“The Church must not seek to Christianise Africans but instead Africanize Christianity.” — an interview with Fr. Lambert St Rose, priest and poet

I recently had the pleasure of doing a feature story on the celebrated St Lucian cleric, Fr Lambert St Rose, author of Helen and Her Sister Haiti. The book is his debut poetry collection, an assortment of 173 poems that is, in part, a praise song to his beloved St Lucia (Helen) and pays homage to her natural beauty and struggles as a nation, which mirror that of her sister Haiti. It also traces the socio-political evolution of the Caribbean and explores the themes of identity, independence, neo-colonialism and modernization against the backdrop of the islands’ rich multicultural heritage. Using the protest-poetry genre, it goes further and decries the social suffering and injustices that continue to plague St Lucia and the wider Caribbean nearly two centuries after Emancipation.

But even as it laments the rampant political corruption and the “new form of slavery” that is creeping back into the post-independent Caribbean, Helen and Her Sister Haiti gives hope to the people of the region by showing them the path that would lead to moral and spiritual redemption and restoration.

Fr. St Rose emphasizes that the book is not just a collection of poems, but “a theological reflection on the social, historical, economic, religious, political and national consciousness with a call to conversion.” In reaching out to God, he believes it’s important for Caribbean people to cultivate a theology that reflects their own history, culture and experience, and they shouldn’t feel the need to deny their heritage, or be ashamed of their past

“Our narrative as Caribbean people does not start in the Caribbean; it must start in the land of our origin. Hence the need for Caribbean people to develop a uniquely Caribbean theology,” says Fr. St Rose.

Fellow cleric Msgr. Patrick Anthony, who is also director of the St Lucia Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre and founder of the St Lucia Folk Research Centre, says Fr. St. Rose’s work is in keeping with a long Catholic tradition of priest-poets dating back to “St. Ephrem, the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. John of the Cross and St. Francis of Assisi,” among others.

At home Fr. St Rose is known to be deeply spiritual and very outspoken. He is not afraid to speak out against social injustice and political corruption. Not surprisingly, his book launch was an impressive affair with a sizeable gathering. The audience included the local Archbishop Robert Rivas OP, Msgr. Patrick Anthony, St Lucia’s Governor General, Dame Pearlette Louisy, former Prime Minister Stephenson King, the French Ambassador to St Lucia, world-renowned St. Lucian artist and muralist Sir Dunstan St Omer (he painted the mural featured on the cover of the book) and several other dignitaries. A group of students from the Babonneau Primary School did a captivating choral-speaking rendition of one of the poems from the collection entitled “Iouanaloa.” The audience was thrilled and it was one of the highlights of the launch.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Fr. St Rose during which he spoke at length about what moved him to turn to poetry, and shared his views on God and theology, Caribbean identity, patriotism and the need for social justice in the island economies of the region.

What moved you to write ‘Helen and her Sister Haiti’?

Fr. St Rose: The request from a particular teacher to pen Iouanalao, Malfini Rise and Literacy as part of her English language and literacy curriculum may have been the genesis of Helen and Her Sister Haiti. In the throes of writing Iouanalao and Malfini Rise, the image of a battered woman emerged from deep within my gut. At that point there was no doubt in my mind that Helen had, by all means, lost her way. She was the epitome of a battered woman gradually gravitating towards becoming another Haiti in the Caribbean.  Sadly, though, many of her sons and daughters locked up in the doldrums of partisanship have effectively aided and abetted her expeditious demise by deafening indifference to her plight, and that on account of their loyalty to man rather than country.

Was writing it a cathartic experience for you?

Fr. St Rose: Certainly! Yes! It was a cathartic experience. Immersing in the soul of someone whom you love dearly, understanding and sharing in that person’s narrative and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel from a distance while still on pilgrimage with the person, is of itself a therapeutic and liberating experience.  Love is more than just a word; it is beyond expression and utterances; love is a way of life. It is the consensus of two to share one soul. And I mean an inseparable soul. As the song has it: “in life and in death thou art mine … I am sealed with thy blood.” The first stanza of our National Anthem summons St. Lucians: “Sons and daughters of St. Lucia, love the land that gave us birth.” A true St. Lucian must above all else be patriotic.  Nothing, and no one, must take precedence over one’s love of country. At various points of our history, both post and pre-independence, many St. Lucians lost that sense of love and national pride. Our true identity as a people, our tradition as St. Lucians, virtually exists on the life-support of Jounen Kwéyòl (Kwéyòl Day). Helen and Her Sister Haiti afforded me an opportunity to display my pride for my country and at the same time an opportunity to lament over the agony. The sacrileges, the duplicity, the lack of national pride, all of which contribute to the demise of both Helen and Haiti, call for more than just a sociological reflection; the cathartic experience comes only when one understands the nature of sin and sees the dawn of hope through conversion.   Name it for what it is. Helen and Haiti are two beautiful sisters, God’s gift to us as Caribbean peoples. But, certainly, in their present form, they are desecrated without remorse. That’s sacrilegious in every sense of the word.

Does the notion of a Caribbean Theology imply that the Eurocentric theology which predated it, and arguably still lies at the heart of Global Christian theology, is not relevant to the Caribbean culture and narrative?

Fr. St Rose: Firstly, one must understand the fundamentals of Catholic Theology. In Catholic Theology there are three unalterable aspects: Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Traditions. And of paramount importance is the understanding that Christ is above culture. That can be stated thus: God is the author of the whole of humanity. He is also the author of every culture and every tradition. The Mystery of the Incarnation must find equal expression par excellence in every culture and every tradition. None of these three fundamentals of Catholic theology requires the dilution of one tradition in preference to another tradition. If at all it demands anything of any tradition or culture, it is that of purification and the divesting of itself of anything superstitious and anything that is inconsistent with faith in God.   Prior to Vatican II the classicists’ theological world view dominated Catholic Theology. This school of thought believed that there was only one tradition, one culture and only one way of worship and that the Eurocentric culture was de facto the superior culture. Vatican II through the process of inculturation has opened the floodgates to theologians like Bernard Lonergan, Paul IV, John Paul II, just to name a few who became apostles of local theologies. Paul IV was adamant that in Africa, the Church must not seek to Christianise Africans, but instead Africanise Christianity. Inculturation calls for the same in the Caribbean and in other regions of the world. The inescapable fact here in relation to your question is that our Christian Consciousness, our notions of God and forms of worship have all been formed by a Eurocentric theology. Caribbean theology is a relatively new concept for us and as Caribbean theologians, try as we may, Eurocentric theology still remains a point of reference for us, and thus still has some relevance to the Caribbean culture and narrative. All in all, a true and genuine Caribbean theology cannot have its genesis in the Caribbean: it must make reference to the native lands of our ancestors.

Secondly, we must also have a clear understanding of what theology is all about. “Theology (is) the ordered effort to understand, interpret, and systematize our experience of God and of Christian faith. It is “faith seeking understanding of God” (Anselm).”

Thirdly, Eurocentric theology before Vatican II was exclusive of all other cultures and traditions and Catholicism was seen more as a colonization tool instead of an approach to evangelization. Eurocentric theology came out of a classicist mould to the extent that every other tradition which existed outside of this tradition was substandard.   Today, thanks to Vatican II, we do not have to become victims of our ethnicity to be either Catholic or Christian. Thanks to the process of inculturation, decolonization of the gospel and liturgical worship.

Catholicism, as it is today, has had a tremendous intellectual conversion through the soul of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI and John Paul II must be lauded for their efforts at being apostles of the decolonisation process of Catholicism. Notably, both of these Popes placed the accent on culture as the universal language, which expresses the universal values of the person, and which sheds more light on the human situation, human dignity, a peoples’ freedom and their destiny – and that should be the launch pad for a genuine and effective evangelisation program. Paul VI was not forced when he implored the African Church to Africanize Catholicism in Africa and avoid, at all costs, the dangers of Christianising Africa.

To conclude my response to your question, I will say the modern notion of culture is dynamic as opposed to the classicist notion of culture. The classicist school of thought believed that all things are unalterable. The modern school of thought believes culture is dynamic. It must simultaneously experience change and continuity. In the Classicist school, God is the starting point of any theological discussion. Today, it is the people, according to Paul VI and John Paul II, who are the starting point of both the theological and evangelization discussion.  And so, the decolonisation of the theology and Catholicism begs the Church to enter into dialogue with the very soul of the people; their cultural anthropology and ethnology, historical phenomenology, psychology and psychoanalysis, the philosophy and sociology of religion. In other words, the whole of a people and their narrative is placed under the microscope of Catholicism and Catholic theologians, not as specimens, but as God’s gift to be valued and appreciated in the same way as any Eurocentric culture and theology.

The same rule applies to the notion of Eurocentric Theology and Caribbean Theology since both theologies’ primary concerns are: the values of the person, the human situation, human dignity, the peoples’ freedom and destiny in the light of the Gospel.

How can the descendents of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers reconcile with any theology that originates from, and is linked to religious organizations, which at one time demonized their heritage and traditions? Wouldn’t that be an affront to the memory of their ancestors who suffered so horrifically at the hands of Christian colonizers?  

Fr. St Rose: The Church in the Caribbean has come a very long way since Vatican II. This Council has thrown open every door and every window to let the stagnant air of Ecclestical colonisation out of the Vatican and the rest of the Church per se. It is a breath of fresh air, but like the best of all independent nations in a post colonial era, the Catholic Church in these parts of the world is still struggling to regain some level of equilibrium.

Your question here deals in-depth with the notion and understanding of forgiveness. The Fathers of Vatican II have set the dialogue in motion. As mentioned earlier, Paul VI and John Paul II spoke the language of liberation and reconciliation in the context of culture and evangelization: the values of persons, the human condition, human dignity, the freedom and destiny of peoples in respective cultures in the light of the Gospel.  In so doing, they interpreted it as what must be the nature and mission of the Church in the modern world: the development of peoples in the light of Gospel justice and peace. We are speaking here of the language of inculturation, the language of an ongoing mystery of incarnation where descendents of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers in the Caribbean, or in any other culture, are part and parcel of the incarnation narrative without becoming victims of their ethnicity. That’s the language of genuine and authentic liberation. But liberation does not erase memory; it does not diminish the impact of history on the lives of a people. However, a genuine conversion experience brought about and sustained by forgiveness of the past will transcend that experience: let it be the foundation of the memorials that will over a period of time lead to a rebirth.

The world will remain indelibly ungrateful to Africans in Africa and Africans living in the diaspora. At best, Africans will only be patronized, but never appreciated, for the contribution they have made towards the civilization of the world, and the enrichment and upward social mobility of many nations and peoples at the expense of their own demise. If Africans look to the world for restitution, far less, acceptance, Africans the world over would die as bigots, not saints.

If Africans must condescend to the ethnic prejudice and injustice of which they have been victims it will only be a contribution to the furtherance of the cause of those who have demonized them in the past and persist in doing so even today.  On the contrary, as Africans both at home and in the diaspora, we must not be zealots of an agenda of hate. We can still claim our equality by our stubborn refusal to acquiesce to their demands. We can stand in solidarity with each other. We must grab at every good opportunity to define our narrative and to understand it well.

In the book’s introduction you state: “In a post independent Caribbean there is the emergence of a new form of slavery. Partisanship over patriotism is reshaping the consciousness of this generation. The new Massas are poised to replace the old Massas of the colonial days. Our countries are becoming their personal estates.” In your view, are religious leaders in the Caribbean doing enough to hold corrupt politicians and governments to account? Is it morally incumbent upon them to publicly denounce social injustice? 

Fr. St Rose: In short, no! Martyrdom is frightening, frightening for both religious leaders and lay people alike; thoughts of victimization will remain an ever present factor in the minds of people who dare to challenge certain governments.  The words of a young parishioner after Mass on Sunday morning remain ever fresh in my mind. The young lady had the most perplexed look on her face that morning when she asked me, ‘Father, are you planning to die a martyr’s death?’ ‘Why do you ask?’ I wanted to know. She replied, ‘Your sermons … while they call to conversion … certain people feel you are eroding their political base.’ And, of course, we cannot afford to forget the kidnapping of Bishop Guilly in the 1980s and the ongoing harassment of Archbishop Felix who helped guide the county back to stability in 1982.  He has never been forgiven by the acolytes of partisanship. In the aftermath of the Grenada revolution, one of the accused publicly told the world to disregard Maurice Bishop’s death as a moral issue. He named it a political issue with no strings attached to moral issues. To this day, the entire Caribbean Church has held its silence.

The sad state of affairs for our politicians – many of them – is that there is a very clear line of   demarcation between politics and morality. It is as if, as soon as they ascend to that position, they are obligated to operate with a dysfunctional conscience. Sadly enough, the Church allows them to by means of its silence.  I think we are making a sad mistake.  We do not know where to draw the line between being apolitical and partisan.

In 2012 – over 170 years after the abolition of slavery – the majority of clerics serving in St Lucia come from foreign countries, including outside of the Caribbean. What does that portend for any attempts to promote a theology that is relevant and indigenous to the islands – that speaks to the Caribbean experience?

Fr. St Rose: It is lamentable that for a country which once enjoyed a 90% Catholic population, we are still unable to produce sufficient native priests to serve the needs of the local Church. All the same, we must also bear in mind that the Church by nature is a missionary Church and we can benefit a great deal by way of missionary contribution from clerics. The Church in St. Lucia has benefited tremendously from the presence of the F.M.I Fathers. The Church today has inherited a solid foundation from these clerics. If we have an educated populace today we owe it to the Church, we owe it to these men. Clerics are not their own persons. They represent the Church, and if they follow the directives of Vatican II, they too can contribute to the promotion of a Caribbean Theology by setting themselves the task of embracing the culture of the people. They must desist from seeing themselves as visitors, and become both brothers and servants of the people they serve.

Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Castries featuring Dunstan St Omer’s murals

Was writing the book also a way of continuing your vocation as a result of your inability to continue serving from the pulpit due to illness?

Fr. St Rose: When Paul was imprisoned he wrote many letters to his congregation. By means of his letters the Gospel was proclaimed, hearts were turned back to the Lord and the faith continued to spread unabated. A priest is a man for all seasons. On this leg of my journey I am discovering a new dimension to my vocation. But writing has always been my dream.

Why did you opt to use the medium of poetry instead of prose?

Fr. St Rose: Theologians and Biblical scholars understand well the apparent similarity between prophetic literature and apocalyptic literature. Prophetic literature is basic in its demands.  It calls to conversion. But it does so in the everyday language of the Semitic people. There is no flair of figurative and symbolic language. Apocalyptic literature on the other hand is profoundly anthropomorphic. It uses human and earthly designations to adequately express in human terms what cannot be expressed otherwise, in an effort to generate a genuine human response in the midst of national crises to remain faithful to God. Perhaps that’s the great difference between poetry and prose. Prose is the ordinary language people use in speaking or writing. Poetry, on the other hand, is anthropomorphic.

Poetry for me is a Patmos experience. A moment of divine encounter and divine revelation born out of deep reflection, it is the language of the soul. A very sacred zone made public. I was not writing a story, nor was I writing a historical account of the narrative of the two Caribbean women, Helen and Haiti. I was, at the time, journeying in the soul of my ancestors, understanding their narrative, what sustained them through the numerous acts of sacrilege committed against them, recognizing that I can still be a medium of hope for them and at the same time open the eyes of today’s generation and offer them hope for the future.   Poetry then was the only medium that offered me that scope.

Do you think it’s possible your views may be considered ‘politically incorrect’ by some?

Fr. St Rose: Tony, misinterpretation is always possible depending from which side of the spectrum one views what he/she reads or hears. My sermons on numerous occasions were misinterpreted and it would not surprise me the least if my views espoused in Helen and Her Sister Haiti are considered ‘politically incorrect’. However, the subtitle of the book suggests otherwise. It is “A theological reflection on the social, historical, economic, religious, political and national consciousness with a call to conversion,” a point that is specifically expressed in the introduction to the book itself. It is not a political agenda.

Earthquake aftermath in Haiti

Do you feel a personal connection with Haiti and its people and are you optimistic about the country’s future?

Fr. St Rose: Yes I do! Put in their shoes, I wonder if I’d be able to walk a mile with them. They are sufferers. They were conceived in suffering. Born to suffering, they live to suffer, and many die in suffering. I admire their resilience. For in the heart of tragedy, in the midst of the rubble, a voice spoke ‘We are Haitians; we are used to suffering. We will not die; God will come to our help’.  Am I optimistic about Haiti’s future? Only if there is a deep national conversion from within Haiti itself – and the politicians themselves are part of this conversion experience. They must not be vultures and leeches clothed in the feathers of pelicans. Again, too, there must be a global conversion, more so of the First World towards Haiti.

You state in your introduction that “…. without memorials, we can become both complacent, self destructive or be discouraged along the way.” Do you regard ‘Helen and Her Sister Haiti’ as a memorial?  

Fr. St Rose: Yes! It is a memorial because it challenges every reader to remember the formative years of our narrative as Ham’s children and children of indentured labourers in the diaspora. So, celebrate every milestone of our triumph over the dark days when our culture and traditions were demonised and our very beings trivialised. Transcend these experiences, let forgiveness be our aim and in the process embody Christ in our flesh. If we keep these memorials we can so transform our notion of leadership in any capacity we are called to serve.  Leadership will be accepted as a call to serve justice and peace, void of all forms of tribalism and partisanship.

How vital is prayer to you?

Fr. St Rose: The life blood of my faith relationship with God.

Helen and Her Sister Haiti is available at Amazon.com and all other major online bookstores.

5 responses to ““The Church must not seek to Christianise Africans but instead Africanize Christianity.” — an interview with Fr. Lambert St Rose, priest and poet

  1. Yes, I agree with the author in regards to Christianity. Africans have a different culture and language; it would be very difficult to preach the gospel when there is no sincere reconciliation of broken relations for the communication process to begin

  2. Pingback: St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago: Priestly Poetry & A New Literature Partnership · Global Voices·

  3. Yes, I agree with the author in regards to Christianity. Africans have a different culture and language; it would be very difficult to preach the gospel when there is no sincere reconciliation of broken relations for the communication process to begin.

  4. Many thanks to Fr.St.Rose. What he has put in writing will remain as part of our rich Caribbean experience. I just hope that more Church leaders would understand faith from our caribbean experience rather than the blind importation of d “fareign values”.

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