Young Catholics are being drawn away from the Church. Can anything stop the exodus?

Susan Onyedika was born 22 years ago into a Catholic family in Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling commercial city. When she was a child, she took part in the Block Rosary Crusade (where an image of the Virgin Mary visits family homes), as well as catechism classes in her parish. But as she matured into a teenager she started having doubts about the faith she had practised from childhood. In her secondary school, she met Pentecostal Christians and began to compare their beliefs with those of Catholics.

“I needed more spiritually,” she tells me. “I needed to understand the Scriptures. They [the Catholic Church] don’t break down the Bible for you. They don’t pray the way most Pentecostals pray.

“I also had issues with praying through Mary because I feel that you can reach God directly, you can talk to him directly. You don’t have to go through someone to intercede for you.”

Susan joined her secondary school fellowship without telling her parents or siblings. “They didn’t know I joined the Pentecostals,” she remembers. “They were not aware. Just my close friends were.”

Her departure from the Catholic Church was gradual. “I had the opportunity of meeting with Pentecostals. From there my orientation about the Catholic Church changed. The prayers, the preaching differs,” she reflects.

With 186 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. The population is evenly distributed between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. Of the roughly 80 million Christians, around 20 million are nominally Catholic. But many of the baptised are leaving the Church in their teens and twenties for Pentecostal denominations.

Throughout the 20th century, the Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches were dominant. But as the century came to an end, there was an explosion of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Living Faith Church Worldwide, Deeper Christian Life Ministry and Christ Embassy.

Denominations that describe themselves as “new generational”, which have a particular focus on youth, innovation and technology, have sprung up in Nigeria, luring young people away from Catholicism and mainline Protestant churches.

Without his mother’s knowledge, Victor Ejechi left the Catholic Church when he was still in secondary school. Now 25, he tells me that, as a child, he relished the rituals of Holy Mass, the Legion of Mary and catechism classes. But as he grew older he started asking questions about the Sacrament of Penance and the rosary.

“Why would I confess my sins to the priest?” he asks. “Is he holy? Why must I pray through the rosary when I can speak in tongues?”

He says that no one was able to answer his questions.

Sunday Elom, who recently graduated from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, tells me how he drew away from the Church. He had had reservations about images of the Virgin Mary, but again no one gave him a convincing answer.

“Although I never had access to the priests, I asked those who were strong Catholics but they didn’t give me a clear answer,” he recalls.

Susan, too, says she couldn’t find anyone capable of assuaging her doubts. “When I started having that curiosity at 15, I asked questions but I was always shut off. They’d tell me to just believe it,” she says. “I asked my Mum and she can’t really explain anything. She just beats around the bush like every other person. She says: ‘Just accept it. It’s always been like that.’ ”

The experiences of Susan, Victor and Sunday underline the challenge facing the Nigerian Catholic Church. Many young Catholics have only a shallow understanding of Church teaching. While some do make the effort, a lot leave before they have found answers to their questions.

Fr Gabriel Ezema, a former student chaplain at the University of Nigeria, insists that the Church is well equipped to respond to young people’s questions. He notes that there are plenty of pious societies that can help them gain a deeper understanding of Catholic doctrine.

“We have resources available but they fail to make use of them,” he says. “How many of those students attend Sunday school instructions in the evening?

“The Church provides various spiritual organisations to respond to individual temperaments and needs. For instance, we have Charismatic Renewal, the Legion of Mary, St Jude and so on. Do such individuals join such spiritual organisations? Not at all.”

Many young Catholics come into contact with Pentecostals while away from the watchful eyes of their parents at secondary schools and tertiary institutions across Nigeria. When they return home for the holidays they pray the rosary with their parents and follow them to Masses without revealing that they are exploring another branch of Christianity.

“I started hiding in my first year,” says Susan. “When I come back home for holiday, I practise Catholicism and am always anxious to leave again for school to join the Pentecostals.”

Perhaps parents share some responsibility for this drift away from the Church. Many stop overseeing their children’s religious development when they leave for secondary school or university. This lack of contact means it’s difficult for them to recognise that their children are wandering off.

Susan’s mother, a devout Catholic, got wind of her daughter’s switch to the Pentecostal Church through rumours.

“My mum had been hearing it as a rumour,” Susan says. “She did not believe until she asked me. I denied it the first time. She asked me the second time. I denied it again. Then one day she caught me speaking in tongues. She was disappointed. The house was on fire that day.”

Victor joined a Bible-sharing community, commonly known as “home-to-home visitation”, in secondary school through his Pentecostal friends who “were better off in the knowledge of the Scriptures”. At first, he didn’t tell his mother or siblings. When they found out, there were serious arguments.

“I was exposed to other churches, other doctrines,” he says. “My mind was quite open for change. That was when I knew I had to leave the Catholic Church.”

When Pentecostals encounter Catholics they often promise that they will see miracles, signs and wonders. They emphasise that they will be taught how to pray, speak in tongues and quote the Scriptures.

Fr Ezema says: “Many join those churches not because the Catholic Church is not doing enough but because the teaching they get at those churches is what they want to hear. They want to hear that they will get married by next month; they will get a job before graduation if they pay their tithe.”

Susan sees it differently. She says the reason she left the Catholic Church wasn’t tied to the vain things of life. She was seeking knowledge.

“You need to clarify [things to] people before they will believe you,” she suggests. “I didn’t see anyone who could give me cogent reasons for the doctrines. They say seeing is believing. If you can explain to me explicitly, why won’t I believe you?”

Festus Iyorah is a freelance journalist in Nigeria

This article first appeared in the February 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here