“We have heard the long-expressed hope – spoken with great passion by popes, bishops, and other Church leaders, especially in the West – that the future of the Catholic Church is in Africa,” said Rev. Kenneth Amadi, a Kellogg doctoral student affiliate. “And so we started thinking about what we could do today to secure that future.”
Brainstorming with fellow Kellogg doctoral student affiliates Revs. William Orbih and Joachim Ozonze, who, like Amadi, are Nigerian priests and PhD students in theology at the University of Notre Dame, the trio came to found Church Life Africa (CLA), a strategic initiative that takes this hope seriously and calls for an intentional investment in its promise.
“Certainly this hope is based in part on the number of Catholics in Africa and on the resilience of African Catholics in the face of so many challenges and hardships,” said Amadi. “But the Western Church had high numbers and resilience at one time, too, yet the Church is losing ground here now.”
Ozonze, who is pairing his theology doctorate with peace studies through the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, explained that Church Life Africa asks further, “On what does this hope stand – sand? Rock? Are numbers or resilience in themselves sufficient ground for hope? We want to be sure the hope is alive and nurtured. We want to invite people to question this hope.”
During their time in the United States, Amadi, Orbih, and Ozonze have taken note of the role of lay people in ministries and education in the US Catholic Church, as well as the theological education many of them have. This is in stark contrast with their experiences in Nigeria, where it is the clergy and religious who mostly have the training and hold these positions. It seemed to them that this was the US Catholic response to a declining Church here; they hypothesized that empowering the laity in Africa now may be a way to proactively strengthen the growing church on their home continent.
“Our concern for lay theological formation and engagement is also inspired by our conviction that they can offer profound contributions to the practice of peace and human flourishing. We want to encourage and equip young people to theologically engage the justice mission of the Church, especially in light of the many assaults on human life and dignity in Africa today,” explained Ozonze, highlighting examples such as environmental stewardship, economic justice, and the growing crisis of drug trafficking. “We take seriously the transformational character of Catholic Social Teaching, especially in a space where politics and violence are sadly performed along religious and ethnic lines.”
In the summer of 2022, with initial support from the De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, CLA piloted a conference in Nigeria to address the theological deficits among lay people there and to nurture a formed and informed faith. The theme was “Lay Theological Engagement and the Future of Church Life in Africa.”
“The conference became a way for us to test the waters to see if there is really a need and a desire – do lay people really care about theological training?” explained Amadi. “We thought we might get a few people applying from our archdiocese.”
Orbih shared that they were “blown away” by the number of applicants, saying they had to limit participation in the end to 100 individuals. But they were even more astounded by the enthusiasm and active engagement of the participants.
“The young people especially were super excited about the conference, and mostly by the realization that they are not just called to collaborate with the priests and bishops, but that they each are responsible for the church, that there is a co-responsibility there,” he said.
“Part of the excitement was also the openness of the clergy and religious – not just lay people but priests, bishops, and religious sisters are saying the laity need to be educated and empowered in the African Church,” shared Ozonze. “Although there have been some efforts to form the laity theologically, such efforts need to be more strategic and supported by intentional investment from stakeholders.”
This past summer, CLA held its second conference in Africa, this time with the theme “In Solidarity with the Church in Africa.” They opened the invitation list to all of Nigeria and once again the number of applicants was overwhelming, from across nearly 40 dioceses, with 232 attending the three-day conference held at the CSN Resource Center of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja.
Support from Notre Dame and the American Church was also heartening, with keynote speakers that included Notre Dame professors Timothy Matovina, John Cavadini, Catherine Cavadini, and Kellogg faculty fellow Kimberly Belcher, as well as the Most Reverend Kevin Rhoades, bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Notre Dame sponsorship came from the Kellogg Institute, the Department of Theology, the De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and the McGrath Institute for Church Life, whose work at Notre Dame has greatly inspired CLA’s vision for Africa.
Local support in Nigeria came from cosponsorship by the Archdiocese of Abuja, with a message of solidarity from Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, and keynote presentations from John Cardinal Onaiyekan, emeritus archbishop of Abuja, and Dame Bridget Itsueli, the founder and chair of the Relate Africa Organization for Marriage and Family. The secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, Rev. Zachariah Sanjumi, was present at the conference opening ceremonies, while the auxiliary bishop of Abuja, Most Rev. Anselm Umoren, presided at the closing Mass with many priests concelebrating.
Next year, the priests plan to hold a third iteration of the conference, this time open to applicants from the entire continent, but with final participants limited to around 200 candidates, from among whom candidates will be selected for substantial programs in theology starting in 2025.
Based on a model of solidarity and mutual enrichment between the Church in Africa and in the United States, CLA’s strategic vision is to form the next generation of African Catholics for the global Church.
“We also hope that CLA provides both the space and the context to continue to engage Notre Dame African students after leaving ND,” said Amadi. “We want to provide ongoing support and an institutional structure for these alumni to give back to Africa during and beyond the years of their studies, so that all can be ambassadors for Notre Dame – the hands and feet of Notre Dame in Africa.”