Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue

Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue (PCID);

In the little over forty years since the successful conclusion of Vatican II, various agencies and institutions of the Church have grown up charged with responsibility of implementing the different decisions.  One such institution is the autonomous dicastery of the Roman Curia known at its creation in 1964 as Secretariatus Pro Non-Christianis (Secretariat for Non-Christians), now called Pontificium
Consilium Pro Dialogo Inter Religiones (the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue - PCID). Until a few years ago, it was headed by a most distinguished son of Igboland; the emeritus Archbishop of Onitsha (His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze).

I presume the mandate, focus and work of the PCID are familiar to many of us, thanks to the regular annual briefings of His Eminence, Francis Cardinal Arinze while he served as the President of the Pontifical Council, as well as the many publications of the Council and the ex-President himself. What may not be immediately known to many of you gathered in this auditorium this morning, is that the conference you have organised, in fact, conforms with a recent directive of the Pontifical Council. In the “Letter of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences in Asia, the Americas and Oceania ”, the Council urges that greater pastoral attention be given to Traditional Religions around the world. A similar letter, we are informed by the document, was earlier addressed to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar .

The document proceeds to list the major elements of the Indigenous Religions, such as a clear belief in One God, a belief in spirits like those of deceased ancestors, a moral code, etc. Adducing reasons and the need for the advocated greater pastoral attention and dialogue with Indigenous Religions towards proper inculturation, the Letter states inter alia that elements of both a religion and the culture influenced by it can enrich catechesis and liturgy, and therein attain their fulfilment. As for inter-religious dialogue between Catholics and Indigenous Religionists, the document insists that dialogue be understood in the broadest possible sense, namely as the pastoral approach “in the ordinary sense of encounter, mutual understanding, respect, discovery of the seeds of the Word in the religion, and the joint quest for God’s will”, in order to present the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the most appropriate manner, so that the Church may have deeper roots among the people (21 November, 1993: 4).

Unarguably, developments in inter-religious relations since the Vatican II have been far-reaching, even as experts continue to explore further; including the possibility of regarding non-Christian Religions as “ordinary channels of salvation for their members”. Against the background of the revolutionary change in attitude and thinking in the Church, let me further highlight certain striking areas of influence of Igbo Indigenous Religion on Roman Catholicism in the post Vatican II era.

Language, Music and Art;

The level and degree of influence of the three may not be even. But, the overall impact of Igbo language, music and art on Roman Catholicism particularly since Vatican II, is huge and highly significant. Serious commitment on the part of the local Church since 1970 to the use of Igbo language in the administration of the sacraments and sacramentals, including bearing of Igbo names by candidates at baptism, has brought about the greater influence of the indigenous language in the Church. The initial objection and protest that formed part of the novel practice in the 1970s quickly died down. Thus, Igbo language gradually has since become accepted as the ordinary language of liturgical worship and sacramental administration in the Catholic Church in Igboland. The successful translation of basic religious texts into the indigenous language, especially the entire Bible, the Roman Missal and sacramental rites, is very positive and relevant. The greater usage of Igbo language in the Church’s liturgy naturally brings with it the employment of many indigenous religious concepts, idioms, and expressions into the lexicon of the Roman Catholic Church in Igboland. This, in turn, brings into the Catholic tradition certain orientation in spirituality and moral attitude from the Igbo indigenous religious and cultural background.

The account of the influence of Igbo language on Roman Catholicism today would be incomplete without mentioning the significance of the Odenigbo series (lecture and colloquium). This is a fairly recent special pastoral cum academic initiative of Archbishop A.J.V. Obinna and Archdioyosis nke Owerre. Its primary goal and design is to use the Igbo language and culture to spread the message of Jesus Christ to Igbo people. Kristi Odenigbo is fast gaining popularity within and outside Imo State . Archbishop Obinna and his collaborators in the series are determined to avail of the unique opportunity of the Odenigbo to translate and render properly most, if not all, alien religious terminologies and jargons that are still found in Igbo Catholic literature. The project is proceeding well. One needs time, however, to be able to correctly assess its real impact on the Igbo religious terrain.

The influence of the indigenous religion on the Church’s liturgical music in the post-Vatican II era is equally significant, thanks to the continuing effort of the different Diocesan and inter-Diocesan Liturgical Music Commissions. Through their effort, the Catholic Church in Igboland has been able to mobilise and encourage talented individuals to use their skills in order to blend indigenous rhythms, tunes and motifs into the Church’s musical ensemble. Worthy of special mention, is the evident rhythmic appeal and gusto of many contemporary musical pieces for specific aspects of the liturgy in the Igbo Church today; particularly songs for Offertory, Holy Communion, and Free Choruses.

Some people have wondered as to the source of their special appeal. I suggest that a good measure of it comes from the indigenous religious and cultural background of the Igbo. The indigenous religious culture has a rich tradition of joyful rituals and thanksgiving to ancestral and other benevolent spirits, special offering and dedication of animals and things, (human beings occasionally), to patron deities and nature forces. Some examples that readily come to mind include the Ikwuaru festival in the Nnewi-Ozubulu area during which fat bulls are purchased, paraded and offered to honour local patron arch-deities, the practice of commissioning Mbari art gallery in the south-central zone, or artfully-decorated Ikenga sculptures in the Anambara sub-culture area, the performance of special musical lyrics and dance by minstrels, and/or prestigious and highly decorated masquerade like Ijere, Oka-nga, Ozo-Ebunu, Ikpirikpi Ogu/Iri-agha, by adult males, etc. The indigenous religious culture is partly responsible, therefore, for the emerging rich collection of soul-stirring liturgical pieces. Indeed, the achievement of the Catholic Church in Igboland in the area of liturgical music must rank among the best the African Continent has produced in recent times.

In the field of art, the degree of influence may not be as elaborate, but it is no less striking. Gifted Igbo carvers, sculptors and other art-creators have been able to employ local materials as well as indigenous religio-cultural ideas, symbols and motifs to express some important Christian themes and values. Beautifully carved doors rich in indigenous art-forms and other religious ritual symbols today adorn several churches and Catholic religious centres in Igboland. Also, considerable inspiration has been drawn by fabricators of Church vestments, particularly in the areas of design and colour, from the rich indigenous heritage of Igbo symbolism. Onitsha Archdiocese occasionally organised public exhibition of religious art-works which attracted talented art-creators, including carvers, sculptors, painters, designers, etc. Such occasions are good opportunity not only for the display of finished products, but also for cross-fertilisation of religious ideas among artists; Catholics as well as non-Christians.  

Influence of Other Aspects in the Vatican II Era

            The favourable environment the Vatican II engendered has thrown wide open the doors and created ample space for a big impact of the indigenous culture and religion on Roman Catholicism. Virtually every important aspect of the Church; its life and ministry, has been influenced directly or indirectly in contemporary times. In addition to language, music and art, the traditional age-grade system, as also other types of cultural practice have left their impact on the Church. In some cases, the titles and practices have been adopted wholescale into the Church, while in some others, there have been varying degrees of modification, especially where religious rituals are involved. The prestigious Ozo title initiation which posed a protracted headache to the Church in the north-western sub-culture, the Otu Ogbo (age grouping), the Iwa Akwa initiation in Mbano area, the Mgbuli (fattening ritual) for young ladies for marriage in Uli-Mgbidi axis, are some typical examples. Even the voluntary religious associations in the Church, like knighthood, become more acceptable to the people helped by a traditional background that is familiar with cultural institutions like secret society and prestige clubs, e.g. Otu-Odu, Ekwe/Lolo, Ekpe, Okonko, Odo, etc.  

In the dynamic area of social and human organisation within the Church, the influence of the indigenous culture has been significant as well. The Local Church, no doubt, has drawn inspiration, and enjoys the added support of such indigenous cultural patterns as the age-grade system (Otu Ogbo, Otu Umu Ada, etc.), in the arrangement and functioning of its current statutory bodies of the Catholic Men’s Organisation (CMO), Catholic Women’s Organisation (CWO), Catholic Boys’ (CBO), and Catholic Girls Organisation (CGO), at the station, parish, deanery, diocesan and inter-diocesan levels. Lately, some dioceses in Igboland have begun to organise its members resident in other towns within and outside the country. Is this not related to the old idea of Igbo Unions, a cultural, social and political association that flourished in several parts of the country prior to the civil conflict? Or is the Offertory dance of young maidens which is gradually gaining ground in several dioceses, not directly descended from the indigenous dance of young virgins (girls) at shrines of local deities during the Isi-ebili festival in parts of Igboland?

At times, the influence of the indigenous religious culture is perceived as a major problem that Catholics, particularly innovative pastors, feel sufficiently challenged and are able to create rites in the Church to respond to felt-need. This appears to be the case for funeral/burial rituals, naming of babies, churching of women after child-birth, marriage practice, new yam ritual, widowhood practice, outing of new dance, etc. Currently, some pastors I know, are seriously concerned with how to respond to the serious threat they feel among their flock from a number of indigenous religio-cultural practices such as membership and performance of major masquerades like Ozo-ebunnu, Odo, possession of lineage Ofo symbol, etc.  

Occasionally, Catholics adopt an ambivalent attitude to the influence and the threat they perceive from the indigenous world-view and its related beliefs. Examples include the case of Isi-Dada (dishevelled hair in infants), Ogbanje/Iyi-Uwa, and Mammy- water phenomena. On the one hand, the Church condemns the Igbo world-view as well as any specific traditional beliefs underlying indigenous practices that fall within the competence area of traditional diviners and ritual experts. While, on the other hand, some individual “charismatic” priests/faith-healers give credence to tales grounded in that world-view, and proceed to devise elaborate rituals in the Church to counter myriads of so-called “evil spirits” said to be at work in the victims. I suggest that this ambivalent attitude and often cheap interpretation of the persisting indigenous world-view, are the principal engine driving what has presently become one of the most successful industries in Nigeria; “the hydra-headed octopus of Prayer-ministry, Olu Ezi-n’ulo, Casting-out and deliverance from evil spirits, Breaking of curses, Miracle-manufacturing centres and establishments, etc.”, that proliferate and take place within and outside the Catholic Church. Let me end the rather long list of highlight of areas of major impact, by recalling that both oath-taking and covenant-making (Inu-iyi na Igba-ndu) are popular indigenous religio-cultural mechanisms of social control and order. They have today found accommodation in the Catholic Church in Igboland.


Personal skill, vision and individual initiative of missionary agents are a factor in reviewing the extent of influence of the Indigenous Religions on Roman Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa . Ultimately however, it is the change of attitude towards non-Christian Religions and their adherents which the Universal Church , through its work in the Second Vatican Council brought about, that significantly created the space for a phase of greater mutual interaction and influence. The Igbo case provides a typical example of a situation in which the scope of the impact has continued to widen and deepen. Virtually every aspect of Roman Catholicism has been influenced, albeit in varying degrees, by the indigenous religion and culture. Not only elements of belief, but also sacramental and other ritual practices, as well as organisational patterns, have all been impacted upon. Even the fundamental perception of reality, its interrelated values as well as the attitudinal orientation of the average contemporary Igbo Catholic, do bear discernible imprints of the indigenous religious tradition.

The dominant pattern of interaction and influence has tended to be lopsided, in favour of the Roman Catholic Religion. The trend is good or bad, depending on which side of the fence one is located.

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