ROME—Due to its rapid growth, the Church in Africa has long been considered a future axis of Catholicism. Phenomenal statistics that show expansion in the number of faithful, vocations, and churches should elate any Catholic.
Yet a determined lay woman from the continent warned a summit of Catholic leaders in Rome that the church has no business resting on its laurels.
The March 22-25 gathering organized by Notre Dame’s Center for Culture and Ethics included a wide range of speakers, including Nigerian cardinals Francis Arinze and John Onayekan, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, currently head of a Vatican mega-dicastery.
Also on hand were bishops, theologians, professors, students and a handful of laity from up and down the continent.
One was Obiageli Nzenwa, a Nigerian lay woman who works as an independent human resources consultant in Abuja. She urged the Church to reclaim the faithful, especially from the challenge posed by Pentecostalism in Africa.
The aim, she argued, must be not only maintaining numbers, but resisting what she described as a confused identity and a passive way of living the faith.
Based on her experience, there are both similarities and differences between the challenges the Catholic church faces in Africa and those in Europe or even North America. None perhaps serves better to note the latter as Nzenwa’s complaint over the fact that parishes in Nigeria attract such huge turnout, and that often people “are lost in the crowd.”
As Onayekan said during his presentation on Friday, a Nigerian would rather be shot at than ignored, and seeing the size a parish can be, it’s easy to see why this would happen.
Father George Adimike of southeastern Nigeria, the heart of Catholicism in the country, told Crux that in his diocese the cathedral church celebrates 13 Masses on any given Sunday, and some 2,000 people attend each.
With 17 priests in residence for a congregation that each week averages out at around 26,000, the idea floated by Nzenwa of there being no real sense of community, and that a person can leave the congregation without being noticed, seems plausible given the sheer numbers in question.
As a response, she suggested giving further encouragement to “community groupings,” beginning with Mass, and including Bible study, discussion of pressing issues, and concluding with light refreshments.
Speaking to Crux on Saturday, Nzenwa said she saw this lack of “deep, interpersonal relationships in the Church” as one of the reasons it’s so tempting for many Catholics to look for other alternatives, more often than not among Pentecostal churches.
Despite the fact that many of the continent’s heavy-hitters in terms of Catholic influence were listed either as speakers or listeners in the conference, it was Nzenwa who was tasked with identifying the causes, and proposing solutions, to the defections the Church is experiencing in Africa.
Her remarks, Nzenwa said, were mostly based in having spoken to people who have left the Church in recent times, and the reasons she found for it were, in many ways, universal.
She spoke about the feeling many young Catholics have of having had the faith “imposed” upon them by their parents, the Church’s rigidity on moral issues, often presented as a rule with little to no explanation, and no alternative path.
Nzenwa also listed the Church’s worship style, which can sometimes be too rigid and not representative of the happiness of the African people, saying, “we have to dance even in worship.”
Touching on an issue that came up repeatedly during the Synods of Bishops on the family, she spoke about the challenges posed by interdenominational marriages. As someone who became a Catholic after marrying one, she had much to share about this.
Not one to let a first row full of cardinals and bishops intimidate her, she also spoke about the damage that scandals, particularly those of a sexual nature involving the clergy, have caused to the faithful.
“No doubt, we are taught that the impact of these scandals cannot take away the holiness of the Church, but with the faithful seeing God in and through the actions of their priests and religious, such scandals will definitely have a devastating effect on them,” she said.
After listing the reasons behind the exodus, she also gave several suggestions that would help prevent it while leading people fully into the faith.
To begin with, she suggested that because families have to “contend with secularism, Pentecostalism, plurality of faiths and doctrines,” it’s crucial to start tutoring in the faith at a young age, with a proper understanding of it.
Nzenwa also spoke about the need to “review the methods” through which the faith is handed on to the next generation, something which should be “born out of the conviction in the revelations of God both in practice and principle.”
Laity and clergy, she argued, need to come up with new ways of presenting the faith that make it more comprehensive, with Masses and programs for children, so they become “ingrained in the doctrine” and their faith “becomes strengthened.”
Furthermore, catechism teachers should be properly trained, and there should be a strong tie between schools and the Church to guarantee children are not “indoctrinated and confused by any readily presented trashy doctrine.”
Nzenwa also underlined the importance of reviving the power of the pulpit, with priests being mindful of the way the message is transmitted: “If the homily becomes too academic, for instance, people are lost in it … if it’s too trivial, then it becomes a jamboree.”
As a footnote, the room erupted in laughter when, after saying that many priests deliver boring homilies, she felt the need to clarify that it wasn’t the case with those present.
In addition, Nzenwa said that acknowledging the human side of the Church instead of “being silent about the matter and simply transferring priests involved,” would aid the healing process of already disappointed Catholics.
Yet, above all, perhaps the timeliest advice she gave was to urge the African Church, from the bottom to the top, not to pat itself on the back for what has been accomplished: Few things are more dangerous, she suggested, than becoming complacent.