This Day (Lagos)

10 November 2009

Nigeria: On the Returnee Catholics

Lagos — As we speak, 400,000 traditional Anglicans comprising clergymen, lay people, young and old, rich and poor, tall and short from England, Australia, India, Canada, United States and South America-are spiritedly making their way to Rome, not armed with weapons to conquer it, but armed with their Bibles to seek re-union with the Roman Catholic Church. Anglicans they were yesterday, but now they have voluntarily decided to become Catholics.

Many, in the past, had trodden the same road to Rome for the same purpose. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul 11, for instance, a group of validly-ordained married Anglican clergymen were received in the Catholic Church. I could picture the 400,000 clad in white, marching to Rome and waving their Bibles joyously and chanting: "Our home!, our home !!, Lord, take us home ".

Stepping forward beneath the huge balconies of St. Peter's Basilica with their arms fully outstretched and with tears of joy rolling down their cheeks to receive the tumultuous crowd, are Pope Benedict XVI, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios 1, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1 and other leaders of the Orthodox Church and some princes of the Church including Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze and Cardinal Anthony Okogie. With the hymn of thanksgiving, Te Deum, echoing silently at the background, a book is opened establishing Personal Ordinariates, a canonical structure that allows the 400,000 former Anglican faithful to enter full sacramental communion with the Catholic Church while at the time preserving those good "distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony".

That is the epoch-making Papal endorsement being hailed as the greatest ecumenical breakthroughs in protestant Christendom since the Reformation. Unsurprisingly, it has not failed to attract scathing criticisms: the negative criticisms of those pitching it along political, ideological or religious fault lines. Some are still asking the same old question: Has the time come for Catholic priests to start marrying? Professor Lawrence Cunningham has described it as opening the way for Catholic priests who want to marry to switch over to Anglican-Catholic rite. Yet others argue that it contradicts the Catholic Church's teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church.

Without doubt, the re-union of the 400,000 Anglicans with the Catholic Church is a big milestone in the centuries-old untiring ecumenical dialogue. Or, to put poignantly, the re-union is a magnificent fruit of the efforts of the Catholic Church to restore the unity of Christians by acknowledging and accepting what is good in other religions. It is not a doctrinal merging of what was formerly thought to be in contention or a mellowing down on centuries-old inherited traditional teachings and practices regarding the issues of priestly celibacy, ordination of women, homosexuality and sexual ethics. Amid modern stirring of public opinion and troubling "consciences", the Church, in agreement with St. Paul's illustration of the excellence of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7, continues to exalt priestly celibacy as the "brilliant jewel" which has cushioned its path down the ages in attaining her mission. Those who embrace it embrace it voluntarily, not by force, or out of disdain for marriage, but for eschatological and Christological reasons, in imitation of the person and figure of Jesus Christ, who, being perfect man and perfect God at the same time, chose not to marry.

For a good grasp of what has spurred the new movement to Rome , we need a little bit of historical reflection or excursion. Prominently in the book of St. John , Jesus emphasized the greater need for Christian unity. Since 1054 attempts have achieve Christian reunion. You will recall the famous Ecumenical Council of Florence (1439) which brought about the re-union of Armenian Christians and later Copts. Around 19th century or thereabout there was the Oxford movement, an ecumenical movement in the Anglican Church which led to the emergency of Anglo-Catholicism. In 1904 Protestant pastor Leopold Monod and Catholic priest Samuel founded the Association pour l'Action religieuse et morale (The association for religion and morals). Shortly after this two Anglicans-Spencer Jones and Lewis Wattson (who was later received in the Catholic Church)- founded the popular January Octave of prayers for the Unity of Christians. Alongside large scale movements such as the World Council of Churches (one of the largest ecumenical movements outside the Catholic Church) many ecumenical movements with far-reaching consequences sprang up in many countries between 1945 to 1962 when the first session on Ecumenism was held. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has provided more platforms for exploring full unity between traditional Anglicans and Catholics.

The beauty of these centuries-old ecumenical dialogues is not necessarily the re-union of all churches and religion under one corporate name and identity. Such a reunion might be feasible between traditional Anglicans or Episcopalians and Catholics who share one doctrinal thing or another in common. But beyond that, the whole ecumenical drive, largely, has been a potent means for promoting friendship, understanding, fraternity and peace among adherents of different churches and religions across the globe. Pope John Paul 11 left an admirable legacy in the respect. He constantly sought common areas for building bridges across troubled waters. He fostered understanding and friendship among adherents of different religions in the world. He presented different platforms for collaboration between Christians, Muslims, non-believers, Jews, and even free-thinkers, atheists and agnostics. He repeated in several countries which he visited that Christians and Muslims are united because they their faith is anchored on the faith of Abraham and one Almighty and merciful God. In Nigeria , the Pope repeated the word: "reconciliation" several times ostensibly to harp on its importance in nation building. Seeing the suffering Pope in Cuba , Fidel Castro wept. By opening the doors of the Vatican to the 400,000 Anglicans, Pope Benedict is obviously following the footsteps of his predecessor.

With the world economic meltdown almost defying solution, it has become clear that economic theories alone are not enough to solve the problems of mankind. At all times we need fidelity to the truth, fidelity to moral orthodoxy. While accepting the natural differences and pluralism which exist among people of different races, we need coherence in religious doctrine. Fidelity to the truth is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify error in the name of human right or tolerance. According to Richard John Neuhaus, former Episcopalian pastor who later converted to Catholicism and Editor-in-Chief of First Things journal, non-optional orthodoxy may seem outdated or look like "a dotty old uncle in the front parlour" while optional orthodoxy manifested in gay rights agitations may seem fashionable, but at the end of the day optional orthodoxy spells doom and disaster. Had Gene Robinson, an actively gay man, not been consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the new schism tearing the Anglican Communion apart would probably have been averted.

Therefore it does not pay to swim in the ocean of liberalism and relativism that constantly seeks to deconstruct or demythologize Christianity to make it appealing to the fresh. The voluntary decision of the 400,000 Anglican faithful to join the Catholic Church was not an afterthought. It must have a decision taken to safeguard the full deposit of faith. At the Lambert Conference 2008 Archbishop Rowan Williams and other Lambert bishops envisioned a truly catholic Anglican Church inseparable from truth, and which is found only in Jesus Christ who is "the Way, Truth and the Life". If the 400, 000 Anglicans were impelled by the same vision to join the Catholic Church, then they must have made the right choice. Faithful Anglicans they were and that faithfulness has led into the boat where they think they can find lasting happiness.

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