by Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General
Statements exploring some of the important pastoral challenges in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain
At the first meeting between the priests of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain and their newly installed archbishop, Archbishop Jason Gordon, an important process of dialogue was started. The discussion centred on five important pastoral issues (not an exhaustive list) in an effort to deepen reflection started from the past Archdiocesan Synod in a spirit of ecclesial communion and fraternal discussions.
The following statements are only the first fruits of this dialogue which is expected to take place over the next six months and will be extended to the laity, with the goal towards more effective strategic pastoral planning.
Leadership in the Church and society
There is a crisis of leadership both at the level of the Church and State. Notwithstanding the positive contribution that the clergy make to the lives of the faithful in general, one major leadership issue identified in church is a lack of attentive listening and respect for people. This leads to a lack of continuity in pastoral activities from one parish priest to another, with a resulting cynicism and demotivation in the parishes.
We are failing to be signs of hope and encouragement because we are not facing and confronting pressing national issues, for example, crime and corruption, with a clear and united voice.
At the level of the State, political leadership has been engrossed in self-interest and individualism and these have spread to other sectors of society including our very Church.
While State leadership is deteriorating, the poor, the most vulnerable, the frustrated, the young, the people of Tobago, are most affected to the point of emotional saturation resulting in an anger in the nation to the point of social disturbance.
Both Church and State leadership are viewed to lack high levels of transparency, accountability and credibility and sometimes engage in pseudo-consultation and collaboration.
It is clear that in our archdiocese many situations have developed within the parish structure that affect, in negative ways, the life of the community, the wider local Church and consequently national life.
Parish life is marked by contrasting and competing perceptions of Church, which do not lead to cohesiveness and oneness in the Body. As a result, the dynamic relationship between priest and people that ought to exist is often lacking and in its place unhealthy tensions often arise where particular groups become entrenched and all the faithful are not truly represented.
Any consideration of the challenges that our parishes face must involve as well an evaluation of the ‘cluster’ arrangement, from the perspective of the parishioners and not only from that of the priests involved. In general, there has been a lack of mechanisms to regenerate and evaluate the work of our parishes.
The consequences of these issues are: no sense of growth; continued dwindling numbers at Mass which negatively impact the morale of priests; lack of appreciation and widespread ignorance of the Sacraments, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist; an unwillingness to collaborate; and an absence of the fire that must enflame the heart, mind and imagination of our people. Without proper structures for training and developing leaders both priests and people are at a disadvantage. Emergent groups are also stunted.
The attitudes of priests, too, who have been at times high-handed and authoritative, have also posed problems for the faithful. If steps are not taken to correct the issues that have been identified here, the Church will not be the transforming presence it is called to be in the lives of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church (Amoris Laetitia, 31). In our Caribbean experience, the very definition of family is varied and therefore how we attend pastorally to family life requires reflection.
Marriage is foundational to the family; however, both marriage and family life are continuously being secularised, face the challenges of the gender ideology, and slowly experience political interference which will impact the good news of marriage and family life in our region.
The reality in our nation is a tremendous brokenness in family life at all levels including parenting, the affective/emotional/psychological, moral, and faith development. There is a lack of adequate formation in these areas to help families mature in love and live as the domestic Church.
Promiscuity, a contraceptive mentality, a culture of cohabitation, fatherlessness, a loss of memory and tradition, and a devaluation of life, all affect our capacity to evangelise the family and for the family to become a school of evangelisation and love. Many doubt if they could live what the Gospel asks regarding human sexuality and marriage. It is a challenge for married couples to be faithful and live the ‘forever’ of marriage.
Priests are sometimes cautious in addressing issues in family and sexuality and are also affected by the prevailing culture. Everyone is affected from womb to tomb, clergy and laity. The evangelisation of the family is foundational for the future of our society and Church in Trinidad and Tobago and requires serious attention.
Clergy and vocations
The central issue identified was a crisis in identity and leadership. A major component was the theological/psychological crisis in understanding the spirituality and essence of the Eucharist/the Sacraments we celebrate and which is central to our understanding of priesthood. For some, there seem to be a lack of awareness of God in the mysteries we celebrate.
There is a shortage of priests and clergy are overworked. This and the lack of self-care pose health challenges, affect community and camaraderie among the clergy. There is also that movement to individualism which interferes with the communal nature of priesthood.
In addition, there is a strong feeling that many of the things asked of the clergy are imposed and therefore not implemented and supported at the parish level. As a result, clergy support for many archdiocesan initiatives might not be as encouraging as intended.
Visas and marriage licenses for new and/or foreign priests are also problematic. There is a lack of human assessment of the clergy and the ministry provided as well as a lack of opportunities for ongoing formation for clergy, so that they may feel irrelevant and ill-equipped to deal with contemporary realities.
If clergy are unhappy or disenchanted they will not inspire and attract potential vocations. The lack of a full-time vocation director as in the days of Fr Lorcan Murray OP was also identified as a problem.
Systemic problems bedevil our education system and the operations of our schools. We need to assess what our schools are for and what outcomes we want and what we bring into the system of schooling at large.
Many parents and other stakeholders are sold on the idea of schooling for certification while other sectors are completely at sea. The implications of this diversity of school aims are that many are deemed failures and do not develop their God-given potential.
In schools both Catholic and otherwise, there are valued and lesser valued schools and historical reasons why this has come about; there is thus need to address injustice on a systemic level.
As to the processes of schooling, there is need for more effective communication, management and monitoring between the CEBM, the teaching commission and the school and church community for alleviating problems such as maintenance of school buildings and in the selection of staff (principals and teachers).
There is need for greater commitment by school supervisors, principals, teachers, parents, students and priests to their respective roles in the schools. In all this, Church and society are seriously affected as to the development of human resources.