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The ‘solidarity of simplicity’ – Nigerian seminary rector forms priests for global ministry

How a seminary rector in a violent region of Nigeria aims to form men for missionary priestly ministry.

Seminarians praying in the chapel during the golden jubilee celebration of St. Augustine's Major Seminary Jos Nigeria in May 4, 2017. Credit: AED/ACN

Fr. Mark Nzukwein is the rector of St. Augustine's Major Seminary Jos, Nigeria, in the northern region of the country, close to the epicenter of Boko Haram and other Islamist militant activity.

St. Augustine's is the oldest major seminary in Nigeria's northern region; it is home to 356 seminarians, 19 resident formators, 2 non-resident full-time formators, 21 part-time academic staff and 48 administrative and non-academic staff.

Seminarians come from dioceses and religious institutes across Nigeria.

In an exclusive interview, Fr. Nzukwein spoke with The Pillar about missionary-focused seminary formation, and the seminary's efforts to survive in a hostile - and sometimes violent - environment.

Fr. Mark Nzukwein, Rector - St. Augustine's Major Seminary Jos, Nigeria. Courtesy photo.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Father, how would you assess the general situation of vocations to the priesthood in Nigeria and in Africa, which Pope Benedict XVI has described as "an immense spiritual lung" in the Church?

First of all, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to you and your team of journalists for the rare opportunity offered me to participate in this interview.

It is actually good news  to underscore the fact that the 21st century has great promise for the growth of the Christian faith in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular despite the myriads of challenges confronting the continent. This is evident in terms of the rising vocation to the priesthood and religious life -- or what we popularly consider as a ‘vocation boom’ in our context.

It is true that the harvest of vocations is great across the dioceses and religious institutes in Nigeria. But it is rather sad to note that although the number of applications keeps soaring higher on an annual basis as the fire of vocation keeps burning in the hearts of numerous young people, the dioceses and the traditional religious institutes are not able to accommodate all of them for lack of space and also because of the limited resources they have to be able to train them.

That a teeming population of young people are eager to serve the Lord through the priesthood and religious life portends great hope for the future of the Church, not only in Africa and Nigeria but also for the whole world. It is noteworthy that the prospect of the faith is usually built around the sacraments and the pastoral ministry of the Church. But this cannot be possible without priests who are formed and prepared to lead this process.

Alumni priests of St. Augustine's Major Seminary, during 2017 anniversary celebrations. Courtesy photo.

There have been insinuations that young men in Nigeria are flooding the seminaries because of poverty and unemployment.

Do you share this view? Would Nigeria’s vocation boom dwindle if the nation's economic fortunes improve?

It is too simplistic to begin to attribute the prospect of the vocations boom we are experiencing in present day Africa to poverty and unemployment alone, without considering objectively other motivating factors as well.

As a matter of fact, Pope Benedict XVI was not mistaken when he referred to the Church in Africa as the spiritual lung of the universal Church; of course, leveraging on his knowledge of the deeply religious nature of Africans.

This is a continent that has gone through so much injustice and humiliation, in terms of its long history of colonization and neocolonization, a continent that has been severely crucified and disdainfully classified as a “third world,” and yet is still surviving all the same, due to its strong religious inclination and belief in divine providence.

As far as the issue of vocation is concerned, whether you are an African or not, the fact remains that something must serve as a trigger to one’s vocation. Whether it is poverty or unemployment that motivates one to rely on God and to give one’s life for his service, so be it. Although poverty is often encouraged by the endemic structural injustice in the society at all levels, it is also ironically a kingdom value.

Moreover, if Africans so much value family life and the gift of children as part of their treasured heritage and yet its younger population are willing to take the bold step in sacrificing all of these cherished values for the sake of God’s kingdom and the mission of the Church, it would therefore be unfair and uncharitable on the part of anyone to simply attribute their spontaneous faith response to the priestly vocation to a mere sociological factor of poverty and unemployment as the case may be.

Be that as it may, even if it is true that poverty and unemployment are a great motivating factor for the rise in vocation in present day Africa, would it not be equally true that when the economy of Africa improves and the young people begin to live better lives and in the process discover the vanity of wealth that they would not like to rededicate their lives once again to the service of God who is the ultimate source of their wealth because of their profound religious backdrop?

What is the relationship between the formators and the formandi at St. Augustine’s?

Are the staff adequately prepared for the formation of young people?

The formators at St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, relate well and cordially with the formandi, whom they regard as their fellow companions and junior brothers on a common journey.

On the whole, the formators try to create an enabling fraternal environment where formation in freedom of conscience can thrive.

They often interact with seminarians as father figures, trying to accompany them in the process of formation to attain balanced human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral maturity. From time to time, the formators provide them with questions that are meant to challenge their motives for embracing the priestly way of life as well as provoke their desire for higher Christian, priestly or religious values.

They try to avoid the principle of policing seminarians or compelling them to do things against their will; rather they try to nurture their sense of freedom; to see them take responsibility for their vocation as they strive to respond to the various demands of formation in its integral human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions.

Almost all the formators in St. Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, are alumni of this noble institution. They all passed through this seminary as seminarians, and so they have some idea of what is required in formation.

Besides, they have undergone solid ecclesiastical post-graduate studies as well as other courses in formation that have adequately prepared them for this onerous but rewarding ecclesial task.

Moreover, since formation is an ongoing process, from time to time the seminary authority still sends some of the formators to Rome, to the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Port Harcourt, and to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa for them to reinforce their competence and leadership skills as formators.

Seminarians during a Marian procession on the grounds of St. Augustine Major Seminary. Courtesy photo.

The West is bedeviled by sexual abuse of minors by some members of the clergy.

How would you assess the situation in Nigeria? How does the seminary approach this?

The phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors in the Western world is one of the sad phases of the Church’s history that has dented the image of the priesthood. This has caught the attention of the media on the global scale.

One cannot say outrightly that there are no traces of such negative trend in Nigeria. As long as Nigerian priests are human, we cannot say that all of them are immune from this negative behavior.

And with what is happening in the West – whereby priests are losing the precious gift of their priesthood due to this sin, which is also a heinous crime – every Nigerian priest should be on guard against this abusive behavior, which is at variance with the dignity and integrity of the priestly calling.

Regarding the formation of seminarians in the area of human sexuality and moral conduct in the social space, there has been great improvement in the formation process in Nigeria.

For the past decade, a lot of attention of formators has been drawn to the area of psychology as a way of strengthening the human formation, psychology and mental health issues as well as fostering the affective maturity of the candidates of the priesthood especially in the area of human sexuality.

Courses in human sexuality and human development are being encouraged in the curriculum of studies as well as seminars and workshops on this subject matter. Even at the level of Nigeria’s national seminaries committee, in 2017 a workshop was organized on human formation for priestly ministry that highlighted, among other things, the various dimensions in priestly ministry, as well as the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, with focus on care for victims and perpetrators.

Recently too, an Augustinian priest in Nigeria took upon himself the responsibility of undertaking some research on this issue on human formation in ministry.

Thank God that with the knowledge acquired in the process, he has been able to move from one seminary and house of formation to another, conducting workshops on professional conduct in ministry and raising awareness as well as forewarning the priests, religious and those in formation about the negative effects of the possible abuses that could be found in houses of formation, institutions or parishes, as the case may be.

The seminary where you are rector has formed priests who are now all over Europe, America and Asia ministering to souls.

Given that this is where diocesan priests are trained, is there any component of the formation that prepares seminarians to work as missionary priests across the globe?

Our seminary has produced scores of priests and bishops who are serving the Church both within the country and across the world.

To the glory of God, our seminary has also given birth to two other full fledged major seminaries in the north: St. Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary, Makurdi, Benue State, and Good Shepherd Major Seminary, Kaduna, Kaduna State.

Ideally, every seminary is established as a seedbed of vocation to nurture and prepare future priests for the universal mission of the Church. That is why our curriculum of studies often reflects courses like missiology, peace studies and cross-cultural communication, which prepare candidates of the priesthood for their universal missionary exploit in the pastoral field.

This missionary background is the reason why our numerous alumni, wherever they find themselves in the world, are excelling in their diverse pastoral endeavors – whether in America, Europe or Asia.

To the glory of God, the positive news that usually get to us regarding the competent performances of the alumni of this noble institution is a great source of encouragement to us; with this development, we are encouraged to put in more effort in the missionary formation of our seminarians who are the future missionaries of the Church.

Fr. Mark Nzukwein receives his 2016 letter of appointment as rector of St. Augustine's Major Seminary, during a Mass offered by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, then of Jos, now Archbishop of Abuja. Courtesy photo.

Given the temptation of secularism, modernism with its concomitant effects of materialism and consumerism, how are seminarians prepared to face these challenges?

The world today tends to build its values around the passing ephemeral things of this world that have no lasting value. God is gradually pushed to the rear seat in the scheme of human affairs.

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, leading to improved ways of doing things technologically, the human person is often tempted to think that he can do without God. Since he has developed certain capacities for improving his fortune due to technological advancement, he thinks he can do without God.

In the midst of these challenges, seminary formation aims at preparing seminarians to embrace poverty and simplicity of life as supreme Gospel values.

Moreover, since the people the seminarians will eventually minister to are mostly poor people, they are taught to express their solidarity with them through their lifestyle of simplicity and humility. These seminarians are encouraged to express practically their simplicity of lifestyle through a moderate way of life in the type of clothes they wear, the model of the cars they intend to drive after ordination, and the kind of phones they have or intend to possess, among others.

Future priests are supposed to model their lives after Christ, the servant leader who came to serve and not to be served and to offer his life as a ransom for many, as scripture tells us. How does seminary formation help seminarians to resist clericalism and abuse of power when they eventually get involved in full time ministry?

Clericalism and abuse of power are absolutely antithetical to the true identity of the priest, who is called by virtue of his ordination to represent Christ, the Good Shepherd and supreme pastor of souls.

That is why the seminary formation is so structured in such a way that it prepares candidates of the priesthood to gradually and progressively grow and mature in those virtues, character traits and competence that would qualify them as true pastors of souls.

Essentially, their holistic formation grooms them to become servant leaders who are able to relate with the People of God as fathers, friends and fellow companions on a common journey of faith tending towards a common destination.

As they pass from one stage of their formation to the other, they are educated and formed to transcend their ego so that they can grow in inner freedom, develop their capacity for community life and mature in their ability to be altruistic in both their orientation and approach to their ministry to others.

The most critical stages of this formation itinerary are the theological and pastoral stages, when the seminarians, having experienced the friendship of Christ at the stage of discipleship during their philosophical studies are now gradually formed to become true pastors to the people.

It is at this level that they are gradually helped to configure themselves to the mindset of Christ and his approach to ministry.

Here, they are challenged to overcome any form of superiority complex in their relationship with the laity. They are also made to understand the inextricable link between the common and ministerial priesthood as a participation in the one and unique priesthood of Christ which calls for the spirit of collaboration between the clergy and the laity at all times.

After all, the ministry of the priest is rooted within the overall ministry of the Church that has the laity as bona fide members. Hence, he is not only the administrator of the sacred mysteries but likewise a minister, a man drawn from a priestly people.

Technology is changing a lot of things for priests and priestly ministry, everywhere. How is your seminary preparing seminarians to reach people with social media, or to make good use of it?

It is true that priests by virtue of their identity as alter Christus are called to be saints, scholars and gentlemen.

Nevertheless, the present-day priests of the 21st century have found themselves in a fast evolving post-modern society that have been remarkably transformed by the both the conventional and digital media space. What we are experiencing currently is a great revolution in the communication world as never before that has great potential for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Granted there are a lot of ethical concerns within the conventional and digital media space, nevertheless, they still constitute one of the greatest instruments for the spread of knowledge, values and ideas that can serve the common good of the human family. If used with discretion, prudence and a great sense of responsibility, it can contribute immensely towards the spread of the gospel.

By and large, the seminary's communication courses focus on both forms of the media as they have remained relevant and appealing to diverse audiences. The older generation in communities  - those classified as the digital immigrants - largely depend on conventional media, while the younger generation - known as the digital natives - find a companion in the social media.

Bearing in mind these target audiences with whom our seminarians will have a sustained faith conversation in communities, we train them on print media to help them in handling publications in their diocesan/parish communities, along with radio and television script-writing, so they can be broadcast content producers.

The men acquire skills in broadcasting because they produce and present faith programs for radio and television. They learn public relations and reputation management, as some of them may become spokespersons for their dioceses and religious congregations. Their training also includes writing news releases, addressing news conferences and other strategic communication tasks.

The digital audiences of priests are usually knowledgeable, inquisitive and tech savvy. For example, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is still being felt in the declining church attendance in many countries, and many Catholics are turning to digital channels - Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram - for spiritual content.

Seminarians are being trained to produce content that promotes the gospel of Christ on these platforms.

They are trained on online safety and management, how to discretely participate in the digital media space. They learn how to livestream Masses, publish homilies or faith articles, host and manage virtual engagements. They acquire strategic communication skills on managing misinformation and/or disinformation on Catholic teachings.

The training of seminarians aims to arm them with the knowledge, skills, tools and to build their capacity in oral and written communication, which they will need when they become digital priests. The focal areas of training in this regard are: online safety, fake news, hacking, cyberbullying and mobbing, social media privacy, identity theft, depression and psychological effects of the social media usage.

We learned recently about a proposal from Rome to build an institute within the seminary which would give opportunity for lay Catholics to study theology, philosophy and the humanities alongside seminarians.

Can you explain this proposal further? What does it portend for the students, lecturers and entire seminary community?

The idea of the institute is based on the provision of the apostolic constitution of Pope Francis known as Veritatis gaudium.

Through this document, the Holy Father intends to effect some reforms around the seminary formation that would accommodate both the seminarians and the laity alike.

Thus, our institute will be open to male and female religious, and lay people whose duties in the Church and society will require a sound knowledge of philosophy and theology. It will run only the first cycle of studies, and confer the ecclesiastical bachelor degrees in philosophy and theology, in affiliation with the Faculties of Philosophy and Theology of the Pontifical Urbanian University, Rome.

There are three major implications consequent upon this reform.

The first is that it would require some readjustments in the structure of the seminary formation in terms of duration of formation especially in the theology department. This means that the baccalaureate program in theology would be done in three years, with the fourth year organized as a ministerial year.

The second is that the clear-cut distinction between the institute as a place for intellectual formation of seminarians (and the laity) and the seminary as an environment for strictly priestly formation will certainly place heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the bishops who are the proprietors of both the Institute and the Seminary in terms of funding, administration and recruitment of lecturers.

The third appears to be banal but equally significant in the sense that when the laity are brought into the traditional space of formation of future priests, this will definitely affect the traditional understanding of what the seminary is meant to be – strictly as an exclusive environment for the nurturing of vocations devoid of distractions of any kind.

Many of our readers are U.S. and European priests, who serve alongside priests who have come from Nigeria -probably alumni members of the Jos seminary.

Given the volatility of your environment, what would you tell them about threats to the lives of seminarians in Jos, and the efforts you are making to address this?

Thank you most sincerely for the concern and fraternal solidarity you have shown regarding the security challenge confronting the seminarians, priest formators and the non-academic staff who are resident in the seminary compound. This is a great source of encouragement to us.

To be candid, it takes a lot of faith and courage for the inhabitants of the seminary to continue to live within the seminary compound in spite of the several nearby attacks. We often hear that Our Lady of Fatima Cathedral, Jos, which is just a stone’s throw away from the seminary is a purported target of attack, as is the seminary itself.

But thank God that whenever we hear some of this heart-rending news, we are not only frightened but also take solace in God in prayer and reliance on his divine protection.

Once we have prayed, our faith and confidence are reinforced, and we try to maintain our equilibrium, because of our conviction that God will always remain faithful in case of any eventuality.

Nevertheless, it is our intention to reinforce the unstable fence around the seminary compound. We have asked an architect to put together a rough estimate of what it would take to accomplish this project, so that we can solicit assistance for its execution from the alumni and other men and women of goodwill.

We continue to engage the leadership of the various Muslim communities in dialogue here in Laranto, Jos North, where the Seminary is located, and this has paid off tremendously.

Notwithstanding the fact that dialogue with the Muslim community in Nigeria has proven futile in most cases, ours here in the seminary is somehow an exception. There was, and still exists, a joint task force, and a volunteer security group made up of young people and adults, drawn from both the Christian and Islamic religions, who work together to maintain peace here.

Interestingly, our Muslim neighbors have a very positive impression about the seminary as a center of formation of future spiritual leaders. We are partnering with several peace groups made up of both Christians and Muslims who have come soliciting for such partnership with the seminary in the area of peace building in Plateau State in particular, and in Nigeria in general.

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