NewsThe barefoot master

The barefoot master

Xavier Carbonell (SIGNIS Correspondent). 

The first question was natural and honest –we were, already, beneficiaries of his confidence–, while sharing a hot chai tea: why are you barefooted? When we are kids, it’s easy to take off our shoes, run over the stones, let the dirt slip through the fingers, until the hunger comes and we return to our homes. But the priest I faced was almost seventy years old, out of which he has spent more than a half shoeless. And his feet have become hard over the burning red soil of India. 

The barefoot priest is called Jerry Rosario, and he needs no introduction. He has no cellphone, he only wears two pair of shirts and he checks –not too often– his email, to keep in touch with friends like me, far away. I had the fortune to talk and laugh with him, and before he left I gave him a cartoon of himself that I drew: what else could I offer to an essential man, so absolutely rich, but a pinch of joy and gratefulness?

A few weeks ago, chatting with the group of friends that traveled together to India last year, I told them that I wanted to interview Father Jerry; this morning I received his answer, written in uppercase phrases, very similar to his voice. I dedicate this conversation to them, so they can hear again the intense, joyful and defying words of the barefoot master.


Dear Father Jerry, can you tell us about your childhood, the discovery of your calling, your life as a young Indian Jesuit, the long path of love for the poorest and the voiceless that brought you to this moment?

Indeed a very interesting enquiry. Let me try my best to answer it to the extent possible. I begin with this disposition because I rather a free and well-to-do life till a joined the Jesuit Order. Still, one thing was clear: something substantial I have to do during my life-journey. That too, for the poorest of the poor and the neediest. This emerged within me, though with no clarity. My domestic environment and family –upbringing with an air of freedom did allow me to nurture the above-mentioned feel within.

Here, I remember my dad who was a government official and yet, he had a deep and personal love for the neglected and the ignored. He was a man of few words but lover of the least. My mum’s societal and analytical sense also had influenced my childhood-growth.

With that backdrop, I joined the Society of Jesus, wherein I came across my higher-ups, formators and educators, encouraging me, and formees to keep growing with such and interest and much more, motivating us to benefit from direct involvements with the downtrodden. What exactly had touched and transformed me was the rural exposure schedules that we had every year as formees. We were beckoned to live with the poor, love the poor, and much more, learn from the poor.

The last one, “learn from the poorest”, came to be my life-mantra (formula). The rural poor in India are found to be content with the basic needs and yet, in their own way, quite happy. Why not I too grow in “simple living and high thinking”? True, more than all theories and texts I did receive gratefully than my formation and education years, the people at the periphery not only challenged me and concretized me immensely. If so, we can learn from one another for a “life and life in abundance” (Jn. 10, 10).

You gave up wearing shoes long ago, which has become a powerful symbol for those who know you. Is it painful, difficult? What is the deep meaning of this gesture?

Partly, I have answered the question already in the last. Still, I have something more to convey. In our Indian scenario, we have a long tradition of casteism. Due to that, the lowest castes are treated very inhumanly, even though the context is currently under some structural change.

In our Christian societies too, discriminations and differences are being maintained. One of those measures was the denial of “right to footwear” to the lowest steps, imposed by the upper steps of the caste-ridden ladder of society. Social scientists explain that discriminations are being maintained in tradition by those inhuman conditionalities. In simple words, if a low caste person moves around with footwear, it will mean that he or she and his or her associates are venturing against tradition. Those persons will be terribly thrashed and tortured.

Such incidents happened when I was at one rural-exposure program. Thoroughly I go shocked and shattered. All the more, when I found it to my utter dismay that the Church authorities were not ready to read and respond squarely to this “burning issue” (Ex. 3, 1-12). To keep that memory, I gave up the footwear. It is now for 42 years and more. It is a mark of solidarity. It is also a manifestation of sensitivity. Moreover, a ministerial spirituality.

After my priestly ordination, I have gone back to those villages where something of the above conditionality is very much in force. I cannot say I was successful in all places. Through my socio-pastoral ministry lasting above 23 years in 7 remote rural parishes that had altogether 71 villages, I could bring in changes, big or small, in 37; but not in the other 34. Yet, I know I have had sowed the seeds of Good News of justice and they will bear fruits in God’s time.

Yes, responding to your question, I have to accept that “going barefooted” has its pains. But, we know, “no pain, no gain”. Pain for us and gain for others, particularly for the marginalized. I should end with this challenge that I have given to myself in course of time: “I should ever possess in my personal life a pinch of reality with the least, the lost and the last, so that all what I preach and teach will have a punch of it”.

You have devoted a great part of your life to the dialogue between religions and spiritual traditions –especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam–, under the example, among others, of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy. What makes you think that, in the present conditions, the construction of a common culture of peace is possible through spirituality?

Thank you for a probing question. My search, in this respect, all throughout is coloured by these concepts: societal reformation and transformation have to be engineered holistically. In that process, spirituality has a profound service to render. For this, let us have a look at this demanding notion: an adult, matured and responsible spirituality would be the one that gives to us a response-able quality and ability to the concerns, causes and cries of living societies and cosmic situations. In other words, spirituality is not to be obsessed with the otherworldly longings. That will be an escapism from the current context of human and cosmic life.

Dialogue with cultures and religions, then, will only enhance the process of birthing a new society that is free from classism, casteism, racism, tribalism and traditionalism. Humanness will be the one that matters ultimately. It will be one human family with all equality, liberty, fraternity and harmony. It will have the joy of generating and divinizing “a new earth and a new heaven” (Rev. 21, 1-7) when we commit ourselves to go by the above understandings and undertakings; a common culture of peace is tremendously possible through an inter-religious and inter-cultural and inter-ideological spirituality. We need to remember, “with God’s favor, nothing is impossible” (Lk. 1, 37).

Many saints and important figures of the last century –for example, Saint Oscar Romero– saw the prophetical value of media. As an author and communicator, do you feel close in this sense to any of these spiritual masters?

For the prophetical value of media and communication, I cherish and get enriched by the impressive figure of Oscar Romero. Why? I got ordained along with my companions in 1982. It was only two years after the assassination of Oscar Romero on 24th March 1980. So much so, our batch published a book on persons that included Oscar Romero, on the very day of our ordination, 2nd May 1982. In that book I wrote on Fr. Rutilio Grande, whose assassination on 12th March 1977 had a lasting impact on the life and mission of Oscar Romero.

Here I should recognize also some others of last and past centuries who too came to me powerfully due to their communication skills and strategies: Alberto Hurtado of Chile, Joseph Vaz of India, Miguel Pro of Mexico, Martin Luther King Jr. of United States of America, Camilo Torres of Colombia and John Bosco Burnier of Brazil.

In this confusing world, where the people doesn’t know what to believe, your simplicity and joy of heart indicates a great devotion for the essence, a desire of pure things. How to become free of the anxieties and disturbances of today’s lifestyle and be more aware of our relation with nature, with others and with our own inner reality?

To this enquiry, I love to refer to a sound psychological dictum that has helped me much and can also inspire you: compare and compete with yourself. Stop comparing and competing with others. In case you still tend to compare and compete with others, do them with the simple folk. That is, a gaze at the sidelined with your heart, not with your eyes, will liberate you from undue anxieties and unhealthy disturbances.

Naturally, then, we will come close to nature. Both our life-substance and our life-style will become very much cosmos-friendly. Did not Buddha say this, many a centuries back: reduce your desires and lead a life of enlightenment?

You have studied carefully the message of the Encyclical Letters Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti. What is your opinion about Pope Francis’ project for the planet and all those who want to save it? How different is this particular Pope?

Pope Francis’ vision and passion for humanity and cosmos are very inspiring and inviting. His stand expounded in his Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti is a definitive call for a harmonious life with all the creation at large. The cosmic spirituality that is highlighted in his encyclical and exhortation is an ignatian maxim that goes like this: “find all in God and find God in all”, that way, this pontiff comes across a “sign of contradiction” (Lk. 2, 34). His stand is against oppressive capitalism, insensitive consumerism, exclusive subjectivism and indifferent humanism.

No doubt, his thoughts and trends will not be stomached by one and all. Be sure, he has truth on his side. Truth will triumph. Ultimately the reign of the divine has to come with the historization of the Gospel-manifesto of Jesus of Nazareth (Lk. 4, 16-21). Personally, I am edified by the inner freedom that Pope Francis consistently, courageously and continuously displays and demonstrates. We all are privileged to live at a time when one is “walking the talk”, even while occupying the Chair of Peter. I view so. What do you say?

Priest, preacher, activist, author, barefoot monk, saint… when the futility of labels disappears, and the original face is the only thing that remains, who is Jerry Rosario?

Someone who attempts ongoingly to be responsive and responsible to the God of the poorest.


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