5 Reasons Why I Converted to Catholicism in Colonial Africa

I. Ogho, Guest Writer

I decided to be Catholic at the age of 12 in a Nigeria still controlled by the British and other foreign leaders. Here are the main reasons why I decided to become Catholic, freely and joyfully.

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  1. Witnesses of Children

I was 9 years old in Ibadan, South West Nigeria, when my neighbours excitedly memorized their Baltimore Catechism. “Who made you?”, “God made me.” “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him, in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” “What is an Act of Hope?” etc.  I listened to them enthusiastically rattle off the articles of their faith. They explained upon my query that they were preparing to receive communion. They said it was ok that I can come to Church with them but that I cannot receive communion without going through the process.  On the day of their first Holy Communion, I went to Church with them. My Aunty and Uncle, with whom I stayed , did not seem to care much that I wanted to go to a Catholic Church. I suspect that this had to do with the fact that they both went to different Churches themselves.

Once at Mass, I tried to follow the Latin prayers by the Irish Priest but didn’t understand anything. However, I loved the singing and admired my friends as they received Communion. They told me that Holy Communion was God himself and I believed. I became determined to receive Holy Communion although that time would only come 4 years later.

  1. The Beauty of the Mass

In my first encounter of the Mass, I found it beautiful. I saw bellows of smoke around the altar; heard beautiful chants, saw the majestic vestments and heard the sung responses by the congregants. I said to myself, truly if God exists, then he is surely here. A doubt arose in my mind when I noticed a similarity between the billowing smoke here and the smoke of the worship of Olokun, the river goddess, who I intuitively stayed away from because it often felt more like an amazing cultural event than worship. I waited to see if these worshippers would also go into a trance, but they did not. Instead, the attention of the smoke and service went to the altar and appeared to center on God; the Holy Communion.  Every action was for God. I took note of this even though I was still struggling with the Latin hymn being sung.

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  1. No rich, no poor, but one in the Lord.

I had been to an Anglican service in Ibadan before with my Uncle who later changed Churches. At the service, we had been asked to move by Ushers who told us that we were not to occupy seats so close to the altar as these were reserved for some dignitaries. Indeed, I looked up and there was an elegantly dressed Nigerian lady, no doubt from the upper class, fanning herself and looking away from us in a dramatic fashion with an air of impatience. The usher showed my uncle, my cousins and myself away to the back of the Church. Anger welled up in my belly and I vowed never to return to that Church again – even if my Uncle wanted to return. 

During my first visit to the Catholic Mass with my neighbors, I deliberately sat in the very front. I braced myself for the humiliating removal but no one cared. No one removed me. I was highly impressed that even the foreigners sat where they found empty seats and had no expectations. I took note of this. 

  1. The Witness of the Church

Many people in my village, Udo, referred to Catholics as the Church of the  “Fadas” which is an indigenization of the word Father.  While my village had been highly exposed to Anglicans and Methodists, we were rarely exposed to Catholics. I heard about them once on a trip to the nearby big city of Benin. There, I was told that the Fadas run hospitals and schools and they do not get married. This was fascinating to us but we had no explanation so it was of no meaning to me. When, at age 11, I eventually got into a Catholic High School run by the nuns of St. Louis from Ireland, I was very excited to discover that they belong to the Church of the Fadas. My good experience with my neighbours and their Catechism and My experience at Mass gave me reason to hope that this would be a good education experience. And it was. By the time I was almost 13 years of age, I was asked by the nuns if I wanted to be baptized; I unhesitatingly said yes. I was asked to get the permission of my Father. My Father did not object, neither did he encourage it. To him it was a small thing to do in exchange for a good education. So in 1960 as Nigeria prepared to be independent from Britain, I became a Christian in the Universal (Catholic) Church.

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  1. My Encounter with the Word

At the Catholic high school, we were exposed to detailed studies in the Catechism. I had rattled off the rhythmic dialogue of the Baltimore Catechism and with little problem soon got confirmed. Then I began to learn about the true meaning of the Sacraments. I was deeply fascinated by the Holy Eucharist.

One day, we were told that the Mass will no longer be in Latin. Our first Mass in vernacular was strange but also deeply beautiful as I , for the first time, started to understand profoundly what was being said and the beauty of our liturgical responses.  Soon enough music and hymnals in various local languages sprang up and it proved to be highly evangelistic as local proverbs and idioms that explained gods and goddesses started to explain God Almighty. Contrary to what many Catholics in the west think, the vernacular Mass was a highly evangelistic tool in my community.

When we started learning scripture, I was deeply taken up by Christ’s parables. Coming from a narrative-based culture, I found his stories very instructive in illustrating the Holy life. His responses to Pharisees and Sadducees were educational and hilarious in some cases.

Today

I am still Catholic today for all these reasons and more. I still cannot find any other Church with a better interpretation of Scripture, a better link to Christ in Apostolic succession and I cannot get over the beautiful shock of Christ coming in the Eucharist every day. The same Christ who walked in Galilee shows up in my little village in Udo, Benin City, west Africa!

The difficulty the Church has faced recently particularly the sex abuse scandals have been discouraging – highly discouraging – but looking at Christ, I know what he would have done. He would help to heal the wounded. Therefore I know it is right to say sincerely that I am deeply sorry to all who have been hurt by bad actions of people in the Church. No one deserves such suffering.  I  pray for their restoration and healing in Christ who knows first hand the pain of unjust suffering. 

It is important to note that the Church in my African community has not been spared this pain and I personally know people who have suffered as a result. I pray for them. I pray for continued improvement in child protection in the Church and worldwide. I ask for God’s mercy.

Over 2,000 years, Christ has remained with us as a Church even though we do NOT deserve it. Therefore I remain Catholic, in thanksgiving for this untold grace from God.  I am encouraged by Christ; and the continued example of His great humility and patience, particularly, how he comes faithfully to us at Mass – even after seeing the diversity of sinners that we are.

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