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Christian authenticity calls for service to the poor


By Amílcar Sanatan, CCSJ Board member

Fr Gerard Pantin CSSp, the university trained, island scholar and widely respected priest was so transformed by the social unrest and protests of 1970, he reevaluated his lifelong professional and social commitments.

As an educator, he taught middle- and upper-class youth with a degree of contentment until he acknowledged the limits of his social understanding and ability to identify with the disaffected youth and urban poor struggling for greater social and economic equality during the Black Power Revolution. Rather than remain in his circumstance of comfort, he walked up the hills of Laventille and pledged to serve the people of East Port of Spain and those who lived in the margins throughout Trinidad and Tobago. He referred to this act of faith as “divine madness”.

For ‘Fr Gerry’, divine madness was a spiritual awakening and calling that required of him to withdraw from spaces of privilege and comfort to commit his labour and time to those who were conscribed to worlds of disadvantage and oppression.

To depart from a social position of privilege was also conceptualised by Third World revolutionaries such as Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. Cabral put forward a theory of “Class Suicide”. Class suicide demands more of a person than charity or partial visits to the margins and breaking bread with the poor. Cabral noted that true liberators of people and contributors to national development must “reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois”. Pioneering and charismatic priests such as Fr Michael Makhan is a leading example of a man who eschewed material well-being and social status for a disciplined and lifelong commitment to the poor, marginalised and excluded.

Since the late 1960s, la opción preferencial por los pobres (the preferential option for the poor) was a principle of Catholic social teaching advanced by the Church in Latin America. Articulated in the context of Latin American liberation theology, the concept called for individuals as well as the Church, as an institution, to be selfless in their service to the poor. Pope Francis said that the preferential option for the poor “is the key criterion of Christian authenticity”.

Though we are called to serve and give to those in need, we are also called to ethically decentre ourselves in the work of social justice. We are not saviours. Our ultimate task is to elevate and amplify the voices and leadership from communities of the excluded and oppressed and challenge unjust and evil social orders that create advantage and disadvantage in the society.

Through living and working among the poor and those confined to the ‘margins’, we see first-hand the disaster risk of unplanned housing settlements on hills during rainy season and their susceptibility to landslides.

We come across families that leave their homes with two pairs of shoes – one to ‘get out de road’ and the other to wear in the taxi or maxi because of the dirt and mud tracks they have to navigate; we confront the helplessness one would feel to learn of the violation of girls and adolescents in latrines.

We see how illiteracy creates retreat for individuals, families and large sections of communities, especially our boys and young men, and the inability to articulate feelings are expressed in rage.

As we see hardship, we also observe the creative imagination of women who sew uniforms for an entire street of school children out of the goodness in their heart; we come across a strong community spirit, with elders and respected young leaders who mediate conflict, build ground-up activities for peace, and unite communities separated by gang lines together for sports and a healthy pot of corn soup.

We cannot change the situation we were born into. The world we enter from birth is ordered along racial, gender, class and geographic lines which confer privilege or disadvantage to us throughout life.

Breaking from automatic and earned privileges is fundamental to service. Through fears, doubts, and uncertainty, we are called to practice our faith among those in need. Then, we begin to understand what we lacked spiritually and the deeper need in our hearts.

Silence and sexual abuse, public dialogue, and steps to defend survivors are positive signs of an introspective Church.

The fact of the matter is that survivors of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse such as extreme acts of corporal punishment committed by religious and schoolteachers, cannot “pray away” their experiences, shame, and trauma.

In May, the local Catholic Church established a committee to investigate more than the allegations of abuse, but the extent to which Church-run institutions protected children and people it served.

Archbishop Jason Gordon noted, “The mandate of the Church is to preach and live the gospel, with concern for the well-being of all persons, especially children, and we give the assurance that every step will be taken to determine the facts and act appropriately in accordance with our public duty.”

Though the national media attention about abuse in care homes has dwindled, the work to amplify the voices of survivors demand accountability from authorities and institutions, and creative safe spaces for all people, especially children, must go on.

‘Zero Tolerance for Abuse’ is a faith-based and national agenda. Throughout the entire society, violations happen daily. All religious communities and spaces, public primary and secondary schools, sport teams and children’s homes must reflect on institutional silence, the culture that protects perpetrators and re-victimises survivors and the abuse of power by authorities.

Safe spaces are spaces where rights are guaranteed, people with power are accountable and everyone can live a life free from violence. There is no such thing as slow progress in transforming a culture of abuse.

Every urgent and just act is an act of justice for the silenced, the survivors and the children with us today who should never know such harm.


“Love also impels us towards universal communion. No one can mature or find fulfilment by withdrawing from others. By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging. As Jesus told us: You are all brothers (Mt 23:8).” (95)

– Pope Francis, Fratelli Tuitti.

CCSJ Social Justice Education Committee