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January 19, 2018
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January 19, 2018

Reason to hope

A reflection on the Mass of Installation for Archbishop Jason Gordon by Marcia Riley

2018, a New Year, a new archbishop, a new reason to hope! Wednesday December 27 was a defining moment. It brought to mind these words from a well-known hymn:

“The right hand of God  is pointing in our land,
Pointing the way we must go”;

The Mass of Installation was for me somewhat of a prodigal’s return. Sitting in the Cathedral at evening Mass, chandeliers all aglow, the packed congregation expectant was an incredible experience to observe in these times, when many now think twice before venturing into downtown Port of Spain at dusk.

Having never witnessed the installation of an archbishop before this was a particularly wonderful personal experience. The soon-to-be archbishop, was once our neighbour, Brother Jason. Feelings of humility and gratitude for very special memories filled me as I sat waiting for the Mass to begin.

The setting revived memories of his ordination in 1991; of early encounters with the Living Water Community who became our new neighbours after the Bynoe’s no longer resided at #21; of Gussie, Louie, Rose, Lilas, Clayton, ministering to our ageing parents regularly praying with them and giving them communion; of knowing that Rhonda, Susan, Fr Lumsden and Brother Michael (now Monsignor) were only a phone call away.

Fr Jason blessed family gatherings for the 80th and 90th birthdays of our parents and performed my mother’s final rites. We remember him as part of the philosophy discussions at the Lloyd Best Institute deepening his understanding of our Caribbean civilisation.

Over the years, I had many conversations challenging the young priest for a reason why someone, who grew up with missionary foreign priests that cared little really for descendants of enslaved people, should be a practising Catholic or, as one who chose a career in education, to see value in what seemed to be becoming a more and more polarising dominant denominational system within State-sponsored education.

But always I was struck by his openness to explore these challenges in a spirit of level-headed dialogue grounding interpretations of teachings in Caribbean reality, history and identity. This always gave me hope that one day he or someone like him could lead the Faith.

The archdiocese is to be complemented for the entire experience, from the parking provided at the Parkade, to the Liturgy of Word and music that reflected the one to be installed; from the knock on the door, the walk up the aisle to the strains of “Here I am Lord …I will go Lord …” to the recessional “Go Tell It On The Mountain”; from the first strains of the keyboard (wished it was the beautiful pipe organ though) to the shuttle back to the Parkade. It was clearly a well-coordinated effort by many.

Show me a Church’s liturgy for it tells a lot about that Church. The Entrance praise song set the mood with its mantra-like quality urging us to praise the Lord as the seemingly endless procession made its way to the altar.

Mainly dressed in white and gold were the deacons, priests, altar servers, bishops, and archbishops. The only touches of colour came from the vestments of the Anglican bishop and the only Cardinal of the Caribbean outstanding in red and white.

A specially formed Archdiocesan Festival choir led the robust congregational singing and their style, key, pace made it easy for all to lift their voices and the vibratory level of the space, so that after about 15 minutes of the praise song, I was in a different zone. The outside world and daily cares no longer mattered and total focus was on the moment at hand.

The homily did not disappoint. Archbishop Gordon described the readings chosen for the day as magical. And magical he made them as one experienced his marvelous capacity to interpret scripture in the context of people, their experiences and expectations: his ability to speak truth to power and to call people to discipleship.

Through the Gospel (1Jn1:1–4), he paralleled the sense of loss, utter despair and confusion experienced by the Apostles when they found Jesus’ tomb empty; how they felt that they could not move forward and that their dreams were shattered—not unlike feelings about the current state of affairs in our country and region.

Born in 1959, on the cusp of independence, it is clear that Archbishop Gordon’s sensibilities would have been shaped by the ‘Independence Project’ and its dream of a Caribbean civilisation built as he said, on the bedrock of the values of our forebears, where through education, diligence and hard work we believed that we could “show the world how small islands could be amazing places” ….where we could be “at home in our own skin” …showing the world “that this La Trinity with all its ethnic diversity could have unity”.

But, to paraphrase his words, we have made money, pleasure, power and honour the new gods and that is idolatry. He then challenged us to dare to give our hearts to God in loving committed discipleship. A discipleship which underlines the distinction between being named or categorised a Catholic and being a follower of Christ.

The homily drew spontaneous applause several times indicating that our new archbishop hit on certain truths buried in a nation’s battered self-esteem: examples being, when he told the congregation that despite all the negatives, he’s aware of many “people living heroic lives and doing amazing things” and that “no police, nor army can fix the problems”.

So he encouraged us to let God take us where He wants us to go and then we would dream different dreams and experience the fullness of God’s grace, blessing us as a people. “You are the solution!” he declared.

The musical choices created many moods while reflecting our diversity—an adaptation of an Amerindian folk song; an Oriental ‘Amen’ complete with the sound of a gong; the skillful blend of lines from social commentary calypsoes such as Ella Andall’s, ‘Missing Generation’; Singing Sandra’s, ‘Voices from the Ghetto’ and others set to a plaintive rhythm, forcing reflection on the plight of contemporary Caribbean life, other music was as nostalgic as a Galt Mc Dermot arrangement for a Derek Walcott play complete with the occasional soaring of a flute or violin…harking back to the loss of the dream.

Inclusivity was sealed with ‘Peace I Give to You’, sung in English, but from the second verse, with voiceovers in Patois, Spanish, Luganda (acknowledging his formative training at the Seminary of St John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs and the African in the diaspora) and Hindi… all very beautifully balanced with choir and spoken word.

The musical leadership provided by Musical Director Gregory Wong-Fo-Sue, Conductor/Producer Winston Garcia and the newly formed Archdiocesan Festival Choir, through their choices and arrangement of the music, uncomplicated and beautiful in its straightforward simplicity, struck a peaceful tone evoking an almost childlike inner joy. It was the kind of congregational singing and musical church sound that is almost a lost art and practice.

The beautiful richness of the sound experience however suffered in the recording and transmission. Gothic-styled architecture although wonderful for live sound, presents challenges for recording. While the television and YouTube coverage has merit for remembrance, posterity will be cheated of that rich, sound experience. Hopefully, as the archdiocese does more recording of this choir, the sound quality of recordings will improve.

If we consider that William Congreve wrote centuries ago: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast” then Archbishop Gordon with this choir and liturgical team might just hold the key to healing this nation’s sick idolatrous soul and to opening hearts to God’s grace.

Much has been written on the transformational power of music for self and society. It is well worth exploring, a regular monthly Mass of this calibre maybe? After all, we have little to lose and who knows how many hearts may be opened, or how changed the vibrations of the city and the land might become. Sound travels.

As we left the Cathedral Minor Basilica to the strains of David Rudder’s arrangement of ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ I felt that “the right hand of God is planting in our land, planting seeds of freedom, hope and love,” for Archbishop Gordon demonstrated the teacher, the leader and shepherd he is likely to be. He gave us a reason to hope, with his maiden homily, and the inclusivity reflected in the overall Mass experience.

We welcome Archbishop Jason Gordon and pray that his challenge and call to discipleship will be heeded, that many will “Say yes to God…” with the confidence …that God’s grace will be sufficient. Go tell it on the mountain? I just did.

Marcia Riley is a former Secretary General for the Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO.