Archbishop J, what is the Church’s contribution to the nation over the last 56 years?
In many significant ways the Church has contributed to the life of the nation over the last 56 years. My answer here is not intended to be exhaustive but rather a point of reflection to help us all celebrate and deepen our commitment to build for the future.
Nations, like people develop and grow and mature as we learn to assume our responsibility with experience and the passage of time. We grow traditions and distil the kernel of our identity through a process of reflection and commitment to the practices that begin to define us as Trinbagonians.
The Church has been a dialogue partner with the State, other religions and the whole people of Trinidad and Tobago in this process. Sometimes that dialogue has been tense as in the 1970s, when the archbishop and other religious leaders boycotted a dinner in protest over the extended State of Emergency. Sometimes it has been mutual as in our commitment to serve the poor of Trinidad and Tobago.
Nations define themselves by managing healthy tensions. By recognising the tensions that are healthy and those that are destructive. Over these years of independence, we have been in willing dialogue with the State and its citizens: sometimes resolving the tensions, sometimes allowing or facilitating them. Through it all, we, as Church, have grown and I pray that in our growth we have assisted the nation in its own growth and maturity.
There are four areas that I wish to reflect on in this light. They are: Catholic education, preferential option for the poor, hope, and spiritual growth.
The first school for slaves and free-coloured in Port of Spain was opened by Fr Francis deRidder on the corner of Henry and Park Streets in the 1830s. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Church opened schools and parishes in many remote communities across the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago. At present we manage 118 primary schools, same as the Government, and 21 secondary schools. We educate one quarter of the children of our nation at primary level. Many of our schools have very small Catholic populations.
We have recognised that the educational system and our schools are not serving all our children. There are too many schools where the children are not achieving 30 per cent on average on national tests. Most of these are in poor communities. Some 27 of them are our schools.
We are relooking at Catholic education deeply. We intend to work with all stakeholders to update our methods of teaching—changing the classroom experience for our children—and to pay particular attention to values, character formation and faith formation. We need to find ways to interest this generation in learning and building strong character and faith.
Preferential Option for the Poor
The Catholic Church has lived a preferential option for the poor in Trinidad and Tobago: from orphanages to a leper asylum run by Dominican Sisters, homes for the elderly, ministry to street people and serving the poor in our parishes while ministering to children with AIDS through The Society of St Vincent de Paul. We work with cancer and AIDS patients, drug addicts, battered children, socially displaced young men and, of course, refugees through Living Water Community. SERVOL, Mary Care Centre and many other groups show the Church as present and caring.
We were at the forefront of the credit union movement in the early 20th century and the effects of that work continued post-Independence. Many parishes have heeded the call to a new ministry for refugees and migrants to assist in welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees. We have served the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.
While it has steered clear of partisan politics, the Church has spoken consistently and clearly on social issues and discharged its responsibility as moral compass. As Historian Bridget Brereton pointed out at the recent symposium marking the 125th anniversary of Catholic News, Archbishop Anthony Pantin and the Church were on the “right side of history” during the Black Power revolution. Our openness to ecumenism gave the IRO a voice in the society. Leaders, including Frs Gerry Pantin and Clyde Harvey and the chair of our Social Justice Commission Leela Ramdeen, have been clear and consistent advocates for social justice.
Faith and Spiritual Growth
For hundreds of thousands of citizens, the Church has been a source of spiritual nourishment, sustaining belief in God’s love for the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Mt St Benedict has become a sanctuary not only for Catholics but persons of all faiths. La Divina Pastora has similarly transcended narrow religious beliefs in our multi-religious society becoming the meeting place of two great faiths. The Church embraced the steel band and Calypso in its liturgical music, when there was still a stigma surrounding these art forms. It thereby assisted in validating these important elements of our national culture.
Let us all reflect on our contribution to post-Independent Trinidad and Tobago. As individuals, families, groups, communities, parishes and religious congregations let us recall our legacy, our service, our history. By living our vocation more intentionally, we will become a better dialogue partner with the nation and its citizens. This is the best gift we can give to our beloved country. Let us be generous in intentionally living our vocation.
May God bless our nation and our people, giving our leaders wisdom and courage to guide us through these challenging times.
Key Message: By living our vocation intentionally, we become a better dialogue partner thus assisting the nation more integrally in its growth and development.
Action Step: Reflect on your role as a disciple and citizen. How has your discipleship shaped the way you have contributed to the growth and development of Trinidad and Tobago? E.g., living with integrity, standing up for what is right, generosity, etc.
Scripture passage: Ephesians 3:14–21