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AEC Executive: Reflecting and moving forward

By Kaelanne Jordan

Past President of the Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) Archbishop Gabriel Malzaire of Castries, St Lucia has some advice for the new AEC executive and President, Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon of Port of Spain.

He hoped that the Holy Father’s agenda for the Caribbean Church to become a synodal Church will be “taken on board” by the new executive. “Going forward I see it as one of the things the new executive will need to continue with,” the Archbishop said.

Archbishop Malzaire served as AEC President for two consecutive three-year terms: May 2017 – April 28, 2023.

He commented Archbishop Gordon is not “new” to the committee as he served alongside him as Vice President, “he’s a very capable person. I believe that he’s able to manoeuvre himself,” he said.

Reflecting on his presidency, Archbishop Malzaire told Catholic News his vision was to continue the work of the previous bishops in addressing pertinent religious, social and other issues that the college of the bishops saw fit, and to continue to build and sustain the collegiality among the bishops of the region, the Universal Church and with the Holy Father.

The Archbishop underscored the role of the AEC Bishops constitutes their existence – to be a bond of unity for the people of God in the region. “It calls us in imitation of Jesus to bring to the fore His principal mission of teaching, self-defying and of ruling. And of course, these are very technical terms, in other words, the bishop is called to lead God’s people, to be models, to be examples and promoters of peace in our world,” the Archbishop explained.

Peace, Archbishop Malzaire highlighted, is not simply the avoidance or absence of war. “Because sometimes our task, the task of the bishop can entail a bit of challenge, to give a prophetic voice, to challenge situations that need to be challenged.”

He identified various social issues plaguing society, namely the gender conversation, crime and violence, and capital punishment as opportunities for the bishops “to lend our voice to”.

Archbishop Malzaire acknowledged the bishops’ opinions, sometimes, may not be on “par” with country or civil society. Overall, he established that the role of the AEC bishops is all embracing and multifaceted.

“I always tell people, the responsibility of the bishop is one that deals with the littlest of persons, and it deals also with the highest of persons, from the pope to the person in the pews…” the Archbishop said.

Commenting on challenges he experienced during his tenure, the Archbishop reminded when he assumed presidency in April 2017 while Bishop of Roseau, five months later, in September, Dominica was devastated by Category Five Hurricane Maria.

“And that was a testing time…. it involved a great deal of reconstruction, rebuilding, giving psychological, emotional and physical support to people in the region, people in Dominica in particular,” Archbishop Malzaire said. He highlighted the support from his brother bishops was “tremendous”.

Then in 2020, the world was struck by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Three years prior, on August 6, 2017, the AEC bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on Communication titled New Ways of Being Church in a Digital Milieu.

“And I think it was very timely because the Covid-19 pandemic really challenged us to ask ourselves how do we reach our populace, our faithful in such time of crisis. So, I felt that the pastoral was extremely timely and it helped us to see the means by which we can proclaim the gospel to our people wherever they are,” Archbishop Malzaire explained.

He added that the AEC bishops were “forced” to develop these skills. Monthly meetings, and annual plenary meetings in 2020, 2021 and 2022 which were usually in-person, were now conducted virtually, via Zoom.

“And that was a great advantage for us. In that way for timely follow up to our meetings and decisions. So in some way Covid had some blessings with it…at the time we had 14 commissions on the AEC and usually we would bring them together for meetings and it would involve a lot of travel and so forth. And so the virtual platform saved us a great deal of money,” the Archbishop said.

Previously, the AEC comprised 14 commissions. Those commissions were amalgamated and reduced to nine commissions under Archbishop Malzaire’s presidency.

The two major commissions, Commission on the New Evangelisation and Commission on Communication remain as the “hub” or umbrella commission. The amalgamated commissions are the Commission on Youth and Vocation, Laity and Family Life, Finance “remains alone”, Doctrine and Faith Formation, Divine Worship and Ministry, Promoting Integral Human Development, Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue.

Speaking to his office as Archbishop and Apostolic Administrator of Roseau, the Archbishop commented “it is quite taxing”. He however said he’s “fortunate” to have a delegate in Roseau, Msgr William John-Lewis to take care of the “nitty gritties” in his absence.

This is not the first time the Archbishop was entrusted to oversee two dioceses simultaneously. In fact, he served as Apostolic Administrator of St John’s-Basseterre, Antigua from 2007–2011 while Bishop of Roseau.

“St John’s-Basseterre has nine islands so you could imagine having to go to St Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Montserrat and those places for Confirmation. I had to go one week every month,” he recalled.

Archbishop Malzaire revealed while he tries to adopt this same model and process, “sometimes it doesn’t always work out because the responsibility in the Archdiocese (Castries) is much greater than I had in Dominica.”

“All in all, it is something I look forward to, that a new bishop will be named and I will stay in St Lucia where I am,” he said, with a chuckle.

Last April, the AEC Bishops issued a statement on Crime and Violence in the Caribbean. In it, the Bishops declared a collaborative effort from civil society and Church is needed to combat this Public Health issue.

“Unless it’s done on that level, we’re not going to get anywhere. We’re spinning top in mud,” Archbishop Malzaire said.

He observed many social issues such as crime are multifaceted and originate from different directions, including the home.

Archbishop Malzaire emphasised while it requires “a bit of work” and it does “not just fall from the sky”, “it’s not a question of spiritualising it either. I mean prayer and worship together are needed but we have to be very practical in approaching these things,” he said.