I read a report shortly before Christmas that some Nigerian-based BBC journalists were attacked by security men at Fr Mbaka’s residence. This news report attracted national and international attention. Fr Mbaka has denied these allegations. However, I wish to go beyond the accusation, denial and counter accusation to reflect on the blessings of Fr Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry to Catholicism and the Christian mission in Nigeria, Africa and the world. I am writing this as a personal theological opinion and invite others to engage my arguments here or even develop better arguments for or against what I am attempting to do here. I am undertaking this theological reflection in order to identify some of the spiritual treasures found in this ministry. This in line with the conclusion of the Catholic Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy that popular Catholicism is a “treasure of the people of God, manifesting a thirst for God known only to the poor and to the humble and rendering them capable of generosity and sacrifice to the point of
heroism in testifying to the faith while displaying an acute sense of the profound attributes of God.”
What I write here is a brief musing of what I will develop in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Where is God in Africa? I have undertaken this task because I am convinced that we must learn to celebrate what God is doing in our midst. We must learn to see the good aspects of what many of our clerics, laity, and religious are doing especially when someone has been faithful to a mission for more than two decades as Mbaka has done. We should not always focus on the negatives. This does not mean that there are no points of criticism that can be observed in this ministry as I will show later in this essay.
First, it is worrisome to read these claims and counter-claims which are distractions to the mission of God through this Adoration ministry. It is unacceptable for some Igbo journalists and a priest to associate themselves with a foreign media outfit which tried unsuccessfully without sufficient evidence to tarnish the image of one of the most consequential Catholic priests in Igboland and Africa today. It is interesting that what a leading American sociologist of religion who visited the Adoration Ground in 2019 describes as ‘a real and moving presence’ would a year later be painted by some Nigerian and Igbo journalists as a place where journalists are being harassed. This does not seem plausible, but we have to wait for additional evidence.
Second, I have observed that Fr Mbaka is one of the few men of God in Nigeria who is not looking for cheap publicity or self-promotion through billboards or media appearances. This is because the stories of the great work that God is doing through him on the sacred grounds of the Adoration Ministry is spreading both nationally and internationally. Journalists and researchers are free to
visit the Ministry and write an objective and fair report about it in a mature, critical, and professional manner without much rumpus. I was part of a team that conducted an extensive ethnographic report on Mbaka’s Ministry for the Center for Catholics and Cultures at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A. The Director of the Center, Dr Tom Landy led this research work in December 2019 and I acted as a consultant for the research.
At the end of his visit to the Adoration Grounds, Dr Landy, produced series of well received and detailed socio-cultural and theological reports which can be viewed on YouTube as well as a review report titled: “All Night at Fr Mbaka’s Adoration Minisry: A Real and Moving Presence in Nigeria.”
The Adoration Ground: An Open and Sacred Site for Divine Encounter
The Adoration Ground is an open space for divine encounter, where everyone is welcome. There is nothing hidden or sinister going on there that, in my theological opinion, is unworthy of God. Mbaka is an open book that everyone can read. I am convinced that this man of God, despite his imperfect offering of his life is a unique spiritual treasure to the Catholic Church and to Christianity in Igboland and beyond. Some people might disagree with his style and method, but not many will
disagree with the message and impact of this ministry in the rebirth of popular and lived Catholic spirituality in our land.
Most Adorers or umu ikuku (as worshippers here at the Adoration Ground like to be called) claim that God is using Fr Mbaka in a very special way. My thinking is that such spiritual outliers like Mbaka appear maybe once in a generation. No matter what you think about his ministry, I am convinced that his imperfect ministry is contributing greatly in renewing African Catholic culture and the Christian mission in our land. Adoration Ministry is a site for the reimagination of Catholic spirituality in an African style.
Mbaka’s ministry offers a unique portrait of God’s footprints in our land, and a new and expanding space where ordinary Christians are reimagining and experiencing a new heaven and a new earth beyond our current institutional narratives, traditional norms, and spiritual practices in the received Western Christianity of the mainline churches. The Adoration Ground is a good demonstration of
how ordinary Catholics live and celebrate their faith in the complexity, confusion and challenges of the times in our land. The Adoration Ground offers worshippers the opportunity for lived Catholicism as they enter into a lived and shared experience—a meeting ground for all peoples where they can tell their untold stories, weep to God, and find the strength to face tomorrow with a resilient faith, an unconquerable hope and commitment to the future.
Researchers from the leading center for studying Catholic culture and spirituality in the world, who visited the ministry describe what they saw at the Adoration Ground this way: “The all-night worship at Fr. Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry radically reconfigures the relationship—and undermines the ordinary cultural distance—between post-tridentine devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and Pentecostal-style prayer. One scholar describes it as the “Pentecostalization of Catholicism… [while] at the same time it is trying to Catholicize Pentecostalism.”
Mbaka is Birthing an African Popular and Lived Catholic Spirituality
There are three undeniable realities about Mbaka’s ministry which I find very refreshing and deeply meaningful as a theologian and a person of faith.
First, this ministry emerged out of the need to meet the spiritual hunger and despair of God’s people. Mbaka did not set out to start any ministry. He began a prayer team at Holy Ghost Cathedral parish, Enugu, in 1996 which grew from there to the prayer meetings at GTC field, then a parish in GRA, and subsequently to the new Adoration Ground. Only God’s mercy and unmerited grace can raise such a man from his little-known family and from the small town of Ituku in Enugu
state to such spiritual heights. Like the Patristic fathers remind us, the measure of God’s ways of working is how God brings about extraordinary effects through ordinary means. What we see in this ministry is an extraordinary irruption of God’s power and majesty in ways beyond our human explanation. We must look beyond the man to the works being done in order to see how we can support the man of God to become a more effective and authentic channel of God’s blessing upon
Second, this ministry is rooted in traditional Catholic spirituality—the Eucharist, and the belief in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring something new, renew the face of the earth, heal the sick, raise the dead, comfort the afflicted, bring conversion of lives, and restore lives that are wounded and broken, and give hope to the despairing. However, the ministry goes beyond the traditional
Western pietistic quietism and spirituality of Latin Gregorian chants. Thus, while traditional songs like the Sanctus, Gloria are chanted, Fr Mbaka goes beyond formalized and predictable traditional rituals of the Roman Mass and the sacramental routine governed by liturgical rubrics and baroque
ritualism of the missal. Every week, he leads this mammoth crowd of witnesses beyond set and repetitive prayers, to a more performative and an infinite harvesting of God’s power, and the surprising freshness of the Holy Spirit in order to experience the explosion of God’s boundless miraculous power and unconditional saving and inclusive love.
Mbaka leads the people to this level of transcendence by combining his preaching, and prayers with music, dance, and organic divine worship with traditional Catholic connection to the Blessed Sacrament spiced with African Christian communal celebration of worship as body language.
Here, worshippers are transported to the margins of heaven in a non-structured manner as they give free range to their divine encounters in a way that is expressive, performative, demonstrable, spontaneous, and surprisingly fresh. This unique experience of the numinous, immerses the people in the mysteries of divine love, and leaves them with a deep sense of spiritual satisfaction on one hand, and longing for more, on the other hand. In this kind of worship, Fr Mbaka is not the center of attention or the miracle worker, but the Lord. Rather, the man of God, is a weak vessel in God’s hand, the point of contact through which the people are liberated from those realities that chain them so that they can soar in their unrestricted motion toward God with their gaze focused always on the exposed Lord in the Blessed Sacrament who travels in a symbolic pilgrimage with dancing
and joy into the gathered assembly from the altar of the Most High.
I argue here that we must pay particular attention to how Fr Mbaka is renewing and reinventing Catholic traditions, cultures, spirituality, and worship by making them African, Igbo, and Nigerian, and incarnating and inculturating them through our cultural idioms, language, dance, and plausibility structure. In doing this, he is quietly contesting and transgressing the claims and practices of those priests, religious, bishops and laity who still erroneously believe that a Mass
celebrated in Latin or to the accompaniment of organ music sounds more solemn or more Catholic than a Mass celebrated in the vernacular in drums, trumpet, gong, oja, and xylophone. He forces us to take up again the perennial challenge in the Church between charism and authority and how it applies to the changing context of faith and life for us as African Catholics.
Whatever be the case, it is clear to me that Mbaka is helping us to see that the renewal of Catholic culture and spirituality in our land and the revival of the true faith will not come about through the retrogressive replication or restoration of ancient Roman rituals and forgotten liturgical norms, vestments, and rituals that often no longer make sense in Europe or America whose missionaries and church officials introduced these Western rituals to us.
The Adoration Ministry is thus a place where discerning eyes can see a healthy and creative discovery of God’s ways and means of encountering us in our own language, in our own style, and in ways that speak to the deepest hunger of our people. The language and style of the Adoration Ministry capture the cultural and spiritual imagination of many people, while leading the people to harvest the boundless power of the Holy Spirit. Like St Dominic and St Francis whose
communities gave us the traditions of the rosary and the Christmas tradition of the crib, Fr Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry is creating something new in the Catholic Church today. It offers a good site (locus theologicus) for theologians and church watchers. We must be slow to make judgements.
Rather, we should study this ministry closely and objectively to help ritualize some of these practices, while discerning with delicacy what is right and wrong in them. I see no reason why some spiritual traditions or unique Catholic communal narratives cannot grow from our midst in Africa like Ignatian, Carmelite, Marian, and other alternate communities in the West like L’Arche, Taize, Focolare etc.
The third reality is the message of the Ministry. The Adoration Ground is a capacious tent for everyone. It is a very ecumenical space where all of God’s people are welcome. Many Catholics who would have left the Church to join other Christian denominations or engage in new forms of paganism find in the Adoration Ministry a Catholic home that is also a home for other Christians
and new converts. Mbaka is thus teaching us that we African Christians are not served by the denominational battles or the wrong claims by some of us Catholics that our Catholic Church is superior than other churches. The future of Christianity in Africa will be defined not by replicating denominational wars, the spirit of superiority or triumphalism, and rivalries which tore the European Christian traditions apart. Rather, African Christians must begin to look at the future
through a commitment to the Gospel message in its fullness and power; a commitment to embracing the teaching, practices and priorities of the Lord Jesus and the early Church, and a commitment to welcoming each other and opening the doors of our churches and homes to all, especially sinners and the many wounded and hurting souls in our land today.
This opening of doors is exactly what Mbaka does in the Adoration Ministry. I dare to say that the Adoration Ministry is to use the words of Ludovic Lago ‘a factory of hope’ for many weatherbeaten souls today. Many of these Christians do not find such liberating and comforting messages in their own churches or in their parishes where sometimes Sunday masses do not nourish their souls since these days a greater part of the Sunday celebration is dedicated to fundraising. They
are searching for more and they find their hunger satisfied in the weekly Adoration Ministry of Fr Mbaka.
There is also an indispensable social engagement in the ministry of Mbaka to the large crowds that he ministers to every week and through other multimedia. He speaks to the pains and wounds of
our people. He calls forth their faith to action; he energizes them after each session to go out and confront the challenges they face and the evils in the world with the hope that God will be with them. His is not a prosperity Gospel or an empty message of hope; his messages and songs speak of God’s action on the Cross, of conversion of lives, of God’s work, and human co-operation.
The Adoration Ministry is also a site for social innovation and evangelical entrepreneurial social justice ministry. This man of God seeks not only to provide spiritual healing for the sick but also physical healing through medical services, health protection, and health promotion; he works hard not only to provide food for the hungry, but the ministry is involved in food production and food
security; Fr Mbaka not only prays for those who have no jobs, but the ministry is giving them jobs through the many entrepreneurial endeavors of this ever-expanding work of God.
Whereas some Catholic leaders today think that the path for the renewal of the Catholic Church in Africa is the rigid attachment to Roman education, Roman liturgy, Roman hierarchy, Roman clerical culture, and Roman structures of the Church, Mbaka without explicitly contesting or resisting these structures and their relevance is quietly reinventing them. He is showing that Catholic culture is infinitely translatable and cannot become captive to a particular culture—
neither the Roman nor the African culture can mediate fully the vast riches of God’s life and mission of which the Church is an unworthy instrument. Christianity is always a metaxy; a syncretic process. Thus, I argue that Mbaka’s ministry stands in continuity with many of our African ancestors who since the late 19th century in the Catholic tradition have been challenging us as Africans not to be mere consumers of Western Catholicism, but creators with God of a new kind of Catholicism and a kind of Christianity that is African and that looks like us—in language, structure, homilies, worship, priorities, and social commitment.
However, this thinking is not popular because the majority of clerics today in the Catholic tradition in Africa hold on to an essentialized prototype of Church which sadly does not exist anywhere except in their imagination.
Particularly significant in this thinking is the insistence in Adoration Ministry for a spiritual and moral commitment to living the Gospel message in its fullness and power. This is what I think is being compromised in the cultural battles in Western Christianity and in some versions of the Roman Catholic tradition today where we speak more of the Church, power and privileges, and less of the Gospel and of Christ. Pope Francis has pointed out that popular Catholicism—like Mbaka’s—is the immune system of a Church that often focuses more attention on her structures, power, and clerical prerogatives. It is the Catholicism of the poor (Evangelium Gaudium, 112; Evangelii Nutiandi, 48).
African Christians who look towards Rome or Canterbury for guidance will struggle in the years to come with how to negotiate the moral contestations and polarization in the Western Church and society today. In the moral miasma of the West today, the Gospel’s moral absolutes have been abandoned and ethical choices that are unacceptable among our people like abortion, same-sex
unions, and changing one’s sex are seen as forms of progress and embraced enthusiastically by many Western Christians. Africans are already having to deal with these versions of Western notions of social progress. This is why it is very important for us to look with some sympathy and take a second look at the rise of priests like Mbaka. I think that Mbaka and his likes are here to stay; he is not an aberration of Catholicism, but a pointer to the new face of the African Catholicism
of the future. Indeed, my research leads me to predict that as we see the twilight of Western Christianity and as African Christians become more historically conscious and contextual with regard to the translatability of the Christian message, the Catholic Church and Christianity in Africa will become more Pentecostal and more Charismatic and less traditional and less Western
going into the future.
Pentecostalism and Charismatism will be the New Face of African Catholicism
Many years ago, David Maxwell wrote this of African Pentecostalism, “Pentecostalism does have a great propensity to localize itself. In its reliance on lay initiative, it is no different from, for example, American Methodism or village Catholicism. Yet its relatively shallow historical roots, its lack of tradition, its scorn for formal theological education, and its dominant emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit make it particularly responsive to quotidian struggles.”1 Maxwell was writing in 2002. What has become obvious today is that Pentecostalism and Charismatism in Africa are no longer the sites for the uneducated and the poor. They have become the sites of the most radical reinvention of Christianity in Africa, including Catholicism. Indeed, the exponential growth in Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in Africa, the growing number of Catholic healing priests
and miracle and praying centers run by Catholic priests in Nigeria, Benin, Cameroun, lay shepherds in Cote d’Ivoire, DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Sangoma Catholic priests in Southern Africa represent a new challenge to African Catholic church leaders who wish to restore in Africa the vestiges of the dying Christianity and culture of Europe. Indeed, we can no longer dismiss Pentecostals and Charismatics as fringe groups or an aberration of form.
Marian Burchardt has convincingly argued that the ongoing expansion of neo-liberal capitalism in Africa and the deepening poverty and social inequities in the continent have revitalized the notions of religious identities and notions of belonging. In a fragmented socio-politics, fractured and contested ethnic politics, failures of governments to provide the basic necessities of life, failed
health care systems, and painful absence of food and human security amidst deep fissures in the land orchestrated by failed politics and hybridity in churches like the Catholic Church in Africa, the Pentecostals and Charismatics are providing a sacred canopy. They are offering a bazaar of spiritual options through dominion theologies and unique forms of identity which have a strong appeal in both rural and urban Africa. Burchardt, therefore, concludes with the help of Pierre
Bourdieu’s theory of cultural distinction and conceptualization of religious field that in African Christian societies, “membership in charismatic churches operates as a form of symbolic capital.
Communicated through diverse performative and aesthetic practices and symbols to all kinds of audiences in everyday urban life, wealth and charismatic salvation are turned into mutually referencing metonyms that operate as markers of distinction.”
What we see in Africa today with regard to the shaping of religious identity is that Pentecostalism and Charismatism have become what Alan Anderson calls ‘Africa’s Reformation.’ Pentecostal and Charismatic images of the Church have assumed African agency, even though in some instances they offer bewildering and confusing theologies, claims of miracles and faith healing, prosperity Gospel among other shifting narratives and counter-narratives which continue to confuse, inspire, challenge, exploit, and empower African Christians in diverse and different
Given this reality, greater effort should be made by theologians and church leaders to discern what the Spirit is saying through ministries like Fr Mbaka’s or the Vincentian Prayer House in Nairobi (also a popular Catholic Eucharistic Adoration center like Mbaka’s). Pentecostals in Africa are not only ‘deepening the fractures in the ideological edifice of secular modernity’, but they also reveal as Emmanuel Katongole observes, “the tension between the ‘modern’ and the premodern outlooks operating within Catholicism. For while the theology and practice of the hierarchy are driven by the need to reshape Catholic life in Africa in relation to the reforms of Vatican II, what one witnesses in the popular movements is the resurgence of a traditional Catholic cosmology associated with such practices as exorcism, fasting, the use of holy water, the wearing of religious articles (rosaries, medallions, and scapulars), and a deep, almost magical view of the Eucharist.
Some Challenges facing Mbaka’s Ministry
Like all human realities, the ministry of Mbaka is also open to criticism. St Augustine reminds us that ‘everything human is imperfect.’ Fr Mbaka is at his best when he speaks the message of hope to the people, and when he speaks of the power of God in the Blessed Sacrament, and the healing graces and dynamic force that flow from the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is truly authentic when
he speaks of God and not of himself or the power that he has received from God.
He should always point the people to God and lead them to enter deeper into the mysteries of God. He touches many lives when he denounces the evil in society and in the world and the structures of oppression and
injustice in our land which create so much poverty, despair, fear, and high indices of social vulnerabilities.
He is at his worst when he speaks of himself and the power that God has given him. It becomes even more complicated when he leaves the terrain of divine worship, healing, and bearing the message of hope, and dabbles into politics where he lacks the language of discourse, or expertise or right tactics for dealing with the very corrupt and unpredictable politicians in the country. It verges on personal hubris when he veers off into predicting election results. This form of
engagement is a slippery slope which could become a form of idol worship, abuse of prophecy or the result of that ancient killer of talent and charism which we call pride of self.
All in all, the ministry of Mbaka is a huge oasis of blessing in a vast desert of want and spiritual hunger. His ministry is an answer to the cry of the poor for hopeful message and transformational worship. This ministry takes up a traditional Catholic spirituality—Eucharistic Adoration and Charismatism—and transforms it into an African spiritual worship style that deploys all the rich and varied sources for spiritual renewal and effective religious faith and practice in Africa. Mbaka
needs our prayers and support.
On his part, Fr Mbaka must now begin to consciously mentor others. This is what Jesus did. This is also what great Catholic saints like St Francis and St Dominic did in their times. This way, these important Catholic saints were able to produce disciples who did greater things than they had done.
Many great Catholic healers like Archbishop Milingo of Zambia, and Fr Meinrad Hebga of Cameroun who started the Ephatha movement failed to build up an enduring spiritual legacy because they did not mentor anyone and did it alone.
Mbaka must immediately form a small community of discerners who can help him to discern God’s Word in true and false prophetic message. He needs the services of professionals to manage the social entrepreneurial work of the ministry so that he can improve this service to the poor as well as his stewardship and witnessing to the light. Like Moses, his hand will grow weary sometimes; someday he might no longer be able to do the ministry, in the absence of such a
community of discerners and community of learners and disciples, how then can God’s work started in him continue beyond him?
*Stan Chu Ilo, is a priest of Awgu Diocese, Enugu Nigeria and a research scholar at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, U.S.A. He is the coordinator of the Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network.