African Priests, African Catholicism, The West and Issues Emerging:
  by REv. A. Agbali

The media has been quite aglow with African Catholicism ,and Christianity in general for quite a while now. It is true that such media preoccupation has some positive salience for the validation of Africa in the Western eye.  In 1998, or thereabout, the Western press has been preoccupied with a seemingly love-lust passion with the idea of an "African Pope."  They found in the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, such an enigmatic character to project their new ideology of religious globalization, where the periphery has come of age to rupture the metropole.

In 2001, the National Catholic Reporter, echoed to the world the alleged abuse of African nuns (religious sisters) by African priests and bishops. In 2003, following the resolution of the American Episcopal Church to formally approve and install an openly gay man, BIshop Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire, the African Anglicans reacted against such moves. In recent weeks, it was reported that certain dioceses in Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa have set a moratorium on training their priests in the US.  Not many weeks ago, until the German and former Nazist, erstwhile Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, evolved into world and ecclesiastical stage as Pope Benedict XVI, the media became once more vocal about the chances of Cardinal Arinze in becoming a Black Pope.  Only few events project Africa and Africans to such magnitude. This seeming preoccupation with African Christian issues, especially this feature on African priests in the US has focal relevance.

Sometimes I wonder what the backstage agenda, behind this issues actually are? In what manner are they intended to generate and tilt discourses, and shape public awareness in a certain stereotypical condition?

Thus, I have come to the conclusion that in some cases, some of these issues are more to do, not with the African phenomena in se, but peculiarly with the Western unease with some of these. In articulating such issues there arise the opportunity to paint the African with the imagined ideology of savagery, predicated upon the model of social evolutionism. However, the raising of such issues gives the rest of us the opportunity to tackle the multiplex dimensions of such discourse, and also offer our own vignettes. Within such matrix, we would become a voice in shaping some of the taken for granted and assumed discourses regarding Africa and Africans, as the backwood of the world, taintedly depicted by such labels as conservatives, primitive, misogynists, and uncultivated. In spite of the emergence and contributions of African on the global scene in shaping the global consciousness, knowledge about Africa and Africans remain ingrained within such stereotypical constructs of negation and negativity.

Therefore, relative to the issue of African priests in the United States or elsewhere, these priests are foremost neoned in negative rays prior to ascertaining or validating their potentials and actual contributions to Church and society. Yet, in many spaces these priests are vital to the continuous survival of the Church in America. Recently, certain European dioceses have formally considered bringing in African priests and nuns to help their evangelization. However, these kind of efforts are countered and decried ever before such personnel are made welcome. In 1996, Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago, expressed his willingness to utilize foreign-born priests to help in the work of the Church there. It was instantly kicked against, and killed. Using stereotypical and redundant arguments such plans were grounded marched underfoot. Even, the archliberal priest and Notre Dame theology Professor but vocally racist, Fr. Richard McBrien came forcefully against such moves. Using his wide array of media and extensive networks he forcefully came against this with all his passion. He was more furious than a wounded lion on this specific issue. Ironically, here was a man who wrote a volume on Catholicism, a phenomenon that intrinsically embody universalism or globalism. Avoiding a confrontation with Chicago priests, Cardinal George toned his voice.

The arguments used are all too familiar. African priests are unwilling to work with the laity (lay people), they are misogynists, they have accents, they are here to make money and gain status, white parishioners maybe antithetical to black priests.  While, there are certain of these that may warrant attention, most of these adduced reasons are fomented by "armchair" critics, who have little inkling about the African Church, its vitality of spiritual, and communal approach. Folks like Fr. McBrien has never being to an African Church, and have little or no experience about the vital force of its spiritual and material dimensions. These folks privilege a capitalist approach to religion and sure undercut the spiritual current involved in any missionary interactions between churches and people.  They emphasize privilege and not the so-called spiritual pedestal upon which their brothers and sisters came knocking on the door of African hearts to open it up to their gospel.  They foment theology that is antithetical to the same one they taught Africans as the route to salvation.  It might be instructive to articulate one example.

This example is an actual story from the missionary field in East Africa. The priest, an America used to have two masses on Sunday. In between the masses he often go for his morning ritual, his coffee and breakfast. Thus, at this time, when the first mass is ended and the second one is about to begin, while he drinks his coffee, he pasts on a board some pictorials meant to convey the theme of his preachings. These Africans actually like it, as they converge there and at times socialize, talking about mundane and spiritual issues. One Sunday morning, after he had preached on the intensity of the fire of hell, while having his breakfast, he was aghast to hear his dear parishioners singing and dancing.

Fuming he quickly finished his coffee and came running to them. Frothing with anger, he said to them, "You damn idiot, you should be remorseful rather than rejoicing, don't you know that the idea of the fire of hell should keep you sober." The place was dead quiet, until one old man in his late 70s raised his hand, the priest pointing to him beckoned upon him to speak.  He had mistakenly thought that the man was going to apologize on behalf of his people, as elders would do in such situations. But the old man said. "Fr. we thank you. You do not need to be angry at us. We have done nothing wrong. We were just rejoicing." "Rejoicing at what?" the priest retorted swelling in anger. "Well," noted the old man, "you don't have to raise you voice at us. Hell is not for us." The priest getting much angrier yelled, "What?" What do you mean?" The old man continuing, remarked. "Thank you, Fr. Now that you have given me the chance to speak, I will tell you." "Ok! Go on, " the priest stated. "Thanks. As I was saying before, you see, hell does not belong to us. In your picture, we saw that there is no black person in hell, it is only white people.  That is why we are rejoicing. Yes, it is the white people who deserve hell for the way they have treated us, for destroying our lives, the religion of our ancestors, and putting confusion in the head of our dear sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters rape our women, our daughters, and our wives are not spared, because you have all the money ...." The priest was speechless, the people went wild with joy, rumbling and thundering in praise.

The West is mad that African priests are coming to their homeland. Can we ask some questions, too. Is it surprising? In time past, in other to secure their domination over our lives, the came with the lovely theology of the universality of the Catholic Church. They even taught us in Catechism the meaning of Baptism thus, "baptism makes us members of the Church, brothers and sisters with one another, and members of God's Family." They used books with such emotional titles like "Together in God's Family" to teach us the ways of the Lord. Why has all of a sudden our own in-road into the homelands of our brothers and sisters, members of God's family, now become problematic? Why can we not accept each other being "together in God's family"? What has gone sour? It seems this is not the meaning of the Christianity that we have learnt. We did not learn how to shut our doors against our brothers and sisters. We welcomed the "white missionaries" as priests and nuns in our midst, even when we least understood them. We thought that by coming to us they loved us, so we made it a point of duty to love them in return. Why can the same act of Charity, the great commandment as were taught, not be reciprocal? Why has faith become all of a sudden an idiom in political economy? We have not complained that these brothers and sisters, white and with difficult language to understand, abetted their other brothers to traumatize, denigrate, colonize, and oppress us? Why all these sudden tirade? Is it because the norms of domination is changing and there is a reversal in our relationship now?

In addressing these questions.  We must note that there is an increase in foreign priests due to the same factors that has shaped increment of global interactions. We must also admit that the intensity and outright norm by which certain priests feel their destiny begins and end in America is appalling and embarrassing to themselves and their colleagues.

Certain priests come here through ignominous reasons, and like Faust's to Mephistopheles sell themselves to the devil of racism, dehumanization, and abuse. I am at times puzzled by the calibre of priests who decide to come to America to settle and going through the dehumanization process the rest of us young ones can sometimes endure and engage. Thus, it is disheartening to see a man who has been an influential Superior General of a renowned Religious Congregation of priests, after over twenty-five years of being a priest, coming to be assigned as an Assistant Priest, and demeaned, as it sometimes happen, by a priest ordained few years ago.  Whereas, a priest of the same year of ordination in Nigeria or Africa, is made to be in awe of him.  Like the rest of the African population, some of these priests represent the best crop of ecclessiastical personnel on the continent.  However, can we simply, off the cuff, just assume that this all happening for an economic reason? I doubt. What kind of man, who has reached that kind of height in his calling, with lot of respect in his community, sacrifice all that to the humiliation and sometimes humiliation they are subjected to?

For me as a priest and as a scholar it goes far deeper than that in most cases.  For one, as much as I hate to say it, for some of these folks the new environment offers by their new contexts help them to begin to re-live their priestly ideals, and call them to service, rather than the near suzerain icons they have become.  Others, simply left out of frustration, having lost out in some ecclesial politics, having reached what they consider the height of their priesthood, and since "there is no leave and no transfer" (meaning no promotion) they seek out a new environment.  No matter, what we say, this kind of approach do offer a normative solace and spatial environment to recuperate from stress and preoccupation with ecclesiastical positions.

Others are here genuinely on mission and fulfilling their ministry as a priest. Others are making contributions on a scholarly level, such as the former Rector of the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), Peter Damien Akpunanu and Fr. John Okoye, at the Chicago Catholic Theological Union, where they are professors. Others are making relevant contributions such as in providing Spiritual Care in hospitals, and at times like Fr. Joseph Ekweariri, PhD, rising to become directors of departments of Spiritual care at such hospitals. Still others are in parishes giving the life of Christ to people regardless of their races, gender, ethnicity, as humans in search of grace, while also finding grace for their own souls. In all to problematize such vocations, primarily because it is embedded in a politics of otherness is to do a disservice to a fundamental vocation of service to humanity.

It is in this vein that one begins to wonder what has happened to the ecclessial idea of Fidei Donum, the gift of faith, a missionary ideal sanctioned by Pope Pius XII, and the missionary calling of the Church.  It is ironic that the American Catholic Church, enmeshed in a politics of dysfunctional racism and exclusion of the others try to minimize the import of the African clergy. They look upon their race and skin pigmentation.  The same phenomenon that made the live of the first African-American priest, Augustine Thorton miserable continues to function in excluding blacks from the Catholic sanctuaries across America. American Catholic altars are as segregated and constructed as fort racial hegemony, that excludes and denigrate priests due to their race and color.  Therefore, the mere presence of sighting a colored priest on a altar in place of white priests conjure and contort the spiritual imagination in devious and tormented ways.

The Catholic Church has theorized over time, as an ideology that its heritage is universal.  Africans, thus allowed themselves to see and live within this universal matrix. Within its idioms they opened wide the doors of their hearts and home to welcome missionaries in their midst. Even, when in the initial phase they hardly understood their language or ways, they accepted them as those who came to serve them due to love. Thus, Africa Catholics integrated the true teaching of Catholicism, in its ideal typical forms, and in turn they have received the reward for their fidelity through increase in vocations to the priesthood.  The aspirations of African priests and sisters is undergirded by the notion of service.  For many in spite of their good intentions they are denigrated and dehumanized. They are marginalized. Today, many priests are trying to forge under hard situations. Chanceries refuse to support their adjustments spiritually and materially and they have little or no help. Often in desperation, the chanceries that pretend to assist assign them to pedophile and troubled priests, so that the African priest, would decide to find an alternative arrangement by themselves. They are underpaid and exploited within such institutions.  They are faced with racism. An example here was the case of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, whose malicious treatment led him to seek succour with the Moonie, and in the arms of a Korean bride, in a marriage ceremony that stunt the Vatican in 2001.

Even the nuns that complain about abuse by American priests, and claim to champion social justice can at times be worst abusers, finding in these foreign priests subjects of domination and oppression in trampling over their rights to dehumanize them. I have heard stories of foreign priests, and have experienced the same at Seton Healthcare Network, Austin, Texas, abused by nuns. In my case, when I refused to take it I went to the Bishop who pleaded with me not to take my issue to the press. When I voiced out, together with another Nigerian priest, the director of the Spiritual Care department, who was racially raced out of his position in 2003, it paid off for some other Nigerian priests. Threatening that we would take legal action against them for racism they quickly hired two Nigerian priests, as smokescreen for their discrimination.  Thus, even foreign priests, are challenging the structures of the Church in America offering them a mirror to respect human rights and dignities.

Having noted these there are foreign missionaries in Africa, who are enjoying more freedom and dignity than many of us, foreign priests in America are.  The stereotype that we are here for economic gain need to be disabused.  Many times, I have had to call upon others to help sustain me, including my Bishop and family in Nigeria.  As a priest, I have been without income, except support from my home Bishop in Nigeria, for months. Where is the economic and quadriple purchasing power? How much are most priests paid in the American parish structure to be so affluent? The reality is some priests in Africa, and in my experience, Nigeria have more money in their bank accounts than me, a priest who have been here of almost eight years.

Finally, foreign, and specifically African priests, because of the nature of American Catholic racism and discrimination, are often the first to be targetted and denounced when ecclesial crises emerge. This has become a pattern in deflecting the real issues involved in issues of American priest sexual abuses. In Detroit, when two brothers accused a priest of violating them it was a Togolese priest, Fr. Komlan Dem [Felicien] Houndjame, who was used as a smokescreen, denounced to authorities on charges of attempted rape of a woman from his Assumption Grotto Parish, Detroit, Michigan. He was later acquitted by a jury but never reinstated (Jim Schaefer, "Priest Acquitted of Rape Charges, Detroit Free Press, August 31, 2002). The same happened in New York, where another African priest, from Nigeria, Rev. Cyriacus Udegbulem, following files of other New York priests submitted in 2002 by the diocesan chancery to state authorities.

While, not apologetic for any of these crimes (if found to be guilty) it seems that these are used to stem the tide of public anger against the Catholic authorities. This denunciation are veritable public relations tools. Further, it is used to support the hypothesis that due to the assumed "degenerate nature of the African" they have no higher power to maintain a high ethical ideal such as celibacy.  It is in this light that we see that when it was revealed by the Kansas City star in 2000 that American priests were dying due to AIDS, often as a result of homosexual tendencies, the situation was balanced by the National Catholic Reporter's accusation of African priests and some Bishops sexually abusing African nuns. In all of these, one vital point must be made, if the American or European Church does not see African and foreign Church personnels as equal collaborators in the one Christian mission of evangelization and service ministry, then we have no option than pursue other options at the formation of autonomous African Catholic congregations in the West. In the aftermath of the crises of the gay Bishop, the African Anglicans are now forced to begin looking at options toward an African Anglican congregation in America. The same is possible with African Catholicism, since national churches, like Chaldean Catholicism, are allowed by the provisions of Canon Law.