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Carnival and the soul of the nation

The official NCC Calendar of Events lists different events, including Panorama, Kiddies Carnival, Dimanche Gras, J’Ouvert and of course Monday and Tuesday on the streets. Photo: Elmo Griffith

Can a Catholic participate in the festivity and be in good standing with the Church?

There are three different views on Carnival: The Protestant view, which believes that Carnival is intrinsically evil. In this view any participation in Carnival is matter for excommunication. The festivity in itself separates us from God.

The second view is the Cultural view, which endorses and embraces the festivity in an unqualified way. This view highlights the vital connection between Carnival and our national consciousness and equates Carnival with being Trinbagonian.

The third view is the broadly Catholic view. It begins with the Incarnation, that God became human and dwelt amongst us. It holds the position that the festival is basically good, noble and praiseworthy.

However, it will also highlight the challenge of the negative aspects of the festivity that have escalated over the years. From this perspective the bad in Carnival is human immorality not the festival as such. This Catholic perspective praises and highlights the good and challenges and confronts the bad, proposing ways of moral conversion for the individuals, thus evangelising the festival as a whole.

It is thus possible to participate in Carnival and be in good standing with the Church.

An established tradition or custom

I have looked through the teaching of Archbishops Pantin, Gilbert and Harris on this matter. The core teaching of my predecessors on the festival has been unchanging over 50 years. All of them acknowledged the beauty, creativity and splendour of Carnival. Evangelisation requires us to accept what is noble and good, and to challenge and transform what is not.

On March 19, it will be 50 years since Archbishop Pantin was ordained Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, 50 years of consistent teaching on Carnival.

From this perspective, the teaching is settled and now part of the particular way in which we interpret the festival in the archdiocese. Accordingly, there are two poles that must be avoided. The first, an unqualified acceptance of Carnival and all it entails; the second, an unqualified rejection of the festivity.

The way a Catholic person participates in Carnival is left to their conscience. But, here we must also remember that the festival is a mixed bag of very different cultural events.

The official NCC Calendar of Events lists 75 different events, including Panorama, re-enactment of the Canboulay riots, traditional Carnival characters, Kiddies Carnival, Dimanche Gras, J’Ouvert and of course Monday and Tuesday on the streets. Each of these adds a different dimension, and can appeal to different ages and cultural tastes.

Participation in Carnival could be as simple as looking at one of the main events on television or attending a show or playing in a band. Each Catholic is free to participate providing their participation is clean fun. There is no special morality for Carnival: the Catholic moral norms apply 365 days of the year.

The deeper challenge

The challenge of Carnival is not only the immorality on the streets during the two days and in the fêtes that precede these. It is that this growing trend of hedonism, which has taken over the festival, is the prevailing value system of our society during the rest of the year. Carnival is a mirror of our soul and through it we begin to understand the fundamental challenge we face in evangelising the culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Underlying the growing trend of moral laxity in our nation is the economic model, which we have unconsciously adopted. We have made money into a god and this is a fundamental challenge.

When Archbishop Pantin in 1987 challenged a leading mas man about the trend of costumes becoming more and more skimpy, his excuse was, “That is what the people want”. I was given the same answer in 2009 by the leaders of two of the leading mas bands. I asked them then what is the role of the artist?

It was clear that mas was not only about art, which leads to catharsis (purging the system leading to transformation).  For the big bands, mas was about money. The Carnival lost its inner dynamic to offer the nation transformation.

Carnival is laying bare the soul of the nation, revealing that hedonism and materialism have become the national value system. To miss this point is to deal with the foam on the wave and miss the deep challenge posed by the levels of pollution of the water itself. Spiritually we have lost our way. This is the challenge!

Carnival was about putting on a costume, a mask and experiencing the world from a different vantage point—a sailor, midnight robber, pierrot grenade, etc. It involved ritual and immersion into the other. Today the slogan has become “play your self”. Thus, there is no immersion into the other: there is a freeing up of moral restraint and playing out all the hidden desires of the soul.

This move from ritual to license is because the festival itself has been moved from its Catholic foundation to a secular foundation.

Ritual has a beginning, middle and an end. Carnival ended abruptly midnight Tuesday. That boundary was important. You then entered a space of deep purification where you were not allowed to meddle with anything from the Carnival—no calypso, no fêtes, no shows.

Today there is no boundary; cool down Wednesday morphs into Friday and beyond. There is no end date. So there is no catharsis. There is a prolongation of license. This too is a fundamental challenge. Money, pleasure and business have replaced art, religion and the spiritual life. Again, what exists in Carnival is a reflection of what is true of the whole society.


The challenges underlying Carnival are not ones we can shy away from. They affect and impact all of our social life. If one argues that a Christian cannot participate in Carnival and be in good standing in the Church, you will also have to argue that a Christian cannot partake in business or politics and be a practising member of the Church. We will be reduced to Christians withdrawing from all social life and going into the desert as they did in the fourth century.

This is not a question I will want to repeat every year, nor a teaching that can depart from the settled custom of the last bishops. It has been the tradition for 50 years. Some may highlight more of the creativity and beauty of the festivity; others may highlight more of the moral challenge and need for transformation. No one can hold one side of the Carnival exclusively. That will be a departure from the custom we now have. 

Key Point: Because we have had bishops with the same approach to Carnival: This celebration is a good thing filled with beauty, creativity and the spark of the divine, but there are serious moral challenges we need to address and transform. All the bishops left participation up to the individual Catholic and their conscience. This is in keeping with the best tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

Action Step: Become conscious of your sentiments on Carnival. Search your heart before God on this matter. Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance this weekend. Listen to God in whatever you do. Whatever you do this weekend ensure it glorifies God and witnesses to the beauty, creativity and joy of God’s Holy Spirit.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:12–23; Galatians 5:19–22