On June 20, I went to Nigeria with a friend, Sister Mary John Bosco Amakwe, who invited my daughter, Rebecca (a 23-year-old graduate student) and me to her home country for the ordination of eight young men at the Holy Family Seminary of the Fathers and Brothers of the Youth. (Sister Bosco and I are both on the faculty at Seton Hall University.) Founded by the Very Rev. Denis Mary Joseph Ononuju Obiaga, this order is linked to Sister Bosco’s congregation of sisters, the Holy Family Sisters of the Needy, both congregations focused on helping young people in trouble.
The sisters began with a mission of aiding young women pregnant “in their father’s house,” as it is called in Nigeria, offering medical and emotional support, assisting in the birth and care of the new baby, and helping to reconcile the young women with their families. The priests are planning to develop a workshop where they can train young, disabled boys who are often shunned by their families and apprenticed in situations where they are mistreated by their employers. The priests will teach these young men a trade, offering them a more respectable and safe life. The priests also work with troubled youths of both sexes, with an intentional mission based on the idea that love will transform a young person falsely labelled “bad.”
There were over 70 seminarians when we visited; now eight of these young men are priests. The visit, my daughter’s and my first trip to Nigeria, offered us some valuable insights about the church universal and lessons for the American church in particular.
One such lesson regards welcome. Nigerians in general, and the various church groups and church leaders we visited in particular, were extremely welcoming and gracious. We must have heard the word “welcome” over a hundred times. At each place we visited we were given some kind of food and drink, the offering of which often became a kind of ritual involving grace and greetings to us as visitors. Because we were staying in Okija and visited many small surrounding villages (as well as some further afield in neighboring locations, several hours’ drive away), we experienced this kind of ritual in homes, rectories, and convents in a variety of settings. This graciousness occurs despite the high level of poverty in the region, among the poorest areas of the country.
Part of the welcome involved receiving clothes, as Sister Bosco had arranged for my daughter and me to have garments made from cotton in the Nigerian style in order for us to be comfortable and, as she put it, “to look and feel Nigerian.” The clothes were not only comfortable but beautiful. Our first night there, we received the first of these garments, made by our friend’s sister-in-law, who is married to one of the Protestant pastors of an evangelical church. We stopped at this church on the way to the seminary, and we were struck by how Catholic and Protestant Christians interacted, not just cordially, but as if they truly were one people (as, in fact, they are!). My daughter commented: “We could learn a lot from this back home.” As we were leaving, the pastor’s wife loaded Sister Bosco with religious books for the seminarians.
At the seminary we met the acting head, Fr. Samuel James, several other priests, two sisters (Sr. Jude Mary and Sr. Veritas), and many seminarians, two of whom welcomed us with a song. Sister Bosco is well known at the seminary, and she was asked to give a training session for the group of seminarians who were about to be ordained. A highlight was meeting the founding father of the Seminary, Fr. Denis. Now almost 89 years old, Fr. Denis started the two companion orders with an intentional desire to live out the lifestyle described in Acts 4:32–35:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
We were honored to meet this man, who is completely revered by the sisters, priests, and seminarians now living out his vision. As he welcomed us, we were touched by his humility, gentleness, and kindness. Though mostly inactive, Fr. Denis was able to join us for dinner on our first evening at the seminary, and meet with us toward the end of our visit. Most importantly, he was able to participate in the ordination ceremony, where he laid hands on the young men being ordained and spoke aloud a blessing.
The ordination ceremony was held on June 29, the next-to-last day of our visit. The Mass, which lasted over four hours, was presided over by Bishop Hilary Dachalem. This event, which drew over 8,000 people from the surrounding villages, some from as far away as Lagos in the north, was one of intense and joyful celebration. The eight young men processed solemnly into the large church, which was filled to capacity, with many people outside as well. The bishop had the largest number of priests concelebrating with him that I have ever seen. They could not all fit around the altar, and many were sitting on the side and front pews, three just in front of our group. Nigeria has so many priests that they never use lay Eucharistic ministers; I asked because I happen to be one, and had never seen one throughout my trip.
The music, a beautiful mixture of ancient Latin hymns and African religious songs, replete with accompanying instrumentation going beyond the typical American use of organ or piano to include violins and drums. The offertory (not just in this Mass, but in every one I attended) is celebrated—and that is the correct word for it—with the congregation walking, sometimes dancing to the front of the church and leaving their offerings before the altar. Young children seem to enjoy this especially, but even elderly people will dance as they bring their gifts. Despite the poverty of this part of Nigeria (so we were told, and could easily see in most of the houses we passed and visited), I never saw such joy in giving in any other place in the world. The ritual brought to mind the phrase “God loves a cheerful giver”; He must truly love these donors in Nigeria. The ordination was followed by an enormous party with music, dancing, and a variety of foods and drinks. Each newly ordained priest had a tent with chairs, so his own family and friends could celebrate him specially.
The following day, we went with Sister Bosco to the first Mass of one of the young men, Fr. Francis Onyeneke, a close friend of hers from among the group. The Mass was held in a fairly remote village, which our driver had difficulty locating. Once there, however, we found the church packed with people, intensely joyful regarding this young man now being a priest. Fr. Francis did not give the sermon, but one of the concelebrants did—a rousing and joyful homily, more in the style of what in America would be called evangelical or Pentecostal preaching. Unlike the ordination Mass, much of the language here was Igbo, not English, but we followed along as best we could. The music was perhaps even more beautiful, with a full choir and some talented soloists. Again, it was an eclectic mix of traditional Catholic and African hymns with accompanying music.
A highlight of the ceremony was a group of young women doing a liturgical dance in traditional dress, as one of them brought incense to the altar. Once again, the offertory involved people walking to the front, joyfully going up to give, with even very elderly people dancing as they processed to the front of the church. (I noted two women, bent over with age and using canes, dancing to the altar in the offertory procession.) The celebration continued at the young priest’s family’s home, where we had traditional Nigerian food with sparkling rosé wine.
All of these events combined joy, excitement, and a deep sense of community. I would certainly never say that we completely lack these qualities in the American church, but they seemed much more apparent in the church in Nigeria. Perhaps it was even more striking in the context of some of the problems facing the Nigerian Christians. During a conversation my daughter and I had with two of the priests, one of whom was Fr. Samuel, head of the seminary, we discussed some of these issues.
In this southern area of Nigeria, poverty is one such problem. The seminary has large and important goals, and funding is a significant issue, despite the generosity of the people. The priests also mentioned pollution of the water due to large corporations dumping in the rivers in the area called the Delta, in the River State, where we visited a school run by several sisters and a priest. The priests also spoke about concerns regarding violence in the north, where priests and other Christians have been killed; in fact, Pope Francis has spoken about the violence in Nigeria occurring in this region, where mostly Christian farmers are often attacked by Fulani herdsmen. Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, is a concern as well.
The priests are worried that this kind of violence more common in the north may spread to the south. Wanting to get past religious divisions, they hope to start a Christian and Muslim school in the north, where children from both faiths can learn and play together. Despite the dangers to priests in Nigeria, the young men we met were eager for ordination and seemed completely willing to go wherever they might be sent. (In fact, I just heard recently that four of the new priests are accepting a call to go to the north and serve there.)
To visit the church in any location that is different from where one has been raised and lives is always moving, showing us the church’s universality as well as its diversity. As the first Mass I attended in Nigeria was on the feast of Corpus Christi, I heard the priest talking about “substance” in the context of transubstantiation. I reflected on how the Body of Christ, in the Eucharist, is similar to the Body of Christ incarnated in His church. “The accidents” would be the differences from culture to culture, but the substance remains the same: “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”
I have felt aware of this unity in every church I have visited, from Notre Dame in Paris to the church at the seminary in Okija. However, in some of the differences of the Nigerian church (beyond the superficial ones of food and dress), that was something to be learned that would enhance the substance of Christ’s love in American Christians. We were welcomed deeply into a community that reminded me of the early Christians. The love shared among the men and sisters living at the seminary was easily widened to include us. We were part of the family from the day we arrived. Though the lifestyle is simple, the people’s generosity and graciousness gave a kind of lavishness to each meal. The last day before the ordination, after dinner, everyone got up to dance. My daughter and I felt an incredible sense of joy and freedom dancing with Sister Bosco, the priests, and seminarians.
In America today, we are struggling a great deal with welcoming others. Those different from ourselves are treated as suspect and characterized by politicians at the highest level as criminals. Even the church is divided along what are often political lines. American Christians can learn much from their brothers and sisters—particularly those of the Global South—who live beyond the polarized confines of our political landscape and our economic privilege. In the places we visited in Nigeria, we found that love, sacrifice, and sharing occurred more naturally, even though there was less to share. A welcoming attitude flowed freely out of a joy that seemed at times contagious. It’s a big church, and this visit enlarged our hearts and vision. For that, we will always be grateful.
Nancy Enright holds a Ph.D. from Drew University. She is an associate professor of English at Seton Hall University and the Director of the University Core. She is the author of two books: an anthology, Community: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2015), and Catholic Literature and Film (Lexington Press, 2016) and articles on a variety of subjects, including the works of Dante, Augustine, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis. Her articles have appeared in Logos, Commonweal, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, and other venues.