The Nigerian Province of the Order of St Augustine has, over the years, developed a leading role in the work of the Catholic Church in Africa.
With 20 schools spread across the country, a role mediating for justice and peace in a region ravaged by jihadist terror, full seminaries, and friars in every corner of the land - these are the signs that give hope for the work that the heirs of St Augustine are doing in Nigeria.
On the occasion of the profession of solemn vows of two Nigerian friars in Valladolid, Fr Anthony Kanu spoke to the General Curia office from Madrid.
Father, thank you very much for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. As a starter, we would like to hear your take on the current state of play within the Province and the different challenges you are facing.
The Province of Nigeria is the only Province the Order has in Africa, where there are also other circumscriptions, but not yet with provincial status. We have 126 professed friars, 124 of whom are priests. Together, we have to contend with a number of diverse challenges, each competing for our attention. Firstly, we have the parish apostolate, where the majority of our friars are engaged in sharing Augustinian spirituality with the laity – the very same spirituality that comes from our charism, which is community life: sharing our life as brothers and supporting one another. In addition to the parishes, we have more than 20 schools of different levels - primary, secondary and high schools - where we encourage a high level of engagement with the parents and try to instruct the students through Augustinian pedagogy. Given the current state of affairs in our country, especially in terms of security, we are introducing our students to the model of peace proposed to us by our father Augustine, seeking to first discover God within their own hearts in order to then be able to share Him. We try to discover God, the Prince of Peace, and then we attempt to share his peace with others. This dynamism necessarily begins with oneself. Only when we discover peace within ourselves, can we then share it with others.
What is it like to work in such a hostile environment, plagued by Boko Haram terror and social instability?
The Province as a whole is highly committed to justice and peace. For example, we take Laudato Si very seriously, and are engaged in activities that improve the environment in a sustainable way, along the lines that Pope Francis suggested. This approach, our approach, is very Augustinian, and through our Fr Emeka we have structured much of this work along the lines of an NGO. We are also, as you mention, working with and supporting people who have been affected by terrorism. At the moment, for example, at an individual level we have a girl kidnapped, but since released, by Boko Haram and we are helping her to go back to finish her education. She had been studying to be a nurse, and has returned to that. We are engaged with many people and communities at different levels, but always working to see how we might improve Nigerian society. In particular, at a time when there is so much emphasis on ethnic division, the Augustinian family is bringing the idea of "one heart and one soul centred on God" notwithstanding the difficulties and challenges, so that we can keep moving forward as a country and as a Province.
What would you say is the role of the Catholic Church in Africa - and for the whole world?
At the moment, certainly, Africa is blessed with many vocations and, above all, with a high number of good quality vocations, because many of our brothers are bringing the message of the Gospel to the people in the African way: in a living way. For us, the Gospel is not just the message but a way of life - one that we try to live and transmit, and this is attractive to many people. So at this time when Africa is blessed with so many vocations, what we try to do, especially within the Order, is to see how we might be able to respond to the needs of other provinces around the world who need men to work and live as brothers in their communities. And the Province of Nigeria, as well as the vicariates of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, have been able to do that. In Spain, for example and from where I am talking to you today, we have seven friars working; in Rome there are also seven friars; in the United Kingdom there are six, and maybe one more on the way; one in Ireland; one in Poland; and others in the United States. As you can see, we have many brothers in different places, as well as in Africa itself, in countries like South Africa, the Republic of Benin or in the international house in Kenya. So we are trying to see how we can provide help to those conscriptions that are struggling with the numbers. The future belongs to God, and that is the African way. We are very hopeful that, if we choose the best men, things will change. So we are not discouraged in Africa. We hold on to our faith in the future of the Order and the future of the Church, that even in Europe it will be better, because the Church does not belong to us, but to God. And it is He who ultimately sustains us.
You spoke earlier with the staff of the Province of San Juan de Sahagún about the importance of unity at this time, a key theme also of Fr Alejandro. As Catholics, how can we work one the one hand on that unity, while knowing on the other hand that the uniqueness of the Order also lies in the autonomy of each circumscription to decide what it needs for its own apostolic work? How can we best work with that very real tension?
There are different aspects at play within every situation. Practically speaking, each circumscription needs a certain amount of freedom to function. But also, as an Order, we must recognise that we belong to one family. This is very easy to understand when you walk with the mind of Christ and focus on what Christ wants for his Church. It helps to establish a balance between independence and interdependence: a healthy autonomy, if you will. If we truly allow Christ to speak to our hearts in these moments, it becomes very easy to fully understand where we need to be. In Africa, for example, right now we are taking our Union of Augustinian Friars more seriously. And because of that, we have many brothers working and moving between the different circumscriptions, keeping doors and minds open, helping us all not to become closed communities walking alone.
"The Augustinians can offer to the world that idea of an authentic community". Fr. Anthony Kanu
We have started with this in Africa, but we have so many other brothers in different places, in other continents, working in different places, so we hope that during our meeting next year we will be able to explore even more points of collaboration. And despite our independence as circumscriptions, you can also see that a number of circumscriptions are beginning to open up to other options for collaboration. I wish this could all happen more automatically and as a matter of course. History teaches us that everyone adapts sooner or later to their new reality. It is not always easy, but today we can see real benefits. Many circumscriptions are starting to open up, especially to welcoming Africans, to work with them on their home turf, so I think there is progress there.
Going back to the Nigerian Province, how long has the Order been there?
The foundation was in 2001. But long before then, in 1938 in fact, the Irish Augustinians arrived in Africa. They have been in Nigeria since, although in much smaller numbers today, and a good number of dioceses in Nigeria came into being as a direct result of the work of these fine brothers. The diocese of Yola, for example, came into being because of the Irish Augustinians, as did the diocese of Jalingo and the diocese of McDougall. And now we have a new diocese, Wukari, also the fruit of the work of the Irish Augustinians.
And finally, speaking personally, what is most important for you, as an Augustinian priest, at this moment in history? What do you think the OSA’s role should be today in relation to the church, the Catholic faithful, and with all those who don't want to know anything about the church? In other words, how can we spread the Good News today and draw people closer to God?
The Augustinian Order has an enormous heritage in terms of our spirituality, but we need to communicate it better to the world. In this sense, I think our greatest gift as Augustinians is that of community, regardless of who you are or where you come from. That is very important and you don't have to preach about it - people can see it. It is something that is lived. And it fits well with today's society, where young people are not interested in what you see or what you say, but they are very interested in what they see in you. What attracts them most, in this sense, is what they see and not what they are told. And when the message doesn't match what they see, then that leads to a crisis of faith. So the greatest gift that the Augustinians can offer to the world at this time is that idea of community, creating authentic community. And then people will reach the stage where they will be able to see something different in you, even if they are not Christians or Catholics. They will start to care, because everybody wants a community where they feel secure and happy. And if the world, our young people, discover the security and the joy of God in the community, or whatever you call it, then they will also be happy to share the Good News. We have to get to the point where we recognise the heritage we have as Augustinians, and we are ready, eager and zealous to share our message with the whole world. Here in Europe, for example, we are reaching a point where we need to start compromising. We need people to be part of this community and help to share this in the context of the family, in the context of their workplaces. And what about the commitments they have? Because the laity have more commitments than us as religious, because they are fully in the world and they understand the dynamics of that world. We have to embrace them and invite them into this way of life, into a community, so that they are able to then reach out to others and pass it on. But first we, as Augustinains, have a responsibility to appreciate the heritage we have inherited. And we also need to be willing to share it widely. And finally, we need hope. Let us not be pessimistic about the future for the simple reason that we have become so scientific that we think we can predict it. Our faith tells us that the future belongs to God and it is in his hands. So let us have hope. God can turn the worst imaginable situation into the best possible one.