It was at the extraordinary synod on the family that Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama burst into the international arena, for a moment creating a stunned silence amid the booming din of speculation about whether the Church might change course over homosexuality or Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Well, he hadn’t quite stuck to the script: the permissiveness prized by the West was not what Africa needed, he said. Countries such as his native Nigeria needed development aid, not so-called “reproductive rights”, gender ideology and contraceptives, and it was abhorrent to him that overseas aid was now being made conditional on the acceptance of them. Western governments and organisations were bullying such countries, he said during his intervention, because of “their belief that their views should be our views”. “We have been offered the wrong things, and we are expected to accept [them] simply because they think we are poor,” he added.
So when I went to hear the Archbishop of Jos speak in Manchester last week I was expecting to encounter a figure of a certain moral stature, and I wasn’t disappointed. There he was, before the beautiful Gothic altar of the Church of the Holy Name, refusing to take off either his coat or scarf throughout his lecture, probably finding the northern November chill as cold as the Arctic. Though not unusually tall physically, he had the presence of a “big man” all the same.
He was speaking about a subject far dearer to him than the tedious preoccupations of the secular West. He was the guest of Aid to the Church in Need, the charity for persecuted Christians, which has identified him primarily as a peacemaker, and his theme was the struggle for religious freedom. He spoke with authority, having made a massive contribution to interfaith dialogue with Muslims in a part of Nigeria plagued by Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group which over the last five years has destroyed almost 200 churches, killed thousands and which in April abducted more than 270 female students, most of whom are still missing.
He explained to his audience his open attitude to Muslims and his willingness to work with them, stressing his conviction that the overwhelming majority reject the crimes being carried out in their name. He outlined the grass roots initiatives he supports, which are aimed at breaking down barriers of distrust and intolerance (and which in 2012 won him the Golden Doves for Peace Award).
As president of the bishops’ conference of Nigeria, the 56-year-old has made such work a priority in an attempt to restore peace to his country – one of 20 where religious persecution is classified as high by Aid to the Church in Need.
He ended his speech with an entreaty to his own government, saying that if it fought religious fundamentalism with the same zeal that it sought to stamp out the Ebola virus then Nigeria would be rid of Boko Haram.
Certainly Archbishop Kaigama is not a man who dodges or fudges the issues at hand. Speaking to him the day after his lecture, I asked him if Prince Charles, in a video message recorded for Aid to the Church in Need, was right to suggest that Muslim leaders could also do more to help end the persecution of Christian minorities.
His response was anchored in his own experience of the last five years of terrorism. At the onset, he said, there was silence among Muslims. Then gradually their leaders – including the Sultan of Sokoto, the most senior in the country – started to denounce the attacks as “un-Islamic”.
Archbishop Kaigama said: “They must explore ways, besides verbal condemnation, to bring this to an end, to support government and to support other Nigerians. Because of the knowledge that they have of these people and their psychology and their social disposition, we believe that Muslim leaders can offer a lot to bring this to an end.
“Just more condemnation and mere distancing of themselves from this as un-Islamic is not enough. We need concrete action, which means genuinely engaging with these people where possible, and genuinely supporting the government to find solutions, and offering the best advice, and not to allow it to degenerate into political issues.”
The words of the Prince of Wales, therefore, were a “great encouragement” for the Catholic Church in Nigeria – and anywhere that religious minorities are persecuted, he added.
The prince “did not deny the fact that he is a Christian. He said ‘I am a Christian’ and made that clear. A lot of people are afraid to say ‘I am a Christian,’ so I was so impressed to hear and see him make that profession of his faith,” said the archbishop.
“That doesn’t limit [him] to protecting only Christian interests. His Christian values, his Christian faith, leads him to open up to embrace others and to see and treat them with dignity, and he expects them to do the same to others so that there will be peace and harmony in the world.
“How I wish we could get more and more people like Prince Charles, who are not afraid to identify with their faith, to show their Christian identity, and to be happy to say: ‘my Christian values teach me to love and to be at peace with others, to embrace others.’ How I wish we could get more and more of such leaders.”
“He won my heart,” the archbishop continued. “When I listened to the video for the first time I thought: ‘Wow, this is someone who could greatly inspire the work that we are doing.’ We are only doing it at our level and he is carrying it to a higher level. The man is close to (events on) the ground and he is disturbed by what is happening in different parts of the world and he wants to be involved and he wants to be part of the solution.
“I thought his message is very apt and it suits the work that I do in Nigeria. How I wish he could visit Nigeria and how I wish we could hear more and more of such consoling words, words of peace, just to bring about a better humanity.”
Switching to the synod, we discuss his objections to attempts by the West to impose its new morality on the people of his continent. These are religious, cultural and practical, and include the demand that Nigerians lower their birth rate. In line with demographic changes in the West, this is already happening in Nigerian cities, where couples see the benefits of having fewer children than previous generations. But in rural areas, where infant mortality is still high, this way of thinking makes little sense.
Moreover, the agenda betrays an inequality between the prosperous north and poorer south which results in accusations of arrogance – that the more powerful party is dictating to the weaker what they “need”, rather than heeding requests for investment in infrastructure, agriculture, technology, education and health.
It must have been particularly galling to Archbishop Kaigama, therefore, to learn that during the family synod the German Cardinal Walter Kasper told a reporter that African Catholics “should not tell us too much what we have to do”.
“I just hope that it wasn’t meant to denigrate Africans, I just hope that wasn’t his intention,” Archbishop Kaigama said, because it would be serious if “a senior cleric of his rank … isn’t able to see that we are all children of God”, irrespective of race or nationality.
“I doubt strongly that the cardinal will just be out to trample on Africans. I still believe that we need to hear from him. What did he mean? Let’s hope it was a slip of the tongue and this will become obvious subsequently.”
He emphasised that it was a big mistake to see the Catholic Church as either European or African, when it was essentially a “universal family”.
“If we go by what is happening in our continent alone, or our geographical location alone, then the danger of polarisation becomes real and the great universal family becomes disrupted.
“If we have problems in Africa we can discuss them in the context of the universal family. If problems are unique or peculiar to the West they can also be discussed within the context of the universal family. But if we say ‘we do it our own way’, then it is no longer a family and it’s no longer universal.”
It would be better to ask for help from the whole Church rather than “come with minds made up, saying ‘we want this and this’, when all we really want is an endorsement. We won’t take it and we wouldn’t like to do that to anybody else,” Archbishop Kaigama explained.
“We have our problems in Africa, like polygamy and problems of different kinds, but we wouldn’t want to impose them on anybody. But if we feel there needs to be a review, we cry out and ask the universal family to help us to tackle this all together, rather than we Africans going off to do it our own way.”
His vision of a truly Catholic Church leads him to suggest that he would like to see more African priests go to Europe to work temporarily, almost as missionaries.
He finished by focusing on his first task when he returns home to Nigeria – to lead a pilgrimage of prayer for solutions to his nation’s problems, which he expects will draw a congregation of some 5,000 people.
To me, this is a reminder of the vitality of the Church in Africa, young but come of age and now with influential and capable pastors at the helm.
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