To describe the Church I was born and raised in, I need to start with the missionaries who risked their very lives to bring us the Gospel. In the earliest years of the 20th century we received this precious gift from young missionaries from Europe (mostly Ireland).
I am a third generation Catholic. My grandparents embraced the Catholic faith in September 1926, leaving behind the traditional religion they were born into.
They were very much in the minority as they crossed this threshold. But in the last century an overwhelming majority of our people (the Igbo tribe) became Christian and a large proportion of them are Catholic. From my earliest memories of faith and worship, I have always known the Church to be alive and vibrant. Our local church community was Christ the King, where Mass attendance on Sundays was always impressive. Our church had two Masses and they were constantly packed. This is quite common in most places that I’ve been to in Africa.
Not only is there high Mass attendance, but more importantly most people that I’ve met in church exude radiant joy, firm faith and dauntless hope. Talking to their fellow parishioners, people speak so freely about God or some grace they’ve received from Him. It is natural for them to turn to prayer in times of difficulty or trial.
This is the very conducive climate of living faith in which many Catholics in Africa raise their children. It explains the increasing numbers of vocations in most African countries. I once attended a pro-life event at a seminary in Nigeria. There were 500 students discerning whether they were called to the priesthood – and this was not even the biggest seminary in the country.
On another occasion, I was invited for a priestly ordination. There were 13 young men being ordained that day. We are experiencing a real vocations boom, with more than 2,000 priests and almost 4,000 religious Sisters all praying, working and serving the mission of the Church, especially among the poorest of the poor.
Pope Francis has often spoken of the Church accompanying people. I have seen this in the many religious congregations in Africa whose core mission involves feeding the hungry, educating children, helping orphans, and providing hospice care, crisis pregnancy support and healthcare in the most dire situations. In the villages, towns and cities of Africa, the Church is often in the background accompanying and caring for the least of the Lord’s brethren.
I’m sure it will not come as a surprise when I say that most of our African priests and bishops are clear and unambiguous in explaining the loving (and sometimes difficult) position of the Church on important issues that concern the sanctity and dignity of human life and sexuality. It is rare to find people openly dissenting or opposing the Church in her teaching authority on issues such as abortion, contraception, cohabitation and divorce. No wonder that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the former prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, has been recently quoted as saying: “By African standards, I’m not conservative, I’m normal.”
I believe that it is because of this unflinching fidelity to the teachings of Christ that the Catholic Church in Africa has flourished, even in the midst of the most difficult tragedies, the most extreme conditions and a growing cultural imperialism from Western nations.
The Church in Nigeria is caring and consoling. It shapes consciences and offers a moral compass. But most importantly, for many of us the Church is home.
Obianuju Ekeocha is the founder and president of Culture of Life Africa
This article first appeared in the April 7 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here