When Johnbosco Ugwu was growing up in Ede-Oballa, a tiny village in Enugu State in southeastern Nigeria, he enjoyed going to Mass with his parents and siblings. In 2015 he decided he would like to become a priest.
Mr. Ugwu applied to several Catholic seminaries and was thrilled when he was finally accepted to one in southern Nigeria. But he quickly learned that the church has not been spared by the dysfunction and corruption that plague most institutions in the country. The local bishop warned Mr. Ugwu that the seminary was not “trustworthy.” It is not uncommon, the bishop said, for schools to operate without the proper license, leaving students unable to graduate or serve as a priest after they have completed the required coursework.
Today, 22-year-old Mr. Ugwu no longer wants to become a priest, and he has stopped attending Mass.
Mr. Ugwu chose to walk away from the Catholic Church after he left home last year to study at the University of Nigeria in the southeastern town of Nsukka. He now believes that becoming a Catholic priest would “limit” him.
Across Nigeria, Catholic churches are increasingly competing for membership with other Christian denominations.
“I want to be able to reach out to millions of people when I become a Pentecostal pastor or minister; as a Catholic priest, it would be difficult to reach people beyond the shores of your parish.”
His path is not uncommon.
Across Nigeria, Catholic churches are increasingly competing for membership with other Christian denominations, particularly large charismatic Pentecostal churches. And a growing number of students in Nigeria choose to straddle Catholicism and Pentecostalism: They attend Mass while at home with their parents but are involved with Pentecostal movements on campus.
Catholics in the global North frequently point to Africa and other developing regions as “the future of the church.” It is true that there are great growth and vitality here. But if the future of Nigeria is Catholic, it is also increasingly Pentecostal.
Growth and Diversity
Today, Africa is home to some 158 million Catholics. The continent is expected to be home to one-sixth of the world’s Catholics (about 230 million people) by 2025. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a population evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. It also boasts the continent’s largest Christian population, with as many as 80 million Christians, 20 million of whom are Catholic. The southeastern region, home mainly to Christians from the large Igbo ethnic group, has a significant Catholic population.
Nigeria’s religious landscape was once dominated by the Catholic and Anglican churches, but today there is a rising wave of evangelical and Pentecostal movements, many of which are “African Initiated Churches,” independently started in Africa by Africans: Christ Apostolic Church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Living Faith Church Worldwide, Christ Embassy, Deeper Christian Life Ministry, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Lord’s Chosen Charismatic Revival Movement, The Synagogue, Church of All Nations, Celestial Church of Christ, and Dominion City—to name a few.
On university campuses, where many students are untethered from their childhood faith for the first time, the competition for souls can be fierce.
This diversity has given rise to disagreement, confusion and division within Nigeria’s Christian community. It is not uncommon to meet Christians who refuse to marry outside their denominations. And on university campuses, where many students are untethered from their childhood faith for the first time, the competition for souls can be fierce.
Why They Leave
Several factors lead young Nigerian Catholics to explore Pentecostal churches. First, misconceptions about the teachings of the Catholic Church are widespread. It is common to hear non-Catholics say the church engages in idolatry and Mariolatry. Some claim that the church does not believe in the Holy Spirit or use the Bible for its teachings. Catholic students often cannot withstand the challenges thrown at them by student leaders from other churches.
Jesinta Okorie, a recent graduate of the University of Nigeria, grew up in a Catholic family but joined a Pentecostal movement known as Dominion City.
“When I came to campus in 2014, I was told that Catholics worship Mary and idols,” Ms. Okorie, 23, said. “I just had to join Dominion City here on campus, though I went for Mass anytime I left college to stay with my uncle.”
“When I came to campus in 2014, I was told that Catholics worship Mary and idols,” Ms. Okorie, 23, said.
The Rev. Ernest Makata, a priest with the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, is often confronted with these “misconceptions.” The church “respects or honors” Mary but does not “worship” her, he tells students. “Mary is a mediator or intercessor. What does a pastor do when he prays for you?”
But for young Catholics, the negative views of the church held by their peers can be difficult to ignore or contest.
There are also aspects of Pentecostalism that Catholic students find more appealing than the faith they grew up with. Pentecostals believe strongly in the work of the Holy Spirit and that the direct experience of the presence of God lies in spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and healing. Its members believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God, and many of its practices come from a literal reading of the Scriptures. Against this backdrop, they constantly question what they see as non-scriptural practices in the Catholic Church, such as the use of missals.
For young Catholics, the negative views of the church held by their peers can be difficult to ignore or contest.
Mr. Ugwu took those criticisms to heart. He noted that the Catholic Church could not help him grasp the Bible as much as he had wanted.
“I needed a church that would train me on evangelism and imbue me with biblical knowledge. I wanted to dissect [the] Scriptures and teach young people. I only got that when I joined another church, and today I lead prayer sessions in my department,” he said.
Ms. Okorie had a similar experience when she joined Dominion City. “Their lessons were purely based on the Bible,” she said. “And we were taken through trainings in the Bible and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
But more than anything, what tends to draw young people toward Pentecostal movements is its dual emphasis on welcome and a personal relationship with God.
“I found that [Dominion City’s] service was entirely different from the Mass,” Ms. Okorie said. “I enjoyed every bit of the razzmatazz and their mode of worship was uplifting. There was a lot of music and dancing, and they gave the youth a sense of participation and belonging.”
Mr. Ugwu said he dislikes the exclusivity of Catholic worship. “When I was in the Catholic Church, if we get tracks or leaflets from other denominations, they will consider it as a sin,” he explained. “Or whenever you leave [the] Catholic [Church] to attend another church you will be required to go for confession.”
What tends to draw young people toward Pentecostal movements is its dual emphasis on welcome and a personal relationship with God.
Another student, 22-year-old Faith Godfrey, was a Catholic until November 2015, when she crossed over to a Pentecostal movement on campus. Though she misses the hymns of her childhood church, Ms. Godfrey said she feels she is “better equipped and trained in the new church to feel closer to God and form a stronger relationship with him.”
On campus, the student fellowships of other Christian churches often adopt a more personal approach to catering to the needs of their members. They assign mentors to students to guide them through their spirituality and academic struggles. To ensure these students come for church activities, the mentors will often call or text reminders to them.
This hands-on approach appears to be working. “In the Catholic Church, nobody cares about you,” Ms. Okorie said. “The church is way too big, and everybody seems to be too busy. But that’s not the same with Dominion City. If I don’t come for service, someone would definitely call or send [a text message] to check in and know if everything was O.K.”
Father Makata, who has worked with students at the local chaplaincy in the University of Nigeria, admits that this more personal approach is a challenge for Catholics. “I must confess that because of the amorphous nature of the Catholic Church, it becomes very difficult for the church to reach out to all its members,” he said.
On campus, the student fellowships of other Christian churches often adopt a more personal approach to catering to the needs of their members.
But, he added, the church is working hard to tend to young members. He pointed to the creation of what are known as known as Small Christian Communities, a movement encouraged by Pope John Paul II in “Ecclesia in Africa,” his 1995 post-synodal exhortation on evangelization on the continent. The document states that these communities “should be places engaged in evangelizing themselves, so that subsequently they can bring the Good News to others; they should moreover be communities which pray and listen to God’s Word, encourage the members themselves to take on responsibility, learn to live an ecclesial life, and reflect on different human problems in the light of the Gospel.”Today, an S.C.C. is usually a small, inclusive community that comprises anywhere from eight to over 40 parishioners who gather weekly in homes or on church grounds to discuss the Sunday readings, to help each other to make connections between everyday life and faith, and to reach out to brothers and sisters who are most in need. The hope among church leaders is that these ecclesial units will provide new avenues for lay Catholics to explore spirituality, encounter Scripture and share their faith, even in the absence of a priest.
But many young Catholics do not belong to these units, Father Makata said. “Unfortunately, they are not effective because people feel it is where fathers and mothers gather to discuss.”
In an attempt to meet the unique needs and challenges of young Catholics, the Nigerian church has endorsed the establishment of units like the National Association of Catholic Corps Members, the Nigeria Federation of Catholic Students, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Nigeria and the Catholic Biblical Movement of Nigeria, among other devotions and adoration ministries.
These movements and units within the church, particularly the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Nigeria, incorporate aspects of both Catholic and charismatic practice, including an emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus and professing spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, performing miracles, healing, interpretation of tongues and utterance of wisdom.
“In the Catholic Church, nobody cares about you,” Ms. Okorie said. “The church is way too big.”
Father Makata said these groups were introduced after the Second Vatican Council to respond to a desire for “dancing and singing and loud worship, which most young people need...but they simply don’t seek it.”
The Nigeria Federation of Catholic Students aims to promote spirituality at universities across the country. It is coordinated and run by students under the guidance of a chaplain, who acts as a spiritual counselor.
Sixtus Ejike, the former secretary of N.F.C.S. at the University of Nigeria, says most Catholic students who leave for other churches do not, in most cases, have a “strong Catholic background.”
Most Catholic students who leave for other churches do not have a “strong Catholic background.”
“Some of these students attend [a] Catholic church because their parents do so. But once they are on campus, there is another level of freedom they experience, and they have nobody watching them and pushing them to go for Mass,” said Mr. Ejike, who graduated from the University of Nigeria in August.
“In the early days of their freshman year, they get to receive help from other student fellowships around campus and these people call them and send constant reminders, so they feel it is an obligation to return the favor they received when they started here. We also try to provide services like accommodation and help freshman students during registration, but due to the huge number of Catholic students, we cannot reach everybody.”
Behind the Numbers
In the weeks before Pope Benedict XVI’s first trip to Africa in 2009, the veteran Italian Vatican journalist Sandro Magister told The New York Times that though the Catholic Church was rapidly expanding in Africa, the expansion was “very fragile” because it “shows the typical characteristics of youth and adolescence: great waves of feeling and emotion with rather weak roots.”
Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., the president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, believes focus only on the rapid growth of the church on the continent is misguided. What is needed is to look inward in order to understand the essence of Christianity.
“The perception of the ‘Church in Africa’ as a success story is neither false nor exaggerated from the perspective of numerical growth and statistical tabulation,” he said. “But therein lies the problem: Growth or progress is not to be measured only in numbers. Christianity represents something more than masses of people milling in and around churches. The test of the quality and depth of faith are to be sought outside of the present obsession with numbers.”
“Growth or progress is not to be measured only in numbers. Christianity represents something more than masses of people milling in and around churches.”
Behind those numbers he sees worrying trends. In the face of poverty and failed governance, religion is often instrumentalized to deal with problems, “but only at a superficial level,” Father Orobator said. Many pastors and priests spiritualize issues like unemployment, poverty and the disintegration of families instead of addressing the root causes of people’s suffering—corruption and poor governance, inside the church and out.
“The fact that much emphasis is placed on prophecy, healing and deliverance is evidence of how churches presently instrumentalize religion by preying on the gullibility and vulnerability of adherents,” he said. “This is certainly not what I am prepared to celebrate as the future of the church.”
Father Makata sees ignorance as the primary explanation for the Catholic Church’s “weak roots.”
In the face of poverty and failed governance, religion is often instrumentalized to deal with problems, “but only at a superficial level.”
“I think of the biggest problems we have in the Catholic Church right now with our young people is lack of knowledge,” he said. He blames poor catechesis that relies on rote learning and oral instructions for failing to prepare young Catholics to cherish and defend their faith.
“It’s a very bad way to start,” he argued. “The focus is on reciting the catechism and not understanding the catechism. That’s just not enough. We need to work on the catechesis to manufacture a new set of ways of helping young people understand the church thoroughly.”
Proclamation and Manifestation
Father Makata urges Catholic ministers to write more books and articles on issues affecting young people and to forcefully proclaim the church’s true teaching on the Virgin Mary, sacred images and the Mass.
“This would help young members to be able to stand up to defend the faith when they encounter people from other churches who question their belief,” he said.
He also hopes to deepen young people’s appreciation for the Catholic Church’s unique theology and spirituality.
“We have what we call proclamation and manifestation. Proclamation is an attitude which came after the Reformation, which is consistent with Protestant theology: The church is all about what you say and how you proclaim it,” Father Makata said.
For decades, relations between Catholics and Pentecostals in Nigeria have been marked by competition and distrust.
“Manifestation holds that God manifests himself in all creation and emphasizes introspection of the mysteries of God. The Catholic Church is more of a manifestation church, but young people don’t just get it.”
Father Orobator, however, sees reasons to be hopeful about the next generation of African Christians. For decades, relations between Catholics and Pentecostals in Nigeria have been marked by competition and distrust: Pentecostals struggle to recognize the saving value of the Catholic Church and the sacraments, while some Catholics view Pentecostal spirituality and missiology with suspicion. He thinks the fluidity of religious affiliation on campuses could be an opportunity to overcome some of these divisions.
According to Father Orobator, who was born in Nigeria and today serves as the principal of Hekima University College Jesuit School of Theology and Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations in Nairobi, Kenya, regular churchgoers are less “hung up on doctrinal niceties and ideological differences between churches.”
He said what is happening today does not necessarily represent a major shift; rather it is a form of “denominational carpet crossing.” (In Nigeria, the term “carpet crossing” refers to the switching of party allegiance by a politician ahead of an election.)
“In Africa, religion works. It is a means of addressing real issues, pressing concerns and challenging situations.”
“I wouldn’t see any reason to be worried and to declare this a crisis of faith or of religious affiliation,” Father Orobator said. “If anything, such ecumenical trends could contain lessons for a more ecumenically hospitable and tolerant attitude between denominations.”
When Christians move between churches, they often carry with them the practices they have found to be meaningful, he said. African Catholicism, for example, has borrowed the songs and styles of worship of Pentecostalism, while Pentecostals have incorporated some of the more formalized celebrations and services of Catholics. In doing so, both churches have become more welcoming to Christians of every stripe.
“In Africa, religion works,” Father Orobator said. “It is a means of addressing real issues, pressing concerns and challenging situations. People will gravitate to wherever they believe these needs are better met, and such ‘crossings’ are not necessarily permanent.”
To Return or Not to Return
Last November Jesinta Okorie returned to the Catholic Church. She has started taking catechism classes at the local chaplaincy on the campus, but she still struggles with the Catholic meditative style of celebrating Mass and adds that she does not pray the rosary because she believes “Mary is given a lot of honor, which is not right.”
As for Johnbosco Ugwu, he does not regret his decision to leave the church.
“I always wanted to become a minister, but I had problems with whether to be a priest or a pastor,” he said. “Every man has a calling, and once you discover it you will begin to walk on the right path.”