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October 24, 2019
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October 24, 2019

Discovering Caribbean saints

By Fr Martin Sirju – Vicar General for The Archdiocese of port of Spain 

This All Saints’ (Friday, November 1) finds me persistently thinking of Archbishop Anthony Pantin. I always regarded him as a saint so the local movement to have him canonised does not surprise me.

Let me give two stories:

There was this young lady who came to see me about four years ago as she was having dreams of a certain kind. I listened to her carefully and thought it was something spiritual, basically good but not clear. I asked her to pray to Archbishop Pantin and gave her the prayer card that was done on the occasion of his death.

She returned to see me several months later. She said she had a dream in which she met someone who identified himself as St Anthony. When she awoke, she said she was confused because she knew St Anthony from statues in her church but that was not him.

At that point, she said, something fell out of her Bible; it was the prayer card I had given her, and she had forgotten she had put it in her Bible. She came to tell me that when she picked it up, she saw that the man in her dream was the man on the prayer card.

Another woman told me recently she was due for eye surgery. She had been praying to Archbishop Pantin. When she went for the pre-surgical examination the doctor found she was strangely healed. There was no need for the surgery anymore.

What are we to make of all this? Is Archbishop Pantin a saint? Only time will tell, but we must remember saints are saints long before they are canonised. Canonisation just formally affirms the saintliness and spreads devotion to such saint as the cult becomes universalised.

When it comes to the saints, I do not regard them as a homogeneous reality; one mass of undifferentiated holiness. The phenomenon is deeply local and contextual, and at the same time universally appreciated.

C S Lewis once remarked: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”

It matters where saints come from— history, culture, geography, economics, psychology, ethnicity etc are supremely important. It mattered to the non-white/non-European peoples of South America that a brown-skinned man named Martin de Porres—sometimes called a ‘mulatto dog’—became a saint.

Archbishop Gordon Anthony Pantin (deceased)

From our soil

When it comes to saints, I am unashamedly nationalistic. Nationalism has become a bad word meaning an undue adherence to one’s country of origin to the exclusion of others, a kind of enclosed self-sufficiency, forfeiting kindred spirits of other nations, in a sort of Make-America-Great-Again social philosophy.

Pope Francis alludes to this in his World Mission Sunday Message 2019: “In his Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud, the Pope noted that the Church’s universal mission requires setting aside exclusivist ideas of membership in one’s own country and ethnic group. The opening of the culture and the community to the salvific newness of Jesus Christ requires leaving behind every kind of undue ethnic and ecclesial introversion” [italics mine].

Notice the words ‘exclusivist’ and ‘undue’. The popes are right, but they do not reject the role of ethnicity and nationality. It is therefore important for us in the Caribbean to have our own saints. We are not a Johnny-come-lately Christian region. The Church has been here for over 500 years. We are still regarded as mission territory but so should many countries of Europe whose Catholic-practising population is under ten per cent.

In terms of mission, the children are now evangelising the parents: missionaries from India and Africa are now keeping the faith going in many parts of Europe.

The time is more than ripe to recognise saints grown on Caribbean soil in addition to the many saintly missionaries who left country and family to spread the gospel here.

Most saints live and die in obscurity and one might say why all the fuss. Thomas Merton would have been unrecognised had not his abbot ordered him to write, and the same for John XXIII had he not become pope. It does add more than a touch of pride to know officially your soil can produce canonised saints, that the cruel and racist history of transplanted populations can produce the gentlest of souls.

Acts 2:11 tells us the visitors to Jerusalem hear of the marvels of God in their own native “tongues”. The Greek word dialectos is more ‘rootsy’. It means dialect, the common language of the people, like the koine Greek in which the gospels were written as opposed to classical Greek.

Pope Francis has been raising cardinals from native soils far beyond Europe. That is where the Spirit is leading the Church. The Church has an obligation to affirm saints wherever they are and to look in places they have not looked before. Anything less renders a deficient and distorted hagiography.

– By Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General and administrator of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain