For Africans arriving in Canada, they find the Mass is different. It doesn’t have the colour, the energy they are accustomed to back home, which was on display May 27 at the Africa Day Mass at Toronto’s Our Lady of Lourdes. Michael Swan
  • June 1, 2023

Edna Amuri remembers arriving in Canada from Kenya 20 years ago and heading straight out to church. She wanted Mass. She wanted to celebrate this new stage in her life. But a Sunday liturgy in Canada — the same in its outward form, made up of the same parts — seemed very different.

“It’s weird and it’s strange,” she said of her experience of Church in Canada. “The Mass is different. It’s kind of not lively. You’re done in half an hour.”

Amuri made a special effort to be at Our Lady of Lourdes in downtown Toronto for a May 27 celebration of Pentecost. The Africa Day Mass brought African Catholics from across Toronto together to celebrate the great diversity of African Catholic culture — from Ge’ez Rite Ethiopians, to Francophones from Burundi, Rwanda and Congo, to the liturgical dance of Nigerians.

Amuri got what she was hoping for — a fully African experience of faith, right down to a homily that encouraged the congregation to shout responses back at homilist and principal celebrant Fr. Mathias Kotoka Amuzu.

“When it comes to the Holy Spirit, Catholics are the most ignorant. True or false?” Amuzu thundered at the pews. “True,” they roared back.

The massed African choirs of several Catholic parishes raised the domed ceiling of the historic church with spontaneous harmonies, accompanied by west African-style 12-string guitar. “There is power in the name of Jesus,” they sang. Prayers of the faithful were offered in Amhara, Yoruba, Shona, Ugandan, Portuguese, French and Ghanaian.

Much of this was strange to Zinash Yemer, a Ge’ez Rite Catholic from Ethiopia. Worship in the ancient Ge’ez tradition, dating back to the fourth century, has its own rhythm and structure, different from the Roman Rite. But Yemer recognized the Africanness of the singing, preaching and celebration.

“I love to see their things, their culture, their expression,” Yemer said.

“We love experiencing new cultures,” said her friend Meaza Gebreselassie.

The African immigrants at the Africa Day Mass were mostly well-established families in Canada — citizens of this country. They are the first wave of a rising tide. According to Statistics Canada, Africa is now the number two source for new immigrants to Canada, after the vast Asian continent which takes in everything from the Middle East through India to China and the Philippines. Between 2016 and 2021, 203,000 Africans arrived in Canada, or 15.6 per cent of all immigrants. Nigeria is the third largest source country for new Canadians. Nigerian immigration between 2016 and 2021 increased 133.5 per cent over the previous five-year interval, for a five-year total of 40,360. But Nigeria is just one of 54 African nations.

The vast majority of Africans arriving in Canada are not refugees. Well over half are economic-class immigrants. They arrive with university degrees, skills and experience. Even in Toronto, where immigrants are as numerous as the Canadian born (47.1 per cent of people living in Toronto were born in Canada), only 17.6 per cent of immigrants arrive in Toronto with refugee status.

“There is a huge movement of Africans into the Western world, and I don’t think it’s because of their choice, mostly. I think it’s because of the conditions we found ourselves in in Africa,” Spiritan missionary from Nigeria Fr. Obinna Ifeanyi told The Catholic Register. “We (Nigeria) are a country that is very rich, but corruption has destroyed the hopes of the youth.”

The Africans we are seeing in the next pew don’t just bring their culture and skills to the Church in Canada. They also bring their hope and their energy, Ifeanyi said.

“We bring our own gifts over here, and we learn from the environment where we find ourselves,” he said. “They come. They’re very energetic. They are very joyful. They’re very enthusiastic and they’re looking forward to a hopeful Church.”

The first thing they find is perfunctory, somnambulant liturgies.

“We always say that we celebrate liturgy, we celebrate Mass. And here, I hear people say, ‘Who is saying the Mass?’ A noticeable difference,” Ifeanyi said.

Celebrating Mass at a Toronto parish, Ifeanyi once met a fellow Nigerian who was attending her second Mass of the day.

“She said to me, ‘I went to Mass and I didn’t feel as if I went to Mass. So, when I came to the second Mass and it was you, my fellow African, I was so happy. At least the homily, you make it a little bit lively,’ ” Ifeanyi recalled.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Canadian Church is not accommodating new waves of immigration, said Fr. Alex Osei, Pontifical Mission Society national director for Canada.

“I think the Archdiocese (of Toronto) has done extremely well to involve non-Canadians, to let them know that they are part of the Church,” said Osei, who is chaplain to the Ghanaian community at St. Andrew’s Parish in Etobicoke. “The Church is universal. It’s a missionary Church and it’s universal.”

Africans are challenged to overcome culture shock when they first show up in a Canadian parish, Osei said.

“You have to tackle the whole concept of a Canadian culture. Because what is back home is not what is here,” he said. “But they adapt to it… The fact that they have migrated doesn’t change the face of the Church. Wherever we are, we are Catholics.”

What is Catholic in Nigeria is not less Catholic because it comes to Canada,” said Nigerian-Canadian theologian Fr. Stan Chu Ilo. “You bring the religion the way you know it, the way you live it. But the sacrificial nature of what they (immigrants) did cannot be underestimated. Many people talk about this reverse mission, but it has to be properly understood, properly talked about, rather than this kind of ad hoc approach.”

Theologically, Chu Ilo turns to the language of Pope Francis to explain how the Church engages immigrants and immigration.

“The Church extends beyond peripheries to the ends of the Earth, but the periphery is never far from the midpoint,” he said. “When a Nigerian comes to Canada, he is an agent in Canada, bringing something of that Eucharistic presence that we all share.”

But it ain’t easy.

“We have people who are anti-immigrant, racists — where they see Black people and they feel like they have come to take over,” Chu Ilo said. “If it is a Catholic (Church) then we own it as one family.”

What happens when African immigrants don’t find a full welcome in the Catholic Church? Wubit Ewketu has seen fellow Ethiopians drift off into store-front Pentecostal churches.

Ifeanyi recalls an aunt who went to the United States and encountered the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons).

“They welcomed her. They even found her a job. They made her feel at home,” Ifeanyi said. “My aunt was like, ‘Wow. I am Catholic, but these people have taken me in as one of them.’ ”

The parish isn’t the only place African immigrants encounter the Church. Catholic school boards in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are often central to the immigrant experience of the Church.

“I will give the Catholic school board a lot of credit,” said Ifeanyi, a chaplain in the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Ifeanyi recalls in particular a wave of Nigerian refugees who began arriving to claim asylum in 2017. The TCDSB sprang into action, registering the kids in school, even providing buses to transport students from temporary shelters in motels to schools.

“I think every parent would feel like, ‘Wow, this is a Church at work. This is what it means to belong,’ ” Ifeanyi said.

One of the first places settled Canadians will notice an African presence in their Church is at the altar, followed perhaps by more and more sightings of African religious sisters taking up roles teaching catechism or helping out in shelters. The Canadian Church benefits from an overflow of clergy, religious and committed lay people coming from Africa, said Chu Ilo.

“They (parish churches) can’t find space for people in many parts of Africa. Priests are being ordained in large numbers. People are entering religious life,” he said.

With a mismatch between pastoral demands and the trickle of ordinations across Canada, many Canadian bishops have turned to African seminaries. Chu Ilo wonders “What that means in terms of fidei donum (the gift of faith)? So, how do you share the resources of Catholicism in this global Church?”

For African Catholics, there’s more to adapting to their new life than just what happens in Church. Africans in Canada find themselves in a decidedly more secular culture, said Ifeanyi.

“Secularism dominates the system,” he said.

It’s a stark contrast to Africa’s many God-infused cultures.

“I have never heard of, or even knew there are atheists while I was back home,”

Ge’ez Rite Eritrean Michael Elias Araya said in an email. “Our Church is everything to us. Not only spiritually but also socially and psychologically.”

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