The announcement of the elevation of Bishop Charles Jason Gordon, 61, to the post of Archbishop of Port-of-Spain is a continuation of the modern trend of locals being appointed to this post and a demonstration of the confidence of the Holy See in the ability of nationals to hold key leadership positions. It is a complete turnaround for Gordon who faced the court on an assault charge in Barbados while serving as bishop there that was dismissed earlier this year.
Gordon will replace Archbishop Joseph Harris, who submitted his resignation letter to the pope in March when he turned 75 and after recent health issues. Prior to Harris, American Edward Joseph Gilbert served in the post.
The announcement of Gordon’s appointment comes months after the elevation of another Trinidad and Tobago national. Fr Clyde Harvey was made Bishop of the Diocese of St George’s, Grenada. Both join the ranks of figures such as Anthony Pantin, Robert Rivas, Malcolm Patrick Galt, and Sydney Charles.
The new archbishop will have many challenges ahead. The global church continues to face questions over its relevance as well as its doctrines on sexuality, its refusal to ordain women and its handling of sexual abuse cases.
With increasing awareness of the need to strike a better balance between a secular state that upholds the rights of its diverse membership and the right to religion, many have questioned the once axiomatic belief that the church should have a say in public affairs.
However, while the church’s prominent role in western civilization has faded, its population remains on the increase, driven by growth in the clergy in Africa and the developing world. It accounts for about 18 per cent of the world’s population and about half of all of Christianity. Gordon will lead an archdiocese with a population of about 340,000 or 26 per cent of the total local population.
Though the church’s role in society is not as central as it used to be, it remains an important force within civil society. And sometimes it has used its influence to do good. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church was among several entities that played a vital role in the debate on legislation to end child marriages in Trinidad and Tobago, a practice which its rules in the past allowed. The church also continues to support communities and programmes through its various parishes, sometimes in ways that are not easily appreciated.
It is not the first time Gordon’s work in the church has been singled out by the Vatican. About a decade ago, he led the Pride in Gonzales project which was credited by police sources with bringing about a marked decrease in murders in that area. The project was commended by the head of Social Justice in the Vatican.
Yet, Gordon’s path from Gonzales to Archbishop’s House was not a straightforward one.
In the first place, his career in the church has been considered somewhat atypical. He did not go to a seminary at the age of 18. After his father’s death, he ran the family business.
He only became involved in the church through the Living Water Community. He studied at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, one of the oldest universities of the world and a bedrock of Catholic theology and became a priest at the age of 32.
Many will be closely following the views of the new archbishop. Gordon is against the death penalty, a practice he has likened in the past to state-sponsored murder. But though outspoken, Gordon is also a believer in silence. Every year, he embarks on a silent retreat lasting five to ten days.
“I fall into the hands of God and allow God to lead me,” he writes in a memoir published last year. Time will tell how the 13th archbishop will tread.