Confessions of an African priest
When my sister called me from Nigeria about 9 pm her time on Holy Saturday, she asked me for a special favor. She wanted me to celebrate a live Easter Vigil from Chicago, where I live, while linking up with her family, my mother and my other siblings, nieces and nephews.
She felt that it would be “a great and cool” idea. But I did not. And she was very disappointed.
Her disappointment grew when she and her family were “watching” the papal Mass at St Peter’s Basilica on EWTN, but they did not understand the language of the Mass – Italian. They had been searching other television channels in the country for a live Easter Vigil Mass offered by any of the local churches.
I must confess that my family felt that I let them down. Perhaps, I should have yielded to my sister’s request. I should have done it for them.
Maybe it could have even been more spiritually nourishing for my family and a good way of filling the emptiness I felt after celebrating the Easter Vigil alone and singing the Easter proclamation to myself in Latin!
My mother had to remind me in a most brutally honest way of my family responsibility when eventually we talked on Easter Sunday. However, through the conversation I had with my family, I discovered how unsatisfied and empty they felt after watching the papal Mass—just as I did after my private Easter Vigil.
Africans who have embraced Catholicism have also embraced her traditions, especially the rituals of the Sunday Eucharist and the Easter celebrations. Many of them who have the means, like my family, watched live Mass.
But many others could not because they have no electricity in their homes, televisions or internet connection. I know of so many rural African women in six different countries, who are supported through our charity, Canadian Samaritans for Africa.
Their greatest concern now is how to get the next meal. How can their hunger for God be satisfied in these times since they cannot afford access to online Mass?
If the virtualization of the Eucharistic celebration, whether in the Global North or in the Global South becomes a trend in this era of COVID-19, it could widen the gulf between the poor and the rich. It could limit the Church’s chosen means for encountering God to only those who are able to afford the only gadgets that make this possible for now.
Can the God who chose to step into the chaos of our human lives and meet us in our actual conditions be so confined by the Church?
The conversation I had with my family raised three issues for me as an African theologian: how to celebrate the mysteries of God in times like these, my ministry of accompaniment as a priest, and what the universal church can learn from Africa in reforming our sacramental system and pastoral life.
Can we worship in an African style through the virtual Mass?
I grew up in a rural African community without electricity or television. I watched TV for the very first time in 1982 when Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass during a visit to Nigeria. I walked for three miles to the place where I could watch that Mass.
We never had a television at home until I was already in high school. This is still the daily reality of many Africans, for better or worse.
Televangelists from the United States were the first to regularly broadcast religious service on TV in Africa. Local Pentecostals, evangelicals and so-called faith healers soon followed.
Many of the African televangelists in the 1990s encouraged people to watch their live ministries and to touch the television screens in the course of the broadcast to encounter “power, healing and miracles”.
Televangelism in Africa promoted all kinds of false religious claims, unverified miracles and superstitious practices. It pushed a prosperity Gospel that, even today, continues to challenge the cause of the Gospel in Africa.
There are some advantages to this means of evangelization in terms of sharing the word of God and personal testimonies to the work of God. It can also be a teaching tool for faith formation, if abuses are removed.
But the Catholic Church in Africa has been careful not to wholeheartedly buy into the magical aspects of televangelism. It has been cautious not to virtualize religious services, which blocks this heightened human connectivity in African communal bond.
The former Pontifical Council on Social Communications issued a document in 2002 that reflects something of my own conviction:
“Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith” (The Church and Internet).
These words also resonate with the African notion of mediation of the divine. The worshipper is not a divine spectator. He or she is an active participant in the divine worship—in body, soul, spirit and mind.
God is not screened, or transmitted as a divine gift that is brought to the worshipper virtually without a direct spatial and spiritual union and connection in a communal setting, beginning with family groups.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures
The worshipper is enraptured in a sacred presence by virtue of direct and real participation through intercession, invocation, dance, and other movements and motions that all constitute the rhythm and flavor of divine worship in many African churches.
The mediatory function of a priest in traditional Africa religion and spirituality is unique. But it is never solitary or remote. The priest without the community is lost.
On the other hand, there is no community unless there is an active sharing of all in the spiritual and concrete life- bond that is concretely reflected in mutual participation of all. That includes the priest, as a member of the community.
The question then arises as to whether the extraordinary measures introduced because of the extraordinary times we face have enhanced immersion of Africa Catholics into the mysteries of the Paschal Mystery.
My family in Nigeria obviously felt some sentiment of spiritual solidarity. But since they were not able to actually receive Holy Communion, they felt they were not fully and actively involved in the celebration of the mysteries of our Redemption.
In Africa, you cannot help prepare a meal and then not share in that meal. Sadly, African Catholics experience a sort of double jeopardy with the virtualization of the Mass. They play no part in preparing the sacred meal, and they cannot receive the sacred body of Christ during the Mass.
Accompanying the people as a priest
I must also confess that by celebrating Mass alone in a small corner of my apartment, I did not feel that I was accompanying the People of God. Many colleagues who are also pastors lamented to me that celebrating virtual live Mass was some form of spiritual penance because it didn’t feel the same.
It is obvious that we are passing very trying times and that the People of God are suffering. However, it is even of ultimate importance that the remedy we are applying does not cause the people more pain by leaving them with greater spiritual emptiness and despair.
There is an important theological principle here in my opinion. It is the question of physical and spiritual accompaniment. The priests need to be close to the people in a real way during these trying times.
We already see some glowing examples of accompaniment in the number of priests who have died ministering to our brothers and sisters who have been struck by this disease. These heroic clerics, working side by side with men and women of goodwill are out there in the streets attending to the homeless, and feeding the hungry as well as burying the dead.
There are many parishes who have developed a calling list to connect with the most vulnerable and Catholics who are connected online in a spiritual chain to support each other.
I confess that I have not been present to my brothers and sisters in their sites of pain in a real way as I stayed in the safety of my apartment saying Mass without God’s people simply because I wanted to make sure that I fulfilled my obligation of saying missa pro populo for Sundays and solemnities.
The Church as a field hospital
At no time is Pope Francis’ call for the Church as a field hospital more apt than now. The Church is not our giant cathedrals and resplendent buildings, it is the People of God in their sites of pain and panic in the face of COVID-19.
The Church is never a fixed structure. It is the dynamic movement of God’s people called to travel especially now in the painful road of tears, silence, wounds, and pain in the hope of the Resurrection.
This ecclesiological image challenges us today to embrace a more creative search for the faces of Christ in the wounded faces of the world today. It should shatter the attachment to cultic acts that often can hold the Church and her members enslaved to repetitive communal practices. These can dull the spiritual perceptivity in seeing the surprises of the Holy Spirit and the signs of the times in finding God in unseemly places.
The image of the Church as a field hospital also reminds us all of the pilgrim nature of our earthly life and the pilgrim character of the Church. Indeed, the word, parish – paroikos – refers to a pilgrim or an alien, someone living on a foreign land.
I think COVID-19 has made this meaning of a parishioner more real for everyone, reminding us of the transitory nature of our lives. This is why the Church’s leadership across the board must seek new paths for meeting the spiritual and pastoral needs of all of God’s people – laity, religious and also clergy.
This will require the Roman Catholic Church to move away from its attachment to cultic performance and embrace a more prophetic way of witnessing to the presence of the Lord in the brokenness and wounds of today’s world.
It is obvious that a virtualization of the sacraments is an imperfect way of trying to meet a crisis by falling back on our default mode. But this way of celebrating the mysteries does not bring the people deeper into the mysteries.
Being touched by God and touching God in the wounds of people is a unique way through which the Church as a field hospital could embrace with greater vigor the new challenges facing our pastoral life and service in these times of COVID-19 and beyond.
The coronavirus is challenging the Church today to rethink her sacramental theology, especially the theology of the Eucharist. How does the Church as a field hospital meet the hunger for God, which many people felt more deeply with the closure of churches?
Are there no other ways and means through which God can be fully mediated and present to the people in their domestic churches (homes) outside of the exclusive and remote performance of the cultic acts of the priest through a virtual Mass?
Are there no other ministries and mysteries that can be celebrated in the absence of priests?
To answer these questions we will have to discover new ways of recognizing the gifts and role of the laity in celebrating the mysteries in their homes, on the streets and in the many hospitals and sites of pain, as we face this pandemic with greater prophetic courage and sacrificial love.
Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Awgu (Nigeria) and research professor of World Catholicism and African Studies at DePaul University in Chicago (USA).
Confessions of an African priest