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‘We’ve seen God’s miracle within the crisis’: An interview with Cameroon’s Archbishop Nkea

‘We’ve seen God’s miracle within the crisis’: An interview with Cameroon’s Archbishop Nkea

Archbishop Andrew Nkea came to the Catholic world’s notice in 2018 at the youth synod in Rome.

Amid much hand-wringing about losing contact with the younger generation, Nkea spoke with refreshing confidence about how parishes in his west-central African homeland of Cameroon were full of young people.

In 2019, Pope Francis named him Archbishop of Bamenda in Cameroon’s Northwest Region. He took up the post as his country was wracked by a conflict known as the Anglophone Crisis, which pitted government forces against separatists intent on creating a breakaway state in Cameroon’s English-speaking territories.

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The Catholic Church — which spans the divide between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon — has suffered amid the complex crisis. Just last month, gunmen seized five priests, a nun, and three lay people at a church in Nchang, a village in Cameroon’s Southwest Region. Pope Francis appealed for their release, but at the time of writing, they remain in captivity.

The Pillar spoke to Archbishop Nkea on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. He was visiting the English Diocese of Portsmouth, which is twinned with the Archdiocese of Bamenda.

He discussed the Church’s continued growth, his approach to kidnappers’ demands, and Cameroonian Catholicism’s distinctive features.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Archbishop Nkea, what is Christianity?

Christianity is being like Christ. The name “Christianity” comes from Christ, and to be Christian is to be like Christ. And therefore Christianity is this movement of people who want to become like Christ, that in every day of their lives, they make an effort to be like Jesus Christ.

At a Vatican press conference during the youth synod in 2018, you said: “My churches are all bursting, and I don’t have space to keep the young people.” Has the Church continued to grow in your archdiocese since 2018?

The Church has continued to grow, I would say. You know that we are in crisis in the Archdiocese of Bamenda. But I will say to you without fear or favor that we have seen God’s miracle within the crisis, that our churches continue to be full, the people continue to pray, and the Church is going from strength to strength. Especially with the young people. The young people, despite the difficulties they’re going through, are very committed to their faith.

You said in a Vatican News interview that “the Church in Cameroon is already steeped in the synodal process because of the pastoral plan which we have and in the pastoral plan everything begins from the base.” What is the pastoral plan?

Our pastoral plan is for the whole ecclesiastical province of Bamenda, comprising five dioceses of what we call the Anglophone extraction of Cameroon. In this pastoral plan, we have tried to see, number one, how to consolidate our Christians in the faith and, secondly, how to guarantee a transition of the faith from one generation to another.

One of the things that comes into this pastoral plan is to get the governance of the Church to start from the grassroots and to move up. So, from the families to the small Christian communities, to the mission stations, to the parishes, to the deaneries, before you get to the diocese. And this is the way our Church functions.

Everybody belongs to a small Christian community. And therefore, all the Christians in a particular neighborhood know each other. They have fellowship together. They have small Christian community Masses. And it has built an incredible bond among our people.

That's why I was saying that we are already within the synodal process, because decision-making begins from the grassroots and the decision is spiraled up to the top, but it must come from the grassroots. Therefore, we don’t take decisions at the top and ram them down the throats of the faithful. But the suggestions come from the bottom and find their way up. And that is how the thing works in Bamenda.

Are small communities different from parishes?

Yes, they are not parishes. Our structure is different. We have parishes and within those parishes, you have what we call mission stations, where the priest goes for Mass, but there is no resident priest there. So there are mission stations, and in those mission stations, there you have small Christian communities. Every mission station has small Christian communities. That will be a group of about five to 10 families within the mission station that kind of take care of each other, watch the back of each other, and that is what it is.

So parishes are not small Christian communities. Small Christian communities are in mission stations. In the little quarters where Christians live, they form small Christian communities, and we call that the Church in the neighborhood.

What activities do the small Christian communities do?

They do Gospel sharing. They teach catechism to their children. And if there’s any fundraising, they do it within the small Christian communities. They accompany those who are bereaved.

It is really important that the Christians feel they belong and they are not isolated when they are in times of joy or in times of trouble, that they have their Christian community as a support. And that is what these small Christian communities are meant for.

The priest only visits them now and again. And this is the important thing, because everything does not depend on the priest. We are trying to make the Church, the Christians, not depend totally on the priest for everything.

For example, if there is a sick person in the community, the small Christian community will visit the sick person and pray with them. And then one of the leaders will inform the priest, who will come for anointing. But the daily visits, or the once-a-week visits, are done by the small Christian community and not by the priest.

Archbishop Andrew Nkea with members of the Catholic Men Association,. Courtesy photo.

You’ve said it’s been difficult sometimes to involve men in the small communities. Why is that?

The men claim to be more busy, and they don’t make time to attend the small Christian community meetings. They want to come once a week to the parish church and attend Mass and go back. Then they have the time to go and watch football or do something else.

But I think slowly, slowly, we’re trying to get the men involved. We have discussed that in our men’s association, to see how to get the men fully involved in the small Christian communities. And in that way, it is the whole family that is involved in the small Christian community: It’s not just a thing for the women and children.

Have you found ways to help men to take part in the communities?

Yes, the Gospel sharing, for example. Reading the Bible and discussing it is not a thing [only] for women. The men just have to develop the interest. From the parish, we send out a text for reflection for the week. And when the men start going, they start finding it very interesting. They don’t stop anymore. They start sharing together. Sometimes when they are sick, they get the whole community coming to visit them and pray with them, and they get more involved. It’s slowly, slowly, but it’s taking root.

Do you have any news about the Catholics kidnapped on Sept. 16 at St. Mary’s Church in Nchang?

We have been talking from time to time with the kidnappers, like I mentioned on the BBC News. They were asking us for money and we don’t have money to give. And even if we had the money, we know that if we start, we’ll never stop. And it’s something we had agreed that we would not do — give money to kidnappers — because then we endanger the lives of all our priests and our Christians.

So they are trying to ask for money. They’ve been negotiating, and going down and down. We are just explaining to them, if you don’t have some food to eat, we can give you some food to eat, but not give you money to go buy guns. The Church can’t do that. So that is where we are: Going forward and backward, trying to get them to understand.

Caption: Archbishop Andrew Nkea and Bishop Philip Egan at St John’s Catholic Cathedral, Portsmouth, England. Courtesy of the Diocese of Portsmouth.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Yes, I think for one thing, we should all be united in prayer. Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who was an apostle of peace. And you discover how much the world lacks peace, how much individuals lack inner peace, how much small communities lack peace. Now we really need to pray for peace, not just peace between fighting and warring nations, but also internal peace for our people. We need to pray.

Secondly, we need to see this thing of Francis of Assisi as personal, because Francis prayed “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” It was not to “make us,” and so let us try to see how each individual can contribute. Not to bring war, not to bring hatred, not to bring doubt, but to bring peace, to bring hope, and to bring joy to others. I think this is where all of us as Christians have to look toward one direction.