By Robancy A Helen
Jerry Rosario, an Indian Jesuit priest from Tamil Nadu, wears many hats. He is a theologian, a pastor, spiritual counsellor, writer, social activist, motivator, civil lawyer and retreat facilitator.
He is also the founder-director of four movements—DHAANAM, a Chennai-based donation advocacy organisation, JEPASA (Secretariat for Jesuit Pastors of South Asia) for socio-pastoral animation, IGFA for Ignatian spirituality, and MANITHAM for political analysis and action. The priest is a visiting professor in 42 institutions and has lectured in 38 countries so far.
Rosario is well known for his humanitarian services especially to the poor and marginalised. He is fondly called “Barefoot Jerry,” because he has given up wearing footwear as a mark of his solidarity with those Dalits and poorest who are denied the right to wear it by the caste-ridden traditions. He stands first among the blood donors in India and he has donated blood 208 times and continues to live a simple life and promoting blood and organ donation.
Dalit Christian Digest interviewed him to know more about his life and work. Excerpts:
Dalit Christian Digest: Please tell us more about yourself.
Father Jerry Rosario: As a Jesuit of Tamil Nadu, I am involved in parish ministry for about 23 years and served in four dioceses. All the parishes that I served were in the periphery or remote villages and slums. I mention this since the poorest people over there have taught me much and shaped me a lot. Only then came some higher studies in Sociology, Philosophy and Theology, and as such, I minister also as a visiting faculty in several seminaries and colleges and social institutes, both in India and outside.
I also involved in myriad ministries like conducting youth programs, training the laity, writing books besides articles, organising human donation camps, free–legal services, ecumenical pastoral schedules, counselling, animating political conscientization–workshops and networking with some grass-root movements.
When did you start with the idea of donating blood?
Jerry: At 19, I had started the blood donation. My first blood donation saved a rural young person of my age then, by the name Murugan who was vomiting blood profusely. That he was saved, for me, was a matter of delight and inspiring. Afterward, when I was a student at the Arul Anandar College of Karumathur, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, South India, there was an invitation to start the blood donation in the University–Colleges. At that time, that was a novel venture.
With the support of the Jesuit management, I took the initiative of motivating the students for the purpose. I tell you, in 1974, about 183 out of 510 students, that is above 35 % of Arul Anandar College donated their blood. In the whole of Tamil Nadu, that was the first time that an Arts and Science College had organised blood donation camps.
Many of the students, not only me, have continued this noble act even after leaving the college–campus. Some of them have made it an annual feature to organize blood donation drives in their respective work spots and living areas. Thus, it has picked up certain momentum which eventually has birthed a movement at large for human donations.
What made you donate blood to children?
Jerry: At the Madurai Rajaji Government Hospital, there was then a case of a Muslim couple losing their children at the time of delivery due to the incompatibility of their blood groups. Thank God, my blood group—O–Rh-negative can serve as the most universal donor. When the couple was expecting a child for the third time, the doctors planned ahead and accordingly invited me to donate my blood a week before the delivery time. Once the child was surgically taken out, my tested blood was immediately infused.
The doctor took me into the delivery room and pointing at the newly born girl child, he said this which still rings in my ears as a huge motivation: ‘In one sense, this is as if your child’. What a weighty and indeed, joyous statement, for a celibate priest like me!
Out of my total 208 times so far, 67 times I had donated in this way at the time of delivery for the newly born ones, if not for the pregnant women themselves. As you may know, now medical science has improved immensely and there are other ways of saving newly born children from such a critical context.
I heard that your photo is kept in Chennai Government hospital. What is the reason behind it?
Jerry: Every year, the Government of Tamil Nadu and the AIDS Control Society of Tamil Nadu come out with posters on June 14 (the World Blood Donors’ Day), and of October 1 (Indian Blood Donors’ Day), conscientising the general public over the dire need of blood donation.
The posters are to be displayed at all government hospitals all over Tamil Nadu and also at the mega–blood donation camps and public avenues. Any country is instructed by WHO to have at least of its population as voluntary blood donors since any commercialization of blood is illegal since 1998. India procures only 0.7%. It so happened, for a year the poster carried my picture. That’s it.
You have written books on organ donation and now promoting a campaign on it. Could you please share your experience with that?
Jerry: In 2009, I registered trust with the name of ‘DHAANAM’ as a new Jesuit ministry to promote all kinds of ‘HUMAN DONATION’. It begins with blood donation. Goes on to promote the donation of eyes, skin, bone, cord blood cells, hair, breast milk, life cells, vital organs after brain–death, body parts after accidents, and also the cadaver donation for medical studies and research.
In particular, the last cadaver one is also permitted by the Catholic Church, way back in 1956 itself by the then Pope Pius XII, with a condition that the body is being donated having still in the faith in the bodily resurrection.
With all the above and other related details, I have so far written three books on human donations. In Tamil, it is titled, “DHAANAM” and in English, “A PRESENT FOR THE FUTURE “. The third book, now out of print, was titled, ‘THIS IS MY BODY, THIS IS MY BLOOD”, borrowing from Christ Jesus who was indeed the first and the best blood and body donor, already 2000 years ago.
The DHAANAM movement has so far conducted over 600 camps for human donations. Also, it has engineered various dioceses and secular units to take this cause up, as a socio–pastoral activity, a number of our institutions and congregations have come forward to promote human donations. We have a long way to go, though!
What made you dedicate yourself to empowering Dalit Christians and what do you think of Dalit emancipation?
Jerry: Some five years before my priestly ordination, as a Jesuit scholastic, I was working during the summer vacation in a Catholic rural parish. It was there, I got jolted at the inhuman treatment perpetuated over the Dalit Catholics by the Catholics of so-called high castes. One example, the Dalit Catholics were not even allowed to have footwear. In case anyone of them was found wearing, he or she and the concerned family members were beaten up. I still remember, when I took this matter up with the parish priest, he strongly forbade me to talk about it.
To live with that memory and as a mark of solidarity, from that year onward (1977), I have had given up wearing slippers and shoes, even while going abroad. Moreover, the memory took me after the ordination to those Dalit parishes where some similar dehumanizing practices were being kept up.
Now, I have a count: In total, I have served in 71 hamlets and villages of those parishes. In 37 of them, I could bring about some changes in favour of our Dalit Christians. My inner voice conveys that seeds of change are sown and they will indeed come up sooner or later.
What made you skip your breakfast?
Jerry: Down the years of my involvement with the Dalits and other marginalized sections, have challenged me in multiple ways. The simplicity of life is one of them. Just a manifestation of it is ‘skipping breakfast’ and thus, living healthily and happily with one and a half meals a day. I have had received this challenge from the parishioners of Malligapuram of Chengalpattu diocese, some 35 years ago. I have determined to carry on with this and also another 12 challenges, so long they help me sustain ‘the smell of the sheep’, in the words of Pope Francis.
By the way, it is not just simplicity or solidarity for its own sake. Out of the money saved, I am involved in some specific schemes for the grace and growth of our Dalit Catholics, especially the girls and Dalits of Dalits. That way, this becomes an ‘other-centered and lived–spirituality. In other words, it is a productive way of life. Ultimately that is the call we all have received from God. If so, why not?