Igbo Catholic Church History and All You Need To Know – Though Catholicism is a minority religion in Nigeria—the northern half of the country is predominantly Muslim, while the southern half is predominantly Christian, with the majority of Christians belonging to Protestant and African Independent Churches—Catholicism is by far the dominant faith among the Igbo people, whose homeland encompasses a large portion of southeast Nigeria. Igboland’s Catholic life is especially alive and energetic, yet not without conflicts and contradictions. There, Catholic practice ranges from conventional Roman Catholic devotions such as the Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration to charismatic and Pentecostal forms of dance devotion—and in some cases, includes all of these. Traditional ancestral cultures impact the religious worldview of Catholics in a number of ways—some of which are frequently regarded as a problem by Catholics there, while others are not.
The term Igbo encompasses hundreds of distinct specialized ethnic identities, each with their own local customs, complicating any attempt to talk generically about Igbo culture. As one researcher put it, “one of the difficulties with most extant Igboland studies is the inclination to generalize for the entire Igboland on the basis of material that is applicable just for select Igbo localities.” 1 The items in this section, while applicable to Igbo culture in general, are focused on one city, Enugu. 2 Numerous Igbo identities are reflected in Enugu, which now is home to individuals who have migrated from many communities over decades. Enugu citizens with ancestral communities outside are forever bonded to those villages. They are supposed to return to their ancestral villages at least once a year, and are buried there.
Enugu is a place where authority and charisma are clearly on display in Catholic life, and where tradition is alive in two senses: in the ordinary sense that Igbos mean when they refer to it, i.e. that pre-Christian Igbo traditions are honored; and in the Catholic sense, whether with the Angelus ringing at the market, or daily Rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration chapels, and even occasional Latin Masses.
Nigeria is an old country with a lengthy cultural past, but it is a young country in other ways: as a nation-state, in Christian history, and notably demographically. Parents continue to emphasize having a large number of children, therefore the number of young individuals significantly outnumbers the number of old. When individuals mention their parents’ or grandparents’ conversions, or when there are so many young people at services, the Church appears to be a youthful Church.
The parish of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, which is the focus of this study, is located on the outskirts of Enugu. In 2011, it was established as a new mission station and conducted its first Masses in a garage. Parishioners finally erected a small church and a rectory, which are now being adorned as funds allow. For many years, the parish has supported two satellite mission stations in its territory: Holy Spirit and St. Malachy. Even as Hearts of Jesus and Mary expands, its two mission stations are always soliciting funds to purchase property and establish their own churches.
Read about the Igbo people’s fast acceptance of the Church and its miraculous metamorphosis from the wreckage of the brutal Biafran war into a flourishing, Igbo-led local Church.
Traditional Igbo religion
Igbo traditional religion, by all accounts, continues to have a tremendous impact on Catholic life in Igboland, particularly among those who are sincerely dedicated to the Church. “Rather than conquering traditional gods, both Christianity and traditional practice survive side by side in Igboland and in the hearts of the Igbo people today, each battling for dominance,” writes Jacinta Nwaka. 3 Tension between traditional religion and Catholicism is a central theme in major works of Igbo literature, ranging from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and John Munonye’s The Only Son (1966) to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus (2003), but we must also consider how the two worldviews are not simply at odds, but are inextricably linked.
Though always localized in their particularities, Igbo traditional religious belief systems are generally organized around three “pillars”: (1) a supreme being, Chukwu, the ineffable, all-powerful Creator of all that exists; (2) a large number of minor gods and goddesses, both communal—those having particular influence over some aspect of a wide range of human occupations, elements of the natural world, and life events—and personal, the chi, deities respons
4 The Creator, Chukwu, is a transcendent, omniscient deity, so transcendent that “the principal acts of religious devotion [are] dedicated to the divinities and ancestors who were thought to have an active interest in the Igbo and their concerns.” 5 Humans’ connections to the chi and the ancestors are binding and covenantal, forming a “web” that connects the past, present, and future. 6 Some of these minor deities were pan-Igbo, while others were worshiped just locally. Even among the largely pan-Igbo deities, character and position differed by community. “The Supreme Being,” by Ubah, page 94. The divinities and ancestors have the ability to intervene in human lives for good or bad as they see fit. “Ancestors [and minor gods] are neither intercessors nor correlates of Christian saints… but significant separate spiritual forces.” 7 Ancestors and deities want recognition and sacrifices as a show of respect, and they can reward and punish based on the degree of respect they get. Priests perform sacrifices on behalf of the people, but regular people perform them at their own tiny shrines. Diviners investigate the reasons of various issues as they develop, or they are consulted to avert them. The ancient belief system is reinforced by a vast array of daily and seasonal rituals, life-stage rituals ranging from initiation ceremonies to funerals, modes of medicine and healing, norms for everyday interactions, masquerades, and civic forms.
“Shrines are rare in most areas these days. “There are only a few in certain places,” respondents stated. Mary Steimel Duru, an anthropologist, determined in the early 1980s that pre-Christian Igbo rituals were declining over three generations of Igbo people, while beliefs were less affected. According to 8 interviewees, belief in minor deities had essentially vanished, but had an unusual tendency of resurfacing during times of extreme stress or during initiation rites.
In two ways, tradition
Focusing immediately on the impact of Igbo traditional religion risks presenting an unbalanced image of Igbo Catholic life; therefore, before focusing on indigenous aspects of Catholic life, it is worthwhile to consider the many ways in which Catholic visitors from other countries would feel very much at home. From this vantage point, Igbo culture has experienced a remarkable and fast shift in a very short period of time. The traditional forefathers of today’s Igbo Catholics would be perplexed by Igbo Catholic living today.
“Tradition,” as I heard it expressed in Enugu, nearly always relates to pre-Christian Igboland’s cultural and religious practices. At the same time, Enugu is a thriving center for many traditional Roman Catholic traditions. A European traditionalist would be encouraged by the large number of clergy, religious women, and seminarians dressed in full habit, as well as the fact that the diocesan seminary, one of several in the region, is the largest Catholic seminary in the world, with over 800 white-cassocked diocesan and religious order seminarians. He could also be astonished at the degree of religious reverence shown to clerics. He’d be encouraged to observe the turnout at early morning Masses, catechism courses, “Block Rosary” sessions, adoration chapels, and a variety of lay Catholic organizations. The fact that women consistently cover their heads at Mass, or that so many people wear scapulars or carry Rosary beads, or that so many people use traditional saints’ names—Veronica, Perpetua, Clement, Felix, Theophilus, Jude, Elizabeth, and Stella come to mind among people I met, along with boys with Hebrew-biblical names like Ezekiel, Elijah, and Emmanuel—would make that Euro-Catholic tradition 9 Some parishes hold monthly Latin Masses in the present Pauline form because it “is the language of the church” and a method for parishioners to feel linked to that church, even if parishioners don’t comprehend it well. 10 Connecting with the international Church is explicitly vital to the Catholics I spoke with.
The Church, on the other hand, is not stuck in time. More modern versions of Catholicism, notably charismatic and Pentecostal-inspired forms of Catholic worship, are also visible here. Pentecostal churches have sprung up all over the place, and many Catholics have embraced forms of worship that incorporate charismatic prayer. Bible reading and interpretation is a frequent part of the lives of my interviewees.
Catholicism has a prominent part in communal life, not just via the various churches, hospitals, social agencies, and destitute ministries, but also through state institutions. Faith is more freely expressed in the workplace than in many other regions of the world. People are at ease showing Catholic imagery at work. “You can easily tell who is Catholic” at work, one lady added, because people wear religious insignia. Many companies, including government ones, ask priests to conduct Mass on a regular basis. A bell rings at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. at the public market, according to witnesses, and transactions halt to allow Catholics to pray the Angelus.
Discussions with ordinary Catholics in Enugu revealed a wide range of ways that people prayed, ranging from depending heavily on official, formed prayers such as the Rosary, St. Jude Prayers, or the Legion of Mary’s Catena to a variety of other methods.
—”A lot of us memorize our prayers, so we have a formula,” one lady remarked of spontaneous prayer at charismatic services. Marian devotion is prevalent, yet it does not eclipse Jesus adoration. Saints are invoked as guardians and intercessors, although no saint appears to be particularly prominent. “You first ask the Holy Spirit: ‘Come, o Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,’ after which you recite the Hail Mary, then the Rosary,” one guy stated of his prayers. Devotion to the Holy Spirit is obvious and powerful in the charismatic movement, as is devotion to Jesus and the Father, although those services frequently incorporate the Rosary.
The confluence of two types of traditional devotion—Igbo and Catholic-European—may appear incongruous in light of the various ways in which Enugu has modernized and desires to modernize. Irish missionary Catholicism has left a legacy, but the reasons for its persistence are complicated. Morning family Rosaries, Adoration, and daily local Masses, according to one Igbo priest, are successful because they fill a void created by traditional morning devotion to local gods at household shrines. According to an Igbo theologian, traditional Catholic devotions have grown in strength in recent decades not as a reaction to modernity or the changes brought about by Vatican II, but because they stood out as distinctively Catholic bulwarks against the Pentecostalist churches that have sprouted up in Igboland in the last thirty years. 11
With that backdrop in mind, we may go deeper into some of the additional ways that Igbo traditional culture distinguishes Catholic life in Nigeria. “Events at the corporeal level are only expressions of what has been pre-determined at the spiritual level,” according to Igbo traditional religion. As a result, existence is filled with a covert conflict in which antagonistic spiritual forces attempt to govern man.” 12 The thinness of the veil dividing the spiritual and worldly realms continues to impact the perspective of Igbo Catholics.
Without a doubt, Christianity shattered generations of traditional and Christian believers, as the great Igbo literary masterpieces described previously demonstrate. Nonetheless, Duru stated in the 1980s that belief in ancestor spirits’ power had only been considerably decreased. 13 Respect for forebears is still a strong ethical obligation. During kola nut ceremonies to welcome visitors, as well as numerous feasts and other events, ancestors are invoked as revered companions. 14 Children are raised to be submissive to their parents rather than autonomous. Deceased family members are owed large, extravagant funerals.
Respect is not an abstract moral obligation. It is the result of a persistent, deep conviction among the Igbo people that their ancestors’ acts, faults, or unhappiness may still readily come home to affect the living. “[T]he success or failure of men’s endeavors is related with the disposition of those spirits toward them, not merely their own efforts.” 15 “It is considered that ancestors who receive inferior tributes during… festivals are ridiculed in the spirit realm, and they will not take well to such a dishonor,” C.N. Ubah wrote decades ago. And in the practical world, someone who sacrifices a cock to his ancestors when he could easily purchase a goat is mocked by his peers for his miserliness.” 16
The fear of witches and demons is a profound reality. Duru stated in the 1980s that, of all traditional beliefs, belief in the efficacy of witchcraft had not reduced at all. 17 interviewees in 2019 said that when they meet adversity, their fellow Igbos’ initial instinct is to resort to “persons” to explain why the situation occurred. “Persons” denotes two sources: ancestors or people who want someone well and use witchcraft to make it happen: “I’m walking and I trip—people are following me, perhaps from the village,” a guy stated.
Witchcraft is not only the domain of professionals; it may also be practiced by regular people through the use of juju, or charms. It is associated with rural among city dwellers. 18 “We believe in charms,” one well-educated Catholic man replied. Priests have also stated their belief in witchcraft. One person stated that it is not an illusion or a fantasy, but rather a force capable of unleashing lethal power that must be prayed against. “I must do all in my ability to free people from these forces.”
In a cosmos filled of such great powers, the most common expressions heard were “My God is more powerful than,” or “Almighty God, mightier than other gods,” rather than “There is no other God than…” God is called upon to defeat and guard against other great spiritual realities. An example of such type of prayer may be seen in a video from Fr. Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry, as well as tales of Fr. Paul Obayi, a notable charismatic priest in Nsukka, exorcising(link is external) “diabolic deities(link is external).” Terror of witchcraft undoubtedly brings individuals to the Christian God, but some interviewees claim that in times of fear, people are often driven away from God and toward these other terrifying spirits.
According to one well-educated Igbo Catholic, this is why Rosary beads and scapulars are significant here—not just as aids to prayer and symbols of religious devotion, but also as protection against evil spirits. In traditional religion, they replace ancient customs of wearing threads and charms as protection.
The Igbo tradition also relies on dibias, or diviners and seers, who have the ability to “get knowledge which is not attainable by direct sensory awareness,” whether regarding occurrences in the physical or spiritual sphere. Their function, which includes healing, is still prevalent in many areas, despite the fact that many Christians deny it. 19
According to interviews with a number of catechists and parish priests, “spiritual issues” are a key reason people seek to them for prayers or instruction. Priests at Ugwu-Di-Nso, the “Holy Hill” retreat facility, believe it is one of the main reasons people visit. The same was said by members of Fr. Mbaka’s Adoration ministry.
“Spiritual issues” do not relate to problems caused by one’s own inner spiritual inadequacies, but rather by the external factors mentioned above: ancestors or witches. The occasion is frequently a common human problem—sickness, financial hardship, business failure, family troubles, inability to conceive, and so on—but the cultural premise is that these are inherently “spiritual problems” at base. 20 They may be the result of a personal failure to revere the ancestors, but more often than not, the troubles are thought to signify that this individual is paying for the misdeeds of their forefathers. In that sense, they are not quite “ancestral,” because only virtuous forefathers may become “ancestors,” but they are caused by other forefathers who sinned and whose sins have come to roost. That worldview is deeply traditional, and it may be exacerbated by the generation gap between non-Christian and Christian generations, but it is reinforced by biblical injunctions such as Exodus 34:7, in which God promises to visit “the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 21
Igbo Christians are no less conscious of their own sins than everyone else, but they sense an additional reason for concern when it comes to “spiritual difficulties.” One person informed me that we “need God’s aid to break through.”
According to traditional religion, the spirits of virtuous people might return to the tangible world through their descendants. Duru’s 1980s study found that beliefs in reincarnation were only minimally weakened,22 and interviews conducted in 2019 revealed that belief in reincarnation is still prevalent. People explain that this is not because they were not educated about the Christian idea of the afterlife, but rather because they find evidence that validates the traditional worldview, such as when they recognize qualities of a departed uncle or father in a kid. “Sometimes they believe it so strongly that they offer the child the same degree of respect that they would give to the father,” one stated. According to a priest, “I’m given preferential treatment at my maternal household since they claim I resemble my grandpa.” So everytime I go there, my grandma can leave everything… because she sees her husband in me, even if he is no longer alive.” She is a practicing Catholic who understands the catechism but “can’t separate herself from what she sees.” Her spouse was an early catechist/teacher, and [my job] reinforces what she witnessed every time she looked at me.” She is not the only one in the room who thinks this way: “No one knows my Igbo name there.” They address me by the name of my grandfather [Igbo]. And my baptismal name is Raymond, which is also the name of my grandfather.” The cyclical understanding of time found in traditional religion, shown in reincarnation, seeps into the linear Christian perspective of creation and salvation.
The strengthening of Catholic traditions by Igbos is visible in rituals centered on names and the name-giving ceremony. “Igbo names are expressions of the character of that which they stand for, not simply tags to identify one item or person from another.” To remind us of God, 23 Igbo and Catholic names are utilized.
The kola nut
The items here do not provide a detailed enough overview of the daily rituals that define Igbo culture, or of seasonal rituals like as harvest festivals or masquerades. One major ritual deserves special attention, not least because it coincides with the basic Catholic rite, Eucharist.
Breaking, sharing, and eating a kola nut is a traditional way to greet guests and in a variety of different situations. The ceremony, as practiced by Catholics and other Igbo people, always begins with the invocation of the ancestors. According to one Igbo Catholic priest and academic, “if split and consumed by others, [the kola nut rite] represents a bond of allegiance and unity.” 24 Refusing it gives the group cause to assume you are malicious. Many Catholics have carefully considered how to alter the rite and regard its performance as a critical cultural responsibility. 25
Tensions and resolutions – Igbo Catholic Church
Beyond the principles outlined here, Igbo culture, like other cultures, maintains a range of values in conflict. These conflicts are sometimes resolved, and sometimes they are at the forefront. Several ideas that cannot be completely discussed here stood out as significant:
While historic inspirations have been highlighted in this text, modern influences should not be overlooked. “We are not the old green Africa of the past,” one of the young guys in Enugu stated. We have been Westernized. The ancient stories from the past are not told.”
Seminaries, convents, Masses, and prayer groups are all filled, and Pentecostalism has made significant inroads. As Catholic as Enugu is, there is still a remarkable degree of migration across faiths among laypeople. Some people even go to two churches on the same Sunday.
Clergy are highly revered characters, however nine priests had been abducted for ransom in Enugu state in the eight months before to this investigation. Two of them were killed. Enugu stands out for its hospitality as well as the threat that an outbreak of highway kidnappings poses to everyone.
Some criticize a local inclination to expect miraculous, tangible deliverance from God, while many others describe Igbo people as enterprising, businesslike, always getting out and trying to survive, scarcely acting like people who are simply waiting for divine intervention. “You’ll never see an Igbo man beg.” We are swindlers. Many people are struggling, but unlike in other regions of the nation, there are no beggars here,” one resident stated. Interviewees frequently described the Igbo as “naturally” or “innately” religious. Any criticisms expressed were not about whether individuals should be religious, but about how they should treat their religious longings.
The link between traditional religion and Catholicism appears to be a struggle at times, but respondents also reject the notion that they should or might abandon their own culture. They are happy and pleased to be Igbo, and the people I met all seemed to manage any apparent conflicts to their own satisfaction. One devout Catholic guy did not hesitate to admit that he participates in masquerades in his town, despite the fact that these have been a source of contention for some Catholics. “You can’t just walk away from it. That is our existence.” “If there are components of traditional medicine that contradict Christianity, such as charms,” he went on, “you eliminate that portion and turn it into a form of entertainment.” Traditionally, ladies, men, and children would not attend a masquerade. But now we do it as a form of entertainment, and people can see it.”
The tensions are often reconciled, perhaps because they are reduced to entertainment, adapted as non-religious “culture,” or Christianized. Scholars claim that there is no term in Igbo for “religion” as a distinct category of object apart from the rest of life. 26 However, Christian belief has introduced that concept, leading ordinary people to remark that they remove the “religious” portions of a ceremony while keeping the “other” parts in place. Though historians have argued that equating the gods and chi with patron saints is an insult to the traditional worldview, I heard interviewees do precisely that to explain how demonstrating respect to ancestors is a manner of honoring the communion of saints.
“Is there anything further to say?”
When asked what readers outside Nigeria should know about them, interviewers emphasized two points that don’t fit well in the previous narrative but ought to be included. Many participants emphasized “the misery we are experiencing”: how their experience and thoughts are filtered through—but not defined by—fights against poverty, corruption, and exploitation. 27 Life for the Igbo people, according to one guy, is one of “unrelenting battle and planning.”
Second, people frequently requested that the tale of their conflict with Northern Fulani tribespeople not be left out. Western readers have heard of Boko Haram assaults in the north, which are concerning, but my respondents mentioned difficulties closer to home, as Fulani tribespeople march south(link is external) with their livestock into Igbo areas. Many respondents saw the situation as intolerable and blamed the northerners for many of the kidnappings. Church attacks are becoming more common, and kidnappings of Catholic priests for ransom have reached pandemic proportions. Catholics frequently expressed their outrage and displeasure at the attacks, as well as the government’s and the international community’s apathy to them.