In this article, I intend to examine the Western style of priestly
formation, in time perspective, within the Nigerian context. I shall
also identify some of the African traditional values relevant for the
integral formation of Catholic seminarians in Nigeria and then give
some suggestions appropriate for the modern Nigerian situation in view
of creating a wholesome formation for future priests at all levels.
To do this, I shall use the following format:
(i) Priestly formation in time perspective: The Nigerian experiments (ii) African Traditional Values and priestly formation in the Nigerian context (iii) Practical suggestions for an integral Priestly formation in Nigerian seminaries (iv) Conclusion.
Why priestly formation?
The primary goal of formation in Catholic seminaries is to produce men who will be intellectually, socially and spiritually equipped to be effective instruments of evangelization after their ordination. The seminary is expected to train capable priests, who, in response to God's grace, can collaborate with their Bishops and superiors in serving God's people throughout the world. The importance of formation was recently stressed by His Holiness John Paul II in his, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation to the Bishops, Clergy and Faithfull, as follows:
... the 'seminary' in its different forms, and analogously the 'house' of formation for religious priests, more than a place, a material space, should be a spiritual place, a way of life, an atmosphere that fosters and ensures a process of formation, so that the person who is called to the priesthood by God may become, with the sacrament of Orders, a living image of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church ... (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 42).
According to this Papal observation, the end-products of Catholic priestly formation ought to be men who, in every way, will be "a living image of Jesus Christ, Head and Shepherd ..."; Jesus Christ, the Formator of all ages "who is the same today as he was yesterday as he will be for ever" (Heb 7:24). Seminary formation in any age has to reflect this image of Christ. To do this, there are bound to be changes based on this basic question: How have the African seminaries, in general, and Nigerian ones in particular, faced the challenges and adjusted to the inevitable changes in the formation of their priests? Before answering this question, it is necessary to reflect briefly on how Jesus maintained these two elements when forming the Apostles. From the four Gospels the following characteristics can be identified in the way he did it:
Great intimacy with the group, aquaintance with the contemporary culture of the period, se-rious concern about their spiritual, religious, moral, social and economic welfares and creation of team spirit and cooperation among them.
His attitude towards the Jewish law, beliefs and customs is a perfect example to seminary formators in Nigeria and other African countries of what their attitude towards traditional African beliefs, practices, values and customs ought to be. Our Lord's words, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to complete them" (Mt 5:17) indicate that he moved from the known (cultural outlook) to the unknown (God's total outlook) (cf. Mt 5:21-48). By so doing he was preparing his Apostles to be his ambassadors throughout the world (Mt 28:1820). The formation of his future ambassadors was culture bound and pastorally oriented. This is the reason why Vatican II challenged the Episcopal Conference of each region to ensure that in the programme for formation:
... the general regulations will be adapted to the circumstances of time and place, so that priestly training will always answer the pastoral requirements of the particular area in which the ministry is to be exercised. (Optatam Totius, n. 1).
A brief history of seminary formation in Nigeria
formation in Nigeria can be divided into the following three epochs:
The early beginnings (19301960)
From the scanty literature available and the interview with one of the
pioneers (the Very Rev. Fr N. Orakwudo, CSSp.) of this early period,
the following features of seminary formation are characteristic:
The post independence period (19601980)
This period was characterized by indigenisation, vocation boom, structural
growth and a minimal tacit positive attitude towards the African religious
culture. Since I was one of the beneficiaries of seminary formation
within this period (1962-1970), I can best describe it as a "mixedwhole".
We went through contradictory experiences of what was supposed to be
and what actually was. For example, in spite of the inculturation of
Church liturgy being the trend, the people expected to carry
out the necessary changes as future priests were made to believe that
the ideal liturgy was either in English or Latin.
Modern period (1980 and beyond)
The number of junior and major seminaries which have come up throughout the whole country during this period shows that these are the most viable years in the history of seminary formation in Nigeria. Below is the table of the statistical data of admissions to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, when the philosophy campus was temporarily separated from the theology faculty for the 1976/77 session. It has been taken from one of the historical accounts of the Catholic Church in Nigeria (Makozi, A.O., and Afolabi Ojo, G.J., (eds.) The History of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, Nigeria: Macmillan, 1982, p. 113) covering the whole of 1976/77 - 1980/81:
The table shows a steady growth in the number of ordinations to the
priesthood in one of the major sem-inaries in Nigeria. If this number
is added to the ones ordained in other major seminaries in the country
at the time, the immense efforts of both the missionaries and the ordained
native clergy can certainly be appreciated. In an Epilogue to,
The Centenary History of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria,
the editor not only saw the finger of God in this phenomenal numerical
growth of both the local clergy, religious and laity, but went on to
African traditional values and priestly formation
If local seminarians are to have an integrative or holistic formation in an African context, the following African values should be introduced into the curricula of both major and minor seminaries:
The sense of the sacred
In African traditional conception, the sacred is not so much a category
that is opposed to the profane, as Eliade maintained (ibid., p. 15),
but a way of looking at reality in its wholeness. Traditional Africans
regard the entire cosmos, when viewed in its totality (invisible and
visible) as sacred. The invisible penetrates the visible through a unique
Being, God, known in various African ethnic languages as: Chukwu,
Osebuluwa, Chineke, Ezechitoke Abiama (Igbo), Olodumare
(Yoruba), Kwot (Nuer), Soko (Nupe), Onyame (Ghana),
Mawu (Fon), Ngewo (Mende) and so on. All realities: invisible
(divinities, ancestors, spirits) and visible (man, animals and inanimate
objects) become sacred when viewed in their total relationship to the
unique wholeness of God. The individual in a society is sacred from
the perspective of his/her relationships with the totality of beings
around him/her. The African family is sacred because it reflects wholeness
in unity of being. Certain persons, objects and places are sacred because
they manifest this wholeness of being either symbolically or in actuality.
A masked figure is sacred on account of its relationship to the invisible
sacred reality it is representing. Certain trees are sacred either on
account of their structure or their mode of existence which reflects
life in its totality. Human speech becomes sacred when viewed in its
relationship to the speaker and the totality of human beings. Newell
S. Booth, Jr. was certainly right in observing that: "in Africa
the sacred is manifested not so much by separation as by unity"
(ed., African Religions a Symposium, New York, London-Lagos:
NOK publishers Ltd., 1977, p. 7). Places and things are sacred in so
far as they reflect the unity of the beings which they symbolize.
Corporate existence (nwanne, umunne, umunna)
The sense of the sacred is concretely manifested through the African concept of corporate existence. This can be translated in Igbo as nwanne, umunna where the term nwanne has many connotations. In one sense it means children of the same parents (umunne). In another sense it applies to half brothers and sisters in a polygamous family. Yet, at another level it stands for the extended families of a putative ancestor. By extension it also applies to people from the same town, area and circumscription. Distant relations become nwanne by virtue of one covenant or common interests. But, here the concept of nwanne is an abstract way of describing corporate relationship.
J.S. Mbiti (African Religions and Philosophy, London, Ibadan, Nairobi: Heinemann, 1969, p. 108) seems to have exaggerated when subsuming the individual in the corporate existence of African society. He/she remains an autonomous person who acts responsibly although his/her actions are governed by what may be regarded as "sensus commune" (communal sense). He/she takes into account the general aspirations, values and customs of the community to which he/she belongs before making a personal decision. These are ultimately rooted in transcendence or the sacred in its totality. Perhaps, it is in this sense that this affirmation of John V. Taylor becomes meaningful:
The sense of the personal totality of all beings, and of a humanity which embraces the living, the dead and the divinities, fills the background of the primal worldview
... This is the context in which an African learns to say, I am because I participate. To him the individual is always an abstraction; man is a family (The Primal Vision Christian Presence Amid African Religion, London: SCM Press Ltd., 1963, p. 85).
Catholic seminaries in Africa need to emphasize the sense of community living and values to cut across ethnic and social boundaries. This has to be given a christological interpretation of the concept of neighbour as found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:2937). The seminary should be a school where the traditional African family and neighbourly spirit are nurtured and sustained. However, this sense of community cannot be fostered without a deep sense of justice.
A sense of justice
is not an exaggeration to say that justice is at the hub of the human
interactions in Africa. For Africans, justice is more than the Aristotelian
idea of giving each one his/her due. The Igbo, for instance, look at
justice as "Ikwuba aka oto" (literally meaning to keep
the hand straight) in society. The straight hand is a metaphoric way
of expressing, "Say the truth without fear or favour; give to everyone
what he/she is supposed to have; maintain fair relationships with your
neighbour, never tilt the balance in ontological relationships and so
on". The Igbo ofo ritual symbol, on which Ejizu has thrown
much light as far as its functions in Igbo traditional society are concerned,
is one of the ways through which social control is ritually effected
and internalised. Traditional religious leaders like priests, diviners,
elders of all shades, etc. use it to prove their sincerity in discharging
their duties. People will then respect them according to their truthfulness
and sincerity. That is when they become real fathers of the society.
(iv) Sincerity in one's commitment to a cause
Traditional African cultures attached great value to sincerity in one's
words and pledge. It was an allied virtue to justice. The Igbo often
say that oji ofo na ogu (he is with ofo and ogu i.e.
justice, truth and sincerity. Ogu is often symbolized by a knotted
tender palm frond (Omu). (A brief explanation of the meaning
of Ogu could be found in Donatus Ibe Nwoga, 1984 Ahiajoku
Lecture, Owerri: Culture Division, Ministry of Information, Culture,
Youth and Sports, 1984, p. 21).
end product of seminary formation in Africa ought to be an integrated
mature priest; the equivalent of Onyishi in Nsukka sub-culture
area or Atama/Eze Mmuo (king in the management of spiritual reality).
This presupposes that he is quite conversant with traditional African
values which make for good leadership. Some of them were pointed out
earlier in this article. In the light of the Gospel message, the priest
has to visualise, interiorise and practice these values. In doing so,
he imitates Christ, the Good Shepherd, who came not to destroy traditional
resilient values, but to complete and fulfil them. An integrated African
priest has to be culturally, socially, psychologically, intellectually,
spiritually and affectively mature to be relevant in modern African
Suggestions for developing an integrative priestly formation programme
(i) Overhauling of the present formation programme
African Traditional Religions and cultures must form part of the seminary
curriculum, not only in the major seminaries where it is given scanty
attention for the moment, but even in the minor seminaries. This requires
trained personnel in African Traditional Religions, anthropology and
sociology at graduate level. Merely being an African and a native of
a place does not qualify one to be an effective interpreter of African
Traditional Religions and Cultures. For effectiveness, special training
is necessary. The programme of studies ought to span at least three
years in the minor seminaries. It should be designed for senior secondary
school leavers so that they can take it as one of their subjects in
their final examination.
(ii) Re-considering the mediums for instruction
Seminary formation ought to be given an African thrust in: the lectures, liturgy and general life. Lectures can be given in the language of the ethnic group where the seminary is situated. The tendency, so far, has been to maintain the use of foreign languages, forgetting that the Formator of all formators, Our Lord Jesus Christ, used the local language of his people to form the first seminarians, the Apostles. The argument that in an institution which harbours many ethnic groups, one has to import a universal language that is acceptable to all, does not seem satisfactory.
In many international seminaries in countries like Italy, France, Germany, England and America, the official language is the local language of the place. Why not try to imitate them in that sphere? African oral traditions are potential storehouses for this revolution in the language of lectures in African seminaries. As A. Shorter rightly pointed out, "... The traditional literature of Africa is very important to the priest, catechist, religious educator for an understanding of the mind of those to whom he is transmitting the Christian message ..." (African Culture and the Christian Church, London - Dublin: Geoffrey Chapman, 1973, p. 83). Fr Arazu's efforts in his AbuOma Nke Bible (Psalms in Igbo) translation set to Igbo melody are commendable. Others need to emulate him to come up with creative African theology and liturgy in an African language. The unchangeable elements can be based on faith in God and in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The concrete expression of that faith must be culture bound. In this regard the following recommendation of the Vatican II Fathers to theologians is appropriate:
... theologians are now being asked, within the methods and limits of the science of theology, to seek out more efficient ways provided the meaning and understanding of them is safeguarded - of presenting their teaching to modern man: for the deposit and truth of faith are one thing, the manner of expressing them quite another ... (Gaudium et spes, n. 62).
(iii) Creating a home within the seminary
atmosphere pervading the whole seminary formation has to be that of
a family spirit. The formators, led by the rector, are expected to create
this spirit. They ought not to distance themselves from the students.
Rather they have to win the latter's confidence at all levels as they
share life together. Decisions on vital matters must be taken after
prolonged dialogue and consultations on both sides. The sense of communal
spirit has to prevail. No student should be expelled for expressing
his candid opinion on matters affecting his welfare. The era of blind
obedience has gone. Instead, formators have to encourage responsible
obedience after mature deliberations. They are to be good listeners
taking cognisance of valuable contributions of students on vital matters.
Students ought to see in them real fathers of one family who can be
approached freely, without inhibition. According to Dalrymple, the full
formation of students in theology, personality and spirituality calls
for doing away with special privileges on the part of the formators
in order to:
Deepening prayer life in the seminary
all levels of seminary formation, the seminarians must participate in
the recitation of the Office of the Hours and be assisted to
cultivate a spirit of personal prayer. The Manual of Prayers in
junior seminaries can be replaced by a condensed Office of the Hours.
Seminarians ought to familiarize themselves with this main prayer of
the Church at all levels of their training. The Office can be
translated in the local languages of the continent with an Afriean melody
to accompany its recitation. If Christians from Europe and America have
succeeded in inculturating the Office of the Hours, why should
Africans not imitate them by giving an African flavour to the prayer
of the Church?
deficiencies in most seminaries in Africa are largely caused by the
noninclusion of timeless African traditional values in the curriculum
of seminary formation. If Jesus, the Formator of all formators accomplished
his gigantic task through the prism of the Jewish culture and yet became
relevant to the European and American seminarians as Jesus of today
through their culture, then he can equally and should be relevant to
African seminarians as Jesus of today and tomorrow through their cultural
AFER African Ecclesial Review, vol.
39, n. 4, 1997.