PM's address at the centennial celebration of Mt St Benedict
October 07, 2012:
Let me begin by congratulating His Grace the Archbishop Harris and the Benedictine Community of Mt St Benedict on this landmark occasion of the centennial celebration of service to the people of Trinidad and Tobago I would also like to presonally congratulate the Archbishop on recently being the recipient of a National Award.
At the age of 100 years, I am advised that the Monastery at Mount St Benedict is the oldest Benedictine monastery in the Caribbean and Central America with a history dating back to October 6, 1912 when three monks arrived in Trinidad and Tobago from the ancient abbey of San Sebastian in Brazil.
‘The Mount’, as it affectionately referred to by many who have found peace, solace and renewal in its environs, has always been a place revered for its tranquility by many people of various faiths.
This is a place where many have found comfort from the abbey and its surrounding grounds; a place of respite and inspiration.
It is a place where all can be and feel welcomed with an experience of the true spirit of ecumenicalism.
No doubt, many lives have been touched and changed here in these glorious grounds, through the interventions of healing, meditation and reconciliation.
History refers to a letter written by Rev Mayeul in October 1911 when consideration was being given to establishing a monastery in Trinidad and Tobago. The letter tells of the inspired joy which led Dom Mayeul to describe this location as “most suitable” as he set foot on this site on January 17, 1911 and gazed at the panoramic view and the crystal clear ravine and springs.
Standing here today and having been here many times before, I cannot help but agree with the Abbot of Bahia who 100 years ago said, “This spot is ideal!”
From my own experience I can tell you that whenever one comes to Mount St Benedict, one feels embraced and emboldened by the true presence of divinity.
The air is different. The atmosphere is different. It really feels like arriving at the stairway to heaven.
I am certain that this experience has been shared by many, especially when one notes that the Benedictine monks follow a way of life that traces its roots back some 500 years ago to the life of St Benedict of Norcia.
I am told that St Benedict was distressed by the obsession of the people of his time with worldly pleasures and vices and the disintegration of society. He left the Italian capital, Rome, and went into seclusion, in a cave, where he focused on recapturing the primary purpose of life: The Search for God.
St Benedict soon had a following which he instructed in the ways of prayer and love and thus began the establishment of communities that used the Gospel as their guide, and which still exist today around the world.
As I mentioned before, the monks of Mount St Benedict have opened their hearts and the doors of this monastery to persons of all faiths and at one time I am advised that one monk was commissioned to learn Hindi so that he could better communicate with the East Indians who were calling at the monastery.
This no doubt, was in keeping with St Benedict’s famous edict that one must “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart.”
Over the years, your monastery has become known for its involvement in training and educational programmes, agriculture, sports, theology, counseling and community outreach and where regular prayer sessions are held many times during the day.
In this regard, one must also reflect on the contribution of the Roman Catholic Church to the national landscape, and indeed all other religious bodies and movements.
One thing we can agree on is that the importance of the role of religion in society. This cannot be underestimated – even in secular States.
Faith in God – and sometimes fear of God – are major forces that influence the behavior of mankind. There is also an inherent desire and need to connect with and to feel connected to a higher being. Apart from providing a source of comfort and inspiration, the Church also provides guidance and direction. It plays a major role in the development and nurturing of healthy moral and spiritual values and a strong character.
The RC Church in Trinidad and Tobago is also involved in the development of our people, and our nation, through its deep involvement in education. I am advised that Presentation College San Fernando was established in 1930 by the Benedictine Fathers and was the first RC School in South Trinidad. Originally known as St Benedicts this school has and continues to produce exceptional students that have made Trinidad and Tobago proud. We note that students of denominational schools perform extremely well in examinations. This, I am sure, is the product of the methods and the discipline that goes into the modeling of the students under their care.
Even in secular States, the views of the church exert strong influence on the conduct and policies of Government. The church often functions as a moral barometer for society. Whenever moral lines are crossed or about to be crossed, the Church can be relied upon to provide guidance and direction.
Friends, the various religious communities, especially the Catholic Church, are friends of society, social partners and strong moral guides for the State. The People’s Partnership Government recognizes and values the presence of the church in our landscape of plurality and Governance.
In fact, as a people, I know that Trinidadians and Tobagonians are especially glad to have a multiplicity of faiths that influence our moral and spiritual development and direction.
We are very proud that we have had this mix of so many races and so many religions for about 200 years and we have never experienced major conflict as a result of our diversity of race or religious belief. Quite the contrary, we have grown from strength to strength.
And as I refer again to the famous edict by St Benedict - that one must “Listen and attend with the ear of your heart” - which summarizes the spiritual philosophy of the monks, I must acknowledge that there are times that we must listen more intently to the message of spiritual guidance and direction.
Too often we as individuals find ourselves so fixated on our own views, needs and desires that we forget that there are other people in this world besides ourselves, and that these other people also have needs, desires and views.
Much of the conflict in the world could be eradicated if we spend more time listening and observing closely what is going on around us.
And this is why I think it appropriate to express our support for the Church and our recognition of the value of the Catholic Church to the national landscape.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Port of Spain, which is 159 years old, is one of the oldest in the English-speaking Caribbean and is a treasured historical landmark. In 1857 it was raised to the dignity of a Minor Basilica and was bestowed with special privileges.
It is a spiritual centre for many, a coordinating point for the various Catholic institutions that perform missionary work in and around the Capital city.
I am advised that the time has been long imminent for repairs to be conducted on the beloved Cathedral. There is structural damage to the church. Certain amenities and furnishings that are of historical and spiritual value are exposed to damage on a daily basis.
From what I have been told, 23 key areas have been identified for urgent repairs and these include the roof, bell tower and structural works. The total sum of the works identified is in the region of $70 million.
I take this opportunity to add my voice to those of others, in calling on the public at large to support initiatives for raising funds for these critical repairs. I also ask that the business community as good corporate citizens should come forward and contribute to this effort.
I fully support the view of the Archdiocese that the Cathedral is more than just the story of a building, but the history and experience of many people whose lives were born of their faith.
The People’s Partnership Government is prepared to do its part to support this most worthwhile endeavor and so I am pleased to present to His Grace the Archbishop of Port of Spain a cheque for $2M towards the restoration of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
Our objective is clear. We want to ensure that we continue to support the good work that is being done by our fellow national stakeholders like the Roman Catholic Church, and other Religious groups and bodies in Trinidad and Tobago.
So my friends, with these few words, please accept my sincerest wishes for your continued growth and influence, and my humble wish is that you continue being the moral monitor and conscience that guides us not only to development, but to true nationhood with all of our people, and all of our diversity, standing together as one nation.
May God continue to bless each and every one of you!