KEY WEST, Florida – Odds are, the hyper-talented National Correspondent of Crux, Christopher White, who’s setting off this week to cover a Pan-African Theological Congress in Enugu, in the heavily Catholic southeastern part of Nigeria, won’t be kidnapped. That, alas, is about the most one can say, since there’s something of a cottage industry of kidnapping high-profile Catholics underway in Enugu.

So far in 2019, nine Catholic priests have been kidnapped in Enugu state, the most recent of whom was taken Nov. 25 and freed two days later. Most are released unharmed, presumably after a ransom has been paid, though at least two have been killed.

Things have become so bad that in August, more than 200 priests of the Enugu diocese staged a public protest, marching to the state government house and police headquarters to demand stronger security measures after Father Paul Offu was kidnapped and shot to death.

As they wove through the streets, the priests chanted, “God save Enugu people from murderous Fulani herdsmen, enough is enough, the government should do something and save us.” (Presumably, that was more euphonic in the local Igbo language.)

White himself is probably okay; he’s a layman, not a priest, and anyway, he’s not going to be by himself out in more rural areas where these incidents are most likely to take place. Further, the thugs responsible for these abductions probably don’t want the kind of attention that would result from grabbing an American journalist.

The same cannot necessarily be said for some of the priests White is likely to meet while he’s in town, covering the very first Pan-African Catholic Congress on Theology, Society and Pastoral Life, taking place at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, one of the world’s largest Catholic seminaries, Dec. 5-8.

The event is a co-project of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul, and its African Catholicism Project run by Nigerian Father Stan Ilo; the Association of African Theologians; a committee of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM); and all the Catholic universities and seminaries in Africa. More than 80 African theologians, bishops, priests, religious and laity make up the program, and some 650 people are expected to attend.

After a Synod of Bishops in Rome in October in which voices from one oft-neglected and exploited region of the world were heard, in that case the Amazon, this event looms as a chance to take the temperature of another, one that’s arguably a great deal more consequential for Catholic fortunes, given the stunning growth and youthful energy that permeates African Catholicism.

The meeting’s working method, by the way, is described as the “African Palaver.” Before thinking that’s an exercise in self-parody, bear in mind “palaver” doesn’t have the negative connotations in African English it carries in the West. For Africans, the “palaver tree” is a location where people in a village gather to discuss problems under the shade and to find mutually agreeable solutions.

It’s about talking things out, without a lot of formal structure and in a community spirit, not about endless pontification and artifice – although, if we’re honest, there’s usually a little of that too.

Organizers say the aim is to develop best practices in Catholic education in Africa vis-à-vis the call for missionary reform proposed by Pope Francis in his programmatic 2013 text Evangelii Gaudium. Although in principle that’s a conversation that could be staged anywhere, the recent spate of kidnappings in and around Enugu is a reminder that the pastoral context of Africa is often staggeringly different.

A good deal of ink has been spilled among analysts trying to decide whether such incidents do or don’t count as “anti-Christian persecution.” On the one hand, it’s hard to miss the point that an increasingly radicalized Muslim group, in this case Fulani herdsmen vying with largely Christian farmers over land, is targeting Catholic priests. On the other, the underlying dispute isn’t really religious but political and economic, and for the most part, the motive often appears to be no more than scoring a quick payout from an organization perceived (by Nigerian standards) to have deep pockets.

Locals will tell you that the violence is at least as much a referendum on the failures of the Nigerian state, usually due to corruption and dysfunction, as it is on anything specifically religious.

Yet the dispute over the “religious” nature of the kidnappings is, arguably, the sociological equivalent of the intentional fallacy in literature. Arguably, what ought to count at least as much as the thinking of the perpetrators is the motives of the victims – why do priests in Enugu, knowing full well the risks they run, continue to put themselves in harm’s way to go out and serve their people?

The answer has everything to do with their Christian convictions. Rather than asking if the kidnapper was driven by anti-Christian hatred, therefore, perhaps the focus ought to be on the fact that the victims were fueled by pro-Christian love.

What’s equally remarkable is that despite such hardships, the faith is flourishing across Africa. In raw numbers, explosive growth in sub-Saharan Africa in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was among the most dramatic periods of missionary expansion in Catholic history.

Bigard Memorial Seminary, where the Pan-African Congress will take place, is a living symbol of that dynamism. Its enrollment is 855 – by way of contrast, the largest Catholic seminary in the United States, Mundelein in Chicago, has just over 200 seminarians. Over the years, Bigard has produced three cardinals, 13 archbishops and 34 bishops, to say nothing of countless thousands of priests – some of them serving right now in the U.S., often keeping parishes afloat that otherwise would be slated for closure or consolidation.

That “Best of Times, Worst of Times” reality is part of what makes African Catholicism such a fascinating tale to tell. Assuming he manages to stay safe and sound, White will be bringing pieces of that story to Crux in the days to come.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

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