Die Website der afrikanische katholische Gemeinden in Nordrhein-Westfalen.

An African Priest's Experience

An African Priest’s Experience of a German Catholic Parish and its Challenge of Faith for immigrant African Catholics.

by Pfr. Dr. Justin N. Ekennia

The first impression of an African priest or lay person on visit to Germany is the presence of Church buildings at the centre of each village (Dorf) community. Church towers soar above all buildings as one travels by train or Buses. The Church seems to be the epi-centre of the life of the communities, the life-wire of the people. Some of these Churches were as old as 400 years. The business centres, shops and streets were named after the patron saint of the Church. Such was the case in St Antonius Parish Church, Herten in Ruhr Gebiet in Muenster Diocese where I spent Fifteen months on Sabbatical Leave. One sees Antoniusplatz, Antoniusweg, Antonius Apotheke, Antonius Cafee, etc.

On entry into any of the Churches, the entire architectural work reflected the deep faith and religious life of the people. One could without fear of contradiction claim that the German life is embedded in religious culture. Some ardent catholic faithful are still the custodians of this great catholic heritage. Their lives are eloquent testimony of how the Church formed and positively impacted on the German society. Generally the impact the Church has on the people is most observed in the traditional public holidays associated with certain Church feasts.

Going by some statistics on attendance at Sunday Eucharistic celebrations, one cannot but start questioning if that which the magnificent structures and religio/cultural tradition have for ages represented has not fallen somehow apart, and if so as the famous Igbo literary gene Chinua Achebe put it, the centre no longer holds. In actual fact, present religious reality seems to present a different side of the German Church far apart from its glorious past. For instance in a parish with Catholic population of about 5000, you hardly record 250 persons on attendance during a normal Sunday mass, and these are mostly the aged. One could easily count the number of families of child bearing age, and youths during the regular church service, except on special youth and family masses.

Such a scenario provokes serious thoughts in a critical thinker who comes from a part of the world where fortunately till date the vast majority of Catholics attend Sunday masses and where it is practically impossible to see a parish Church building that would conveniently accommodate all attendants at Mass. One cannot but pose questions regarding the reason behind people’s seeming apathy towards Sunday mass attendance. Could it be viewed as the consequence of their social structure? It is pertinent to enquire into what actually went wrong.

A sampling of opinions on the perceived general apathy towards the Church tends to pinpoint two things: On the one hand, there is a perception of general disappointment on the part of people about both the happenings in the Church’s history and the recent events in the Church. Although people claim to believe in God and in Jesus Christ, however, they maintain that they had lost faith in the Church. On the other hand, materialism and general wellbeing obtainable in the German society seem to have diminished the need for God on the part of not a few people. A statement I often heard was “Es geht uns so gut” (we are comfortable). Therefore, scientific breakthroughs which have totally revolutionized medical treatments and brought material well-being and comfort leave little or no room for dependence on God for solution of basic needs.

None the less, a personal study I carried out among the youth, and some elderly persons, coupled with my personal experiences became an eye opener on the root causes of the people’s apathy towards the Church. It is important to note that these experiences are fruits of many years of pastoral work in many different German Catholic Parishes in many dioceses and not necessarily from a particular parish.

I would like to treat what I perceive to be the root causes of the saddening situation under three sub-headings, namely, Umbriddled secularism/ secularization, Confusion and crisis in the Identity and practice of priests, and finally a failed catechesis for the new generation of Catholics.

Unbriddled Secularism/ Secularisation

One of the consequences of Secularism is the abandonment of the metaphysical project; the exaltation of humanism as opposed to religious and transcendental values. From this standpoint the Church is looked upon as a mere human and social organization devoid of divine plan. People living in a completely secularized, post- Christian society are confronted with a worldview which has no place for the Divine; religion is erroneously relegated to the background such that it appears be totally irrelevant to individual and societal life. The Church consequently ceased from being the epi-centre of the society, it is no longer the life wire of the community. Orthodoxy and commitment to the Church’s teaching became the path which generally only very few and mostly elderly people maintained. There is prevalent relativism among some people which compounds the problem. It makes many misinterpret the raison d’etre of a local church. Granted practical rationalities are products of the social structure according to Alasdair MacIntyre, the idea of local Church does not imply a departure from the core doctrines and morals of the mother Church.

The Church, while rightly existing locally and being enriched culturally therewith, it is primarily proclaimed as One, Catholic and Apostolic as is testified in the Creed. The cultural multiplicity that adorns and beautifies the Church cannot be construed in the sense of independence of the local Church from the One Mother church especially in core doctrinal and moral issues. Some pretentions against a healthy understanding of the local-universal church relationship prevalent among some Catholics in the some Western countries have created more problems for the Western Church instead of solving their basic religious problems.

Crisis of Identity among Priests.

Secularisation could be said to have also affected adversely the priests and religious. Some priests seem to question the authority of the church hierarchy and could by their behavior be said to have become laws unto themselves and lived their priestly life, according to how their feelings told them. Consequently in most cases the people of God are inundated with conflicting and contradictory liturgical practices. Sometimes one would question whether some priests understand what the Church teaches on certain issues like ecumenism. Some could be said to maybe inadvertently sell out the Church for presumably cheap popularity among other Christian and moslem adherents.

The Eucharistic celebration is sometimes compromised in some parishes in order to accommodate the protestant brethren. The Holy Communion as well seem not be understood for what it truely is according to the catholic teaching. Honestly speaking, one is often tempted to doubt the catholicity of some catholic priests who engage in the above observed practices, which are at variance with catholic teaching. Whereas it is presumed that a priest in the Church is meant to be at the service of God and the people and ought to expend his energy to teach the authentic Word of God and minister unto people, it would seem from what is observed as if some priests devote more time to management and administration of Church goods than to the evangelization of the people.

It is no wonder that many of the catholic faithful often complain of their parish priests being so much involved in VERWALTUNG (management) instead of focusing mainly on catechesis. It must be observed though that this is a structural flaw and as such not a fault culpably attributable to individual parish priests. The German society is prevalently a hypo administrational construct, and the church being part of it willingly or otherwise finds itself in more or less the same thought pattern and structural constraint.

Ineffective Catechesis

It is a fact that in most parishes the youth and young families hardly attend regular Sunday masses. In fact, a good number of the catholic faithful no longer come to masses. Some parish priests seem to have become indifferent to this reality and hardly intensify and change their strategy of catechesis. Even though many academic seminars and paper work may exist on the theme of catechesis in the changed situation of german parishes, but they seem to have little or no impact on the status quo. I am tempted to believe that the situation may have been different if the welfare and maintenance of priests were directly linked to the proceeds from the parish, though this has its disadvantages too.

Granted the priests work in difficult circumstances and situations created by anti-clericalism which unfortunately became prominent when the hypocrisy of some clergy were exposed especially in matters of morality, but it could be said to have been worsened by the Church’s apparent neglect or failure to effectively discipline the culprits. As a consequence, the sincerity of priests is now more than ever put to question and many are afraid to work with the youths for fear of blanket accusation of child abuse. So these factors compound the already precarious situation.

The Implications of these hard facts in the Western Church for an African immigrant.

An African immigrant, whether priest, religious or lay faithful is bound to encounter serious challenges and troubles in order to come to terms with the status quo in Western Catholic Church. Apart from the difficulties of non-integration into the society which make many an African migrant feel unwanted, the difficulties in mastery of the German language keep lots of the lay Africans off from identifying with the Catholic Church. An African from a culture where there is a deep sense of the sacred and respect for religious leaders and ministers is bound to experience serious shock when priests and religious are vilified and treated like commoners.

The Eucharistic celebration which often lacks the elements of a celebration which it ought to be, becomes unattractive to an African. If the vibrant European youth complain about the dullness and sterile nature of Sunday masses especially when it is regarded as a functional affair celebrated in a calibrated fashion and often in a hurry, how much more the African who is acquainted with and yearns really to celebrate Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy with all its vitality and festive mood? Some African Catholic immigrants in Germany prefer to join non-denominational churches to express their religious sentiments.

Recently a new catechesis for the African immigrants has been introduced in many cities of the Western world to sustain and deepen their faith in the Catholic Church. This Africanization within Western states has saved many Catholics from deviating from the Catholic faith. The African Catholic communities in Europe and America have a special vocation of revitalizing the liturgical celebrations in the communities they find themselves. They ought to take care to train their children religiously and inculcate into them the African religiosity and the sense and respect for the Holy. This is their greatest challenge, but also their greatest contribution to the society where they find themselves, to become missionaries of a sort, by living up to their catholic faith in joy and enthusiasm.