Out of Africa

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Article Scripture and Theology
Last year father James Chukwuma Okoye C.S.SP. went home to Nigeria for a visit.

He had no sooner gone to church for Sunday Mass than he found himself witnessing a clash of cultures.

The young African parish priest had evidently had a run-in with some members of the choir, who had departed with some of the parish instruments. Before Mass began, the priest sternly addressed the congregation, threatening the absent choir members with police action if they did not return the instruments. "And the Eucharist was just before us!" says Okoye, aghast.

First, the priest was violating the traditions of African society. "If you have a problem," says Okoye, "you find somebody to mediate it, someone you respect and they respect, and before you know it, the instruments will be back in church, and no one will ask questions."

Okoye also knew that, had the young priest been in the U.S., things would have been very different. "From my own American experience, if he got up there and said those things, people would have walked out and gone to another parish." After nearly a decade "on mission" here in the U.S., Okoye has had an uncommon opportunity to compare Catholicism in its American and African contexts, as well as to explore the gifts each church can offer the other.

We hear that the church is growing fast in Africa. What's behind that growth?

In parts of Africa it is not growing. But where it is, I think we have to consider the grace of God. Because God's grace is mediated through culture, many also think it is because traditional African religion is close to Catholicism. The traditional religion is sacramental, with sacred words, places, and events.

The Catholicism that the missionaries introduced was so close to what the people already had that people are now rejecting some of the newer approaches as not being Catholic.

How do traditional African values interact with Christian ones? Is there ever a conflict?

Some traditional African values are very Christian; others are not, and some are neutral. Let me give you an example.

A few years back, a relative of mine was dating a woman and wanted to get married in the church and came to me. I said to him, "I have never seen this person, and you're telling me you want to get married?"

Here was a young person who felt that marriage was his responsibility alone; the rest of the family felt that while, yes, it was his responsibility, it was also our responsibility because if there ever were trouble in the marriage, we would be the people who would come and help. When a woman comes into the family, she must be accepted, and there are processes that help accomplish that.

For example, normally in Africa if a man wants to get married, he tells his sisters and aunts and nieces, and they'll look around. When they find someone appropriate, there will be a formal introduction of the woman to the family. When everyone has agreed, then it's a marriage between families.

The whole marriage process requires the participation of both the individual and the family, and everyone knows that finally this communal approach to making such decisions benefits the welfare of all concerned.

What if the family says no?

That does happen sometimes, but usually the search continues until there is general satisfaction. The young man is always free to decide, but he knows he will need family support. Some younger people do not understand this today. But if the couple runs into problems, the family is the first port of call for financial and emotional support.

There are many things that the family does for a couple. There is no old-age pension or health insurance in Africa, so if someone has an accident and can't work, it's the family who takes care of the children and pays the hospital bills.

So that's why this is important. We could say this is an example of a neutral value. It's not against the faith, but it's not part of the faith, although it does contain values of communal and family unity.

What would be a tradition that is "against" the faith?

I know a family that lives in a compound with a huge tree in the center of it. At one time the tree was the shrine of the village, and the belief was that there was a spirit in it. The priest from the family would go home, look at the tree, and think, "Any day it's going to fall on the house. We must cut it down."

He told his older brother three times to cut down the tree and eventually learned that, despite the fact the family was Christian, they believed that if the tree were cut down, somebody would die. The priest said, "OK, give me permission to cut it down." The next time he came over, he had it cut down. But had anyone died immediately afterward, they would have said, "It's because the tree was cut down!"

Nobody there thinks this is against the faith because it's just the context in which they live. But it's important to look at the values beneath a belief. Often they can be remade in ways that complement the gospel. In this case belief in the sacrednesss of objects and in God's presence can be important values in African Christianity.

It sounds like you're describing what the church calls inculturation. How is the faith inculturated in Africa?

Religion in the African context looks not just at the soul but also at the body and at society. Pastoral care must be holistic. If not done with care, inculturation can degenerate into superstition, but it doesn't have to reach that point.

Any priest or pastoral worker must know that in Africa you are dealing with the whole human being, and the church and the sacraments must respond to the whole human being. There must be new thinking about the sacraments because they began as divine transformation for the life cycles. Now they are somewhat removed from that cycle and have become only spiritual.

Does that mean sacraments should look different from place to place?

They already do. Even here in the U.S., if you go to Mass in a Mexican community, it is very different from the liturgy in a white suburban parish. They both use the same ritual, but one celebration lasts two hours and the other lasts 40 minutes. In the Mexican parish people greet others like family, and the children cry and play, and it's all part of the liturgy.

How would an African Mass differ from one in the U.S.?

The Zaire rite, which was used at the African Synod in 1994 in St. Peter's in Rome, begins with a sacred dance in which everyone participates, moving this way and that way very gently, with their hands raised in prayer.

The dancers move up the aisle and behind the altar and stay there while the bishop or priest comes up and dances around the altar. After that, instead of kissing the altar, which is not an African gesture, he would put his hands in a V-shape and prostrate himself before the altar.

This whole entrance rite takes about 30 minutes, but remember that Africans like expressing themselves in song, with their bodies, with their minds and hearts. The song allows everybody to really participate and gets people to realize, "This is ours."

There is another, different dance to present the gifts. The person who carries up the gifts, who is approved by and represents the community, is conscious of carrying the whole community with the bread and the wine, and that person will give it to the priest, saying "This is the offering of the community, and we are asking you to present it to God."

But sacred dance is only one element among many in African inculturation of the Eucharist.

Is the Zaire rite common in Africa?

No, it was approved by Rome only for the dioceses of Zaire, though it is spreading beyond that country. Other rites were developed for Zambia, Cameroon, and Ashanti land in Ghana. Rome has been rather wary of these developments.

When I was assisting on the commission preparing the liturgy for the African Synod, the African bishops informed the master of ceremonies at St. Peter's what they wanted to do, but he said, "You cannot have drums and dancing at St. Peter's!" He told them to use a Latin musical setting because every African could sing in Latin, while the rest of the Mass would use the colonial languages of English, French, and Portuguese.

Shortly after this the commission had lunch with Pope John Paul II, and the pope asked, "How is the commission going?" One of the members said, "Your Holiness, there's a minor issue," and proceeded to explain the divided opinions about showcasing something African in the liturgy. Before he even finished, the pope said, "The more African, the better." Well, that ended the whole discussion. It was fantastic. The cardinals were dancing in the Mass.

Why is there still fear over adapting the Mass more widely in Africa and the rest of the world?

The fear is that if you don't control people's expressions of faith, they might go overboard. Fortunately, however, inculturation is not imposed from on high. It begins from below, from the people's appropriation of the faith. Perhaps inculturation is forcing us to actually see how the people are really living the faith.

How would you describe an African approach to the Bible?

The culture of the biblical text is close to that of Africa. What people in the time of Christ believed about life is 75 percent of what Africans believe. So I think we should start looking at a biblical story by asking what the people believed and what Christ thought he was doing.

In the West the attitude toward miracles, for example, is scientific. Nature is governed by the laws of physics; nothing can go against them. Christ walks on the water? Well, a Western scholar might say, Jesus was really walking alongside the shore. The loaves and fishes? Scholars will say that the real miracle was that people shared the food they had brought. This interpretation has value, but was this what the text intended?

An African view says God can always make things happen. We don't know how it works, but God does not just create the world and leave it to run according to the laws of physics. God created the world and is actively sustaining it. In this worldview a miracle is not extraordinary but part of God's providence.

The basic principle of intercultural criticism is that we are all wearing colored spectacles, and we see things through those spectacles. We never see 100 percent of reality. I won't say knowledge is subjective, but all knowledge is from different perspectives.

Would Catholics in Africa see Jesus differently than U.S. Catholics?

Africans tend to see Jesus as God so much that they tend to forget the human Jesus. Pastors in Africa have a duty to remind people about Jesus' humanity.

The person who fills in for Jesus' humanity is Mary. When you have problems, you go to Mary, not to Jesus. You go to Jesus to pray and to worship.

Africans see Jesus as a messenger from God, which corresponds to the expectation in our culture of messages from above. It was easy for people to accept the missionaries as people bringing messages from God.

In many African American churches you find images of Jesus as an African. Do you find those in Africa as well? The scholars in Africa would like to have images of Christ and Mary as African, but many of the people would prefer the traditional European Jesus.

Why?

Because this has been the tradition. Personally I think we should have a black Christ, as we do in the chapel of my order's seminary in Nigeria. We have the risen African Christ on one side and on the other a cross. Both are both carved out of wood from the land. They're beautiful. While people's first impressions weren't positive, now they love it.

It's important that when something new is done, it is done well. Then it will catch on by the force of its beauty. Change in Africa is very delicate, very organic. You cannot just come in and make a change. It's not that Africans don't accept the idea of a black Christ, but they at first cling to what's been done before. Once they've seen the new approach is good, they accept it.

What issues are high on the American agenda that don't figure in the African church?

Many issues in the U.S. church are not really issues in Africa. We do not have a crisis concerning abuse of minors by clergy, for example.

I say that with some reservation because I began my priestly life as a secretary to a bishop and have learned that things are not always as they appear. In 1970 and 1971 the bishops were asked to write to Pope Paul VI in support of the church's teaching against artificial birth control. Publicly everyone in Africa was behind the pope, but when I talked to some educated men and women, I found out that for a few the public stance was not their personal one.

In Africa people will defer to what they consider is the norm, willingly or unwillingly. Norms have both moral and social value. When people do not agree with the norms of the community, they do not speak out but follow the processes for effecting change in the community.

Isn't one of the flash points for the church in Africa the issue of using condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV?

The HIV issue is a temporary crisis that is not all over Africa; the persistent crisis is poverty. The HIV crisis, of course, has raised the moral issue of condom use, but this is not just an African issue.

One bishop in Africa has publicly suggested condom use in cases of HIV/AIDS. The African church is very obedient and respectful to the Holy See, partly because Africans value authority as the cement of community and also because finances are involved. Some churches depend very much on Propaganda Fide-the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples-which controls funding for missions and so forth.

It is part of African mores that as often as possible in public we agree. If we don't agree, then African manners dictate that we don't say anything to weaken authority. We don't bring it up in public, but there are African processes for handling dissent and conflict.

I would imagine that regarding the issue of condoms and HIV, a lot of people are making the best decisions they can. People are dealing with matters of life and death, and we should not be too quick to judge particular decisions.

The church says that in a particular situation an individual is bound to follow his or her conscience. People are doing what they feel they have to do under the circumstances.

Is church authority exercised differently in Africa?

Authority is a stronger value in Africa not only in the church but in society, so the effect is doubled. In traditional African thinking authority is a symbol of the community and therefore represents the common good.

The traditional authority figure was supposed to defend the community even to death. That person was not autonomous; he or she was bound to counselors. When the counselors met, they could meet the whole day and have different points of view, but they didn't make a decision until they reached a consensus.

The authority figure is supposed to be able to say, "We have talked and now we must act. So hearing all of you, my sense is that this is what we would like to do." The authority figure will not say "I" but "we."

Why do people favor this approach?

Because in Africa when we quarrel, we remember that we will have to live together tomorrow. So we must not deal with conflicts in a way that prevents us from living together tomorrow.

Ordained in 1970 in Nigeria, Okoye is assistant professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He studied at Oxford University and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and helped prepare the Synod for Africa in 1994. This article appeared in the September 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic.