Rev. Fr. Oswald B Firth, OMI, was a formator, academic, administrator, peacebuilder, and activist and had been the former director of Caritas Sri Lanka SEDEC (1990-1995) during a period of major political and economic upheaval in the country with pressing social issues, particularly of development gap across regions and breeding inequality at the face of the civil war.

Caritas Sri Lanka – SEDEC embarked on a series of sweeping changes and prominent initiatives during his tenure. The first initiative, with the partnership with APHD (Asia Partnership for Human Development), was to provide legal assistance to the youth accused of rebelling against the state and its political leadership during the 1988/89 insurrection. The intervention saved the lives of many young men and women who were in prisons. The establishment of independent Social and Economic Development Centers in each Diocese was one of the major accomplishments during his tenure that facilitated effective development support by taking into account regional development gaps and resource base. The centers established were autonomous and could address development needs by seeking donor funds separately while the national center played a mediatory role by soliciting funds for Diocesan Centers at the national level.

Fr Firth’s emphasis was on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and the integration of its conceptual and pragmatic strategies into the daily work and service of Caritas Sri Lanka SEDEC. He started a major training program for 700 animators chosen from the Diocesan Centers on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church with the intention to facilitate effective social change using the pathways and insights provided by the doctrine.

Advocacy and lobbying were central to his approach to social change. To cite two instances; the first was a massive demonstration at Iranawila against setting up of the voice of America, as the country would be exposed to danger in the escalation of conflict between powerful states, and the second instance was the opposing the construction of a five-star hotel in Kadalama which would have threaten environment and biodiversity. It was remarkable how closely he worked with numerous civil society organizations, activists, and grassroots.

Fr Firth was of the view that development cannot be isolated from environmental sustainability, peace, and justice, the precursor for development initiatives. His observation also was that the programs for the support of marginalized communities with foreign aid were not necessarily addressing the root causes of the wider social issues of the communities. The basis of his approach to social development was the evaluation of the current situations of marginalized communities by which strategies could be designed and adopted.

Lastly, he was a peace builder who interlinked SEDEC’s programs with different religious communities with the understanding that development is inclusive irrespective of differences of any form.

It is a special call to engage in human struggle against the liberation of the oppressed from social unjust and inequality that impede human progress and well-being and many priests have been advocating for social reforms. Rev. Fr. Oswald B Firth, OMI, was one of the social activists of par excellence.

Dear Rev. Father, we embrace your teachings and are inspired by your life to be a fighter till the end for the liberation of poor and destitute. We shall continue the journey to the liberation of victims and against the internalization of oppression in the wider community.  May your gentle soul rest in Peace.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”