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Other Aspects of the Indigenous Religious Culture


Other Aspects of the Indigenous Religious Culture;

One needs a broad conceptualisation of Igbo religion to better grasp the full significance of its influence. Religion, it should be recalled, is the womb of the culture in the traditional Igbo background. It permeates most aspects of life, and infuses them with meaning and significance. Major A.G. Leonard, the pioneer soldier-
administrator from Scotland who served for ten years in the Lower Niger (1885 – 1905), had concluded rightly that for the indigenous Igbo, like the Hindu, “their religion was their life and their life religion”, 1906: 429. Important ideas and values were all ritualised. Chi, Mpata-aku, Ihejioku, Ikenga, Omumu/Ogwugwu, were revered cosmic beings and forces believed by the indigenous Igbo to be responsible for such vital values and ideals as uniqueness of the individual, progress, wealth-acquisition, success and achievement, as well as regeneration in men, animals and vegetation.

Catholic and other Christian missionary groups had mounted sustained campaign against these and other aspects of Igbo indigenous religion. Their onslaught led eventually to what O.U. Kalu and E. A. Ayandele refer to poignantly as the “rout of the gods” and “the collapse of Igbo pagandom” (Ikenga-Metuh ed., 1986: 1f, 134f). Chi, Mpata-aku, Ikenga, and other relevant deities and cosmic forces of the Igbo were dislocated and supplanted. But, some important attitudes and ideals they helped the indigenous people to cultivate as part of their total personality, (e.g. self-reliance, competitive spirit, strong achievement motif, progressive outlook), were exploited by the missionaries to benefit Christianity. The multiplicity of Catholic mission schools, a common feature of life in Igboland before1970, the phenomenal growth of converts to the Church, even the outstanding increase in the number of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated religious life (men and women), are not unrelated to the indigenous cultural background of the Igbo. (Recall the story of Ezeulu in Chinua Achebe’s novel. Ezeulu asks one of his sons to enrol in the mission school in the hope that he would serve later as his eyes and ears in the new world of the white man. Similar tales abound in individual biographies of pioneer converts).

Even the major shift and refocusing in Catholic missionary strategy that took place at the dawn of the 20th-century, was informed partly by and traceable to the influence of the indigenous religion. The missionaries had embarked on an initial apostolate of redeeming slaves and establishing proto-type Christian villages for pioneer Igbo converts, made up mainly of outcasts and lowly members of the society. The bulk of the population, appeared not to have been moved by that strategy, partly because such class of people were not generally regarded highly in the traditional background. Their poor destiny, it was thought, could be the result of some divine wrath due invariably to some serious moral/ritual misconduct. The Father Superior, Lejeune and his confreres were therefore, impelled to articulate and launch a more effective policy of evangelisation, namely; the formal education/school apostolate in 1903.

On the other hand, the missionaries quickly noticed that the Igbo were traditionally positively disposed to and attracted by rich religious paraphernalia and mystically-oriented rituals. They exploited this to the full. From time to time, they organised well choreographed liturgical celebrations in strategic towns like Aguleri and Ogboli-Onitsha for such major feasts like Corpus Christi , confirmation, wedding ceremony, patronal feast. V.A. Nwosu further buttresses the point.

Another method Catholic missionaries used considerably to their advantage was making their acts of public worship (liturgy) as elaborate and colourful as possible. During religious feasts, especially the Mass and various devotions to the Blessed Eucharist and the saints, altars were beautifully decorated with flowers, lighted candles, incense and colourful vestments were used. Statues of saints as well as the crucifix were displayed at strategic places. Organ music would accompany the choir which sang hymns in Latin and Vernacular.

Such well dramatised celebrations made significant impact in the minds of people, and not infrequently helped conversion as entries in missionary journals reveal. Listen to one such detailed entry made barely two years of the missionaries’ arrival in Onitsha , precisely on August 28, 1887 on the feast of Most Holy Heart of Mary;

Fair weather allows a good crowd of Onitsha people to assist our divine service today, which are (sic) celebrated with exceptional solemnity. Palm branches behind the statues of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph are studded with flowers. Papers, variously coloured are fixed to the windows by Father Superior; a splendid garniture, made perfectly by one of our girls, enhances the spell of our sanctuary, already shining with a great number of marvellous branches of flowers gathered on the altar and around the statues, with a beautiful background of harmonious green, tastely set out.  Father Horne sings the high Mass … Father Superior skilfully draws the fine melodies from the harmonium, whereas Brother Hermas sings the solos, and the boys under his direction, with impelling energy, sing piously the Mass VI, tone Durmont …(cited by V.A Nwosu, Obi 1985: 382).

Certainly, there was some resemblance of aspects of Igbo indigenous religious worship and certain features of the Roman liturgy. One clear example was the similarity between the awe and dominant sense of mystery that largely characterised the Pius V Roman Liturgy in vogue in the pre-Vatican II era on the one hand, and the dense ritual symbolism, aura and mystically-oriented nature of Igbo indigenous religion. (Compare the elaborate ritual paraphernalia and drama that generally accompany the procession of ritual officiants, or the movement of physical symbols of a deity by Igbo traditional religionists, and the rite of Benediction to the Blessed Sacrament or the Corpus Christi celebration of Roman Catholics).

Even the fundamental outlook, perception or vision of reality (world-view), as well as a number of important beliefs and ideas of the indigenous Igbo, were said to have considerably influenced the overall method of evangelisation of many Catholic missionaries, including the great Bishop Joseph Shanahan.

The method Catholic missionaries adopted here in teaching the faith to the people especially since the time of Bishop Shanahan …was one which strove to transform, not destroy, the people’s religious consciousness. The missionaries realized that the people’s traditional religious ideas were not so much incorrect as incomplete, and required only completion and sublimation.

C. A Obi who talks of “proto-Christian” content of much of Igbo traditional religion, concludes that the people’s outstanding response to the mission of the Holy Ghost Fathers in Onitsha and its neighbourhood was greatly facilitated by the “spirit-consciousness of the Igbo”(1985: 380).  


Vatican II and the Turn-around;

With the Second Vatican Council comes a radical shift in virtually every significant aspect of life of the Church. Particularly in the areas of the Church’s understanding of itself and its mission in the world, Vatican II articulated some of the most profound and revolutionary insight that have continued to shape developments both within and outside the Church, concerning particularly the well-being of man, society and religious life.

 Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), for example opens with the declaration linking the mystery of the Church with the unity of the human race (art. 1), while Gaudium et Spes (the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), speaks of the universal application of the “reign of God” (Missio Dei), as one that is not necessarily ecclesiocentric, but does apply “to all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way” (art. 22). On the vital subject of religious freedom in a contemporary world that is markedly plural and complex, the Council proclaims in no unmistaken terms that the human person enjoys the fundamental right of religious freedom. “This freedom means that all men (people) are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits” (Dignitatis Humanis, art. 2).

Although none of the documents of Vatican II mentions African Indigenous Religions by name, there is a wide consensus that the latter are included in the all-embracing category of non-Christian Religions discussed in Nostra Aetate (the Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). In one of its most oft-quoted pronouncement on the subject, the Council clearly spells out the Church’s current position on religions of the world other than Christianity. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with reverence those other ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. … The Church therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognise, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the social-cultural values found among these men”(art. 2).

Some Major External Stimulators;

The intellectual ferment that led to these far-reaching pronouncements in the Catholic Church did not occur in a vacuum. Certain noteworthy events in the wider world many of which directly or indirectly affected the thinking and course of developments in the Church, did take place in the period prior to and around the commencement of the Second Vatican Council. The Second World War 1939 – 1945, for instance, had brought with it a lot of lessons; particularly about the inter-dependence of peoples, a sense of disenchantment with the prevailing idea of progress mainly in terms of science and technology, better travelling facilities and access to different peoples and regions of the world, greater knowledge and information about other cultures and races, etc.

On the other hand, on the political front, demand for national selfhood by many colonial dependencies in different parts of the world grew louder and more strident after World War II. Along with that was a reawakening of the sense of cultural identity among several colonised peoples of the world, including Africa . K.O. Mbadiwe until his death, never tired telling the story of his struggle with the expatriate parish priest at Urualla (Ideato L.G.A, Imo State) in 1948, over his (Mbadiwe’s) insistence on wearing as his wedding outfit at the holy Mass, the Nigerian fabric and design (Ashoke), rather than the traditional three-piece English suit and a flowing white wedding gown by him and his spouse respectively.

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