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'The true image of the Church' - Nigeria's synod on synodality

For a look at the synod process in Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous Catholic countries, The Pillar spoke with Fr. Hilary Longs, director of synods, pilgrimages, and congresses in the Diocese of Bauchi.

Fr. Hilary Longs with priests of the Bauchi diocese. Credit: Fr. Justine Dyikuk/The Pillar.

The global synod on synodality is a Vatican-launched process meant, in part, to invite Catholics to better discern the will of God in their own dioceses and parishes, through conversations focused on the life and ministry of the Church.

For a look at the synod process in Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous Catholic countries, The Pillar spoke with Fr. Hilary Longs, director of synods, pilgrimages, and congresses in the Diocese of Bauchi, in northeastern Nigeria.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fr. Longs, have very many people in the Bauchi diocese participated in the synod on synodality? What did you do to organize their participation?

In the Bauchi diocese, those who participated in the synod conversations are around 20,000 — which is not all of the Catholic population, but this is because most of the Catholics are more or less peasant farmers who are so engrossed with their farm matters.

[Editors’ note: According to GCatholic, there are roughly 95,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Bauchi.]

For in-person meetings, we decided to do to group the participants based upon their various pious societies, tribal groups and also through the major organizations in the Church — like the Catholic men’s organization, Catholic women’s organization, Catholic youth organization, and also the Holy Childhood Association, which is basically for the children.

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Young people from St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Yelwa, Nigeria. Credit: Diocese of Bauchi Catholic Youth Organization.

The Diocese of Bauchi is in the region of Nigeria where Boko Haram terrorists have wreaked havoc on lives and livelihoods, leaving Christians in danger, and in fear.

How does the synod theme - “For a synodal church: Communion, Participation, and Mission” - relate to the needs of the Bauchi diocese?

In all the discussions at the synod, what plays prominently is the efforts of the faithful to promote the Church, her doctrines and beliefs even in the face of challenges, ranging from the insurgency that is wreaking havoc on lives and property to the challenge of poverty and illiteracy.

They wish to build a Church that is all-inclusive: for men, women, children, youth, widows, orphans, priests and laity. A Church that is sensitive to some of their major needs.

As far as they are concerned, when the Church lives its missionary mandate of evangelization, by bringing them closer to the Gospel … the Church will grow.

They are ready and willing to keep the faith without compromising and they will stick their necks to see it grows. So the synodal process gave them a sense of belonging and deepened their faith, a faith that made them to be resolute even when fear should have overwhelmed them.

In the Diocese of Bauchi we appreciate the process because it brought about real recognition of the laity’s status and the importance of their involvement in the life of the Church.

It also brought about confidence once again in the hierarchy of the Church, contrary to the perceived notion that the hierarchy seem to be solely in control when it comes to suggestions and policymaking. It gave the faithful the opportunity to air their views regarding some of the challenges bewildering the church, though peculiar to their situations.

Nigeria is battling challenges like illiteracy, poverty, disease, and conflicts. Does the synod of bishops have some capacity to help tackle these challenges?

To some extent, the bishops have the capacity to tackle the challenges. Remember, when the missionaries came to evangelize [in Africa], they considered all these challenges and in their enormous way of sacrifice, they tried to surmount those challenges by bringing schools, hospitals --  and some went to the extent of physical empowerment, a wonderful step they took, which I will say helped them in their missionary endeavors.

Yes, granted that the early missionaries did all these through the support they got from overseas, some even got the support from their various governments, but at least the Church has grown to stand on its own to some extent, most especially in Nigeria. Some regions are so much schooled on the value and gain of supporting the Church while other regions - most especially the northern part of the country, in which our diocese is situated - are not, because of poverty, insecurity and dominance of the Islamic faith.

So I feel the synod of bishops has the capacity to make the solidarity fund unit stronger. I know of the solidarity funds that comes through the office of the pontifical missionary societies which is a unit of the universal Church which cannot cater for the whole lot of the challenges. If the synod of the Nigerian bishops tries to strengthen this unit, they will be able to tackle the challenges.

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A 2021 priesthood ordination in St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, Bauchi, Nigeria. Courtesy photo.

There is an assumption that in Africa, ethnic affiliation is thicker than the waters of baptism. What is the implication of tribalism in the current synodal process?

In specific terms, can the synod draw lessons from Rwanda, to stem the tide of ethnic division, and to curb genocides across Nigeria and African continent?

Ethnicity and tribalism mean a lot in Africa - it is not an assumption but a statement of fact.

I will build my position based on our situation here in Nigeria. Nigeria is a multicultural country. Aside from the three major languages - Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba - there are other languages, are so many that I cannot say the number with certainty.

We have grown so self-centered that we base our relationship on ethnic affiliation. That is why I agree that ethnic affiliation is thicker than the waters of baptism here in Africa.

The church is not immune to the politics of ethnicity, or of tribalism; it is subtly at play, and if we do not guard against it immediately, it will consume all of us.

From the synodal process, we see the issue of ethnic tribalism at play, based on the perception of some of the participants. Whatever contributions they made, they did with some sense of tribal sentiments.

It is good that these things are coming out through this process, as this a menace the Church should look into and correct. The church has the great task of correcting this challenge.

The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 is a very sad one; we see where Church members involve themselves in politics of race and tribal affiliations as against the biblical principle that we are all one in the sight of God.

If tribalism is unchecked in the church, it will destroy the early work of evangelization. It can bring about distrust and racial antagonism and these can bring the Church to her knees.

I believe that the essence of the synodal process is to make us grow above our self-inclinations, above our ethnic and tribal affiliations. Remember our Lord Jesus Christ prayed that all might be one.

The synod should bring out the true image of the Church for people, even in the grassroots, to comprehend.

Without doubt, the Church is affected by the greed of elites and ruthless politicians. In what ways do you think priests, religious and laity in your diocese can use the synodal process to surmount these challenges?

Greed of the elite and politicians is a serious bane in our society and unfortunately, this has entered into the fabric of the Church’s life — And it’s not giving the Church a good picture of itself.

I want to believe that what is causing this menace is fear of the unknown - the feeling that I do not know what the future holds for me and those closest to me; it’s unfortunate that when it comes to the distribution of commonwealth, even within the Church -  which is supposed to be the vanguard of social justice and equal distribution of public goods - is at the forefront of uneven distributions, all because of greed.

So for me, the synodal process can be an avenue that can surmount these challenges.

First of all, since it is a process of communion, participation and mission, they have a correlation with the mandate of our dear Lord Jesus Christ.

The early Christians, most especially those of the apostolic era, met in their various homes in order to break the bread as commended by Jesus, in memorial of him, they brought their property together and shared it equally among themselves.

This kind of spirit became so enticing even among the non-believers. And this is the kind of communion that is emphasized in the synodal process — reliving the communal life of the apostolic era.

This can help to remind the Church of the need to consider the importance of sharing, and the appreciation of the divine mandate given to all the baptized.

A crucial effort should be made to face the challenges of greed and self-aggrandizement squarely.

How will the synod address the gap between the rich and the poor, literate and non-literate, urban residents and rural dwellers, men and women, young and old, and clergy and laity?

Everything about the synodal process is geared towards bringing every Christian - irrespective of social class, age, intellectual capacity - together as one family of God.

As human beings we have this innate quest for a superior life, a complex which informs the mind that one [person] should be higher than the other. Everything I said is in a human person; it is something that can be checked.

First of all, the Church should be able to maintain that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, that we are all equal in his sight, and as Christians, just as St. Paul said in Galatians 3:28, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slaves nor free, nor male or female, for you are all one in Christ.

This is the background in which the synodal process is using to make Christians realize their common identity. Through participation, communion and mission, Christians are charged to look above their social standards and inclinations.

Second, the Church should be able to spell out in clear terms the divine mandate giving to all the baptized. One who is baptized should be able to know that the mandate of preaching to the whole world, not only certain part or particular groups. All these can be achieved through mandatory participation in the synodal process.

As a priest, with a background in pastoral theology, do you think involving everyone in the Church means a change to the way the Church approaches the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried couples?

According to Catholic teaching on the divorced and remarried couples, communion is not open for the divorced and remarried Catholics.

The guideline points out clearly that this can happen only if the divorced Catholic, apart from being in good standing with the Church, who have not remarried or who have remarried following an annulment, the Church is so clear about that.

As someone who studied pastoral theology, I know there are instances whereby one can apply pastoral consideration, but not in this matter.

The synodal process that involves the participation of all Catholics is only in relation to matters of faith, not of sacraments, most especially the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Inasmuch as the Church has opened this avenue of discussion that is inclusive, she cannot compromise the essence of her unity and what gives her dignity.

Pragmatically, has the process in the Bauchi diocese really given voice to female religious, children, orphans, widows, the aged, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely and the unloved?

The synodal process has given the diocese a new understanding of being a Church after God’s heart.

The involvement of all has really given an understanding that missionary endeavors are not an exclusive reserve of the clergy, but for all Catholics.

The female religious in their own right have enormous contributions to make in the life of the Church, so also do the laity.

This is where we see some religious occupy offices within the chancery that before were meant only for the clergy; some lay faithful, too.

Those who are incapacitated due to one challenge to another are now experiencing a great deal of pastoral care.

The leadership of the laity have taken upon themselves to be engaged in visitation to those who are facing challenges; gone are the days when they feel that such pastoral care is reserved only for the priests, or in some cases religious, but since their involvement and participation in the synodal process, they’ve got better to understand the clarion call of engaging in corporal works of mercy.

So a feeling of inclusiveness and walking together has entered the life of the Church in Bauchi diocese and it is because of this synodal process that we are able to achieve this.

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