by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Where did you attend college and what degrees did you earn?
Father Chidiebere: I studied at All Saints Seminary, Ekpoma, from where I obtained a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology from the University of Benin, Benin-City and the Pontifical Urban University, Rome respectively. After my priestly ordination in 2013, I earned a master’s degree in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution from the National Open University of Nigeria and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from Abia StateUniversity, Uturu. In 2016, I left for the United Kingdom where I obtained another master’s degree in Religion in Contemporary Society from King’s College, London. In 2017, I moved to Italy to study canon law. I earned a licentiate in canon law from the Faculty of Canon Law St Pius X, Venice. I am currently studying for a doctorate in canon law at Pontifical Lateran University, Rome. In the past years, I have also earned different certifications in development, diplomacy, and religion.
Gordon: What did you study at Faculty of Canon Law?
Father Chidiebere: Canon law is a term that incorporates all the laws of the Church—divine and ecclesiastical. Hence, faculties of canon law teach only canon law. I wrote my thesis for the licentiate on the remuneration and social welfare of priests in Okigwe diocese. I am writing my doctorate on the Church in Nigeria at the service of victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by Church personnel in line with canonical norms.
Gordon: When you received your vocation, with whom did you discuss it, and what was their advice?
Father Chidiebere: I entered the seminary at the age of ten. I remember that I have always desired to be a priest. Before entering the seminary, I normally sat at the front pew and I memorised the parts of the mass said by the priests, including the Eucharistic Prayer. The parish priest, Late Msgr Innocent Alaribe, encouraged me to follow my passion. He guided me in applying to the seminary and wrote the recommendation letters. Hence, I entered the seminary immediately after primary school.
Gordon: Where did you attend seminary, and what was your favorite course and why was it your favorite?
Father Chidiebere: I attended St Peter’s Seminary, Okigwe for my minor seminary studies and Seminary of All Saints, Ekpoma for my formation as a major seminarian. My favourite course in the major seminary was axiology, that is, the philosophy of value. I loved it because it sharpened my orientation for the ministry. By reflecting on the meaning of value and how it governs our decisions, I understood the need to have the right values if I wished to be fruitful in the ministry.
Gordon: What was your first assignment, and what are some of your fondest memories there?
Father Chidiebere: My first assignment after ordination was to serve as the Vice-Principal of a female high school. Apart from the administrative duties, I also taught the Christian religion. I lived at the minor seminary while working at this high school. One of my fondest memories was how it enabled me to understand that boys and girls in a similar setting related differently to the authority.
Gordon: Where is your current parish and approximately how many parishioners do you have?
Father Chidiebere: I am currently the chaplain of the Nigerian Catholic Community in the Diocese of Vicenza, Italy. Although the number of Nigerians of all denominations living in Vicenza is above a thousand, we have about 60 Catholics who participate regularly at our weekly English mass on Sundays. I also help with masses and confessions in the Italian parish where I live in Vicenza.
Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your parish?
Father Chidiebere: The pandemic has not had a massive impact on the chaplaincy community. At the beginning of the pandemic, and given the sudden nature of the first lockdown in Italy, we supported some of our members to feed. However, since the pandemic hit mainly the tourism industry and most of the Nigerians in the chaplaincy work in factories or essential services, most worked throughout the lockdown. There was a drop in mass attendance during the lockdowns and restrictions, but it has picked up. Some activities are still suspended or have been largely modified. In all, we are gradually returning to normal.
Gordon: What are some of the other popular religions in your area?
Father Chidiebere: In Italy, it is largely Catholic. In my part of Nigeria (south-east), it is mostly Christianity. However, northern Nigeria is majorly Islam while south-west Nigeria also has a large Muslim population. Traditional religion is still present in some parts of the country, but adherents constitute about six percent of the total population of Nigeria.
Gordon: What are some of the pressing challenges to Catholicism in Africa and what can we do to address them?
Father Chidiebere: The major challenge facing Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa is the influence of prosperity gospel and the accompanying, and sometimes unorthodox, practices to promote such an ideology. Yet, I am not surprised about this because traditional religion is primarily about material salvation, while Christianity is primarily about the salvation of the soul and then, material salvation. With large scale poverty and lack of social welfare from the government, any ideology that promises wealth and welfare is fully embraced.
Another pressing challenge is the crisis of identity faced by Catholics as they struggle to reconcile their Christian faith and the evils of colonialism. Catholicism is yet to be inculturated in Africa as it is in Europe. In fact, Africa practices European inculturation of Catholicism. While many missionaries condemned African traditional religion, the artefacts of traditional religions are seen in western museums, where they make money for these host countries. There is a current movement to abandon Christianity and return to traditional religion, and for some, to an incultrated Catholic faith. Marriage is an example where many Catholics no longer consider marriage in the Church as the most important. They prefer to marry only according to the customary rites, which predates the advent of Christianity.
Some have described this trend as “neo-paganism”. However, this term is derogatory because it suggests that the existing religion and culture before the arrival of Christianity were inferior—something that infuriates the current generation.
One way to address these challenges is a new existential approach to Catholic theology, which I define as the adoption of elements of physical sciences, social sciences, arts, humanities, law, and culture for the purpose of expounding Catholic doctrine in terms appreciable to contemporary society. As Jesus says that he came that we might have life in abundance (John 10:10), the aim of this approach is holistic—material and temporal—salvation (life in abundance). With holistic salvation as the aim, this approach preaches repentance while contributing to improving the overall living condition of the people. In this way, the Church provides an observable alternative to the prosperity gospel ideology.
This approach also helps in reconciling the identity crisis of Catholics by actively pushing for inculturation in line with the Church’s teachings. Inculturation recognizes the authenticity of traditional religion interwoven into the culture and moves towards incultrating some of the customs into the Catholic faith. Regarding marriage in Nigeria, for instance, there are already discussions on how to integrate the Catholic rite (the canonical form of marriage) and the customary rite into one ceremony.
Gordon: Thank you for beautiful and incisive interview.