Pope John Paul II's Acknowledgement of ATR


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The Meaning of Pope John Paul II’s Acknowledgement of African Traditional Religion




Hilary O. Evbayiro



May 03, 2005 



March and April this year were significantly difficult for Christians, especially the Roman Catholics.  As Christians were celebrating Easter, the commemoration of the day Jesus Christ was believed to have putatively risen from the dead many years ago, it became public knowledge that Pope John Paul II was seriously sick.   Few weeks later, the Holy Father passed away, and Christians and non-Christians all over the world mourned a man whom many people saw as one of the most pious and hallowed persons of our contemporary world.  The late pope did his part to help bring peace and spread the gospel and goodwill of Jesus Christ and then departed this sinful, confused world into the comforting presence of his creator.    


His death on April 2 this year opened a void that had to be filled almost immediately; a new pope had to be chosen to succeed him.   As the world waited for the conclave of cardinals to select and name the successor, the man to provide spiritual guidance and lead the many Roman Catholic faithful, everyone was held in anxious expectation.  For Africans and Nigerians in particular, the air was filled with a fascinating belief that Cardinal Francis Arinze could emerge as the next pope.  But on Tuesday the 19th of April 2005, the white smoke oozed out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the bells pealed to signal the selection of a new pope, and Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez of Chile stepped to the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to face the cheering crowd and announced in Latin, “Habemus Papam,” which means “We have a Pope”.  As the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, who picked Benedict XVI for a name, emerged to the balcony to give his first blessing, the hope and thought of a black African succeeding Pope John Paul II quickly dissipated exactly the same way they had gathered steam.  


While it is fine to reflect upon how close Cardinal Arinze was to gaining control of the Vatican, it is also necessary to reflect upon some pertinent issues apropos the political and cultural implications had Cardinal Arinze been elected pope. In the first place, would the selection of Cardinal Arinze as pope had boosted the image of Africa or Nigeria in the world?  Would the western world had embraced him truthfully or make him to dance to the tunes of the ir pipe as they have tried to do to Ghana’s Kofi Annan in the United Nations?  Would Cardinal Arinze have acknowledged the indigenous beliefs of his forebears, just as Pope John Paul II did or cause them to be further condemned? 


Since the selection of the former Cardinal Ratzinger as pope, there have been questions and concerns in many quarters concerning the direction the Catholic Church is likely to go. Most people have even had reasons to question whether he will soften his hard-line orthodoxy.   Some people have gone as far as scrutinizing his stint as a soldier during the Nazi Germany, while others have quickly come to his defense.  In Nigeria, the Vatican representative in Abuja, in an attempt to placate our people for the non-selection of one of their own to succeed Pope John Paul II, told the people that Pope Benedict XVI believes in Africa”.  Whatever “believes in Africa” means, one thing for sure is Pope Benedict XVI has a great deal to grapple in the continent of Africa.  


In the midst of the suspicions and confused anticipations of the direction the new pope is likely to go, one comforting thing to an important segment of the African population is the legacy Pope John Paul II left behind.   The Pope from Poland did not condemn our traditional religion. He did not assail other religions with “mine is the true one” or “mine is better than yours” attitude.  Instead, the late pope employed compassion and suffered reason to inform theological matters.  To many people he was the leader of the Catholic Church, but for his broad-mindedness and tolerance to other faiths, he was a pure latitudinarian who led the Catholic Church with humility and gravitas.  He was and still is the only leader of a religious faith who had the compassion and courage to empathize with Africans for the pang and stigma of slavery, racism, and execrable denigration of the African traditional religion. As one of his many feats in the Republic of Benin in 1993, his 57th pastoral visit to be specific, he publicly apologized to Africans for years of denigration of African cultural beliefs by the Western world. Pope John Paul II acknowledged African cultural and spiritual beliefs and wrote to accept that African indigenous religions are not cults or idol worshiping.  Even though the late pope did what he believed was right and correct about our cultural lives, some Africans who now see themselves as Christians still continue to think we worship idols.  They continue to think, oftentimes citing parts of the bible to support their false claims, that they are closer to God than everyone else.  They think they are the only ones with automatic entry and passage to heaven.  How confused and deceived can people be?  Pope John Paul II, by what he did, sent a serious message to the world that the spiritual beliefs of our forefathers are not about evil or the sanctification of the foe of God or other chthonic entities. 


It is irrefutably true that every aspect of our tradition has been condemned and the spiritual belief system of our forefathers assailed and described with uncomplimentary terms by the people who foisted their religion upon us.  However, we must see the papal acknowledgment of our indigenous beliefs as a significant consolation. In short, the pronouncement beckons us to seize the challenge and wake up to the realization that everything that has been perpetrated against our cultural life was done to make us accept the inferior status that has been imposed on us.  There is no gainsaying the wondrous truth that people of the black race have been placed in the meanest level of the dubious hierarchy of human cultural and intellectual superiority.  To turn us against our culture and indigenous religion and make them less appealing to us, uncongenial terms like paganism, idolatry, “voodoo,” “juju,” and all other deprecating expressions were employed to refer to our idea of spirituality. While the condemnation of our traditional religion should be seen and acknowledged as a conspiratorial design of the people of European origin to subjugate and exploit us, reasons abound for us to recognize and contend that the spiritual belief system of our forefathers is not about evil.  Inherently unique in its practice and to what we do as a people, our indigenous religion is about the worship of the God of the universe, notwithstanding the difference in its liturgy as contrasted with the mode of worship in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other foreign religions. 


Although the core matters of the different religions is not the gist and focus of this discourse, it is nonetheless important to note and understand what religion entails and its role in the society to apprehend and perchance recognize why we must no longer allow and accept the denigration of our indigenous beliefs.  If we are serious about seeking the truth about life and nature of God, we must learn to be independent of what other people do or ask us to do.  We must learn to seek and embrace God our way.  We cannot continue to depend on other people and what they want u s to believe about God. We have to find things out for ourselves.  That is the only way we will be free from the subjugating influence of the alien religions we have sheepishly embraced and internalized, and that is the only way we can truly manumit ourselves from the fetters of cultural bondage.  While the motive here is not to bash people of the Christian, Islamic, or other known faiths or engage them uncongenially, it is however to muster our unique African spirit by drawing attention to the untold damages that early European missionaries have wreaked in our psyche and the way we view our spiritual belief system.


The idea of spirituality resides in all humans and is the central tenet of all religions.  Therefore, it is not a tall talk to asseverate that the overall essence of religion borders on human’s attempt to find the meaning of life and the hereafter. This tellurian predicament, bequeathed on humankind by the hapless lack of understanding of the divine nature and true attributes of God, may have compelled people to turn to religion and the idea of spirituality.  The idea of God is ecumenical, and reasons abound to underscore that the motivation to placate the hopelessness of the human nescience and find solace in the face of the numerous confronting perplexities of nature prompted humankind to acknowledge the existence of God.  We are not different in our belief in and quest for the knowledge of the Supreme Being.  We know, believe in, and serve God in our own special way.  Our ascription to and way of serving God mirror and express our own beliefs and understanding of life.  In brief, our way of serving God reflects the unique product of our human imagination, creativity, and overall concept of life, nature, and creation.  That things are done differently in our traditional religion does not mean we worship evil or false God as we have been conditioned and brainwashed to think.        


The belief in the Supreme Being, of course the idea of God, is not endemic to any particular culture, place, or people. If religion is thought of and seen as the “belief in and worship of the supernatural power commonly regarded as the creator of the universe,” why should we continue to allow other people to impose their idea of God on us?  People ought to be allowed to worship God the way they know and in accordance with their understanding of nature and spirituality.  However, when it comes to our indigenous belief system and mode of worship, people harbor the distorted conviction that they are about evil and diabolism.  There is nothing wrong in worshipping God the way we know and understand. We should not be ashamed to talk of our own traditional belief for fear of being branded pagans.  God has a divine reason for creating us the way we are and providing a naturally fitting ambiance for our survival.  For us to change to something other than what God has made us is to defile the natural work of God and creation.  


There are many different religions, as there are many different people and cultures on the surface of the earth.  Pope John Paul II saw the other religions and recognized the fact that there are other ways to worship and reach the supreme creator. To bring the argument closer home, we have our own religion.  Our forefathers used it to worship the God of nature, the God of the universe, and the God of creation. Our forefathers worshipped and served God before Christianity and Islam were introduced to us.  Lamentably, the mode of worship of our forebears has been reduced to nothing and dubbed “traditional” religion, a very cheap and deprecating way of describing anything not western or that is considered contemptibly inferior. 


Every religion, no matter how one looks at it, is about the recognition, appreciation, and worship of the Supreme Being.  In other words, the underlying essence of every religion is the conviction and defense of the inherent goodness and omnipotence of God in view of the belief in the existence of evil, which is commonly represented as devil.  Before the arrival of the foreign religions, which have turned our world topsy-turvy and pitted our people against one another, our ancestors were not worshiping the devil as the early European missionaries tried to make us believe.  What is more, we do not have to subscribe to the Christian, Islamic, or Jewish faiths to know that we also worship the true living God.  Our indigenous religion, like every other religion, has meaningful influence on the society and the individuals because it provides a fascinating pathway of righteousness and serves as source of strength and comfort in times of needs. Because we have been so brainwashed by our captivation with western civilization and education, we always tend to flay things that are native to us, including our own way of worshiping God.  It is very sad to see how we have jettisoned our cultural and religious lives and internalized those of aliens to the detriment of our very being and what we are as part of God’s creation. 


Contrary to what we have been led to believe, the foreigners who introduced two of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam) to our continent are not the ones who made us to know God.  Our people have known and worshiped God from the beginning of time.  All of us have the stories of our origins tied to God, the creator and maker of heaven and earth.  In fact, we think of God in everything we do, what we say, and the names we bear.  In our society it is not unwonted to have names that glorify the immanent presence of God in our lives. The people who brought Christianity to our society did not give these names to us.  The names have been with us from time immemorial, and we have known God before the early Christians set their feet on our soil.  


For us to understand the nature and extent of the damages that have been done to us, we must take a good look at our society and some of our cities where churches and mosques are springing up in practically every corner.  We have more churches and mosques in our society than we have schools and hospitals, yet the proliferation of these places of worship has not helped to stamp out corruption and depravity that have conquered our people.  The people mostly responsible for plunging Nigeria into unfathomable abyss of socio-economic devastation are avowed believers of the alien faiths.  While it is necessary to take a good look at ourselves and what we have become, we must not fail to query whether our society is morally better now than what it was before the people introduced their religion to us.  We cannot continue to accept and brook the cultural and spiritual inferiority that has been forced upon us.  We cannot continue to allow other people to condemn us for being what we are, and we must not be afraid or ashamed to worship the way our forefathers did that ensured the promotion of peace and equanimity.     


Our country supposedly gained independence from the colonial occupiers in 1960.  The truth of the matter is the colonial masters ceded only their physical control. Although they left for their homeland about forty-five years ago, they are still able to lord over us through cultural, mental, and spiritual controls, which are even more efficacious way of subjugating people than mere occupation or use of fetters.  As sad and disappointing as it is, it is unbelievable to see that the people from whom we are presumably independent are still the ones controlling our minds and telling us what to do, what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, how to rear our children, and how to organize our society.  How can we say we are free when we cannot even be ourselves and be proud of what we are in terms of culture, tradition, and religion?  How can we say we are free when aliens have caused us to abhor and reject the lifestyle of our forefathers that reflects our attitudes and values?  It is high time that we started to realize that our complete emancipation from cultural and spiritual bondage rests in our ability to stand up for what we are.   We cannot continue to aspire to be what we are not and can never become and think we can be free.  The only way we can be free is to return to what we are as a people.  And to do that, we must first extricate ourselves from the yoke and burdens of inferiority as the prelude to a consciousness for the cultivation and nurturing of our cultural and spiritual renaissance. 



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