Cardinal Anthony Okugie, now 76, retired earlier this month after an astonishing 39 years as archbishop of Lagos. Cardinal Okogie is seen in Rome in this May 22, 2004, file photo. CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

Nigerian Catholicism at forefront of universal Church

  • May 29, 2012

There is a new archbishop in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. That might not strike you as big news, but it is. The last time Lagos had a new archbishop was in 1973. Cardinal Anthony Okugie, now 76, retired in May after an astonishing 39 years as archbishop. His successor, Archbishop Alfred Martins, is already 52, so likely will only serve for about 25 years or so.

In the four decades since Cardinal Okugie was appointed, Nigerian Catholicism has come to the forefront of the universal Church. Nigeria’s explosive growth, its sending of missionary priests to the dying Churches of Europe and North America, and its face to face confrontation with militant Islam all have lessons to teach Catholics the world over.

“In the 20th century, Africa went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent,” writes John Allen, a leading Vatican expert. “Half of all adult baptisms in the world, the surest sign of missionary expansion, are in Africa. Inexorably, pastoral and intellectual energy in the church will follow population, and this means that African leaders are destined to play an increasingly important role in the global Church.”

Canadians already know this, as Nigerian priests serve in many Canadian parishes whose last priestly vocation came long before Cardinal Okugie was a bishop. This causes handwringing among some native-born Canadian Catholics. Will they adjust to our ways? Will they understand how we do things here?

I take a different view, and think that the Canadian Church may have rather more to learn from the Nigerian experience than we have to teach them. An example from a recent meeting of priests illustrates the point.

A 50-something priest with roots in the local area, as gentle as the day is long, told of being confronted by an angry man in a store who said to him, “I would like to punch you in the face. What do you think of that?”

Taken aback, the kindly priest inquired of the aspiring assailant why he would do such a thing.

“Because I don’t like you,” he replied, even though he knew nothing about the priest, except that he was a priest. Recounting this unpleasant episode, the pleasant priest allowed as he is now reluctant to wear his Roman collar when doing errands.

A group of Nigerian priests were present and afterwards discussed the story. I was intrigued as to what they would think. Would they appreciate our Canadian ways? One of them advised a rather different approach: The proper response to a belligerent bully was to inform him, in a firm and measured manner, that an unprovoked blow would be met with a similar response. A man threatening to assault a priest just for being a priest should understand forthwith that he would be met not with fear but resistance.

As between the two responses, I was more sympathetic to the Nigerian one. One doesn’t know how one would react until the moment arises (and I have never had such an ugly encounter).

Yet if the choice was between being afraid to wear my collar and the other guy being afraid to assault me, the latter option has its appeal. I am fully aware of the injunction of the Lord Jesus to offer the other cheek. I know violence is not the solution to violence. Yet in the same way that a father is proud of his son for standing up for himself against a playground bully, I admire the fighting spirit in our spiritual fathers.

Why might Nigerian clergy, for example, be rather more feisty? Well consider what the Cardinal Okugie and his brother bishops faced earlier this year.

In March a Catholic Church was bombed on a Sunday morning, the work of the Boko Haram extremist Islamist sect, which has repeatedly killed and terrorized Christians. The bishops of the Lagos/Ibadan region appealed for the slaughter to stop, and accused the Nigerian government of neglecting its duty to protect the Christian community.

“We demand that something more concrete be done urgently to consolidate security, restore public confidence and salvage the very integrity of the Nigerian nation,” the bishops wrote. Then they added, “Without this, individual Nigerians would have no choice but to defend themselves — a dangerous option, no doubt.”

In the 1990s waves of anti-Christian violence were met by Christian militias who fought back — sometimes to excess. No one, least of all the Nigerian Catholic clergy, desires a return to that, but they acknowledge that people will defend themselves. It’s a fighting spirit, not without problems, to be sure. But not without lessons to teach us.

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