The Superior General of the Missionary Society of Saint Paul, Fr. Victor Onwukeme, acknowledges that problems in Africa exist, but he says they should never justify distinguishing hope.
This missionary society founded in Nigeria -- the only missionary society indigenous to Africa -- currently has 274 priests working in 18 countries all over the world.
In fact, the African missionary shared about the missionary society itself, what makes it unique from others in Africa, and how it contributes to the Universal Church, especially through the notions of "primary evangelization" and "reanimation."
Moreover, Fr. Onwukeme spoke on how the society brings Christ for the first time to many people, and how to those cultures who already "know Him," its influence is also spreading, even to the United States and Europe.
He also reflected on the threat of Boko Haram and how those who say "we are killing to defend God," should realize God can defend himself.
He spoke with ZENIT in Rome this month at the Pontifical Urbanian University.
ZENIT: Could you give a little background on how and when the Missionary Society of Saint Paul was established?
Fr. Onwukeme: The Missionary Society of St. Paul was established on Sunday, the 23rd of January, 1977. The whole idea originated from a Nigerian cardinal, Dominic Cardinal Ekandem. He first conceived the idea in 1950, but it took about 27 years for it to mature and see the light of day. He [proposed it] to the Catholic bishops conference for a good number of years until eventually came the statement of Pope Paul VI in 1976, from when he visited Uganda. He made a statement saying to the African bishops, it is time you became missionaries to yourselves and the rest of the world.
"You’ve received a lot of missionaries," he said. "Now you must become missionaries yourselves."
This statement of the Pope gave impetus to Cardinal Dominique, so that when he came back, he had the support and backing of the president of the Nigerian Bishops Conference, the CBCN, and with this statement of the Pope, they really went ahead with this initiative, which has led to the founding of a National Seminary, which eventually became a missionary Seminary, which now is producing missionaries for all over the world, especially Africa.
ZENIT: Could you give some information on the missionary society, related to how many missionaries there are and the work in which they engage?
Fr. Onwukeme: At the moment, we have 274 priests working in 18 countries all over the world. This time for the first time, we’ll be going into Kenya.
The work we do is basically "primary evangelization." We go to where Christ has not been preached, where his name has not been heard. And we do "reanimation" exercises too [reminding those in countries that have knowledge of Christ of Him and working to bring back or strengthen their faith], and that explains why we are in Europe and the United States, because in those areas, we are not telling them about Christ for the first time, we are only reanimating.
They are lacking priests because of a lack of vocations, so we are trying to make up for the lack of priests there in the moment. We have a good presence in the States, including in various dioceses, including those in Texas, New York, and Chicago.
ZENIT: In what type of service would one see your priests?
Fr. Onwukeme: In some of these places we maybe run hospitals, and have diverse activities and pastoral roles. We do different work in parishes, or schools, on which families, individuals, and children may be depending.
ZENIT: How would you say the Missionary Society of St. Paul is unique from other missionary societies in Africa?
Fr. Onwukeme: In fact, it is the only missionary Society of Apostolic Life indigenous to Africa. The Missionary Society of St. Paul is the only one at the moment. And as I mentioned before, coming from the words of the Pope [Paul VI], it is Africa trying to evangelize itself. Us evangelizing ourselves.
We are not doing anything that the Church has never tried to do before. We are only joining the stream of any missionaries who had already come to us, continuing what they’ve already started. We are struggling to do it as they did.
ZENIT: How would you say the society is contributing to the Church’s mission?
Fr. Onwukeme: We are contributing a lot to the Church’s mission, because, for instance, in South Sudan, a lot of villages where we had worked had never heard of Christ. So our missionaries, as I mentioned, really begin with "primary evangelization." They will start with teaching people how to put on clothes. They teach people education. They do groundwork. This is what primary evangelization involves.
What we are in Malawi is a youth empowerment program. We establish things that enable people to be employed, to uplift their standard of life because there is a lot of poverty in Malawi. Nigeria is a poor country, but compared to Malawi, it is rich. … When you talk about poverty, it is relative. So we do a lot of charity work there, and we are trying to do something similar in Chad. In a lot of these small countries around the world, we certainly wish to deliver the Good News, but we very much wish to improve and lift up the standard of life of the people, give them dignity, make them feel the worth of being human beings.
ZENIT: Many are following the negative news which discusses Boko Haram, poverty, terrorist attacks, etc. How does that cause challenges for you, but in the midst of that still keep hope and convey that to your people?
Fr. Onwukeme: Boko Haram poses its challenges, insecurity especially. It is difficult working where human life is not valued. Of course, that is the problem we face in South Sudan, where there is a civil war among the South Sudanese themselves. They gain independence and then shortly thereafter, they turn on themselves.
In northern Nigeria, there is this problem of Boko Haram, but we are praying every day that God will bring conversion so that people will realize the value of human life and realize that nothing is more important than preserving life. So that we cannot say, "We’re killing for God," because God should be capable of defending Himself. It should be understood that I have God and He defends me, not that I have a God I have to defend.
ZENIT: Despite negativity, people hope for success in the midst of difficulty realities. What do you wish to say to them? What would be your statement of hope to them?
Fr. Onwukeme: I would say the future is very bright. Especially with the decline for vocations in Europe and America, some sort of hope is given by this new congregation because in some of those parishes which have been closed down, they invite us to open them up again and they’re flourishing! So it’s a bright future for the Church all over the world.
I believe that the scarcity of vocations in Europe and America will not last for a very long time and that they’ll come back. So we are only kind of waiting until that happens again. The Lord knows how He does things. His ways are mysterious and indescribable.
ZENIT: So would you say the Church in Africa is doing well?
Fr. Onwukeme: I would say yes. If you come to Nigeria, the Church is flourishing. We have vibrant congregations, full churches. I wouldn’t say that full churches mean the faith is strong … We have our own challenges ourselves. Sometimes as a Christian, I ask myself: How is it we have full churches, vibrant worship, huge congregations, and yet, when we finish Mass, we hear of crimes, here and there, by these same people in the Church. So maybe we have our own work to do about that.
ZENIT: Any thoughts about Pope Francis possibly visiting Africa?
Fr. Onwukeme: We would be so delighted to have him come to Nigeria. We cannot even wait for him to maybe be there. There have been rumors he is coming, but we haven’t seen that concretized or really confirmed.
ZENIT: Anything else?
Fr. Onwukeme: I will say: We need the support of the people of God in the work we are doing because one big difference between African and European missionaries is that we come from a poor background and we are not "doling it out" to the people, because we are in some way struggling as the people are struggling. When the European missionaries came, they came not only with their faith, but with a lot of riches. When we go, we go only with our faith. We often struggle in these very poor countries, so we welcome and count on those who can, to help and join us in this walk of evangelization.