By Fred Itua and Solomon Momoh
Nigeria prides itself as the country with the highest number of Christians in Africa. In global rating, Nigeria can also compete favourably. As the country with the highest number of black folks on earth, it is also safe to conclude that it parades the highest number of blacks, who are Christians.
With the Christian faith sharply divided between the Orthodox and Pentecostal, the Roman Catholic Church is a leading force in the country. Almost every extended family in Christian-dominated South has someone who attends the Catholic Church. Despite this commanding dominance in the country and its leading role in Africa, there is no local Nigerian Roman ‘Catholic saint’.
Blames have been apportioned, yet it still appears to be a long walk to freedom for the Catholic community in Nigeria. Some questions have also been asked: Why is Nigeria missing from the growing list of countries with saints? Is the Church in Nigeria doing enough to draw the attention of the Vatican to this exclusion? What’s the way forward?
When it comes to recognition of the local saints as means for evangelism, Pope John Paul II readily comes to mind as the one who simplified the process of beatification and canonisation. He made it more accessible to the parishes across the world as a means of reinvigorating the church. According Dominus Est, “Pope John Paul II named saints and beatified people more than the number by all his predecessors in the last 500 years combined.”
As an important part of John Paul II’s Papacy, the Pope did not only canonise more saints than any of his predecessors, he described it as “gift for local churches”. Unfortunately, this gift for the local churches has not been sufficiently extended to the Christian communities across Africa and Nigeria is not excluded. At canonisation ceremonies, Pope John Paul II would often use the heroic virtues of the candidate for sainthood in his homilies, drawing examples from the faith, steadfastness and holiness of such candidates for evangelism and calling on the countrymen of the candidates to emulate such holy and heroic virtues. This method was adopted by his successors like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
Importance of recognition of local saints as a means of evangelism
A 2017 report of the Vatican’s Statistical Year Book, which tracks the number of Catholics worldwide, reports that there are 1.28 billion Catholics around the world. Africa currently accounts for 17.3% of Catholics worldwide and it is reported to have the highest growth of Catholics. Europe and America are experiencing the highest decline in numbers of not just of Catholics, but Christians generally.
Meanwhile, out of the 17.3% of Catholics in Africa, Nigeria accounts for 29 million. With the decline of faith generally across the world, Europe in particular, it is imperative that the Church begins to consolidate on it gains in Africa before it is lost. While there is general decline in priestly vocation in the global North, there is a boom in the global South. Africa with an increase of priestly vocation of +1.181 is right now witnessing a boom alongside the likes of Oceania and Asia. However, if urgent steps are not taken to consolidate on these gains in Africa, they may also be lost in no distance time due to a number of very glaring factors.
Even Europe passed through the phase of booming priestly vocation. One shining example is the Republic of Ireland, this small Western European country practically evangelised the world for several decades. As most European States began to achieve economic prosperity, they began to witness a decline in Christian devotion and priestly vocation, Ireland inclusive. It is important to state that Africa may not be an exempted from a declining Christian devotion and priestly vocation if not reinvigorated. Increasing economic prosperity in many African States could lead to a decline in Christian devotion, especially Catholicism, with the increasing wave of secularism.
To prevent the impending doom, the Church must immediately recognise the many men and women who lived exemplary lives worth of emulation, using their heroic virtues to reinvigorate and re-evangelise the local Churches in Africa. It is believed that recognition of the holy virtues and martyrdom of men and women that the local parishioners can easily identify with, is part of the inculturation policy of the Church. After all, Pope Paul VI in his apostolic exhortation to the Episcopate, to the clergy and to all the faithful of the entire world in 1975, otherwise known as EvangeliiNuntiandi, noted that “evangelisation loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addresses, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life.”
One may ask, despite the many saints in Europe, why the decline in devotion? This question, this article may not be able to answer sufficiently. Nevertheless, a possible reason can be adduced from the prophetic dictum of Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (Now Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI) in a 1969 radio interview with a German radio and later published by Ignatius Press in 2009. Fr. Ratzinger noted thus: “A Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” Prosperity is this sense does not refer to economic prosperity, rather, religious prosperity of the church.
For Africa and Nigeria in particular, one can speak with a measure of certainty. Africans are usually moved by stories of the exploits of their ancestors. In many African societies, there is a huge devotion to deities and preservation of the ways of “our ancestors.” The way many Africans relate with their routes, they cannot relate in same way with Christianity, Catholicism in particular with the its huge list of European saints, and foreign cultures. The least that could be done in addition to other inculturation process of the Church, is a recognition of the martyrdom and heroic virtues of African saints.
Possible saints for Nigeria
Cyprian Michael Tansi (Priest and Monk)
Blessed Iwene Tansi was born in September 1903 at Igboezunu, near Aguleri in Anambra State to a pagan family. However, he attended a school operated by Catholic missionaries, learnt about Jesus and received the name, Michael when he was baptised at the age of nine.
He obtained his First School Leaving Certificate at St. Joseph’s School, Aguleri at age 16. This certificate qualified him to teach. He started his teaching career at Holy Trinity School, Onitsha in 1924. He later became the headmaster of Saint Joseph’s School (Onitsha Archdiocese blog).
At age 22, against the wish of his family, he joined Saint Paul’s Seminary, Igbariam in 1925, and was ordained a Priest of the Catholic Church in 1937 at age 34. He served as a parish priest in several villages. He was reported to travel on foot or on his bicycle to minister to the poor, the lonely and the sick at various communities.
He was also reported to have spent long hours listening to confessions. L’Osservatore Romano reported that Tansi “courageously tackled immoral customs and destroyed the harmful myth of the ‘cursed forest’, which weighed heavily on the peace of consciences and families. To combat premarital cohabitation, he set up marriage preparation centres where girls and young women could be sheltered and receive Christian formation. For the moral education of young people, he also established the League of Mary, with remarkable success.”
In 1950, when the opportunity to become a monk presented by his Bishop, due to his zeal and yearning for a more contemplative life and time dedicated to quiet prayer to God, Blessed Tansi gladly took it. With the permission of his Bishop, he joined the order of Trappist Monks in England.
On becoming a Monk, Tansi took the name “Father Cyprian.” After 14 years in the monastery, Blessed Tansi died in 1964. His body was returned to his homeland for burial in 1986. Tansi was beatified and declared “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II (who himself is now a saint) in 1998 in ceremonies in Nigeria.
Tansi had an energetic apostolic zeal to a life of profound prayer and demanding personal asceticism. The feast day of Tansi is January 20.
Vivan Uchechu Ogu (Virgin and Martyr)
For the cause of sainthood for the 14-year old Vivian Ogu (Virgin and Martyr), who was killed by armed robbers, who attempted to rape her, although it is not immediately clear what steps have been taken so far, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CNBC), Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze, was quoted as saying that “the process of Ogu’s Sainthood is already in motion. Another Catholic saint may emerge from the country (Nigeria) if the Vatican process leading to the beatification and canonisation of 14-year-old virgin Vivian Ogu finally sails through.”
On November 15, 2009, armed robbers invaded Vivian’s family house to rob them. Vivian and her sister were subsequently taken by the robbers to a bush in a remote part of Benin, Edo State. They tried to rape her and she vehemently refused and was shot dead. Learning of the heroic story of the 14-year old martyr, on the request of the Archdiocese, the Edo State Government donated the land where she was martyred to the Archdiocese of Benin City.
The Ikpoba Okha Local Government Area (LGA), the place where Vivian was martyred, also officially named the road on which she was martyred after “Vivian Ogu.” A pilgrimage site has also been constructed in the site where she was martyred, known as Vivian Ogu Missionary Animation Centre in Benin City.
Before her death, Vivian was not only noted to top her class from primary school to senior secondary school, she was also noted for her extraordinary dedication to Church and religious activities. She was a member of an interdenominational group where she held the post of assistant prayer leader, a post she held until her death. Vivian was said to have taken Saint Maria Goretti as her role model. According to witnesses’ accounts, on the morning she was killed, Vivian extolled the virtues of Saint Maria Goretti, advising members to keep their virginity until marriage, and maintain the purity and sanctity of the human body.
Considering the attested holy virtues of Vivian, and the fact that she died in almost same circumstance Maria Goretti, who was stabbed to death for refusing sexual advances from a boy who tried to rape her, one wonders what is stopping the Church in advancing the cause for the beatification of Vivan Ogu. Despite her acclaimed holy virtues, public venerate of Vivian Ogu is not allowed until she is beatified and declared “Blessed” Servant of God.
Gabriel Gonsum Ganaka (Bishop)
Born on May 24, 1937 in Plateau State, he was ordained a priest on July 4, 1965. On May 17, 1973, aged 36, he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of Jos and as titular Bishop of Cuicul. He was consecrated on September 9,1973 by Cardinal Dominic Ekandem.
On October 5,1974, he was appointed Bishop of Jos. On March 26, 1994, aged 56, he was elevated to Archbishop.
Ganaka died on 11 November 1999, aged 62. In 2014, the Diocese of Jos opened his cause for beatification naming him a ‘Servant of God’.
Speaking further on plans to push for the canonisation of Ganaka, an Abuja based Catholic priest, Bakwaph Peter Kanyip, said the Church in Nigeria was working towards that. He said a committee set up to that effect was already working with relevant local and international partners
He said: “The Church in Nigeria is working towards that. I’m aware of Bishop Ganaka of Jos. They have gone far in pushing for his canonisation. A committee has already been set up and there are partners from the United States working with the committee. In the coming years, we will have saints from the North, who were martyred. There are several Catholics, especially from Kaduna State and other parts of the North killed.”
Major factors militating against smooth running of a cause
Paucity of funds and bureaucracy at the Vatican. According to reports, the cause for the canonisation of saints is a process usually accompanied by heavy political overtones. Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul II) made canonisation of saints from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe a way of broadening the church’s base. Considering the foregoing, it is not out of place for one to suggest that the Church needs to looking into more inspiring stories from Africa, Nigeria in particular, by helping to promote and finance these causes in the region to promote evangelisation and “revival”.
Beside the huge political undertones, a cause for canonisation is usually very expensive. According to National Public Radio report of February 23, 2014, “when a candidate is considered for sainthood, the Catholic Church’s process requires research into the candidate’s life, legal documentation and consultations with theologians. Expenses can range from $50,000 to $250,000. Now, the Vatican is moving to cut those costs.” Furthermore, a March 11, 2016 Catholic Voices Comment report, in the US for instance, it cost an average of $250,000 from the initial investigation on a diocesan level to final canonisation of a saint.
With the huge financial requirement to complete a cause, it is not surprising that there are only a handful of canonised saints in the Africa continent. The Churches in Africa would rather spend such amount of money on other pressing needs than to spend it on a cause that may not arrive at a final conclusion.
Be that as it may, it is noteworthy to learn of the reforms and overhaul of the process of becoming a saint, otherwise known as a cause by Pope Francis. He is being lauded for bringing more transparency to the process, especially the financial requirement.
Lack of understanding of the procedures
Another factor that may be limiting the canonisation of African saints is the lack of understanding of the concept and procedures. This lack of understanding has nothing to do with priests and religious, but with the understanding of the process by lay faithful. The lay faithful needs to be sensitised on their role from the initiation of a cause to actual canonisation.
The priest and religious who know the procedure may assume that ordinary parishioners in the Church have the same level of understanding. It is necessary for parishioners to be sensitised on how to initiate a cause, by reporting to the Diocesan Bishop where they feel a candidate has met the requirements for an investigation or cause to be opened.
Requirement for a Church’s recognised miracles
Another challenging requirement for the Church in Africa is need for a miracle “officially” recognised by the Church. The Church, through both religious and secular scientists, investigates and confirms the authenticity of a reported miracle. Investigations must show that the person claiming to have received a miracle (usually healing miracle), was actually tested for the ailment he or she claims to have had, and if this is proven, investigations must reveal that the patient was not taking treatment for the ailment, and that the miracle or cure of the ailment resulted from praying through the intercession of the candidate.
While it may be imagined that the above requirement maybe bad, it is important to note that African countries are reputed to have poor record keeping culture. Absence of records or improper record keeping could impede an investigation of an alleged miracle. Poor record keeping culture not only affects the process of investigating a miracle, but also investigations into the life of the candidate for sainthood.
Nigerian Catholic faithful speak
A legal practitioner and knight in the Catholic Church, Enemhinye Socrates Ehigiator, said the Church in Nigeria has little or nothing it can do to fast track the process. He, however, suggested that the Church in Nigeria must continue to push until and send a list of those who are qualified to be made saints to the Vatican
He said: “The Catholic Church is basically the universal Church. The authority of the Church is domiciled in the Vatican. Conventionally, it is the prerogative of the Vatican to recommend persons for sainthood. Our own Michael Iwene Tansi was canonised some years back, which therefore means that the process is still ongoing, for his sainthood.
“The Catholic Church in Nigeria has little or nothing to do in facilitating the process or procedure. However, they could annually send a list of persons who they feel deserve to be Saints, to the Vatican; this will merely be persuasive. Personally, I feel that the late Rev Fr Anselm Ojefua (the Founder of KSM) should be considered. His tomb is the Monastery at Illah, in Delta State.”
Achilleus Uchegbu, another devoted member of the Church, explained that there is serious politics in the selection and naming of a saint. He further revealed that there is a council in charge of that.
He, however, wondered how members of the council would see any Nigerian worthy to be named a saint when there is a no black man serving as a member.
Uchegbu said: “But fact is this: Unless you understand the politics of canonisation, you won’t know what goes on. The process is tedious and needs specifics and provable accounts of miracles believed to have been performed through intercession of the dead. (How the dead prays is what I don’t know).
“The Council that oversees this process is white. I am not sure any blackman is there. And since we generally see black and evil and white as good (stupid stereotype, which many blacks promote), we won’t get a said out of Nigeria; not in the nearest future. Maybe too everyone knows that Nigerians are deeply corrupt even in the church.”
Afam Chukwu, another member of the Church, said there are Nigerians who lived worthy lives and are, therefore, qualified to be elevated by the Church. He said the Church in Nigeria might not have properly documented the lives of those who should be considered.
He said: “In recent times, I wouldn’t know what has been the criteria for Sainthood selection by the Catholic Church. But I think there are Nigerians who are worthy to be elevated to that status. While on earth, they lived a life worthy of emulation. They demonstrated dedication to propagating the gospel of Jesus Christ and through their exemplary conduct.
“Why I said I wouldn’t know what has been the criteria for the selection was because I don’t think there has been appropriate documentation on the data of the lives of some of those outstanding individuals. Nigeria truly deserves local saints and I am hoping that sooner or later, we will get ours. I think the church has to do more on these especially on data collection.”
A Catholic priest, Joseph Odiahi, spoke eloquently on needs to be done. He conceded that Nigeria has a huge number of Catholic faithful. He said the world acknowledges the country’s contributions to the growth of the faith.
“It is very true that Nigeria has huge number of Catholics and the world acknowledges the importance of the Nigerian Church to the growth of the faith. Now, there is the strong consciousness among many Nigerian Catholics of the one, holy and apostlic church.
“So, about where the saint or saints originate from, they will appreciate and venerate so long it represents our understanding of being Catholic,” he said.
He further absolved the Nigerian Catholic Secretariat of not doing enough in promoting the need to have indigenous saints. He said the Church is doing enough despite its limited resources.
He explained: “Whether the Nigerian church is doing enough in promoting the course for indigenous saints, I will say she is doing her best, with her limited resources and at the level she is aware of anyone whom she thinks worthy. Apart from recognising any, other things like finance, presence of extraordinary miracle attributed to the person and probably regional influence play huge part.
“For instance, when anyone is presented as being worthy of recognition, do we have the finance to facilitate the validity of the facts about the person? Do we have regional strong voice to push for this? And again, how many of our Nigerian Catholics believe that sainthood is possible within the Nigerian or African shores? Because a lot still believe or prefer ‘white supremacy’ about being a saint.
“I don’t blame them because over the years, they have been made to think that a white painting of a saint represents what heaven is like than black. This is my ‘very’ personal take though.
“My proposal would be, let the Nigerian Church be committed in pushing more and more if they note anyone worthy of becoming a saint. Whites are not holier than blacks. All they have is a financial situation that helps in pursuing this and maybe an environment that promotes proper investigation.
“So, I suggest we get people to look properly into people’s lives and if they be found worthy, we push for it. Begin their course and follow development, commit money to it. Because if nobody takes on update on any course, it will easily die off, and the Church very likely will forget about anything. Now, we have got Tansi, it should not only be left to individuals, let it be a national thing. Let it be everyone’s interest. If we do not speak, no one will hear our voice.
“So, I love to see more commitment in investigating, promoting and following up on the lives of worthy people. My final thought for reflection: if one person is singled out from a particular tribe, how will other tribe support that course? Hopefully, with more blacks being recognised in the Church’s high ranking, things will begin to change. It takes time anyway.”