OF AFRICAN INDIGENOUS RELIGIONS
ON ROMAN CATHOLICISM,
THE IGBO EXAMPLE.
Whether the truce in the age-old hostility is permanent or not, the recent shift in the official attitude of the Catholic Church towards non-Christian religions including African indigenous ones, is as historic as it is revolutionary. The Second Vatican Council remains both the culminating point as well as the point of departure for bold and positive developments that we witness currently in inter-religious relations. Up until the Vatican II, the official policy of the Church in relation to other religions and their millions of adherents was, to put it mildly, unchristian. That was the protracted era of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation - whatever interpretation one gives to that). Incontestably, the negative attitude reflected the dominant mind-set and extreme ethnocentrism of the age in the West. Social analysts and writers like Auguste Comte and George J. Fraser, inspired by Darwin ’s theory of evolution of species had suggested a similar unilineal evolutionary trend for human society and culture. Black sub-Saharan African races, if at all human, were thought to be at the lowest stage of the evolution ladder. The cultures and religions of the “so-called savages” were “barbaric” and in dire need of civilisation and conversion.
The negative policy was often complicated in the mission-field by the bitter competition that characterised Christian evangelical enterprise by rival groups. The heydays of missionary campaign were between the 19th and first half of the 20th-centuries in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa . The literary artist, John Munonye (1966) tries to re-capture the prevalent sentiment of the era in the following words he puts into the mouth of the Father Superior of one of the major expatriate missionary congregations. “… call it vote of the masses if you like. In pursuit of that objective, I’m afraid we’ve got to be impatient with the culture of the people. There isn’t time to sort out first and label their customs as acceptable and unacceptable. To be ruthless in our method and yet successful in our aim, we must ensure that all along we present to the people good and tangible evidence of the advantages of Christianity”.
But, it would be wrong to conclude from the largely negative attitude of the pre-Vatican II era, that African Indigenous Religions had no influence on Roman Catholicism. Not only would that contradict one of the canons of socio-cultural change (a view that would definitely excite considerable interest among social analysts and researchers), but it could also be a case of pre-mature conclusion drawn without adequate attention to the facts. In fact, as the Igbo example which I propose to elaborate in this paper illustrates, there has always been some kind of influence of African Indigenous Religions on Roman Catholicism in the Continent, albeit in varying degrees, and either positive or negative, from one phase of the interaction to another. I shall indeed be arguing that in the Igbo case, this influence commenced from the earliest stage of the advent of the Catholic missionaries in the late 19th-century, and has continued ever since to the present. It is possible to distinguish certain distinct phases in that continuum, such as the stage of initial huge interest and influence of the Igbo language for purposes of disseminating the gospel message, particularly in preaching and production of basic literary texts. There is also the phase of direct influence on the received Catholic tradition of several other aspects of the indigenous religious culture such as art, music and dance, title-system, age-differentiation system, architectural design, as well as organisational patterns.
The impact of visible indigenous cultural forms may be readily evident and easily measurable, but as I intend to argue in the latter part of this essay, it is really at the ideational level (that is, the level of fundamental perception of reality/world-view) with the inter-related attitudes, value orientation and moral disposition, that the influence of the indigenous religious culture on Roman Catholicism comes into bold relief. The attainment of national selfhood/independence (in the 1960s for several African countries), and more relevantly, the Second Vatican Council are two major developments that provide the backdrop to the acceleration of the rate of influence. I plan to give due attention to that phase. I shall try to conclude on a note that should be viewed more as a personal reflection than a critical academic analysis, of the cumulative effect of the Indigenous Religion on Roman Catholicism currently in Igboland.
The Influence of Igbo Language
In spite of their disdain for the indigenous religious culture, pioneer Christian missionaries in general (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant), knew pretty well they had to depend on the indigenous language to communicate the gospel message to the people. While the doctrines and principal religious ideas remained those of their respective Christian traditions, the local language as the primary medium of communication with their host, provided the bulk of the concepts, terms and linguistic symbols and imageries. That is not all. It set limit to thought and understanding of the received message of the missionaries.
Missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.), who were the first to arrive Igbo territory (1857), had a further head-start over their Roman Catholic counter-part. Among their pioneers at Onitsha was Rev. John Christopher Taylor from Sierra Leone , an ex-slave of Igbo parentage. He and other saros in the company of the C.M.S. facilitated the initial effort of their group in terms of knowledge of Igbo language. The Roman Catholics, on the other hand, relied mainly on the services of local helpers and interpreters. In their case, the full import of the maxim; “every translator is a traitor” was realised to the letter, as local assistants constantly betrayed their shallow grasp of instructions more in their mistranslation. Wrongly translated prayers, sacred hymns and catechetical materials from English/Latin to Igbo were for a long time, a common feature in liturgical books in use in Igboland. A poor grasp of doctrine and erroneous religious attitude that these fostered in converts, form part of the total impact of the indigenous religious culture on Roman Catholicism.
In another development, the opposition and eventual rejection in 1929 of the production of a common Igbo orthography, Union Igbo, as it was formally called, by expatriate Catholic missionaries, might have brought some short-term advantage. It was feared that erroneous doctrine would enter the fold from Protestants, if the Union Igbo was accepted. But, in the long run, it was counter-productive. Neither did the failure of missionaries, particularly from the time of Bishop J. Shanahan, to learn and use the Igbo language in their pastoral work, help matters. For too long, the Catholic Church retained the trappings of a foreign and elitist religion with many of its important terms and concepts left in foreign, rather than local language.
Older Catholics do still recall some of the caustic and laughable jokes illiterate members made out of such foreign religious jargons in the Catholic Catechism text, for example, the names of the seven sacraments; baptism, confirmation, holy eucharist, confession, extreme unction, holy orders and matrimony were mockingly rendered thus. (Sakaramenti buga ndia; baa-tism, confameshion, ukarika di-aso, Joseph Nwa-ekpili, nwanneya nke nwulu-anwu, dagbunyelu n’oku, na man-trimony). Or, the case of the old grand-ma by name Maria, who was reportedly harassed every week-end by her grand children to go to kwen-kweshion (sacrament of Reconciliation) on Saturdays in preparation for the Sunday holy Mass. Maria finally decides to attend the sacrament. There in the church at the confessional, the pastor queries; “Maria did you commit sin?” (Maria imelu njo?) She replies; “My son, I did not commit any sin, but if a fellow woman insults me, I give it back to her with an equally sharp insult” (Nwam emehowum njo-nwa, Kama agbala nwanyi ibe gwam okwu, arolum okwu dinma gwa-gwachaa ya-aru). The pastor then reportedly quipped, “Maria you may go, you did not sin” (Maria naba-nu imeho njo).
In a similar vein, an expatriate Catholic missionary was reported to have taught children at a catechism class that, “God has very much power in heaven”. In his attempt to speak Igbo he failed to respect the tonal marks and ended up saying that (Chukwu nwelu nnukwu ike, n’ enu-’igwe – God has a big bottom, on a piece of steel) While the catechist got the following answer from an old lady convert at the catechism examination for baptism, “how many types of spirit are there?” (Uzo otu nmuo one di. The old woman reportedly answered; “They are legion, where would one begin to enumerate? Would I mention Ulaga, or Ike-udo, or Ijele, or Nw’ikpo”(Fa abakanu-abaka. Kedu ebe aga ebido-ebido guba, Aga ebido na Ulaga, m’obu Ike-udo, m’obu Ijele, mobu na Nw’-ikpo? The old lady misunderstands the question and answers with a list of local masquerades which also are known as spirits by the Igbo. (I acknowledge the assistance of Mrs V. Onumajuru in the jokes).
Your guess is as good as mine about the quality of grasp of the faith and formation in spirituality such poorly-explained and hardly-understood concepts achieved. All that of course, forms part of the total impact of the indigenous religio-cultural background on Roman Catholicism in Igboland.
Certainly, there were several landmark achievements made by the Catholic missionary pioneers in respect of Igbo language, including the early publications of Father Aime Ganot of an Igbo Dictionary, an Igbo Grammar book and Katechismi Nke Okwukwe in the early 1900s; also the Ndu Dinwenu Anyi and the Igbo Catechism by the Catholic Mission in 1940 and 1944 respectively, etc. A full discussion of that important contribution together with the significant effort of the indigenous collaborators, including John Anyogu (later bishop), John Dureke, and Joseph Modebe is not of immediate concern to us in this paper.
Other Aspects of the Indigenous Religious Culture;
One needs a broad conceptualisation of Igbo religion to better grasp the full significance of its influence. Religion, it should be recalled, is the womb of the culture in the traditional Igbo background. It permeates most aspects of life, and infuses them with meaning and significance. Major A.G. Leonard, the pioneer soldier-administrator from Scotland who served for ten years in the Lower Niger (1885 – 1905), had concluded rightly that for the indigenous Igbo, like the Hindu, “their religion was their life and their life religion”, 1906: 429. Important ideas and values were all ritualised. Chi, Mpata-aku, Ihejioku, Ikenga, Omumu/Ogwugwu, were revered cosmic beings and forces believed by the indigenous Igbo to be responsible for such vital values and ideals as uniqueness of the individual, progress, wealth-acquisition, success and achievement, as well as regeneration in men, animals and vegetation.
Catholic and other Christian missionary groups had mounted sustained campaign against these and other aspects of Igbo indigenous religion. Their onslaught led eventually to what O.U. Kalu and E. A. Ayandele refer to poignantly as the “rout of the gods” and “the collapse of Igbo pagandom” (Ikenga-Metuh ed., 1986: 1f, 134f). Chi, Mpata-aku, Ikenga, and other relevant deities and cosmic forces of the Igbo were dislocated and supplanted. But, some important attitudes and ideals they helped the indigenous people to cultivate as part of their total personality, (e.g. self-reliance, competitive spirit, strong achievement motif, progressive outlook), were exploited by the missionaries to benefit Christianity. The multiplicity of Catholic mission schools, a common feature of life in Igboland before1970, the phenomenal growth of converts to the Church, even the outstanding increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life (men and women), are not unrelated to the indigenous cultural background of the Igbo. (Recall the story of Ezeulu in Chinua Achebe’s novel. Ezeulu asks one of his sons to enrol in the mission school in the hope that he would serve later as his eyes and ears in the new world of the white man. Similar tales abound in individual biographies of pioneer converts).
Even the major shift and refocusing in Catholic missionary strategy that took place at the dawn of the 20th-century, was informed partly by and traceable to the influence of the indigenous religion. The missionaries had embarked on an initial apostolate of redeeming slaves and establishing proto-type Christian villages for pioneer Igbo converts, made up mainly of outcasts and lowly members of the society. The bulk of the population, appeared not to have been moved by that strategy, partly because such class of people were not generally regarded highly in the traditional background. Their poor destiny, it was thought, could be the result of some divine wrath due invariably to some serious moral/ritual misconduct. The Father Superior, Lejeune and his confreres were therefore, impelled to articulate and launch a more effective policy of evangelisation, namely; the formal education/school apostolate in 1903.
On the other hand, the missionaries quickly noticed that the Igbo were traditionally positively disposed to and attracted by rich religious paraphernalia and mystically-oriented rituals. They exploited this to the full. From time to time, they organised well choreographed liturgical celebrations in strategic towns like Aguleri and Ogboli-Onitsha for such major feasts like Corpus Christi , confirmation, wedding ceremony, patronal feast. V.A. Nwosu further buttresses the point.
Another method Catholic missionaries used considerably to their advantage was making their acts of public worship (liturgy) as elaborate and colourful as possible. During religious feasts, especially the Mass and various devotions to the Blessed Eucharist and the saints, altars were beautifully decorated with flowers, lighted candles, incense and colourful vestments were used. Statues of saints as well as the crucifix were displayed at strategic places. Organ music would accompany the choir which sang hymns in Latin and Vernacular.
Such well dramatised celebrations made significant impact in the minds of people, and not infrequently helped conversion as entries in missionary journals reveal. Listen to one such detailed entry made barely two years of the missionaries’ arrival in Onitsha , precisely on August 28, 1887 on the feast of Most Holy Heart of Mary;
Fair weather allows a good crowd of Onitsha people to assist our divine service today, which are (sic) celebrated with exceptional solemnity. Palm branches behind the statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph are studded with flowers. Papers, variously coloured are fixed to the windows by Father Superior; a splendid garniture, made perfectly by one of our girls, enhances the spell of our sanctuary, already shining with a great number of marvellous branches of flowers gathered on the altar and around the statues, with a beautiful background of harmonious green, tastely set out. Father Horne sings the high Mass … Father Superior skilfully draws the fine melodies from the harmonium, whereas Brother Hermas sings the solos, and the boys under his direction, with impelling energy, sing piously the Mass VI, tone Durmont …(cited by V.A Nwosu, Obi 1985: 382).
Certainly, there was some resemblance of aspects of Igbo indigenous religious worship and certain features of the Roman liturgy. One clear example was the similarity between the awe and dominant sense of mystery that largely characterised the Pius V Roman Liturgy in vogue in the pre-Vatican II era on the one hand, and the dense ritual symbolism, aura and mystically-oriented nature of Igbo indigenous religion. (Compare the elaborate ritual paraphernalia and drama that generally accompany the procession of ritual officiants, or the movement of physical symbols of a deity by Igbo traditional religionists, and the rite of Benediction to the Blessed Sacrament or the Corpus Christi celebration of Roman Catholics).
Even the fundamental outlook, perception or vision of reality (world-view), as well as a number of important beliefs and ideas of the indigenous Igbo, were said to have considerably influenced the overall method of evangelisation of many Catholic missionaries, including the great Bishop Joseph Shanahan.
The method Catholic missionaries adopted here in teaching the faith to the people especially since the time of Bishop Shanahan …was one which strove to transform, not destroy, the people’s religious consciousness. The missionaries realized that the people’s traditional religious ideas were not so much incorrect as incomplete, and required only completion and sublimation.
C. A Obi who talks of “proto-Christian” content of much of Igbo traditional religion, concludes that the people’s outstanding response to the mission of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Onitsha and its neighbourhood was greatly facilitated by the “spirit-consciousness of the Igbo”(1985: 380).
Vatican II and the Turn-around;
With the Second Vatican Council comes a radical shift in virtually every significant aspect of life of the Church. Particularly in the areas of the Church’s understanding of itself and its mission in the world, Vatican II articulated some of the most profound and revolutionary insight that have continued to shape developments both within and outside the Church, concerning particularly the well-being of man, society and religious life.
Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), for example opens with the declaration linking the mystery of the Church with the unity of the human race (art. 1), while Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), speaks of the universal application of the “reign of God” (Missio Dei), as one that is not necessarily ecclesiocentric, but does apply “to all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way” (art. 22). On the vital subject of religious freedom in a contemporary world that is markedly plural and complex, the Council proclaims in no unmistaken terms that the human person enjoys the fundamental right of religious freedom. “This freedom means that all men (people) are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (Dignitatis Humanis, art. 2).
Although none of the documents of Vatican II mentions African Indigenous Religions by name, there is a wide consensus that the latter are included in the all-embracing category of non-Christian Religions discussed in Nostra Aetate (the Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). In one of its most oft-quoted pronouncement on the subject, the Council clearly spells out the Church’s current position on religions of the world other than Christianity. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with reverence those other ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. … The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the social-cultural values found among these men”(art. 2).
Some Major External Stimulators;
The intellectual ferment that led to these far-reaching pronouncements in the Catholic Church did not occur in a vacuum. Certain noteworthy events in the wider world many of which directly or indirectly affected the thinking and course of developments in the Church, did take place in the period prior to and around the commencement of the Second Vatican Council. The Second World War 1939 – 1945, for instance, had brought with it a lot of lessons; particularly about the inter-dependence of peoples, a sense of disenchantment with the prevailing idea of progress mainly in terms of science and technology, better travelling facilities and access to different peoples and regions of the world, greater knowledge and information about other cultures and races, etc.
On the other hand, on the political front, demand for national selfhood by many colonial dependencies in different parts of the world grew louder and more strident after World War II. Along with that was a reawakening of the sense of cultural identity among several colonised peoples of the world, including Africa . K.O. Mbadiwe until his death, never tired telling the story of his struggle with the expatriate parish priest at Urualla (Ideato L.G.A, Imo State) in 1948, over his (Mbadiwe’s) insistence on wearing as his wedding outfit at the holy Mass, the Nigerian fabric and design (Ashoke), rather than the traditional three-piece English suit and a flowing white wedding gown by him and his spouse respectively.
Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue (PCID);
In the little over forty years since the successful conclusion of Vatican II, various agencies and institutions of the Church have grown up charged with responsibility of implementing the different decisions. One such institution is the autonomous dicastery of the Roman Curia known at its creation in 1964 as Secretariatus Pro Non-Christianis (Secretariat for Non-Christians), now called Pontificium Consilium Pro Dialogo Inter Religiones (the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue - PCID). Until a few years ago, it was headed by a most distinguished son of Igboland; the emeritus Archbishop of Onitsha (His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze).
I presume the mandate, focus and work of the PCID are familiar to many of us, thanks to the regular annual briefings of His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze while he served as the President of the Pontifical Council, as well as the many publications of the Council and the ex-President himself. What may not be immediately known to many of you gathered in this auditorium this morning, is that the conference you have organised, in fact, conforms with a recent directive of the Pontifical Council. In the “Letter of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences in Asia, the Americas and Oceania ”, the Council urges that greater pastoral attention be given to Traditional Religions around the world. A similar letter, we are informed by the document, was earlier addressed to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar .
The document proceeds to list the major elements of the Indigenous Religions, such as a clear belief in One God, a belief in spirits like those of deceased ancestors, a moral code, etc. Adducing reasons and the need for the advocated greater pastoral attention and dialogue with Indigenous Religions towards proper inculturation, the Letter states inter alia that elements of both a religion and the culture influenced by it can enrich catechesis and liturgy, and therein attain their fulfilment. As for inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Indigenous Religionists, the document insists that dialogue be understood in the broadest possible sense, namely as the pastoral approach “in the ordinary sense of encounter, mutual understanding, respect, discovery of the seeds of the Word in the religion, and the joint quest for God’s will”, in order to present the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the most appropriate manner, so that the Church may have deeper roots among the people (21 November, 1993: 4).
Unarguably, developments in inter-religious relations since the Vatican II have been far-reaching, even as experts continue to explore further; including the possibility of regarding non-Christian Religions as “ordinary channels of salvation for their members”. Against the background of the revolutionary change in attitude and thinking in the Church, let me further highlight certain striking areas of influence of Igbo Indigenous Religion on Roman Catholicism in the post Vatican II era.
Language, Music and Art;
The level and degree of influence of the three may not be even. But, the overall impact of Igbo language, music and art on Roman Catholicism particularly since Vatican II, is huge and highly significant. Serious commitment on the part of the local Church since 1970 to the use of Igbo language in the administration of the sacraments and sacramentals, including bearing of Igbo names by candidates at baptism, has brought about the greater influence of the indigenous language in the Church. The initial objection and protest that formed part of the novel practice in the 1970s quickly died down. Thus, Igbo language gradually has since become accepted as the ordinary language of liturgical worship and sacramental administration in the Catholic Church in Igboland. The successful translation of basic religious texts into the indigenous language, especially the entire Bible, the Roman Missal and sacramental rites, is very positive and relevant. The greater usage of Igbo language in the Church’s liturgy naturally brings with it the employment of many indigenous religious concepts, idioms, and expressions into the lexicon of the Roman Catholic Church in Igboland. This, in turn, brings into the Catholic tradition certain orientation in spirituality and moral attitude from the Igbo indigenous religious and cultural background.
The account of the influence of Igbo language on Roman Catholicism today would be incomplete without mentioning the significance of the Odenigbo series (lecture and colloquium). This is a fairly recent special pastoral cum academic initiative of Archbishop A.J.V. Obinna and Archdioyosis nke Owerre. Its primary goal and design is to use the Igbo language and culture to spread the message of Jesus Christ to Igbo people. Kristi Odenigbo is fast gaining popularity within and outside Imo State . Archbishop Obinna and his collaborators in the series are determined to avail of the unique opportunity of the Odenigbo to translate and render properly most, if not all, alien religious terminologies and jargons that are still found in Igbo Catholic literature. The project is proceeding well. One needs time, however, to be able to correctly assess its real impact on the Igbo religious terrain.
The influence of the indigenous religion on the Church’s liturgical music in the post-Vatican II era is equally significant, thanks to the continuing effort of the different Diocesan and inter-Diocesan Liturgical Music Commissions. Through their effort, the Catholic Church in Igboland has been able to mobilise and encourage talented individuals to use their skills in order to blend indigenous rhythms, tunes and motifs into the Church’s musical ensemble. Worthy of special mention, is the evident rhythmic appeal and gusto of many contemporary musical pieces for specific aspects of the liturgy in the Igbo Church today; particularly songs for Offertory, Holy Communion, and Free Choruses.
Some people have wondered as to the source of their special appeal. I suggest that a good measure of it comes from the indigenous religious and cultural background of the Igbo. The indigenous religious culture has a rich tradition of joyful rituals and thanksgiving to ancestral and other benevolent spirits, special offering and dedication of animals and things, (human beings occasionally), to patron deities and nature forces. Some examples that readily come to mind include the Ikwuaru festival in the Nnewi-Ozubulu area during which fat bulls are purchased, paraded and offered to honour local patron arch-deities, the practice of commissioning Mbari art gallery in the south-central zone, or artfully-decorated Ikenga sculptures in the Anambara sub-culture area, the performance of special musical lyrics and dance by minstrels, and/or prestigious and highly decorated masquerade like Ijere, Oka-nga, Ozo-Ebunu, Ikpirikpi Ogu/Iri-agha, by adult males, etc. The indigenous religious culture is partly responsible, therefore, for the emerging rich collection of soul-stirring liturgical pieces. Indeed, the achievement of the Catholic Church in Igboland in the area of liturgical music must rank among the best the African Continent has produced in recent times.
In the field of art, the degree of influence may not be as elaborate, but it is no less striking. Gifted Igbo carvers, sculptors and other art-creators have been able to employ local materials as well as indigenous religio-cultural ideas, symbols and motifs to express some important Christian themes and values. Beautifully carved doors rich in indigenous art-forms and other religious ritual symbols today adorn several churches and Catholic religious centres in Igboland. Also, considerable inspiration has been drawn by fabricators of Church vestments, particularly in the areas of design and colour, from the rich indigenous heritage of Igbo symbolism. Onitsha Archdiocese occasionally organised public exhibition of religious art-works which attracted talented art-creators, including carvers, sculptors, painters, designers, etc. Such occasions are good opportunity not only for the display of finished products, but also for cross-fertilisation of religious ideas among artists; Catholics as well as non-Christians.
Influence of Other Aspects in the Vatican II Era
The favourable environment the Vatican II engendered has thrown wide open the doors and created ample space for a big impact of the indigenous culture and religion on Roman Catholicism. Virtually every important aspect of the Church; its life and ministry, has been influenced directly or indirectly in contemporary times. In addition to language, music and art, the traditional age-grade system, as also other types of cultural practice have left their impact on the Church. In some cases, the titles and practices have been adopted wholescale into the Church, while in some others, there have been varying degrees of modification, especially where religious rituals are involved. The prestigious Ozo title initiation which posed a protracted headache to the Church in the north-western sub-culture, the Otu Ogbo (age grouping), the Iwa Akwa initiation in Mbano area, the Mgbuli (fattening ritual) for young ladies for marriage in Uli-Mgbidi axis, are some typical examples. Even the voluntary religious associations in the Church, like knighthood, become more acceptable to the people helped by a traditional background that is familiar with cultural institutions like secret society and prestige clubs, e.g. Otu-Odu, Ekwe/Lolo, Ekpe, Okonko, Odo, etc.
In the dynamic area of social and human organisation within the Church, the influence of the indigenous culture has been significant as well. The Local Church, no doubt, has drawn inspiration, and enjoys the added support of such indigenous cultural patterns as the age-grade system (Otu Ogbo, Otu Umu Ada, etc.), in the arrangement and functioning of its current statutory bodies of the Catholic Men’s Organisation (CMO), Catholic Women’s Organisation (CWO), Catholic Boys’ (CBO), and Catholic Girls Organisation (CGO), at the station, parish, deanery, diocesan and inter-diocesan levels. Lately, some dioceses in Igboland have begun to organise its members resident in other towns within and outside the country. Is this not related to the old idea of Igbo Unions, a cultural, social and political association that flourished in several parts of the country prior to the civil conflict? Or is the Offertory dance of young maidens which is gradually gaining ground in several dioceses, not directly descended from the indigenous dance of young virgins (girls) at shrines of local deities during the Isi-ebili festival in parts of Igboland?
At times, the influence of the indigenous religious culture is perceived as a major problem that Catholics, particularly innovative pastors, feel sufficiently challenged and are able to create rites in the Church to respond to felt-need. This appears to be the case for funeral/burial rituals, naming of babies, churching of women after child-birth, marriage practice, new yam ritual, widowhood practice, outing of new dance, etc. Currently, some pastors I know, are seriously concerned with how to respond to the serious threat they feel among their flock from a number of indigenous religio-cultural practices such as membership and performance of major masquerades like Ozo-ebunnu, Odo, possession of lineage Ofo symbol, etc.
Occasionally, Catholics adopt an ambivalent attitude to the influence and the threat they perceive from the indigenous world-view and its related beliefs. Examples include the case of Isi-Dada (dishevelled hair in infants), Ogbanje/Iyi-Uwa, and Mammy- water phenomena. On the one hand, the Church condemns the Igbo world-view as well as any specific traditional beliefs underlying indigenous practices that fall within the competence area of traditional diviners and ritual experts. While, on the other hand, some individual “charismatic” priests/faith-healers give credence to tales grounded in that world-view, and proceed to devise elaborate rituals in the Church to counter myriads of so-called “evil spirits” said to be at work in the victims. I suggest that this ambivalent attitude and often cheap interpretation of the persisting indigenous world-view, are the principal engine driving what has presently become one of the most successful industries in Nigeria; “the hydra-headed octopus of Prayer-ministry, Olu Ezi-n’ulo, Casting-out and deliverance from evil spirits, Breaking of curses, Miracle-manufacturing centres and establishments, etc.”, that proliferate and take place within and outside the Catholic Church. Let me end the rather long list of highlight of areas of major impact, by recalling that both oath-taking and covenant-making (Inu-iyi na Igba-ndu) are popular indigenous religio-cultural mechanisms of social control and order. They have today found accommodation in the Catholic Church in Igboland.
Personal skill, vision and individual initiative of missionary agents are a factor in reviewing the extent of influence of the Indigenous Religions on Roman Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa . Ultimately however, it is the change of attitude towards non-Christian Religions and their adherents which the Universal Church , through its work in the Second Vatican Council brought about, that significantly created the space for a phase of greater mutual interaction and influence. The Igbo case provides a typical example of a situation in which the scope of the impact has continued to widen and deepen. Virtually every aspect of Roman Catholicism has been influenced, albeit in varying degrees, by the indigenous religion and culture. Not only elements of belief, but also sacramental and other ritual practices, as well as organisational patterns, have all been impacted upon. Even the fundamental perception of reality, its interrelated values as well as the attitudinal orientation of the average contemporary Igbo Catholic, do bear discernible imprints of the indigenous religious tradition.
The dominant pattern of interaction and influence has tended to be lopsided, in favour of the Roman Catholic Religion. The trend is good or bad, depending on which side of the fence one is located.
Father Christopher I. Ejizu