Q: Archbishop J, what about ecumenism in T&T?
In this world of fracture and division, ecumenism has had a very difficult time. Older readers would perhaps remember when—at a tumultuous time in the nation’s history—Archbishop Anthony Pantin CSSp, Bishop Clive Abdulah, Dr Wahid Ali, Pandit Shivaprasad and others gathered regularly to work together for the development of Trinidad and Tobago.
These religious leaders sought to steady the ship and offer leadership to ensure the future was one of hope and peace. The Inter-Religious Organization of Trinidad and Tobago was born, and it delivered great fruit for many years.
Between then and now, the inter-religious dialogue has been much more challenging. Many small groups have become part of the organisation and finding a meaningful mission has been a great challenge.
An ecumenical visit
On the morning of Friday, June 2, I had a visit from Archbishop Stephen Cottrell and his wife Rebecca of the Anglican Archdiocese of York, Bishop Claude Berkley of Trinidad and Tobago, and the Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Rev Dr Shelley-Ann Tenia. We had a great conversation on things ecumenical.
Archbishop Stephen had just been in Rome where he visited several dicasteries. He also had a personal meeting with the Holy Father.
I was very moved by our conversation for many reasons. First, because of the reason for his visit, he was here to preach at a major event of the Anglican Church, at the Grand Stand, on Trinity Sunday. Holy Trinity Cathedral is celebrating 200 years of consecration as a Church in Port of Spain.
Rev Shelley-Ann spoke of the fruitful relationship the Anglican cathedral had with other Christian Churches in Port of Spain. Regular meetings are held to discuss the various concerns of ministry in the city. Before Covid there was a common Palm Sunday service which we spoke of reviving.
Archbishop Stephen recalled that in his recent visit to Rome, Pope Francis told him that ecumenism required Churches to pray together, work together and walk together in practical and tangible ways. After that, the Pope told him, “bishops and theologians” would somehow find their way to the dialogue.
Important: ecumenism begins with a practical commitment to be together. The theology and doctrines will follow. By stressing the three verbs, the Holy Father and Archbishop Stephen point a way forward that we should all commit to. It made me reflect.
St Pope John Paul II brought the religious leaders of the world to Assisi, Italy to pray together. It was a powerful witness of hope, love, and devotion. Bishop Claude remembered our gathering during Covid and how fruitful and yet difficult it was to keep the group of Christian religious leaders together.
We managed, in the time of the pandemic with its serious challenges, to coordinate several national days of prayer for the nation, bringing together all the major religions to pray for the health of our nation and its people. This was living out Pope Francis’ ecumenical advice.
In those years, the leaders of the Christian Churches gathered every few months. Seven or eight of us would meet via Zoom, do Lectio Divina and discuss whatever was on the hearts of participants.
We received much consolation during those meetings. The discussion was rich and direct. We focused on national issues. We even issued statements to the nation on issues of national interest.
Tobago has an active Christian Council that meets and prays, with members sharing one another’s pulpits. They are witnesses to us in Trinidad.
In 2022, we realised that Ramadan began during Lent so we asked Haji Zainool Sarafat, President General of the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association (ASJA), if we could gather with them to pray and break the fast.
Vicar General Fr Martin Sirju and I went to their Mosque at Haji Shafik Rahaman Education Complex, Charlieville. We prayed together, broke bread together, and then shared a meal and rich conversation.
The secularisation of society, the challenge of education and the work of communications were topics that we discussed then. As it turned out, Hindus, Bahais and Spiritual Baptists were all fasting during that time. We parted with good sentiments and prayers for one other.
When there was great hunger in the nation because the country was shut down for ten months, we coordinated a response with the Ministry of Social Development to be able to feed many people who were in difficult situations.
I remember the meetings with Ministry officials, trying to work out a system that would be fair, and yet accountable. It happened because the ecumenical leaders were meeting already and willing to work together to find solutions to the difficulties that confronted us as a nation.
Other informal ecumenical initiatives include: the distribution of food—many of the churches benefit from goods we bring in from Food for the Poor; an ongoing conversation about the education of the children of migrants and refugees in our nation; and making available places in our schools so migrant children could be educated.
The denominational boards meet regularly around education. They work together to ensure we have the best standards and quality education for the children of our nation.
When, in 2019, an International Vedic Conference was taking place in Trinidad, I was contacted by Professor Dilip Dan who wanted me to meet Swami Brahma Swarupananda Ji.
We met and prayed together. I participated in the conference and met with Swami Ji another time. And then Swami Ji met with the Abbot of our Benedictine Abbey.
During our listening session for our synod on synodality, we brought Christian and then inter-religious leaders together to speak about how we had been walking together.
It was a fascinating conversation. There was so much warmth towards the Catholic Church and, in particular, Archbishop Pantin. Many leaders spoke of their encounters with him and his human and religious ethos.
That gathering of the Christian and inter-religious leaders for a synodal conversation was a significant highlight on our synodal journey. It left me with renewed courage to press on in the face of the difficulties. It also showed me the rich tapestry that is being woven by the religious of our beloved nation.
An unfinished work
There is so much more that we need to do. Archbishop Stephen reminded us that ecumenism is a scandal to the world to which we have grown accustomed but should not.
Many people seeing the divisions in the Body of Christ are scandalised. This was a timely reminder of our duty to this vital part of our ministry, to do everything we possibly can to heal the wounds in the broken Body of Christ.
Ecumenism is an unfinished work, but we are doing things together to pray, work and walk together towards unity. But it is not nearly enough.
If you have a friend of another religion, pray for them earnestly. Pray that God may do what God alone can do and move us all to unity.