners were loath to release him, and petitioned the Bishop to permit him to remain to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their church. 

It was while in this parish that they experienced the most dramatic incident of divine providence. A massive banyan tree, aged over a century, collapsed on the vicarage during a gale, flattening the bedrooms. This was at about 11 o’clock at night, but fortunately, Shehara and he had been delayed by the storm on their return from a prayer meeting, and his mother had also been out of her bedroom trying to stem the flow of rain from the leaking roof.

Help from the community ensured that the couple was housed at no extra cost to the church, and the vicarage was rebuilt. “The storm brought us down to zero and brought the community up again. Every challenge had a purpose,” declares Rev. Dushantha. 

Working with young people

His next appointment as Chaplain of the Church of Ceylon Youth Movement (CCYM) gave him innumerable opportunities to work across the diocese with young people, thereby fine-tuning one of his greatest strengths in pastoral care. In 2001, he led a youth delegation to the north during the opening up of the road to Jaffna, to bridge the gap between the north and the south. 

This was a memorable trip, he recalls, citing the instance of a young man in his group who had married a girl from Kilinochchi and met his mother-in-law for the first time during this visit, following an arduous journey through landmines and stringent security checks to locate the family. The trip was also a journey down memory lane for the Chaplain as he revisited the places in which his parents had embarked on married life.

In 2005, he pursued ecumenical studies at the Ecumenical Institute in Bose, Switzerland. He also read for his BD (Bachelor of Divinity) external degree from Serampore College, India. While still at Bose, Rev. Dushantha was appointed Vicar of St. Michael and All Angels, Polwatte, and also Chaplain of Bishop’s College, where he taught Christianity. He was involved in introducing many changes to the liturgy while at St. Michael’s, and joined the Liturgical Committee of the Diocese. He was also appointed the Diocesan Director of Ordinance who ‘looks after the students at the Theological College’. 

In 2011, the last year of Bishop Duleep’s term, he finally followed the Bishop’s dream and took up the position of Chaplain of S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. During his time, both the warden and sub warden of the College resigned and the mantle fell on Fr. Dushantha to manage the school during the last term of 2011. 

His next posting was to St. Mary and St. John’s Church, Nugegoda, which he terms ‘a model community’. “People responded by training themselves. It was a growing, lively parish with a lot of talent and enthusiasm.” He fostered this enthusiasm by encouraging the youth to lead the worship as well as preach, and introduced very creative forms of worship. “This community demonstrates the fact that lay people could take leadership and the clergy should not be frightened about giving lay people their due place in the church.”

However, the church suffered from a disadvantage in that it was built too close to the road and lacked space. The vestries needed extending and the mission house was in disrepair. The church cemetery was relocated to accommodate the extensions, amidst protests. This was satisfactorily accomplished and dissension ceased. Outpourings of money, mainly through anonymous donors, met the renovation costs that totalled close to Rs. 35 million, which disproved the scepticism of the wardens, who, as in the Matara Church, informed their priest of the lack of available funds for the renovations. 

Pursuing teaching

It was while at Nugegoda that he received his appointment as Headmaster of St. Thomas’ Preparatory School. This was the opportunity to pursue teaching, a vocation he enjoyed, and the management of a prominent school broadened his horizons. Fr. Dushantha introduced modern facilities and new methods of teaching, and also successfully engaged the old boys to support projects to upgrade the school. 

Here, he once again, he experienced the power of divine providence. The school was devastated by a cyclone that brought down every roof. A video of the devastation went viral, which tugged at the heartstrings of old boys and well-wishers around the world, and inspired them to open their wallets to contribute substantially towards the speedy reconstruction of the school. “To this day I don’t know who videoed the event, I believe it was an angel,” declares the Headmaster.

The devastation occurred at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, one of the busiest seasons on the school calendar, which involved examinations, the annual prize giving, the concert and carol service. Surrounding schools rallied around the beleaguered school and provided them with the venues needed to ensure that every end-of-year event was held. Within one month, the school was completely restored and reopened for the new year. 

For the Headmaster though, this necessitated foregoing Christmas and New Year celebrations that year, which he regards as being a small price to pay for the timely restoration. “Even the teachers were sceptical that the school would be ready to open on the due date, but open it did.” This feat was accomplished solely due to the unwavering faith of its headmaster. 

Rev. Dushantha is presently vicar of St. Paul’s, Kynsey Road as well. “This is the most beautiful Anglican Church in the diocese. It is also a historic one because this was where the ordination of the first Sri Lankan Bishop, Lakdasa de Mel took place, in 1945,” says its incumbent.

Vision for the church

“Formation will continue to take centre stage in my ministry, as it has during the past 25 years,” says the Bishop-designate. Simply put, Christian formation means equipping oneself for a daily walk with Christ and putting others before oneself. This involves working with communities by using their strengths in a manner that enables them to blossom and grow. 

“St. Thomas’ Prep. was a community that enabled me to test this. I never saw myself as the Headmaster. Having been the Chaplain for three schools, I thought of myself as the Chaplain of Prep School as well, the one who inspires the whole community to becoming a community of service, where each looks upon the other for strength and encouragement. All our parishes could become such models.”