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Doctrines & Morals
Civic Rights …


"WHAT IS THE CHURCH SAYING?" The Church in question here is the Church in Nigeria. The question comes up on the lips of some Nigerians whenever this country goes through difficult situations such as the recent rampage of murderous herdsmen, the biting economic situation, the one-day-one-crisis state of affairs, the directionless movement of the ship called Nigeria. The question is being posed in two ways. One way is to pose the question in order to truly know what the Church is saying. It is the way of the person who believes the Church is speaking, and who wants to be informed as to the content of the Church's intervention. A second way is to pose the question in a cynical way, in a way that suggests that the Church is silent in the face of injustice. Some have even gone as far as suggesting that the Church is not speaking because she is compromised. Compromised? On October 1, 1960, the day of Nigeria's independence, Catholic Bishops in Nigeria addressed a letter to the newly-emerged Nigeria. Fifty-years later, the present generation of Catholic Bishops repeated that gesture. On the occasion of Nigeria's fiftieth anniversary of independence, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria addressed a letter to Nigerians. Entitled "Growing a New Nigeria", the letter was presented to former President Goodluck Jonathan at the Our Lady Queen of Nigeria Cathedral in Abuja. It was on the First Sunday of Lent, at the opening Mass of the 1st Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria for the year 2011. It was just a few weeks to the 2011 presidential election. Receiving the letter, former President Jonathan promised to give a copy to each member of his cabinet. And, he said, if he did not win the presidential election of that year, he would ensure that whoever was to succeed him would get a copy. At least two times a year-during the first week in Lent and during the second week in September-Catholic Bishops of Nigeria hold their plenary meeting. The first is always held in Abuja, while the venue of the second is rotated among the ecclesiastical provinces. At the end of each plenary, the Bishops publish a communique on the state of affairs in the Church and in the land. Those interventions are noted for being incisive. Every word is carefully chosen. At other times, when there is a national emergency, the Bishops have spoken on the situation to Nigerians and to those who lead Nigeria. During the painful and long years of pestilential military rule, apart from some other civil organizations, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria rose to the occasion and confronted Nigeria's military rulers where other religious leaders literally froze in silence. In 1984, a delegation of Nigeria's Catholic Bishops went to Dodan Barracks, the residence Nigeria's military rulers from Yakubu Gowon to Ibrahim Babangida. The occupant of Dodan Barracks then was a soldier called Muhammadu Buhari. He had taken over from elected President Shehu Shagari whose government he and his military colleagues had overthrown on December 31, 1983. The draconian rules of the Buhari-Idiagbon-led military junta had cowed many into silence. Not the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria. They not only went into the lion's den that Dodan Barracks was, they pointedly asked Buhari when he would restore democratic rule. General Buhari told them he had no such plans as at that time. He was overthrown some months later. A few days ago, the same scenario repeated itself. Nigeria's Catholic Bishops went to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa. It was like prophet Nathan meeting King David for a second time. It was like prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures confronting the kings of Israel. The Bishops were very friendly yet frank in their statement to President Buhari. They did not use unprintable language, the type one often hears on the campaign trail. But they told him, without any equivocation, that his spoken promises of 2015 have become the broken promises in 2018. They did not go as adversaries. They went as shepherds who love the people of Nigeria. I recently brought the attention of some of those who pose that question in the second way to the many interventions of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria. Their reaction was: who reads the communiques? The communiques are mere words, they said. They want action. Mere words? It is easy to dismiss words. But prophetic words are not mere words. They are inspired by the Holy Spirit, "the Lord the Giver of life, who has spoken through the prophets." Being a prophet is not the same as being an exhibitionist agitator. It is about using the word of God to form consciences and mobilize public opinion for the transformation of persons and societies. I have heard people say that, instead of communiques, the Church should organize peaceful protests and similar public manifestations. The case of Cardinal Sin of Manilla is often evoked. In 1986, Cardinal Sin led peaceful protests on the streets of Manilla calling for the departure of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Marcos had sent his troops with tanks to dispel the protesters. The troops went into the streets with their tanks, met the Cardinal and the people, including priests and religious, sitting down on the streets and reciting the Rosary. The troops did not mow them down. But there are two other angles to that story. First, the troops could not move on the protesters because the protesters had support from a foreign government that hitherto sustained Marcos. Marcos no longer had the support of his masters who were themselves masters of the army. Secondly, suggestions that the Church in Nigeria replicate what the Church in the Philippines did would need to take into account the real possibility of peaceful protests being hijacked by troublemakers and insurrectionists. The outcome will not only cause damage to life and property, it will seriously erode the witness value of the Church. The Bishops, like prophets, have neither military might, nor a police department, nor the political authority to ensure compliance with their interventions. But they have a moral authority that is more potent than the mightiest military in the world. The problem is not that the communiques of the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria are not read by those in government. They in fact read them and are known to be jittery and upset when the Bishops speak. The problem is that there is a poor reading culture even within our Catholic Church. Priests and lay faithful are not even aware that their Bishops speak. There is another issue, and that is, when people speak of "Church", they speak as if the Church were reducible to her hierarchy. But the Church is not just her Bishops and priests. The Church is not just the hierarchy. The Church is the prophetic people of God into which we all were initiated at baptism. Every member of Christ's body shares in the prophetic ministry of Christ. Therefore, the question, what is the Church saying? is not just a question of what the hierarchy is saying. It is also what the lay faithful are saying by their involvement or non-involvement in the affairs of our country. So, we must also ask: what are the lay faithful saying about the way Nigeria is governed? How often do you write in the dailies to make your opinion known? How does the laity bear witness to the prophetic word in various spheres of human endeavor, in politics, in the market place, in the academia, and of course, in the family? We must bear a common witness. What are we then saying as Catholics about the way our country is run? Are we just waiting for the Bishops?


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