I pen this last piece on Siparee Mai Devotions after having listened at this morning’s Mass (Friday, April 4) to Gamaliel giving advice to a panicking Sanhedrin: “If this enterprise, this movement of theirs is of human origin it will break up of its own accord; but if it in fact does come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourself fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34-42).
I am sure those priests who in the past hundred years and more have tried to stop these devotions or harboured thoughts about stopping them have had to contend with the stubborn truth of Gamaliel’s remarks
What then can we say theologically about Siparee Mai devotions? First of all we can say that what happens at La Divina Pastora is just a more intense version of what has always marked Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean: the ability of people of different religions to co-exist peacefully.
As I have mentioned several times before, Prof Rex Nettleford describes this as the peculiar characteristic of Caribbean peoples to “live together” in “stable disequilibrium” as opposed to many other places where people of different races and religions merely live “side by side.”
What “unity” in other places is held together by the force of law is held together in the Caribbean by its own particular organic logic. This unity in diversity is also a mark of the Spirit which we must not take for granted but deliberately seek to preserve since we too in the Caribbean are falling victim to the divisive pressures of globalisation.
Secondly, what happens at La Divina Pastora on Holy Thursday/Good Friday reflects what the paschal mystery is all about. On Holy Thursday the theological emphasis is on service in its manifold dimensions. Fr Sebastian Madhosingh told me that many years ago when he was parish priest at Siparia he gazed out at the crowd of poor people gathered in the churchyard and it dawned on him most of them must be hungry.
He therefore asked the parishioners for hot soup for the beggars (as they are still called by many) who spend a cold night in the open yard. The response to this was immediate and overwhelming and it soon blossomed into hot tea and coffee in the morning, followed by sandwiches and lunches.
There are also juice and soft drinks and many people outside the parish also contribute to this “miracle of loaves and fish”. At Holy Thursday in Siparia we do not simply remember service, we live it. It is our public “washing of the feet” as Fr Madhosingh indicated. It is our unique way of remembering Jesus.
Good Friday is also relevant. St Paul tells us: “God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding our faults against us, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). On Good Friday the reconciling work Jesus did throughout his life came to a climax with this final self-offering – his death.
In Ephesians we also read: “But now in Christ, you that used to be far off have been brought close, by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which use to keep them apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility … in his own person he killed the hostility” (Eph 2: 13-16). Until Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on Non-Christian Religions, much hostility existed between Christians and non-Christians (or as is more acceptable today, “people of other faiths”).
This has been significantly reduced. In Siparia there is not total acceptance of Hindus as fellow pilgrims searching for God. Good heavens, people are only human! And old Catholic habits die hard. But there is enough outpouring of love and charity to show that the grace of the resurrection is alive and well. Enough goodness to show that hostility is kept to a minimum. Enough respect to ensure an atmosphere of peace.
Thirdly, and this follows from the point on reconciliation, inter-faith dialogue, especially under the impetus of Pope John Paul II, is now an integral dimension of the proclamation of the gospel.
The joint document produced by the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Dialogue and Proclamation (1991), speaks of the “spirit of dialogue” and speaks of an “attitude of respect and friendship, which permeates or should permeate all activities constituting the evangelising mission of the Church” (DP 9).
This attitude of “respect and friendship” is very much present at La Divina Pastora during these two holy days. It does not exist it its fullness, but one cannot but be humbled by the effort made by our parishioners to welcome our non-Catholic pilgrims with respect and friendship.
I might also add that this element of hospitality has been a particular contribution of the monastic tradition in the Church. It is sometimes referred to as “inter-faith dialogue as hospitality” and has long been practised by our monks at Mt St Benedict. This event in the early history of monasticism in this country is sadly a yet untold story deserving of copious research.
Fourthly, our philosophy of proclamation of the gospel is just what was stated above. Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been concerned that proclamation is not sold out to dialogue. I doubt this will ever happen.
|Statue of La Divina Pastora taken outside the church for procession
Indeed we proclaim the gospel by being hospitable and respectful – a typically monastic approach. Dialogue for the parishioners of Siparia is not about understanding Hinduism. I have not detected that interest here.
We have decided against an active proclamation of the gospel (and this has been so long before I came); instead we prefer a passive proclamation of the gospel.
There is a time and a place for active evangelisation but Holy Thursday/Good Friday is not it. We accept our pilgrims in a spirit of hospitality and see them like us, searching for God, but we have no desire to actively proselytize. To do so would be imprudent and even offensive. By this approach our Christian identity is neither disfigured nor minimised.
Fifthly, when the Hindu pilgrims are finished with their devotions many of them go into the Church to pray, a kind of automatic evangelisation. They end up kneeling in the pews in front of the elevated sanctuary. Isn’t this what Marian devotion is all about? To lead people to Jesus?
Siparee Mai devotions therefore fulfill inadvertently a Marian intent – to bring people to the altar of Christ. Another significant point is that after all their prayers are finished, the pilgrims go into the churchyard or school courtyard to give charity, usually in the form of money, to the needy bundled together.
I have been told that many poor boast of leaving with hundreds of dollars after the two days are over. This too is important for a spirituality of prayer: prayer has a concrete side to it; it does not only concern nourishing one’s soul but nourishing the bodies of others as well.
I must not fail to mention the ugly side of things. When the two days are over there are large amounts of rubbish in the school compound and to a lesser extent the church’s: cardboard on which people slept, food containers with leftover food, cups, lots of dirty clothing/bedding, high smell of urine and occasional excrement.
The Regional Corporation comes to help us with the cleaning and the firemen come with their truck and wash both the church and school compound with water and disinfectant. On the devotional side, there are trails of oil and mounds of rice and flowers.
One can come to the conclusion that the whole affair is one of exploitation and that we are suckers to smart men and women who disguise themselves as poor and who temporarily pawn their children and grandchildren in exchange for sympathy and money. Yes, in some respects it is a royal mess.
But isn’t this what the Incarnation is about, what we celebrate at Christmas, God entering the mess of this world to remind us it can be saved and humanised? So we are happy to be reminded in Holy Week about the messiness of the divine mission.
Finally, we often blurt out the “four marks of the Church”: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. But John Henry Cardinal Newman said that the first mark of the Church is life. The Caribbean Church may not be the most organised but it has always had life.
At La Divina Pastora on Holy Thursday/Good Friday and this Sunday (Apr 13), our feast day, we have life in abundance and that life is the life of the Spirit. Hundreds of people have come to tap into it. Yuh want some too?