By Neil Parsanlal
A few weeks ago, I participated in the liturgy for the recommissioning of lay ministers. It was a beautiful liturgy and the wisdom of our Vicar General, gathered over his close to 30 years of Ministry shone through in his homily.
His advice to avoid the lure of power, temporary as it might be, resonated well as I reflected on the state of both clerical and secular leadership in our beloved Republic.
And then a most beautiful thing happened. As the Vicar General elevated the host at the moment of consecration, a young mother and lay minister seated in front of me began to breastfeed her baby. The moment was as surreal as it was poignant.
Jesus giving us His body and blood, saying take and eat, take and drink, and this mother, cradling her baby in the safety of her arms, breastfeeding her baby, providing all the sustenance that child would need for it to grow, to thrive, to live.
It was a sacred moment for me, and more telling than all the theological discourses I had read before, or even the commentaries on St John’s Gospel.
I recalled in particular the various texts from the prophet Isaiah containing images of God as mother. Among them is my favourite: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you!” (Is 49:15).
As the bells pealed and the incense floated up to the ceiling, I wondered at the nexus between the extent of Jesus’ love for His creation, and that of a mother’s love for her child.
I prayed that as Church, we would be as protective of our children as this young mother was protective and caring for her child, that regardless of her location, regardless of the event, her child was hungry, and she had a duty to respond as only she could.
It was that image that stayed with me, indeed, haunted me, as I read the contents of the reports submitted by the two Cabinet-appointed Committees, 25 years apart, that spoke of the atrocities, the abuse, and the neglect visited upon children entrusted to the care of various Homes, including those managed by my Catholic Church.
I cringed in horror as the names of religious sisters, long revered by many for their outstanding work, were dragged through the proverbial mud, for their alleged complicity in this debacle.
I shook my head in disbelief as the name of our first local Archbishop was named as one of those who knew of the contents of the 1997 Report, were in a position to effect meaningful change, and did nothing.
The various media reports that followed, all followed a similar trend, not one mentioning the thousands of children whose lives were indeed saved, and in many instances, made better by the time spent in those Homes.
This is neither a defence nor condoning of abuse inflicted on any child, but it is so easy for us to throw out the baby with the bath water. All forms of abuse inflicted on those children ought to be strongly condemned, and to the extent that it is still possible, those procedurally found to be guilty, should face the full brunt of the law.
I hold no brief for the Archbishop, but I want to applaud his decision to establish our own committee to investigate the allegations made, and more importantly determine how to ensure that nothing mentioned in those reports could ever be laid at the doorsteps of our Church again.
But as a member of this Church, and as a citizen, I would also like to apologise, unreservedly, to all the children, their families, and to this country, for the trauma and abuse suffered by them, allegedly at the hands of persons, Catholic persons, in whose care they were entrusted.
However, it will be our actions going forward that will rekindle in others the fires of their love for this broken, though blessed Church of ours. And again, the words of Isaiah ring out: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Is 66:13).
As a person who has endured the slings and arrows of public life, deservedly and undeservedly, there is a word of caution I want to share with all my brothers and sisters on this pilgrim journey. It is a conclusion that many have been and still are reluctant to accept.
In today’s world, society often searches for perfect leaders. When their actions reveal their weaknesses and shortcomings, the general public turns away from them and continues the impossible search for perfection.
Media pundits, eager to condemn our leaders, pile on the criticism, and fuel the passion of those who accept as gospel, the headlines rather than the substance.
Our Church, yours and mine, stands at the crossroads, as it so often does, but more specifically at this time of synodality.
We must ask ourselves, even as we pray unceasingly our ‘mea culpas,’ whether we will join the line of those waiting to throw stones at the publicly defiled, or whether we will sit with Jesus and write in the dirt of our own times and in the dirtiness of our own hearts, the way forward that says, go and sin no more.
Now, more than ever, our Church needs to be seen as the place where persons can find not just hope but comfort, not just safety but security, not just rigid adherence to rules but compassion both for those who administer the rules and those who are subject to the rules.
Today, we must join with the prophet Isaiah in declaring “For a long time I [God] have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Is 42:14).
Now more than ever, our Church must follow the lead of our breastfeeding lay minister, to cradle the bodies of our hungry and hurting citizens, and feed them the only way we know how, with the broken body and spilled blood of Love Incarnate.
Neil Parsanlal is a Lay Minister in the Santa Rosa Parish, and a former Government Minister