What hope for Nigeria in Catholic sainthood?

Catholic bishops and laity. Photo: www.abiapost.blogspot.com

In spite of the fact that Africa boasts of millions of Catholic faithful, Nigeria, arguably Africa’s most religious nation, has no Catholic saint. RITA OKONOBOH explores the place of Nigeria in the journey to sainthood.


“SINCE the advent of Catholic Christianity in Nigeria over 400 years ago, hundreds of thousands of Nigerian saints are ‘sleeping’ in their graves all over the country; their souls wait for the second coming of Christ to be united with God for the beatific vision. This is to underscore the fact that the number of canonised saints is only a tip of the iceberg, because they constitute a very small percentage of the saints in heaven.”

The above statement is an excerpt from the book, How Saints are Made: Beatification, Canonisation and Sainthood, written by Reverend Monsignor (Dr) Sylvester Aderinkola Adekoya.

Saints are an important part of the Roman Catholic faith and have biblical definitions. Scriptural references to saints abound in the book of Psalm 16:3; Psalm 30:4; Psalm 31:23; Psalm 116:15; Daniel 7:8, among others.

According to Adekoya, the word ‘saint’ finds its root in the Greek word ‘hagios,’ which means “consecrated to God, holy sacred, pious.”

While tracing the scriptural background of saints, he goes on to state that “scripturally speaking, the ‘saints’ are the body of Christ, Christians and the church.” For the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is regarded as someone “who is sacred, holy, pure, blameless, dedicated.”

Steps to canonisation

The steps to canonisation in earlier times were noted to have sometimes encouraged much exaggerated accounts of miracles, until in 1983 when Pope John Paul II made the process more precise.

Adekoya describes the process as follows: to become a proclaimed venerable, “the whole process starts locally after a Catholic, who after many years of his/her death, the writings and life of such person is investigated by the local bishop, either for heroic virtuousness or/and martyrdom. If the local bishop is satisfied, it goes on for further evaluation to the Vatican, by a panel of theologians. After they give approval, along with the cardinals of the congregation for the causes of saints, the person is proclaimed venerable by the Pope.

“Beatification is the next step, wherein, unless the person is a martyr, there has to be evidence of at least one miracle. This is considered as proof that the deceased person now in heaven, has the ability of interceding for people on earth. Hence, it is necessary for this miracle to occur after the death of the person and due to a specific petition made to this person. Once a miracle attributed to the person is verified, he/she is proclaimed beatified, or one of the blessed and thus worthy or veneration by the Pope.

“The final step takes place only after there is evidence of one more miracle. If there is enough proof of that, the person is canonised a Roman Catholic saint.”


Nigeria and the long journey to sainthood

Devotion to saints and angels forms part of the Catholic doctrine. As such, for a faith that has transcended centuries on Nigerian soil, it is a matter of concern that not a single Nigerian has been canonised. The closest to this feat is the example of Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi who was beatified by the late Pope John Paul II, after a visit to Nigeria in 1998.

Speaking on the expectations of Nigerians on the canonisation of its first saint, Bishop Emmanuel Badejo of the Catholic Diocese of Oyo stated that “the proclamation of a saint follows certain procedures which cannot be programmed. It is the church’s process helping people to focus on what we believe is God’s will. Fr Tansi is already pronounced ‘Blessed,’ which is already the final stage to sainthood. That is already evidence of major approval. The next stage is not negotiable but in God’s hands. We are grateful that he was fished out by Saint John Paul II for this great honour. So let us pray that it will come when it should.”


‘The Nigerian Catholic community must chart the course for saints’

Catholic minister and educator, Reverend Father Richard Omolade, speaking with TribuneChurch, stated that “Nigeria is still quite a young church. The churches where saints have been produced have been around for 500 years and sometimes, more than a thousand years. Declaration of sainthood in the church takes a process. So, even if we have good people among us and nobody begins the process, then the church cannot declare them saints.

“The local church here has to identify people who have lived exemplary lives and recommend them to the church. There is a laid-down process. We have unique Nigerians who have lived exemplary lives that we can project as models for the rest of the world and that process must begin with us. Outsiders will not do it for us. Someone, who is referred to as a postulator will take up the case, make recommendations to the bishop and then take it up from there. These things take time. However, with time, I’m sure we will have more people declared as saints. One must also note the process of moving to and from Rome, getting people to conduct investigation, especially if the local church hasn’t paid attention to that person. We have good people and good Catholics who have lived extraordinary lives and so we should prepare their course for sainthood.”


‘The church is making efforts’

Reverend Father Vincent Alabi, in his reaction, noted that “making of a saint in the Catholic Church takes a long process and there are things that the church looks for before the church can recognise someone as a saint. For instance, from the very beginning, that person must have lived a life of holiness. Miracles must also be ascribed to that person. It’s in stages. In the case of Mother Teresa, there were accounts of different miracles ascribed to her before the church officially recognised her as a saint. The Nigerian church has Blessed Tansi as a saint in the making. The Catholic Church conducts a lot of investigation and verification before a person is declared saint.

“There are a lot of holy people in the church in Nigeria and the church is trying in its efforts. November 1st of every year is set aside as the feast of all saints and that day recognises not only those who have been officially declared saints but also unofficially recognised saints. The hierarchy of the church in Nigeria is making serious effort in this regard. There are some individuals the church is currently working on the process of their canonisation as saints. It is a long process.”


That is not to say that Africa has not produced saints. Hundreds of saints find their orogins from various parts of Africa. Below is a list of some African saints as published on www.catholicnewsherald.com:


The Scillitan Martyrs

The Scillitan Martyrs were the first documented African martyrs. The 12 Christians, seven men and five women, were martyred in 180 AD in Scillium (in what is present-day Algeria and Tunisia) for refusing to call the Roman emperor their god. Unlike other Christians, they were not tortured but put on trial and offered 30 days to change their minds. When they still refused to recant their faith, they were put to death by the sword.


St. Perpetua and St. Felicity

St. Perpetua was a young, well-educated noblewoman and mother living in Carthage in North Africa. Her mother was a Christian and her father was a pagan. Perpetua followed the faith of her mother. Despite the pleas of her father to deny her faith, Perpetua fearlessly proclaimed it. At the age of 22, she was jailed for her faith. While in prison, she continued to care for her infant child and put up with tortures designed to make her renounce her faith. Perpetua remained steadfast until the end. St. Perpetua was sacrificed at the games as a public spectacle.

St. Felicity was a pregnant slave girl who was imprisoned with her. Little is known about her life because, unlike Perpetua, she did not keep a diary. After imprisonment and torture, Felicity was also condemned to die at the games. Only a few days before her execution, Felicity gave birth to a daughter, who was secretly taken away to be cared for by some of the faithful.


St. Cyprian

St. Cyprian of Carthage is second in importance only to St. Augustine as a figure and Father of the African Church. He was born to wealthy pagans around the year 190, and was educated in the classics. Like St. Augustine after him, he questioned what truth was and searched for it in practicing law and rhetoric. He was curious about Christianity, and after much study he converted at the age of 56. He sold all of his property and was ordained a priest a year later, and bishop two years after that. He was martyred on September 14, 258.


Lessons from Mother Teresa’s canonisation

“Following Jesus is a serious task, and, at the same time, one filled with joy; it takes a certain daring and courage to recognise the divine Master in the poorest of the poor and those who are cast aside, and to give oneself in their service. In order to do so, volunteers, who out of love of Jesus serve the poor and the needy, do not expect any thanks or recompense; rather they renounce all this because they have discovered true love. And each one of us can say: “Just as the Lord has come to meet me and has stooped down to my level in my hour of need, so too do I go to meet him, bending low before those who have lost faith or who live as though God did not exist, before young people without values or ideals, before families in crisis, before the ill and the imprisoned, before refugees and immigrants, before the weak and defenceless in body and spirit, before abandoned children, before the elderly who are on their own.”

The above are excerpts from the homily by Pope Francis delivered on September 4, 2016, at the canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Bishop Badejo, in his comments on the lesson of sainthood for the Nigerian community, stated that “Mother Teresa’s canonisation is one that you can call ‘canonisation of the people by the people and for the people,’ borrowing from the old definition of democracy. The church only endorsed what majority of the people, Christians and non-Christians have said from the very day she died. “Santo subito,” many Italians shouted at the news of her funeral, meaning: “saint, immediately.” Note that I said, “majority”. There will always be a few naysayers. There were also about our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The lesson is not only for Nigerians but also for all humanity. That holiness is God’s call to all humanity. ‘Be holy as I your God am holy’ resounds from the Old Testament Bible. ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ echoes from the New Testament. Moral perfection, especially, may not be humanly attainable here on earth but only by aiming for it can we achieve excellence which is both attainable and desirable.”