Bishop Gabriel Malzaire
Bishop Gabriel Malzaire

In the Holy Scriptures, the number forty has great symbolic significance. It often depicts a period of judgment and testing, a time of probation and trial, or times of trouble and hardship. For example, when God destroyed the earth with water, He caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:12). Moses remained on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights receiving the Divine Law (Ex 24:18). The Jewish Law specified a maximum number of lashes a man could receive for a crime, setting the limit at forty (Deut 25:3). Moses interceded on Israel's behalf for forty days and forty nights (Deut 9:18, 25). The sons of Israel ate manna in the wilderness for forty years until they came to the land of Canaan (Ex. 16:35; Num. 32:13; Deut. 29:5). David reigned over Israel for forty years (1Kgs 2:11), and the city of Nineveh was given forty days to repent when Jonah preached (Jon 3:4).

In the New Testament too, after his baptism in the river Jordan, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the desert (Mt 4:2). This forty-day concept in Biblical tradition is so significant that it is fittingly adopted in the Church's liturgical scheme. The annual period of Lent, for example, corresponds with Jesus' forty-day spiritual preparation of prayer and fasting prior to undertaking his public ministry. After such intensity, Jesus was ready to face the challenge of that ministry.

I use this "Biblical forty" concept as a paradigm for interpreting the experience of our forty years of nationhood: its meaning for us, and the impetus it provides for us to face the coming years.

It is significant, first of all, to note that our forty-years' experience of nationhood was sandwiched between two major natural disasters, namely Hurricanes David and Maria, the namesakes of two significant biblical figures: David, whose kingship the Saviour came to fulfil and Mary, who facilitated his earthly existence.

The resilience of our people after the test of Hurricane David seems like a forty-year preparation for the onslaught of Hurricane Maria. Throughout the post Hurricane David period, Dominica took baby steps to come to what it was pre-Maria. On the national level, we saw infrastructural developments of one kind or another, growth in the area of education from the kindergarten to the tertiary level, improvements in the road network, and in air and sea transportation. Like all the nations of the world, we have had to keep up with the rapid developments in telecommunication. We have also witnessed increased diplomatic relations with many nations of the world, including the Vatican State.

On the religious level, we can speak of a gradual shift from a practically all-foreign clergy to a now majority local clergy. We saw the development of centres of spiritual and faith formation, namely, the Holy Redeemer Retreat House (which was badly destroyed by Maria), the Rosalie Retreat Centre, and the Diocesan Pastoral Centre/Family Life Secretarial. As a result of the work of these centres we have witnessed the growth of the Lay apostolate and leadership within the Church. This is evidenced in the emergence of the Lay Associates in Pastoral Care and the permanent Diaconate. The social mission of the Church through the continued efforts of institutions such as the Social Centre, CARE, CALLS, REACH and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, with their varied programs,have contributed to the development of the people of Dominica.

Unfortunately, some claim that the destructive Maria has set our infrastructure back a significant 40 years. It is fitting, therefore, for us to ask ourselves what should the next four decades hold for our nation, and what disposition would be required of us to build a more vibrant, more productive and responsible Dominica.

The one word which most adequately represents the mind-set that is required for a successful future, in both the immediate and long-term is STEWARDSHIP. Stewardship demands a responsible attitude towards every aspect of the created order. Of prime importance is our attitude towards the Earth—our common home. Pope Francis in his recent Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si, and many other like-minded proponents have prophetically mapped out for us the road towards fulfilling that responsibility. Global warming and its effect on the climate, is not a hoax, as some choose to believe. Therefore, it is not to be taken lightly. We certainly can work towards mitigating its effect by responsible living on all levels.

Other significant areas that will require the stewardship of all are: our country, family, Church/community and self.

Stewardship of country entails the cultivation of a greater sense of patriotism among our people. It calls for deliberate growth in consciousness that our country will be what we make it: everyone playing his/her rightful role in its health and well-being. Dominica cannot build back itself!

The family unit has always been and will forever be key to the development of any society. The need to put greater energy into the cultivation of wholesome families is imperative. That responsibility falls within the purview of both Church and State.

Stewardship of Church and community makes it clear that we are not only social beings. Our destiny is ultimately spiritual. Created out of God's own giftedness, therefore, we are duty bound to use our time, talent and treasure for the building of the community of God's people.

This takes us to the final unit called "self." More than ever before, the citizens of this country will need to take greater care of the "self;" not with an unbridled selfishness, but rather with a keen sense of responsibility, for the sake of the greater and common good. For example, statistics are showing that a significant percentage of our citizens, including our children, are over-weight. This is vastly different from what we were forty years ago. Even the high incidence of cancer is of concern. Health practitioners are saying that if the present trajectory is not altered positively, there will be untold consequences, evidenced in the high medical bills generated from the incidence of Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases. Very few families will have the wherewithal to attend to these challenges. Staying healthy in the coming years will be nothing short of "virtuous." Growth in organic farming practice on the local level to promote a healthier lifestyle is a sure way to go.

Brothers and sisters, every level or form of stewardship leads in the direction of the common good. Therefore, any form of development in the future will need to focus on the human person and the community of persons as its prime object. In his 1967 Encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI, speaking on the Christian vision of development, affirmed: "Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete, integral; that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man … What we hold important is man, each man and each group of men, and we even include the whole of humanity" (PP.14).

A deliberate effort towards growth in civility will be a clear sign of genuine development. This will entail efforts towards creating a society where people have absolute respect for each other; a place where one can appreciate the differences in the other, be they religious, political, or otherwise. Development is always about the common good. Democracy, which is the most wholesome instrument deigned to bring about genuine development in the human society, is based on the principle of the common good. Likewise, a law-abiding society has the common good as its prime hallmark.

The forty-year paradigm, despite the challenges that it often presented in Holy Scriptures, were always moments of grace and opportunities for learning and improving. In a real sense, the last forty years, one can say, provided the same for the Commonwealth of Dominica. In that regard therefore, we have every reason to be thankful to Almighty God for all the blessings which have enabled us to get from "there" to "here" and from "then" to now". We thank God for our religious leaders, the various governments and the parliamentary oppositions. We thank God for the positive contributions they made to nation building. We thank God for the civil service, the law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, the educators, health practitioner, farmers and fisherfolks, our sanitary engineers—all who over the last forty years have kept us alive and well, so that we can continue to aspire to become a better, kinder, and gentler people.

Happy 40th Birthday Dominica!