An Indiana bishop says that U.S. Catholics should strengthen ties with the Church in sub-Saharan Africa, urging universities, Catholic apostolates, and even the U.S. bishops’ conference to take up joint projects with counterparts in Nigeria, one of the fastest-growing Catholic countries in the world.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades also told The Pillar that African bishops, who lead growing dioceses of faithful Catholics, should be regarded as “important voices” in the global synod on synodality.
“A lot of Americans aren’t informed about the Church’s life in Africa, and that’s unfortunate. We have Nigerian priests in our parishes in the U.S., and African migration to the U.S., and I think it would be good for us in America, and for the Church in Nigeria, for us to do more to work together as Catholics,” Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend told The Pillar.
“Partnerships between schools, on the high school or grade school level — or even, in my diocese, Notre Dame, for example — would build communion in the Church. And parishes could do the same.”
Rhoades spoke with The Pillar about the Church in Nigeria after a July visit to the country, at which the bishop performed ordinations and confirmations in two Nigerian dioceses, and spent time visiting Catholics and bishops in the dioceses of Awka and Nnewi, both in the heavily Catholic southern region of the country.
The bishop has traveled in Nigeria in the past to ordain priests with ties to his diocese, and was invited this summer to travel to Nigeria for more ordinations. During a trip of two weeks, Rhoades said he strengthened a growing bond between his own Indiana diocese and the dioceses of southern Nigeria.
“We have a lot of priests in the diocese here, and at Notre Dame, from that area in Nigeria, and relationships with those dioceses have developed, and been really fruitful for all of us,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades told The Pillar he is edified by the life of the Church in southern Nigeria — even as the region faces an increase in anti-Christian violence, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian.
“Sunday Mass attendance is over 90% [in some dioceses of southern Nigeria.] That's pretty amazing. And the faith is vibrant, and it's central in the people's lives,” the bishop said.
“And of course, getting to Mass isn’t easy. The people struggle with poverty, the infrastructure in that region, and the roads are bad. And now there is the problem of the degrading rule of law… But in the midst of that, the faith in God is very strong, even among young people, and there is a spirit of joy in the Christian people I speak with, in the midst of hardship.”
The bishop has had his own experiences with that hardship.
While Rhoades and some priests were traveling on a rural Nigerian road in July, “a group villagers frantically came out, and told us to turn around: There were four people abducted on that road that we were on, just hours hours before.”
“Our driver was able to figure out a safe way to go. But you have to know who to trust.”
Nigerian dioceses face infrastructure challenges, Rhoades said, which makes it hard to keep apostolates going.
“They’re very much in a growth mode, in terms of building new churches, and even opening new universities and other projects. And parish complexes are very interesting, because they usually include a school, a health clinic, sometimes even a hospital.”
“But the struggle is often that they start building, and then have to stop because they run out of money, and they have to get the money. And so then projects are often half-done, while the bishop or the pastor is waiting to get more money.”
The bishop explained that while U.S. dioceses are often equipped to lend money to parish construction projects, but credit in Nigeria is hard to come by. The Nigerian dioceses and parishes he’s visited need cash in hand before building projects can go forward.
“When they have the money, they can buy the materials and pay the laborers. But when they run out of money, everything stops. Even a cathedral where I celebrated ordinations — we had to have the ordinations outside because the cathedral isn’t done yet.”
“One the one hand,” Rhoades observes, “the organizational needs are very clear. But there’s a positive [element] there, which is that the Church is not overly bureaucratic in Nigeria — it is uplifting to see the Church in growth mode.”
As in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Catholic population of Nigeria is growing, even while European nations and the U.S. have begun to experience a shrinking number of practicing Catholics. Nigeria is expected to become one of the world’s leading Catholic countries in the coming decades.
Rhoades said that amid a practicing Catholic population, he has been inspired by the experience of theological unity among Nigeria’s bishops. And the bishop said he’s learned from that.
“There’s a common set of concerns among the bishops. You know, when you’re in a society where the Church is threatened, you tend to be unified. I really don’t experience among the bishops of Nigeria the kind of division between left and right. What’s healthy is that I really don’t experience ideology on ecclesial matters. Obviously, there’s division politically [in Nigeria], but I really really don’t see it with liturgy or other issues in the way we experience here.”
“The liturgy is really interesting because it will often incorporate both indigenous music and singing, and at the same time, Latin — everyone will sing the Mass parts in Latin, and at the same time, have their own cultural expressions of singing and instruments. And that together is quite beautiful,” the bishop added.
Rhoades told The Pillar that while his ministry has benefitted from friendships in Africa, few U.S. Catholics have experience of the Church in other parts of the world. He said that a growing cadre of foreign priests serving in the U.S. can help to change that, especially by facilitating joint projects, and using technology - like Zoom - to allow Catholics to make personal connections across great distances. That, the bishop said, is a project of “global solidarity.”
But Rhoades also said that Catholics in Nigeria have a lot to offer the Church around the world, adding that Nigerian bishops should play an “important part” in the Church’s global synodality.
“The Church in Nigeria has not lost its evangelical spirit. And that’s not true everywhere in the world. So we all should be listening to the voices where the Church is growing, and filled with the Holy Spirit. So I would like to see a stronger voice of the Church in Africa [during the synod process,” Rhoades said.
Still, Rhoades cautioned against presuming that Catholic culture in Nigeria won’t be influenced by outside voices.
“It’s a poor Church, but at the same time it's rich in faith. But we can't assume that will go on forever because there’s a secularizing influence — the pope has spoken of ideological colonization, and that's happening.”
“It’s coming more from the U.S. government, and from global aid groups, making aid dependent on accepting same-sex marriage. That's violating the culture of the people there, and I hope they're not influenced by that.”
U.S. support for Nigerian Catholic projects, he said, would help local churches avoid “ideological influences,” the bishop explained.
“These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they have a lot to teach us, and we have a lot to share with them,” Rhoades said. “And they’re suffering, and they’re in danger.”
“We could definitely provide financial help, but we can also just demonstrate to people in a suffering Church that we care about them, and that we know they’re our brothers and sisters,” the bishop said. “That makes such a difference.”