This article is first in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of African Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. The article was written by Rev. Aniedi Okure, O.P., Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C.
Information about Nigeria
With a population of over one hundred million, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. It is also Africa's most culturally and linguistically diverse country. A federal republic located on the west coast of Africa, Nigeria is the fourteenth largest country in Africa, covering an area about the size of Texas and Minnesota. Its immediate neighboring countries are Cameroon to the east, Niger to the north, and the Republic of Benin to the west with the Atlantic Ocean to the south.
Nigeria comprises formerly distinct independent nation states and kingdoms which had attained prominence between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the early eighteenth century, the British established trade contacts with these nation states and kingdoms. Through military conquest, these were gradually amalgamated into one economic and political entity—Nigeria—under British colonial rule.
On October 1, 1960, Nigeria gained political independence and became a Federal Republic in 1963. Since then, Nigeria has undergone numerous social, economic, political and structural changes including the transfer of the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja in December 1991. Presently Nigeria is divided into thirty-six states and a federal capital territory which is located in the heart of the country. Each state is headed by a governor, and the federal capital territory by an administrator.
English is the official language of Nigeria. However, there are eleven major ethnolinguistic groups, namely, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulani, Ibibio, Kanuri, Edo, Tiv, Ijaw, Bura, and Nupe. Popular estimates are that there are between 200 - 250 languages (Britannica Annual, 1992), some as high as 350 (World Bank, 1988). The discrepancies arise from early classifications where variations of the same language—dialects—were counted as distinct languages. For example, the southern, central, and northern Ibibios of southeastern Nigeria were classified as Efik, Ibibio, and Anang respectively. A breakdown of the ethnolinguistic groups shows that eleven groups account for 92 percent of the population. It is this cultural and ethnolinguistic diversity, which prompts many Africans to refer to Nigeria as the United States of Africa.
As in most African cultures, the corporate group is a key factor in understanding social organizations especially the extended family system. In general, the extended family kinship is the immediate reference group for individual social identity. Extended family kinships are formed either through blood descent from a common ancestry or through marriage bonds. In certain areas, the ties of the extended family are so strong that one's obligation toward members in an extended family system is as close-knit as that of the nuclear family in the modern west. In the extended family system in Africa, the term sister or brother is usually employed in a much broader context than it is commonly understood in the west. It is appropriate within the cultural context to refer to one's cousin as brother or sister, and one's niece or nephew as daughter or son respectively.
Christianity and Islam are the two major religions in Nigeria. Moslems constitute about forty percent of the population, Christians about forty-five percent, and African Traditional Religions fifteen percent. Muslims are the majority in the far north, while Christians are the majority in the south, especially the southeast. With more than fifteen percent of the total population, the Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in Nigeria with the most highly organized administrative structure and unified leadership at regional and national levels.
The Catholic Church in Nigeria is the result of two waves of missionary endeavor. Nigeria's first contact with the Christian faith dates to the sixteenth century when Portugal was a trading partner with the kingdoms of Benin and Warri in the southwestern region of modern Nigeria. Through these contacts, Portuguese priests who were chaplains to Portuguese traders, and later Spanish Capuchin missionaries attempted some evangelization in these regions. However, these missionaries concentrated their evangelization efforts on the king and members of the king's palace, believing that if they converted the king and his court to Christianity the entire kingdom would automatically become Christian. This approach yielded little success both in the number of Christians and quality of the Christian faith. By the late nineteenth century, only a few artifacts of Christianity remained.
Systematic Christian missionary activities began in Nigeria along the coastal regions in the 1840s. Among the pioneer-missionaries were the Societe de Missiones Africanes (SMA), the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles (OLA), and the Congregation of the Holy Ghost Fathers (CSSp). They were later joined by the White Fathers (WF). A vicariate for the southern region was organized in 1870, and a prefecture was established in 1911 for missions in the northern part of Nigeria where Islam was well entrenched. Other religious congregations and orders notably Saint Patrick's Fathers, the Dominicans, the Augustinians, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, the Sisters of Saint Louis later joined the missionary enterprise. At the dawn of independence in 1960, the Catholic Church already had an impressive presence in Nigeria through primary and secondary schools, seminaries, hospitals, convents and rectories, parishes and dioceses, and many novices, seminarians and catechists-in- training.
The Church continues to grow in membership, personnel, religious congregations, seminaries and seminarians, novitiates and novices. It is estimated that Nigeria currently has the highest number of major seminarians and novices. Of significance is the increased number of indigenous religious congregations, especially for women religious. The Church's administrative structures have also grown significantly from fifteen ecclesiastical territories in 1960 to forty-three ecclesiastical territories in 1997, comprising nine archdioceses, thirty-two dioceses and one independent mission. Of the forty-seven bishops in Nigeria, forty-five are indigenous.
The Catholic Church in Nigeria celebrates the major feast days of the Latin-rite Church: Christmas and Easter, and the holy days of obligation namely, the Ascension, Assumption and All Saints. However, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria have transferred all the holy days of obligation to the Sundays immediately following these feasts, to enable members' participation in these celebrations. Other feast days of significance to the Church in Nigeria are the Feast of Mary Queen of Nigeria celebrated on the first of October which is Nigeria's independence day, and the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker celebrated on the first of May, Nigeria's Labor Day.
There is a general popular devotion to Mary especially through the Legion of Mary and the Blue Army. Other popular devotions and societies include Saint Jude and Saint Vincent de Paul. In larger parishes of several thousand members, the societies and devotional groups serve as base ecclesial communities within the larger parish structure. Charismatic prayer groups are highly visible in parishes, and especially on college campuses. Music is an important element of liturgical celebration. Liturgies without music in a Nigerian setting are rare. While there are choirs in churches, everyone generally participates in singing, and depending on the tune of the music, the congregation moves to the rhythm.
The number of Nigerian immigrants in the United States has increased considerably over the past twenty years. In general, they are well educated and fluent in English. Most are Christians; about half the Christians are Catholics. They are spread across the United States, especially in high density metropolitan areas. As these new immigrants settle in the United States and begin to raise families, new forms of pastoral and social needs have emerged such as the quest for cultural identity, fostering a healthy relationship between married couples, bicultural upbringing of American-born children, registration and belonging to a parish in the American way, and providing documentation for sacraments received before coming to the United States.
Like most Africans, Nigerians do not use the envelope system in parishes nor do they register in their parishes. In general, frequent participation at parish celebrations makes one a member of the parish. It is common, then, for a Nigerian immigrant to be a "member" of a parish community in the United States for several years without being registered and, therefore, not a parishioner from an American standpoint. The problem arises when the same "member" approaches the pastor several years later to request a sacrament, such as marriage, and is told he or she is not a member of the parish because the person is not in the parish register. It is common, too, that many Nigerian and African immigrants preparing for marriage cannot obtain the required documents such as baptismal certificates as these were either lost or destroyed during civil wars or by natural disaster. In general, a claim that one is a baptized Catholic should be sustained by the Church unless the contrary is proved. For those with documents, pastors often find discrepancies between given names and those on documents which could be construed as fraud from an American standpoint. However using multiple names is a common practice except in strict legal documents. Some, especially those coming from war situations have taken completely new names to avoid political persecution; others have modified their names upon arrival in the United States to enable pronunciation by their American friends.
For further information, contact. Rev. Aniedi Okure, O.P. at 202-541-3359, fax: 202-541-3351.