Dom Peter Eghwrudjakpor
Prior of Ewu-Ishan, Nigeria
The Future of Our Monasteries:
An African/Nigerian Perspective
The Nigerian field is a fertile ground for religious and priestly vocation. The phenomenon here is often described as a ‘Vocation Boom’; and it has been this way for some decades now. This picture may not be exact in some other countries in the African continent, but it is certainly the case in Nigeria.
Not long ago, a semi-monastic group came from abroad to start a community in Nigeria. At arrival, there were 160 applicants on the ground waiting to be interviewed on the first day. This is no exaggeration, and it is not an uncommon picture.
In our small community at Ewu-Ishan, we do get on average 100 applications annually. From this number we attempt a process of radical selection, since we can only take 3 or 4 in a year. The other 96 will have to try their luck elsewhere.
The ‘Vocation Boom’ phenomenon
Here are some of the popular ones among reasons given to explain this phenomenon of the ‘vocation boom’:
1. Economic factors: Poverty is one of the reasons given for the high rate of entry to the religious life and the priesthood in Nigeria. This view is more common with Western visitors and missionaries. It is believed that this surge for the religious life is motivated by the survival instinct manifested in a strong desire to escape from abject poverty endemic in much of the African continent, sheer starvation and gross insecurity. While this may be very correct, it is also true that a very high percentage of today’s candidates to the religious life as well as the priesthood come from very sophisticated and well-to-do backgrounds. By statistics, the average number of candidates from such backgrounds that could be considered as acutely materially poor is not significant. Also worthy of note here is the fact that many religious communities, especially the monastic ones, are themselves squarely at the material poverty line, if not below it, struggling not to be submerged under the intense lack of material needs! Yet these communities are among those flourishing, with increasing numbers of new arrivals.
2. The religious life is seen as an opportunity for higher studies and better education, which otherwise may not be possible for many. Still focusing on Nigeria, the level of literacy is on the high side, thanks to the government’s literacy campaign. The standard of education is constantly increasing. One often finds that young men and women who are applying for religious vocation already have tertiary education as their background. There are some religious congregation whose admission requirements insist on a minimal of tertiary education. These are not lacking in vocations. Perhaps employment and the lack of it - which till now has not been considered among the factors - might also be an issue to consider as a possible reason for the boom.
Most monasteries here do not have the means and so cannot afford higher studies for its inmates. Of course, basic needs must be met before spending on education. Basic necessities rein in many communities; thus, it follows, that a systematic programme for education / training (secular or religious) for the monks and nuns is often lacking. There are cases where this lack has been spiritualized even to the extent that monastic education is considered vain or simply a distraction, waste of time or even an exposure to temptation which could lead to loss of vocations. Notwithstanding the prevailing negative attitude to further education young men and women are still flocking to our monasteries.
3. The religious life is viewed as an opportunity for the better life and higher standard of living than the average man or woman in the street. Certainly, most monasteries will be sure of their daily bread (daily cassava, yam or rice); however, life, in concrete terms, in many communities here in Nigeria is very tough; real hardship prevails, and standard of living is terrible in some cases. Several are below the average; many are just basic in comparison to the society at large. And one often finds women monastics doing more than their fair share. In addition to doing the usually heavy jobs, they sometimes go further to doing even more menial tasks for themselves such as mixing cement, carrying heavy head-pan loads of mortar, cracking stones and laying bricks. Yet, these do not deter vocations.
4. The religious life is believed to be a matter of status and prestige in a society which values status and achievements more than persons. The priesthood, in Nigeria, is often viewed as a matter of status and prestige; but the monastic life is different. For one thing, there is no family expectation of contributions from the monastics. This does not deter the young.
In Africa, as elsewhere, motivations for the religious life abound and vary. This is true; however, it would be an oversimplification to draw the conclusion that is solely based on the social-economic or even political factors. It is important to consider the fourth dimension which does not easily yield itself to our regular perspectives, and which is sometimes beyond the empirical and the verifiable. This is the mysterious dimension found in any genuine vocation, and which does not always yield itself completely to our scrutiny, and which is not exactly the product of our speculative mathematics. And this does not rule out the fact that religion, in the context of Africa, is a potent medicine and powerful tool that can be used to confront and dominate the malevolent world and malevolent spirits which could cause bad luck and prevent progress and success.
But whatever one’s convictions, it remains true to say that the Nigerian Church is very vibrant, and the Catholic population is big, about 25,000,000 (twenty-five million), and that monastic life is rapidly growing.
In summary, today’s Nigeria monastic reality includes the following factors:
• Big number: Vocation boom
• Insufficient infrastructures to cope with the influx
• Not enough trained / competent personnel
• Inadequate formation (initial and on-going) in some cases
• Not enough revenue-generating projects
• Lack of basic needs in some cases
Effects resulting from the current situation:
• Insufficient research into the viability of projects along with poor planning, poor execution and running of such projects
• Poor system of accounting
• Insecurity created by a poor culture of saving, or complete lack of it
• Mismanagement of funds due to incompetence; poor knowledge of book-keeping and tendency to compromise, resulting from external pressure (family etc.)
• Unhealthy politics leading to polarization in some communities
• Instances of tribalism, the occultism and fetish practices
Suggestions that might help to make a better future for our monasteries:
• A more careful selection, and more intense screening process for candidates to the monastic life will be vital.
• No need for a vocation promoter. The qualities for attracting vocations may not be needed here, since vocations will seek you out, wherever you are.
• Formators should be good in discernment, and, as guides, should be men and women skilled in transmitting life.
• Stress on basic Christian / Gospel values, and human values in both initial and on-going formation, even before the stress on monastic values.
• More sustained efforts to make the Gospel real in the life of the monk: lectio made practical and lived; monastic communities to be true schools of charity.
• Human formation should be an essential part of the formative programmes. If done well, this could help stressmanagement, reduce unhappiness and depressive tendencies, and boost kindness, the spirit of fraternity and friendship in our communities.
• Security and availability of basic necessities; food, shelter, health care, decent clothing and conducive environment.
These will help an honest dialogue with poverty and simplicity of life.
• Each community should have a programme of training / education for its inmates. To contain the cost of doing this, the monastic union could continue the work of establishing local monastic training institutes to upgrade and update the level of education among monastics at a lower or affordable cost.
• Meaningful and sustainable projects should be encouraged, preceded by good planning and market surveys.
• Monastic superiors should have programmes organized for themselves on such subjects as management, communication, records, book-keeping, accounting and strategic planning.