A Journey Of Forty Years

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by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

The Passionist Heritage Newsletter is grateful to Fr. Paul Zilonka for this brief history of our mission in Jamaica, W.I. Since so many of our men (and Passionist Sisters) have labored there, it seems a fitting moment to salute their contributions to building the Kingdom of God on that island.

Morgan P. Hanlon, C.P. Co-Editor

At 8 a.m. on Friday, April 1, 1955, the Feast of the Sorrows of Our Lady, the first group of Passionists from our Province docked in Kingston, Jamaica, then part of the British West Indies. They had traveled from Miami on a ship called the Evangeline, familiar to New Englanders who knew it when it covered the route from Boston to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

Forty years have passed. Though the 40th year is not one of the traditional anniversary occasions, given the present moment in the history of our Province and the future planning of the Passionist Community of Jamaica, this 40th anniversary invites a reflective pause.

Since all of us inevitably see the world from our own perspective which has been conditioned by family background, education, and personal preference, I suppose my professional engagement in seminary education and pastoral-biblical ministry through preaching and writing leads me to see April 1, 1995, as a significant moment worthy of some reflection from a biblical point of view. Forty years has a recognized biblical ring to it in most people’s vocabulary.

Apart from the book of Genesis which claims to summarize the centuries leading up to the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage, practically every other book of the Old Testament specifically mentions that people-shaping time, that novitiate-initiation into the responsibilities of being God’s people, ultimately, for the sake of the whole world.

Critical biblical scholarship no longer reads the Exodus accounts in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy with the simple acceptance of earlier times. The biblical authors have stylized whatever historical information they had into inspiring narratives, heavily influenced by liturgical traditions. Indeed, it is not difficult for the ordinary reader to discover a certain tri-partite progression which includes: going out from the land of slavery; passing through the testing period of the desert of Sinai; and finally entering into the land promised earlier to Abraham and his progeny.

I do believe the biblical model of forty years may offer us a convenient way to look at the past forty years of Passionist ministry in Jamaica. We have become accustomed to associate liberation theology with the strident cries of the eighth-century prophets like Amos and Hosea, prophets so prevalent in the writings of South American theologians. However, Caribbean theologians have found a more apt biblical model of liberation for themselves in the Exodus story. A significant common denominator between the biblical story of our Jewish ancestors and the last 500 years on the islands of the Caribbean is the experience of physical slavery at the hands of a dominant foreign power (Egypt enslaving the Hebrews; European powers enslaving Africans).

On April 1, 1955, our men arrived in Jamaica slowly moving away from colonial rule to political independence which was formally granted by the United Kingdom on August 6, 1963. Though emancipation had been formally proclaimed more than a century earlier, Jamaican society today in the 90s still bears the ill-effects of that systematic destruction of human personality by which slavery controlled the energy of the subjects towards the ends of production for the colonial power. The human cost of that centuries-long practice continues to be paid in the staggering statistics of shattered human relationships, economic deprivation, and consequent insensitivity to the value of human life.

It would be tempting to sketch these forty years of Passionist presence along the lines of the biblical Exodus story. The going-out, passing-through, entering in framework works well when the writer is looking backward over several centuries and writes form the perspective of having arrived in the Promised Land, as most likely accounts for the literary symmetry of that exquisite story. However, I write only from the narrow perspective of being in the midst of the forty years, the time of being on journey. It is much too soon to think of having arrived. I have been privileged to be part of the Passionist Community in Jamaica for the last ten of those forty years. I do have access to an official diary which has been quite meticulously kept from the first Episcopal initiative by Bishop John J. McEleny, S.J., who intervened through Fr. Caspar Caulfield at the Generalate in 1954 to inaugurate this missionary endeavor of our Province. This helpful resource will serve archivists and trained historians in preparing a worthy study of the extraordinary faithful ministry carried out by our men. My own contribution here is much more modest.

Since the Evangeline docked some fifty members of our Province have come. They have served the people of Jamaica generously and well in material assistance and spiritual formation. Whether they ministered here for a few years or for decades, they all brought their creativity, physical energy and spiritual idealism to the challenges of life in a multi-racial culture seeking to survive and develop in the aggressive economic cauldron of 20th century market economics. Jamaica has gone through many changes since 1955 so it is no surprise that our Passionist ministry here had undergone some significant changes along the way also. Indeed, change is usually a sign of vitality, though some would disagree when the change seems destructive from their point of view.

Our first missionaries came with a clear sense of direction in their responsibilities. They were to foster parochial development in two church communities in Kingston and to take charge of the two civil territories (parishes) of Manchester and St. Elizabeth in the south-central area of the island. During my formation years in Dunkirk and afterward, I recall the visits of our men working in Jamaica as well as those from the Philippines. Parochial commitments are still a part of our commitment to the Church of Jamaica, but new things have emerged as well. From my limited perspective four significant events have occurred in the latter half of our forty year journey as a Province here.

In May 1973, a tree was planted in the red earth of the Mandeville garden of the superior’s residence adjacent to St. Paul of the Cross Church. This symbolic gesture by a group of altar boys from our St. Elizabeth’s Church in Kingston marked the first official weekend retreat in the newly-established Mt. Calvary Retreat. During the preceding decade various groups used the friendly house with sagging porches for occasional apostolic programs, but this was to be the inauguration of what has become today a 45-bed retreat center with a year-round calendar of programs for every sector of the Jamaican Church community. Mt. Calvary’s service to the Roman Catholic population, as well as its esteem among ecumenical circles, has added a preaching dimension to the parochial focus of our Jamaican ministry.

1985 brought much change. One man took up a faculty position in Scripture for the Archdiocesan seminary in Kingston; another new man continued parochial leadership at St. Elizabeth’s Church. In September 1985, three members of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion from Our Lady of Dolors Province (Rhode Island) took up residence in a rented house opposite St. Paul of the Cross Church. Their Province had graciously accepted the invitation from our Jamaican men to share in collaborative ministry in the parochial and retreat house apostolates centered around Mandeville. This contribution of the Sisters has recently broadened to a commitment to education with the arrival of a new Sister in 1992. From the vantage point of 1995, we believe this initiative for collaboration has proven its worth for the growth of the apostolate. But it has also proven to be a most beneficial source of increased appreciation for the charism of Paul of the Cross and the genuine possibilities of life-giving community life.

The original mission to Jamaica did not envisage fostering the growth of the Congregation here. However, General Chapters after 1955 strongly endorsed efforts to share the charism of Paul wherever professed members of the Congregation were apostolically engaged. Diligent attention to this directive led to various programs of vocational development among Jamaican youth. Several Jamaican men have shared our life over the years. Our first Jamaican Passionist priest, Fr. Bertram Chin, was ordained on June 30, 1991, by Bishop Edgerton Clarke of Montego Bay. Since the beginning of his diaconal year, Fr. Bertram has pastored the growing church community in Santa Cruz, 20 miles west of Mandeville. Along with this parochial ministry, he has given serious attention to promoting a ministry of crusades. This development mirrors the experience of our Founder who sought to bring the message of the cross of Jesus to the people in a way they could understand.

The fourth significant event, by my estimation, was the ordination of Bishop Paul M. Boyle; and his installation as the Apostolic Vicar of the newly-established ecclesiastical region created by joining the civil parish of Clarendon to the area originally entrusted to our first missionaries. Through Bishop Boyle our Congregation continues to have a decisive impact on the full development of the Catholic Church in this region. The pioneering and persevering efforts of our men (and now our women) in this region have received an encouraging confirmation through this event in the life of the Jamaican Church. The first four years of Bishop Boyle’s leadership have brought signs of great promise of the future through the establishment of important elements of church life. These include greater lay involvement in leadership training programs, the formation of seven men for ordination to the Permanent Diaconate, increase of clergy and religious personnel for parochial and other ministries, such as the Missionaries of Charity who serve the Home for the Aged in the Balaclava school building constructed by our men in 1960.

The Passionist men and women who have created the history of these past four decades will undoubtedly have their own estimation of what were the truly significant events which have marked our journey from 1955 to the present. However we may differ on assessing these forty years, one thing seems constant to me. Our men and women have tried to walk alongside the people of Jamaica in the midst of their journey from a history of slavery and colonialism into a future of political independence along with economic constraints and challenges to Christian morality which call for heroic courage on the part of everyone.

When the psalmist reflected on the desert travels of Israel, a heartfelt appeal came to his lips. “Oh that today you would hear his voice; ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works'” (Ps 95:7-9). Each of us must give attention to the past in order to learn from the example of our forebears. But we live in the future striving to hear the voice of the Lord in the midst of the Jamaican people whose history has given them a deep appreciation for the biblical promise of new life ahead of us all on our journey through this world.

February 7, 1995

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