Leading Articles

Killing fields

The death of 55 people in clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria last week was barely reported in the international media. The killings took place in the volatile town of Kasuwan Magani in northern Kaduna State. Violence erupted at a market last Thursday evening. It is not clear what happened next, but the following morning there were piles of bodies and several smouldering buildings. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the bloodshed.

Christian leaders have, in recent months, become ever more critical of Buhari’s handling of communal violence. They suspect that Buhari, a Muslim, is less than fully committed to guaranteeing the security of the country’s Christians. Cardinal John Onaiyekan has been quoted as saying that priests may soon have to carry guns and that, if the situation continues to deteriorate, the Christian community might even be forced to wage war.

It is not hard to find examples of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria today. On October 3, according to the watchdog International Christian Concern, gunmen launched a night-time attack on the village of Ariri in Plateau State, killing 19 faithful. A day later, assailants killed four people in the village of Nkiendoro, burning down 35 buildings, including the local Catholic and Evangelical churches.

The two attacks were carried out by Fulani herdsmen, a semi-nomadic group. Some of its members are laying waste to communities in central Nigeria, where the mainly Christian south and the largely Muslim north meet. The herdsmen have clashed with local farmers over grazing land for centuries. But in recent years, according to the charity Open Doors, the violence has tended to peak around the time of Nigeria’s presidential elections. There were spikes in 2011 and 2015, and there is another election planned for February 16, 2019.

President Buhari is expected to stand for re-election. He is ethnically Fulani and once said that if he hadn’t received an education he might have joined the herdsmen. His critics have accused him of doing little to restrain the marauders. He attributes this to prejudice. “People are even blaming me for not talking to them because maybe I look like one of them,” he said in June. “There is some injustice in these aspersions.”

But the fact remains that Nigeria’s security forces seem either unable or unwilling to protect Christians in the country’s hotspots. Cardinal Onaiyekan has suggested that Buhari should resign on account of this failure. But Church leaders clearly have little influence at Aso Rock villa, the palatial presidential residence in Abuja.

We in the West can do little, apart from trying to raise awareness of the killings, praying for the persecuted and supporting charities that are working in Nigeria such as Aid to the Church in Need and Cafod. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the killings will decline after next year’s presidential elections. That might sound bleak, but it’s a reminder of just how harsh conditions are for many Christians around the world.

Rethinking seminaries

Given recent events in America, no one should imagine that seminary education cannot be improved. Some helpful suggestions come from Fr Thomas Berg, director of admissions at St Joseph’s Seminary in New York, writing in the Washington Post last week. Fr Berg’s proposals included extending training by a year so that candidates could begin by “detoxing from the culture and social media”, and raising the minimum age for admission to 22. He also thinks seminarians hould be able to “freely, frankly and confidently express to the formation team their concerns about the seminary community” – a timely point.

Seminaries, it’s worth remembering, are not eternal: they have only been part of the Catholic landscape since the 16th-century Council of Trent, which, given the history of the Church, is not that long. Before Trent, men were ordained after studying at universities such as Oxford and the Sorbonne, both of which were specifically founded to educate future priests; or, in the case of the religious life, they were ordained after studying in their monasteries or friaries, many of which were great centres of learning.

The idea of men living in relative seclusion to prepare for the priesthood is a fairly recent innovation. Indeed, modern seminaries struggle with this model and usually insist that candidates spend a year in a parish before ordination, among other pastoral placements.

Blessed Antonio Rosmini, writing in 1832, was severely critical of seminaries, and suggested instead that prospective priests should live in the bishop’s residence, where he would get to know them, and they him, and study at the local university. He argued that, as was the case before Trent, bishops and religious superiors should only ordain men they knew well, and should not franchise out the training of their future collaborators to third parties. He saw training for the priesthood as embedded in the community of the local church.

Whether we prefer Rosmini’s radicalism or Fr Berg’s carefully directed proposals, we certainly need fresh thinking on priestly formation.