Nigeria: plentiful candidates bring blessings and challenges

Nigeria: plentiful candidates bring blessings and challenges

By Rita Schwartzenberger OP, c

Candidates to religious life are plentiful in Nigeria, but the complete picture of vocation ministry is far more complex than burgeoning numbers alone. Let’s begin by looking at the social and religious context for religious communities and their new members. Nigeria is a country of between 120 and 140 million people. Roughly 40-45 percent are estimated to be Christian, and of those, the largest denomination is Roman Catholicism. Thus one can safely estimate that more than 20 million Nigerians are Roman Catholic. Nigeria also has a high birth rate, so there is a large youth population. The lifespan of Nigerians has risen over the last several decades, but with an increase in HIV/AIDS, it will likely lower in the coming years.

Nigeria is a country rich in natural resources. It is internationally known as one of the big players in oil production and export. As a result many people, both within and outside the country, think of it as a wealthy nation. The reality is that, due to internal corruption coupled with external pressures resulting in high debt and unstable economic policies, the majority of the people in Nigeria live in poverty. National debt manifests itself in the deterioration of public services, and the consequent breakdown of social order. The wealth of the few in all ways—access to services, to education, to health care, etc.—stands in sharp contrast to the poverty of the many.

It is in this context that we consider the question of vocations in Nigeria.

Cultural influences on religious vocations

Despite many factors which increasingly break down cultural and traditional values, Nigeria remains largely a collectivist culture. Family ties, including extended family, are fundamental to a Nigerian. Marriage, with children to carry on the family name and presence, is thus seen as an essential element of the culture. Religious life, with its commitment to celibacy, is seen by many as contrary to their culture, and thus to be denied. At the same time, many young people can no longer stay within the milieu of family activities, because the traditional dependence upon subsistence farming cannot be sustained where land is limited and the population continues to grow. Thus the need for employment, as well as the attractions of city life, increasingly draw young people into urban centers where they face serious challenges to the traditional understanding of their culture.

Culture is, of course, a dynamic concept. Elements of the traditional culture at times conflict with elements of the global consumer culture manifested in movies, clothing, music, etc. Other times seemingly contrasting elements of culture exist side by side, e.g., high value placed on community living alongside the desire for the MP3 player that allows one to live inside one’s own world for hours. At times, also, it seems that the traditional value to be like evesulryone else in the culture (e.g., wearing traditional clothing) is replaced by the desire to be like everyone else in what is seen as modern life (e.g., everyone wanting cell phones).

For young people, whether they live in rural villages or have been exposed to the outside world, there is a desire for a better future. Most of them, considering their background, economically and educationally, have little chance for such a future.

Religious context for vocations

It is difficult to find any Nigerian family in which religion is not given primary importance. Prayer is an integrated element of daily life. Islamic and Christian religion are taught in the primary and secondary schools as regular subjects. This means young Catholics get a general knowledge of Scripture and some moral principles, but often they do not get grounded in the Catholic faith. This is important in light of the fact that in order to attend school, especially at the secondary level, at times young people live in boarding schools or with another family. Thus they do not gain a more mature understanding of Catholic faith from their parents.

The church structures in most parishes are huge, and people fill them on a typical Sunday. Many also attend weekly devotions and daily Mass. Instructions in local parishes are often geared toward sacramental preparation, thus once children are baptized and confirmed, little more formal education takes place. Clericalism is strong, and lay “leadership” in the church is very much controlled by the clerics. Churches have charismatic prayer groups, but these are not usually directed toward teaching fundamental elements of belief. Thus there is a deep religious tendency that is often waiting for more direction. At times that direction comes from some of the “mushroom churches” for obvious reasons.

Attractions to religious life

It is within these cultural and religious contexts that young Nigerians are invited to enter religious life. In many ways religious life is an ideal response to many of the challenges named here. It is not difficult to see what those in vocation ministry and those who are in charge of formation are facing in terms of discerning who is to be admitted and retained. If we take as an example the desire for uniforms, it is not unknown for some young people to be drawn to a religious order because they admire the habit, i.e., uniform. And along with that uniform comes the prestige that goes with wearing it. This can be a rather attractive situation for a young person who has had no recognition in a society where young people are not normally held in high regard. Such factors are not always easily discerned when a young person is in the process of applying or in initial formation.

The young person who is drawn to religious life because of a strong feeling of call may also present several challenges. As noted above, there is often poor religious formation in childhood. This may necessitate a longer period of discernment and even formation as the young candidate must become firmly grounded in the faith. For someone who wants to enter into a religious experience more quickly, this process may be too slow, especially as there may be other alternatives to a congregation that exercises more discretion in its admission of candidates into the congregation. For some congregations, admission requirements may not be so demanding. Thus there may be a high turnover of aspirants.

Another attractive element of religious life is the possibility of getting higher education, especially the possibility of going overseas. Such opportunities are less and less possible for most young Nigerians, but they are seen as possible for priests and religious. Hence the desire to serve God may be tied to the perceived possibility of serving in a way or place that is a dream for most people.

Here one must also consider the type of institute to which an aspirant applies. A fairly large number of international congregations exist in Nigeria alongside some large indigenous congregations with overseas ministries. For an aspirant looking for an opportunity to go abroad, these congregations offer the most attractive option.

On the other hand, a congregation situated in an area with Islamic dominance (where Christians are a minority) or located where the weather itself is a harsh challenge, may find fewer aspirants. A candidate needs a special grace to choose a situation where insecurity may be a reality of daily life.

Retaining new members

Regarding retention of vocations, those in formation face several challenges. One is the general low level of education. This is manifested in two ways. Some candidates have low exam scores and are almost not accepted into religious communities as a result. But their low scores are due to poor teaching because the parents could not afford to pay fees at a higher quality private school. Others have good exam results, but later it becomes obvious that they achieved them by having another person take the exam. The question of education is important because religious congregations need members with solid grounding in theology, psychology, etc., as well as members who can be active, earning participants.

A second challenge in retaining vocations is the concept of religious life and authority. Traditionally a person in a position of authority, e.g., a chief of a village or head of a clan can expect to be served by all those in his domain, whether young or old, rich or poor. This is the normal way of things. Religious life expects superiors to serve others, but superiors are also very much part of their culture and may even unknowingly take on the characteristics and expectations of secular images of authority, expecting to be served by members of the congregation. This dynamic affects the kind of candidates who stay, because some will accept such a situation, while others will reject it. Those who show more independence and maturity may not be seen as suitable by those in authority and thus are dismissed.

Other times misguided motives present a challenge to retention. Candidates seeking more security or personal enhancement, such as higher education, can become disillusioned and leave when they find their desired security missing or discover that personal needs must be subjected to the needs of the congregation or to budget limits. It is not always possible for vocation or formation ministers to detect such desires immediately.

Another factor in retaining new members is tribal divisions within religious communities. Nigerians deeply identify with their own ethnic group, and this figures strongly in both vocation recruitment and in formation. While it is true that Nigerians belong to a collectivist culture, and it would seem to follow that community life would be easier because of this, in reality it does not work that way. In the family people share the same background, the same culture and traditions, etc. In religious life members live with people of different tribes with different cultures. It is estimated that Nigeria has around 400 tribes with around 250 languages. Tribal identity is very strong, and within the country people are identified by their tribe and place of origin. This distinction operates in all sectors of life. For instance people are considered for a place in the university not according to where they were born or where they live, but according to their place of origin, which is the place where their ancestors lived. The distinctions of tribal identity become a very deep part of the psyche.

While living with people of different cultures is a challenge in all situations, even in the U.S. which considers itself a melting pot, in a place where ethnic languages, modes of dressing, customs and mores have remained very distinctive, multi-ethnicity creates a unique tension in community life. A candidate who enters a community must learn how to avoid drifting toward the comfortable, in other words, being drawn into a cultural clique. Formation and vocation personnel must consciously seek to be open to all aspirants and candidates, not only those from their own tribe. The community at large needs to develop a multicultural awareness that fosters growth through its diversity.

Clericalism is yet another factor when it comes to new-member retention. For men’s groups, where not only religious life but also priesthood is possible, there may be a double attraction in ways that may not be healthy. However, that said, there are other ways in which vocations are affected by clericalism. Because there are large numbers of young people, especially young women, who express a desire to enter religious life, and because in some cases the way religious live their lives is not sufficiently in accordance with the standards of some bishops, the bishops will found their own groups of religious to carry out the ministry as they define it.

How vocations are encouraged

Religious in Nigeria have developed a variety of approaches to interest young people in religious life. A key value for many African cultures is relationship building, so many practices are built on this value. An aspirant to a congregation is encouraged to write to a specific member and build up a relationship with that person. The aspirant is also invited to spend days with either a local community or a novitiate community. Such an aspirant might also be encouraged to seek work in one of the congregational institutions or in an area close to one of the local communities so there can be on-going relationship building. Those in charge of vocations visit the aspirant, especially in the home so that they can become acquainted with the entire family. Days of prayer for aspirants allow them to relate to members of the congregation on a spiritual level. All these practices have relationship-building as a foundational value in encouraging religious vocations.

Another core value in vocation ministry is service. Young people are attracted to religious they know and see offering service. In many cases they voluntarily assist the religious in his or her service to others. Thus they come to know and understand more fully the call to serve, and gradually become more acquainted with community life.

Publications such as diocesan newspapers also help make congregations known to prospective candidates. Other times religious congregations set up vocation displays on selected days and sites in order to introduce young people to their mission and vision of religious life. Many congregations make an effort to minister in either their own or another secondary school in order to attract those in that level of education. Finally, the use of the habit makes religious highly visible, and their presence and witness as students on university campuses can spur interest.

Realities that work against religious vocations

Religious life as it is exists within the socio-economic milieu. The poverty affecting the Nigerian society (obviously not evangelical poverty) also affects religious communities. Communities find themselves struggling for the means to provide for the physical and health needs of their members, to educate them, to care for those in formation and administration, etc. As a result, when a candidate is accepted, he or she is ordinarily given a list of required items to bring. For many who come from poor families, this list is a daunting prospect. For some it may prove prohibitive. For others it may cause them to engage in self-destructive behavior. Yet religious congregations find that they need such assistance in order to accept candidates.

When the candidates do arrive, the problem of financial insecurity remains. The congregation faces these challenges constantly. Members may be sent out to mission work or to pursue higher education without sufficient funds. In order to succeed they need to find alternate sources of money. Thus they may begin to rely on outsiders, e.g., a local parish priest or a wealthy person, in order to carry out their task. This puts their religious life in danger if those who assist them use the help as leverage for taking advantage of the candidate. Outside “helpers” may require service of different sorts from the religious, for instance expecting the religious to clean their house, do their laundry, or follow other more serious requests.

A usual requirement of a religious institute is that the candidate bring a letter of recommendation from a parish priest. This has also led to abuse where priests have requested special favors from the candidate, creating situations that hinder vocations.

Required testing may also be a factor working against religious vocations.While psychological testing is well-known in the West, in some cases it is rejected because it is not understood and because most psychological tests are Western in orientation. Another test introduced within the last few years is HIV screening. Again, this causes some candidates to withdraw because they are not willing to undergo such screening. There may be a number of reasons for this.

A candidate may feel that such a test indicates that the congregation does not trust him or her. Or candidates may fear that the test will be positive, and they would not know what to do. Others, especially young women, might decline the test because of the taboo against discussing sexual issues. Testing for HIV is a question that religious have discussed at length because of its implications for congregations, especially when a prospective candidate is found positive and is refused admission. What is the responsibility of the congregation to such candidate in terms of information, counseling, etc.?

Challenges of large numbers of entrants While in the West vocations are on the decline, in Nigeria the numbers at times are larger than can be accommodated. Many congregations have found it necessary over the past few years to greatly limit the number of candidates they accept. If there are too many aspirants, it is difficult to visit all the families, which is considered an important part of discernment before admission of candidates.

When the candidates enter, it is not possible for formation directors to get to know the candidates personally if there are too many. It is important to be able to discern a candidate’s motive for entering the congregation, but if the director is over-extended, a candidate can easily hide his or her true self from the director. In addition, in smaller indigenous congregations where finances have been limited, the person in formation may have had little opportunity to be trained in that ministry, and multiplying the number of candidates in formation makes the novice director’s task even more difficult.

As noted before almost all of the congregations struggle to support themselves. Those in formation and administration must be supported by other members of the congregation. Too many entrants make that task even more difficult. It is not easy for any congregation to make choices about whom to admit, but because of past experience and with the assistance of psychological testing, communities in Nigeria are making those choices.

Future of religious life in Nigeria

In the history of the West religious life was a more attractive option when other opportunities were less available. In the foreseeable future, because of the large population in the country, the poverty and the dismal forecast for any noticeable change, it seems as if the future of religious life in Nigeria will continue in somewhat the same manner.

However, that said, several things must be noted. One of these is the spread of HIV/AIDS. As with other countries in Africa, it is likely that a large number of young people will die of the disease. Others will be forced to give up their own plans to care for family members. In some countries, religious have had to leave their congregations in order to care for the children of their brothers and sisters who have died. Unless there is some type of medical breakthrough, Nigeria will be severely affected within the next few years.

Already some congregations are limiting their numbers, as noted above, in order to provide better formation, and others may be forced to do so because of economic reasons. Laity in some instances have begun to complain that they are being put out of church jobs, such as teaching, because religious are brought in. This creates tension between religious and laity, and while it is still largely latent, in the future, if the economic situation does not improve, the conflict may become more overt. With increasing numbers of laity being educated and feeling that they have a voice, there may be more open confrontation.

The ability of religious to leave their institutes, especially women, may also affect religious life in the future. In the past it was taboo for a woman to live alone. Thus anyone who was asked to leave religious life often continued wearing a “habit” (distinctive dress and veil) because it was a protection as well as an aid to getting assistance. But with changing culture, women feel more free to follow their own inner path, resulting in their own decision at times to leave their congregations. Families, also, do not feel the same sense of shame regarding a child’s departure from religious life.

One more challenge congregations need to face regarding the future is the place of the biological family within the religious family. Extended family demands on members can be continuous and extensive, especially on family members with some status and who are working at a paid job. Family members in religious life are not exempt from these demands. The religious themselves often feel caught between the demands of their family and their responsibility to their community. They have been taught to reach out to the poor, and so especially when they are from a poor family, they find themselves in an inner conflict if they feel they cannot help their own.

God’s Spirit is alive

As noted earlier Nigeria is a country with a strong sense of the spiritual in daily life. People on the whole do not conceive of life without religion, and they find it difficult to understand when a person does not believe in God or does not worship at any particular church. For them, believing in God and worshipping together are as essential as the air they breathe. The God to whom they pray is a living God, very much part of their lives. This is the reality in which vocations are located. And it is the reality that is created and reinforced by religious vocations. The church in Nigeria has benefited greatly from the services of religious men and women who have dedicated their lives to God and to the service of others. Despite all the challenges and difficulties faced, the Spirit of God can be seen working through these servants of God.

Rita Schwartzenberger, OP has a master’s in religious education and is completing a master’s in conflict transformation. She has ministered in Nigeria since 1975, initially working in teacher training. For the past 18 years she has worked in capacity building for church organizations, taking part in justice, peace and development work. For this article she consulted with Nigerians in vocation and formation ministry.


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