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Editorial: Richard Albert’s transcendental humanity

Published:Wednesday | December 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Like most of us, Richard Albert, who died on Monday, aged 69, confronted personal demons. He may not have always immediately, or permanently, conquered them. Which embellished his humanity in ways that transcended doctrinal faith and his Catholicism.

So, when people in Kingston's tough inner-city communities hailed Father Albert, they recognised not only a Roman Catholic priest, but acknowledged an innately compassionate man, who embraced a shared humanity. He felt their pain and articulated their concerns without cynicism.

There was a sense that in this setting, among poor people, that space was absent between Richard Albert and his parishioners and clients. It had been lost along the way that he was a bald, rotund white man from New York, with a Bronx accent, overlaid with a Jamaican lilt. He was Father Albert.

Few people, of whatever calling, ever achieve this transcendence without an accompanying halo of other-worldly ephemera, or of being untainted and antiseptic, which Richard Albert wouldn't have claimed to have been. Indeed, he revelled in digging in deep and getting his hands dirty.

 

Ignorance of geography

 

Father Albert - monsignor later on - came to Jamaica nearly 40 years ago in ignorance, initially, it is said, of where he was being assigned. A member of the Franciscan order, he thought it curious that he was being sent to Jamaica, New York, where another Roman Catholic order was already active.

The resolution of that ignorance of geography with Richard Albert's presence on a Caribbean island rather than a neighbourhood in a New York City borough has been to the benefit of this country. From the start, Father Albert worked tirelessly with the poor in the working-class areas of St Catherine where he was first assigned.

He gained national prominence in the mid-1980s when he began operating in lower St Andrew's most volatile communities, sometimes acting as a go-between of police and criminals and a voice for the poor and marginalised. His interventions often made governments uncomfortable and he was sometimes misunderstood by those of privilege or removed from people in straitened circumstances - like the time when Father Albert attempted to broker a surrender of the notorious criminal known as Sandokhan, who, eventually, was killed by the police.

"I was overwhelmed by the poverty and the violence," he told a foreign interviewer. "Gunshots broke out every night ... . People would show up looking for help in the middle of the night.''

 

Outreach

 

It was the kind of experience that caused Richard Albert to establish the St Patrick's Foundation, which operates schools and day-care and feeding centres and engages in other forms of outreach to the poor in communities such as Waterhouse, Seaview Gardens and Riverton City. And, later on, his charismatic engagement of the mostly affluent congregation of the Stella Maris Church helped him to expand his outreach to the nearby community of Grants Pen.

Indeed, his work was recognised internationally, including by the Vatican, for he served as the Caribbean representative on the Pontifical Mission for the Propagation of the Faith, which allowed him to go periodically to Rome to, as he put it, "meet the big guys".

Demons, though, sometimes collide with strict doctrinal adherence to faith. Richard Albert, for the past half-decade or so, has not occupied a central place in his church, but the full arc of his Jamaican mission represents the propagation of the hard kernel of Christianity.