Ongoing is a call out on the Catholic Church in Nigeria to look at the manner her priests are allegedly using burial masses to demand money, settle petty scores and air their insecurities. Fr. Camillus Ejike Mbaka recently revealed that the number of Catholics is dropping and attributed the dwindling statistics to growing grievances against church’s handling of burial and funeral rites where bereaved families are subjected to pay a lot of bills owned by the deceased.
In a separate accusation, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of “Note on Grief” started a social media #Metoo Campaign where she is calling on people to share their bad experience in organising a funeral in Nigerian Catholic Church. Describing herself as a victim of a total lack of compassion among Nigerian priests, Chimamanda revealed her plan to use her influence to ensure that no one undergoes a similar bad experience in the process of burying their loved ones.
How did ugly practices of simony enter the church? To understand this issue, we must cast our suspicion on the cultural context where these complaints are more frequent. This may be a case of consulting Igbo burial practices.
Burial stress is a cultural issue in Igboland, because their cultural demands for burying the dead put too much stress on the bereaved. The stress ranges from items required by customs, shelter, food and drinks to serve guests, to special recognition demands from in-laws, friends, neighbours, colleagues and families.
The in-laws can complain of being given a canopy with a noisy fan, being served with plastic or foil rather than ceramics plates. The penalty for not fulfilling these demands ranges from not allowing the ceremony to proceed, boycotting, laying of curses on the bereaved children, to physically abusing or bullying the bereaved. I have officiated at funerals where the in-laws tried hard to disrupt the liturgy, because the bereaved families had not settled them customarily.
At her nascent stage, the Church brought relief to funeral rites in Igbo land by ignoring some of these cultural requirements. Over the years, however, the church has become a victim of a culture she finds herself as cultural mentality of members crept in. As the Church grew in pastoral structures, members developed constitutions that mimicked culture and use ceremonies like burials and weddings as avenues to catch erring members. Others introduced their own burdens as prerequisite to participating in any ceremony of their members. Gradually, being a Christian became being active in Church organisations of men, women, and youth. To need the service of the church, one must go through these organisations to prove or revalidate membership. This is how the practice of clearance came into the Church in Igbo land.
How did the priests get involved? Firstly, members enlist the support of priests to enforce their rules. Secondly, the organisations depend on proceeds from active members to run themselves and fund church projects. Where a priest fails to comply, active members threaten to withdraw their services like others. As a priest, I was warned severally by church organisations for baptising children whose parents did not belong or appear on the uniform of their respective church organisations.
Has the spirit of Judas entered some priests? Yes, there are abuses. Some priests turn funerals to launching, and some demand exorbitant fees for dispensing the sacraments as if they were personal gifts. However, these exceptional cases do not represent the church, but those of Alexander the Coppersmiths undermining the work of Christ.
Is it allowed for a priest to demand stole fees- fixed amount for baptisms, weddings, and burials- when people ask for masses to be said for special intentions? The practice of stole fees did not begin with priests refusing to celebrate sacraments unless they were paid. It grew from a practice of spontaneous offerings by the recipients of various spiritual benefits and an eventual regulation of these offerings through fixed fees so that the munificence of the rich would not shame the poor out of asking for spiritual benefits.
However, stole fees are usually a paltry sum in a 2-digit naira value. Since a labourer deserve his wage, the consideration is that there is some cost involved in providing a place of sacrifice, such as a church, or a priest to perform the physical actions. In fact, mass servers in Europe are given tips as motivation for helping out in liturgies. This pocket money comes from little donation of organisers.
Solving the problem requires a pastoral initiative that invades the cultural root of the abuses and represents the Church as joy and hopes of people under stress. To begin, priests must re-educate the lay on sacraments as signs of God’s love, love that is boundless. Priests on their own part should shun selling Jesus at a fixed price and develop better initiate to encourage active membership. Sacramental regulations should be drawn and made public to the lay and clergy and abuses should be reported to a designated public channel created for the purpose and made reachable to all church members.
Church members should be educated to realise that neither the priest nor those who assist in liturgies are under anyone’s pay-list. It should, therefore, be the obligation of intending recipients of a sacrament to care for them and ensure too that things needed to get the place of celebration in order are provided. Sometimes, people organise a Church ceremony on a presumption that the God of Manna liveth and the weeping Hanna of Eli’s priesthood would always sweep the altar.
Lastly, poor remunerations could be reasons staff often steal in a company. However, making Judas a chief accountant did not stop him from pilfering. An abuse of trust or a profession is just a choice.
© Felix Uche Akam: The Dragnet- 20.02.2022