Followers of Jesus Christ have been inviting people to become Christians for 2000 years. Here in Jamaica, the invitation has been going on for 500 years. While Christopher Columbus visited Jamaica in 1494, the first Spanish settlers (who were mostly Roman Catholics) came to Jamaica in 1509. There were no priests so there was no mass until 1512 when some Franciscan priests arrived in Jamaica.
About two months ago my column was "500 years of Christianity in Jamaica". It is the fact of 500 years of continuous Christianity in Jamaica that the entire Roman Catholic Church in Jamaica celebrates on Sunday in the National Arena. The celebration has nothing to do with the sins of the messengers, be they pope, bishop, priest, deacon or lay person. This is a point that has been missed by those who have reacted negatively to my column on Jamaica Observer online. The sins of the messengers are a separate issue that must be dealt with separately, whether in the heavenly or earthly court or both.
True, the people who respond to the invitation are many times as culpable as those who have been called to issue the invitation whose lives are not good examples, which persuades many to reject the invitation. But this is not a time to assess that. It is the time when we celebrate the fact that the invitation of Jesus Christ has been issued in Jamaica for 500 years. While it is true that with the coming of the English in 1655 the Roman Catholic Church was banned for 137 years, the fact is that there were other messengers from other denominations who carried on the invitation of Jesus Christ.
I notice that not many outside of the Roman Catholic Church have responded to the suggestion that 500 years of continuous Christianity should be celebrated. Is it because the idea came from the Roman Catholic Church, which is not a popular church in Jamaica? Or is it because there is a belief that Roman Catholics are going to issue some sort of stern lecture about the years that we were banned in Jamaica? Archbishop Charles Dufour has told Roman Catholics (or has told at least me at any rate) that it is not a time for bringing up things like this.
The celebration on Sunday takes place on the same day that the church celebrates the feast of Saint John the Baptist. As you might be aware, John the Baptist was the first one to issue the invitation to conversion when he said, "Repent, for the day of the Lord is at hand." For speaking the truth, John was beheaded when King Herod said he would grant his daughter any wish of hers. She took the advice of her mother. John the Baptist had prophesied that she had not been faithful to her husband and for that reason she wanted to get rid of him and did.
And while there have been missionaries of all churches, including the Roman Catholic Church that has been guilty of atrocities, like John the Baptist, hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic missionaries over the last 2000 years have been killed for proclaiming the truth as has happened here in Jamaica. The first martyr in Jamaica was one Father de Barona who died on the banks of the Black River while encouraging the Spaniards in their fight to retain the island after the English invasion of 1655.
Father DeBarona's main aim was the continuation of Christianity, as he did not consider Anglicanism as part of that. At least his intentions were good in thinking that only if Spain retained the island, then Christianity would prevail. But that having been said, the fact is that banning the Roman Catholic Church did not stop the spread of Christianity. The Anglican Church continued it, albeit only for the white estate owners while other Protestant churches in time brought Christianity to the slaves.
And even then there is evidence of an underground Roman Catholic Church during the period of the ban. This was in the Preston Hill area of St Mary where a boatload of African slaves of a Spanish African colony destined for Cuba was intercepted by pirates and taken to St Mary in Jamaica. These slaves refused to join any church other than the Roman Catholic Church, and while there could be no mass because there were no priests, the faith was kept and passed down for over 100 years by word of mouth.
The response to the invitation to Jesus Christ has caused many positive spin-offs for Jamaica. For example, the schools, hospitals and other forms of social outreach which many or all churches have been instrumental in establishing are worthy of mention. The Roman Catholic Church can boast of its schools, the fact that it had a hospital in Jamaica for many decades (St Joseph's Hospital was sold to the government some years ago), the fact that it was Roman Catholic nuns that rid Jamaica of leprosy, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the credit union movement and in housing. Indeed, the first housing scheme in Jamaica, Homestead in Bamboo, St Ann, was built by the Roman Catholic Church.