Friday, February 23, 2018

Fr Henry Charles: an appreciation

Before the Integrity Commission fiasco, Henry Charles was probably not very well known to the national community. Some may have read his column in the Guardian newspaper and some Catholics may have read his articles in the Catholic News at a time when he wrote more frequently. For some of us though, Fr Charles was a rare gem of a priest. He was an intellectual, and like most intellectuals, he seemed to have little time for the worldly and the mundane. He was highly accomplished academically. An island scholar from St Mary's College, he went on to study in Ireland and in Rome. He obtained his Masters from Harvard Divinity and his PhD in Ethics from Yale University. Not satisfied even with that, he later obtained a JD in the United States and even practised as a civil lawyer there for a few years. He was also called to the Bar in Trinidad and Tobago and recently obtained his LLM at the University of London.

As impressive as his intellect and academic credentials were, I was drawn to Fr Charles as a preacher. Not that he was a dynamic and eloquent speaker like, say, Clyde Harvey. In fact his sermons (though always prefaced with "My Dear Friends'') were sometimes delivered as if he were having a conversation with himself, and he would chuckle boyishly if some particular thought amused him. The preaching of Catholic priests is highly variable and as I fled the primary school theology dispensed at certain parishes, I found Fr Charles' exposition and explanation of the Gospel readings engaging, challenging, and ultimately satisfying.

I attended his mass at St Patrick's in Newtown and followed him to St Mary's in St James. Over the last 18 months, he happily included my name among the many recipients of his written homilies, delivered faithfully every Saturday morning once he was in the country. I would forward these to others, including my own children when I thought the message and the ideas would be interesting to them.

This is not the place to attempt to describe Fr Charles's theology and world view. But I think it would be correct to say that he stressed the human dimension of Jesus's ministry as he sought to show how the gospels related to our own lives. For example, for Fr Charles the motivation of the apostles who dropped everything to follow Jesus was "political''.

They thought Jesus would bring them political power and they jockeyed for status and position next to the future "prime minister'' of the liberated Jews. Fr Charles accepted that human existence and our knowledge and understanding of God involved "mystery'' and paradox. There were no pat answers for some of the most difficult questions we wrestle with as people of faith.

He faced up to and acknowledged these difficulties and in that regard stressed the inherent limitations of human understanding of God and of God's purpose for each of us. He explained the importance and value of rituals in our worship and encouraged an appreciation of our church rituals. As an intellectual and basically a reserved man, he was not given to the hand-clapping, hand-waving celebration and worship, but without in any way denying its place and validity in our Caribbean culture.

Recently he wrote an insightful piece on "Revitalising Catholic Culture and Identity'' in which he stressed the importance of the weekend sermon in faith renewal. He was worried about the state of the Church, but was optimistic that with divine inspiration, it would find a way to have a future relevant to our world.

Back in 2005 I had invited Fr Charles to speak to the Guardian Holdings strategic planning retreat in Jamaica. Following the Enron and Worldcom scandals, I was concerned that our executives needed to be sensitised about ethical issues and the ways in which company executives can easily slide over the edge into unethical conduct. Fr Charles, who was quite knowledgeable about business ethics and corporate governance, emphasised to us the importance of "character'' as the real foundation for ethical conduct.

Last year Fr Charles published his "big, little book'' entitled Forgiveness Considered and invited me to speak at the launch. In that book, which I had hoped would have been the first of several, he grappled with the nature of forgiveness which is at the heart of Christian faith, and yet difficult to grasp conceptually and even more difficult to put into practice. Fr Charles did justice to a difficult topic, extending his analysis to the initiative of truth and reconciliation in South Africa, and perhaps presaging a process which might become applicable to us here in Trinidad and Tobago.

The Catholic Church in Trinidad and Tobago has lost a fine pastor and a brilliant thinker. Though it may not know it, the country has lost one of its finest minds. Like all of the rest of us, he was not perfect.

Some thought his parish management skills were deficient, and he himself sometimes chafed at the Church bureaucracy. His acceptance of the chairmanship of the Integrity Commission in the circumstances was unfortunate, though Henry Charles, perhaps careless as a columnist, was no plagiarist. He had no motive to do so. He was sorry for that episode, and he lost none of the enormous admiration and respect that I had for him. I hope that a way can be found for his collection of insightful and thought-provoking homilies to find a wider audience among both clergy and laity.

Terrence Farrell is a former

deputy governor of the Central Bank

of Trinidad and Tobago.