Africa is a paradise for priests. My experience the past couple weeks has shown me congregation after congregation in which a priest could theoretically ask for a parishioner to jump, and the person will ask “How high?”
That is a bit of an exaggeration, but it seems to fit.
My experience of the Nigerian Church epitomizes this phenomenon. The Catholics in Nigeria are almost militant in their faithfulness. I don’t like to use the words “conservative” or “traditional” because the labels become trite, and tend to divide the Church rather than unite it. It is safe however to say that the Church in Nigeria is devoted. What is especially good to see in Nigeria is that, as far as numbers in attendance, men are equal to women in their religious devotion.
It is also good to see their devotionals. I attended Mass today at St. Dominick’s parish which is maintained, without surprise, by the Dominicans. They were just ending their novena to St. Jude Thaddeus. There was a great enthusiasm in the people as they applauded the special guest preacher who led them through the novena. The enthusiasm was contagious.
This was part of a day in which I was visiting three churches to see the range of diversity in Nigerian churches. St. Dominck’s is rather modern. Holy Cross Cathedral looks as if it came from Europe, and St. Paul’s has a great deal of Nigerian artwork in it. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of the parishes by clicking here.
But most of the pictures are of St. Dominick’s and Holy Cross Cathedral. There is a reason for that. Nigeria is similar to Europe, in that, I’m being kicked out of churches again. For the last seven weeks that I have been in Africa, it hasn’t happened to me at all, so I kind of miss it. I forgot what a simple ironic pleasure it is to have a sacristan, or other well meaning do-gooder, defend the sacred reverence of a Church by shouting at you while others are trying to pray in silence.
But I’m taking the right precautions in Nigeria. My driver has urged me to sit in the rectory and wait to meet the pastor before I enter the Church. My observation of sitting for long periods of time in these rectories is that the authoritarian nature of the Church in Nigeria has apparently left people without the ability to think. If a person in Chicago asked to take pictures of our church, we would look at them, and make a decision if they were legitimate, or skuzzy, and then make whatever decision we thought was appropriate. In most cases, we would encourage them to take the pictures. We love to share the beauty of our buildings. Maybe I look skuzzy, but I am constantly running into Catholics in Nigeria who won’t even give me permission to go into the Church, unless the pastor gives his explicit approval. It is as if they are not permitted to contribute their own thoughts to the process of making a good decision. The pastor has all the power. As I said, Africa is paradise for priests.
Africa is also torture for priests. It is rough on priests because they straddle the boundaries of two different cultures, the university-educated, European-based culture of the Church, and the oral tradition of the tribal culture, with its ancient beliefs. This makes them both simultaneously respected, and rejected. They are highly regarded for their wisdom and insight, but doubted, because they have such strong affiliation with the philosophies and etiquette of the West. In a culture which defiantly threw out the European colonizers while lacking competent surrogate system, a lot of blame gets put on the West. This means that anything Western is still held with initial suspicion, including the institution of the Church.
I became very aware of the difficulty priests face in this regard while talking with one of the priests living with me at St. Sabina’s this week. Fr. Emmanuel Udoh spent the last several years serving in a parish in the remote parts of Western Nigeria. As can be found throughout Africa, the practice of witch doctors is very common. In the particular where Fr. Emmanuel Udoh served, there is a great fear of evil witch doctors because they may put an evil curse upon the community. In much the same fashion that the early colonists in America who lived in Salem burned witches alive in order to discover if they really were witches or not, this area of Nigeria poisons suspected evil witch doctors to discover if they really are evil.
The practice they use involves a bean known as the Caliber bean (Caliber is the region where Fr. Emmanuel Udoh works). The community follows a very simple rule. If you are forced to swallow the bean and you live, then you must not be evil, but if you are forced to swallow the bean and die, then you must have been evil. The only problem is, no one has been known to survive.
Fr. Emmanuel Udoh wants to stop the villagers from using this practice, and so he turned to Western science. He brought the bean to a lab to do tests on the bean. It turns out that the bean contains eleven deadly poisons. Each bean has different concentrations, but one bean is usually enough to kill someone. He took the results back to the village, but the fear of foreign involvement in internal matters kicked in. Fr. Emmanuel Udoh was now showing signs that he was more European than African. The people refused to believe him, and the scientific study he presented. They prefer to trust the cultural belief that this sacred bean could purify the community of evil spirits.
Fr. Emmanuel Udoh is very frustrated that he can’t get people to change. He even went so far as to make a play which describes the qualities of the bean, and an imaginary girl who loses both of her parents to this tribal practice. The play was performed for the villagers, and it seems that the young people have caught on to the idea that the bean is really a poison, but the elders still hold on, defiant.I applaud Fr. Emmanuel Udoh’s efforts. It is difficult to work when you lack the ability to communicate your insight to others, because of impediments based on ignorant prejudice. It goes to show that every culture has its benefits and burdens. Priests in Nigeria are facing a struggle, not dissimilar to the struggle priests face in other parts of the world. They are highly regarded, and often dismissed.