29th Sunday OT (A)
October 21, 2017
A Catholic perspective on Development
October 21, 2017

First Peoples and the Catholic Church

The water ritual was performed in Moruga on day two of the First Peoples’ Heritage Week. Photo: Elmo Griffith

By Simone Delochan


At the end of a series of presentations entitled Knowing Our Story at the Santa Rosa parish, August 14–22, Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez presented Fr Steve Duncan, parish priest, with a petition on behalf of the First Peoples’ community of Trinidad and Tobago. It was hoped that this petition would open a new relationship between the Church in Arima and the First Peoples.

The mission in Arima was created for the First Peoples under the encomienda system. Eventually they accepted Catholic teachings but were allowed to practise their indigenous traditions which became part of their honouring of Santa Rosa. “The feast is celebrated different to other parishes in other parts of the world. It is a month of observance with different indigenous ceremonies culminating in the Catholic Mass,” said Chief Bharath Hernandez. The feast has been celebrated for 231 years.

He recalls his grandmother telling him that the relationship between the indigenous people and the Catholic Church largely depended on whom the parish priest was. “There were priests who respected the culture of the people and they allowed the people to do certain things in a cordial way, once they didn’t go drastically against the teaching of the Church. There were others who didn’t want to see or hear nothing about the culture…they isolated the people. In a case like that you would have tensions.”

A sign bearer at the First Peoples’ march downtown Port of Spain, October 12. Photo: Simone Delochan

According to Vicar General Msgr Christian Pereira, “Some priests from way, way back were obviously very compassionate in their approach in implementing the encomienda system. Some were not; some were brutal. One of the instructions of the Governor is that the punishment must be very harsh in expression, but lenient in execution.”

Msgr Pereira recalled his experience while posted in the parish of Santa Rosa and specifically, the hosting of a “symposium” to encourage dialogue: “As the second year came around, I ask Bharath and the group, let us try to get our relationship better, and let us have something…

It was a tough symposium, or meeting of the Church and the First Peoples, with people presenting different positions, and airing certain concerns. It gave the First Peoples a sense that the Church was really listening to them outside of the feast.  It went off good and I thought it was a good initiative, and a successful initiative because the dialogue worked well.”

Fr Steve Duncan has been parish priest for a year and said in an interview with the Catholic News that he went in not being aware of the tensions which existed, thus entering free of the baggage of pre-existing ideas. His first interactions he describes as “learning experiences” and it was at the joint harvest fundraiser in 2016 where he asked for and met Chief Bharath Hernandez for the first time.

His approach has been a simple, but effective, “allowing of dialogue”, and continuing a path of collaboration. In the weeks leading up to the feast day of Santa Rosa, Fr Duncan did a remarkably progressive thing: on the nights of the Novena, the Chief presented on different facets of the First Peoples’ tradition.

In an email, Fr Duncan wrote of the merging: “Fr Urban Hudlin, in preaching, is making connections with Scripture and the life of Santa Rosa, in an effort to highlight the spirituality of the Saint and challenging the wider parish community to live that spirituality in contemporary times. It is hoped that through this effort, going forward, there will be even deeper collaboration between the First Peoples and the Church.” He said that the number of First Peoples participating grew on the Novena nights and the Santa Rosa Festival.

It was a deliberate navigation to inculturation between the Catholic Church and the First Peoples. Says Msgr Pereira: “How do we pull together our threads? It needs somebody like Ricardo Bharath, within the Church, who is willing to strive for genuine inculturation, that will help us to do things in a relevant way and with meaning. Thinking it out and thinking it through: why is this appropriate for us? How do we integrate some of the beliefs people have? How do we integrate some of the symbols?

“You know, a priest may put a deya on the altar and people are calling the Archbishop about such a scandalous pagan act. I remember once upon a time it was normal to do that.” He continued, “I am glad that efforts are being made to find a way. That’s what we need to do. Find ways.”

In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a public apology for the sins of Catholics over the years in violating “the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions”.  It was an important first step.