I was baptised a Catholic -The Ọba of Benin

I was baptised a Catholic -The Ọba of Benin; Christianity and African Cultures/Traditions.

At the 3rd National Pastoral Congress hosted by Archdiocese of Benin, which was attended by Nigerian Catholic Bishops, priests and laity, from various parts of Nigeria, the Ọba of Benin, HRM, Oba Ewuare II on Wednesday, 9th November 2022, while welcoming all the attendants to the Benin Kingdom and delivering his goodwill message, openly made reference to his Catholic root.

According to the 40th Ọba of Benin Kingdom, who is also the head of Edo traditional religion, he was baptised a Catholic. In his own words he said, “I was baptised a Catholic as a young man.” Hence, considering the context, it was clear that he has a good relationship with catholicism.

Nevertheless, Christianity/Church is not anti tradition/ culture. The Church/Christianity just like Jesus Christ in his own earthly moments, is only against evils that exist within various traditions and cultures of peoples. Nevertheless, Christianity can’t exist without but within cultures/traditions otherwise it looses human face and becomes faceless and aloof. Christianity is more efficient and blossoms if practiced within different cultures, because good cultures enriches Christianity and the Church. Therefore, the gospel’s inroad into various cultures bring about the different colourations in the church; variety as the spice of life, such that in the midst of diversity there is unity.

For instance, today the African/Igbo who becomes a Catholic Christian, carries with him his cultural/traditional identity into Christianity. He worships God in the mass which is primarily thanksgiving with his traditional drums, style of greetings etc.

The same African drum in worship has been exported to the European Christian worship without the Europeans saying that it’s a an African man’s religion like some of their African contemporaries who say that Christianity is a white man’s religion. This erroneous thinking is as a result of ignorance and close-mindedness because, these Africans did not know that it was the same way Christianity came to Europe that it came to Africa. The difference is that Christianity incarnated into the European culture and became alive, and in this way some of the good European cultures that had incarnated long ago into the Catholic Christian religion were transported into African Catholic Christianity.

Some of the Europeans now take up African Christian names in baptism like Tansi(Igbo/Nigerian), Mulumba (Uganda), Kizito (Uganda), etc. Even some christian European edifices also bear these African Christian names.
In the next fifty to hundred years, some Europeans may also start thinking that these African drums and names were entirely European. However, will they despise Christianity like some African Christians when they discover them to be of African roots in the future? Will they start seeing it as African man’s religion?

Be that as it may, this cultural exchange between Africa and Europe is a good phenomenon because Christianity has brought about an exchange of cultural ingredients and values, thereby enriching both the European, and African cultures and the Catholic Christian religion itself. No culture should be stagnant. Is this not a cultural growth?

The gospel transforms the human person and human mind, who in turn transforms the culture. Man makes culture and culture makes man too. For instance, in the mass, through the gospel, the same traditional African/ Igbo who doesn’t really understand forgiveness but only restitution; “if you take somebody’s thing, you have to restore it and face the consequences in punishment,” based on the law of nature, harmony and balance, now sheds his unforgiving nature to embrace forgiveness found in Christ Jesus. This is because Christianity teaches forgiveness and restitution for a true repentance akin to the Jesus-Zaccheaus event (Luke 19: 1-10).

So, he/she now takes up a new Christian praxis that if someone restores what he or she had stolen, it’s a mark of repentance and such a person had to be forgiven without more punishments. The African/Igbo now acquires a new identity which doesn’t exclude entirely his former identity, but the shedding of unforgiving nature and incarnation of the spirit of forgiveness. In this way, the African/Igbo strives to effect this gospel values into his/her cultural/traditional practices. Is this not a cultural growth?

Archeologically, Rome’s remains would suggest that far more temples of different gods, far from being destroyed after the conversion of their adherents to Christianity, were simply converted, restored and reused in a new, more Christian context. Those buildings carry the traditional/cultural architectural genius of the people. Why destroy it when it’s was the same people who became christians?

Hence, culture is a people’s ways of life. “Culture reveals and strengthens the nature of man.” Remove culture entirely from any people, you remove their identity and possible growth. People carry this identity into Christ Jesus through baptism, while Jesus accepts this and purifies it where it’s needed, with and through his body, the Church. This is inculturaion. That means that no culture/tradition is totally evil nor totally good. All needs perfection and growth.

Pope St. John Paul II alludes to this when he stated that “the Gospel quite often demands a conversion of attitudes and an amendment of customs where it establishes itself: Cultures must also be purified and restored in Christ.” This restoration is for the growth of humanity.

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©Fr. Henry Charles N. Umelechi*

Truth Series.

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