A Nigerian priest once told me that there were so many Irish priests in his homeland when he was growing up he just assumed that Jesus was Irish. For him – and most other Catholics in Nigeria – the spread of Catholicism was synonymous with Ireland and the Irish. It’s not uncommon to get in to a taxi in Dublin driven by a Nigerian to hear fond memories of Irish missionaries. It’s a reality attested to by the fact that the patron saint of Nigeria is our own St Patrick.
But, that great Irish missionary movement is at an end. The last few Irish missionaries are there serving alongside local people in parishes and communities. Many have returned home to an uncertain future, but content in the fact that they kept their word and went to bring the hope, healing and consolation of the Gospel to the ends of the world.
Today some 18 million Nigerians consider themselves to be Catholic. It will be with an immense sense of pride, therefore, that they will greet the news that Pope Francis has appointed a son of Nigeria – Archbishop Jude Okolo – to be his representative in Ireland as Papal Nuncio.
Archbishop Okolo has an impressive track record and has served the Pope and the Holy See in many difficult appointments. Like his predecessor the Irish-American Archbishop Charles Brown, Dr Okolo will undoubtedly carry an immense love in his heart for Ireland and all that Ireland has given to the world – above all through the work of countless missionaries.
Africa is coming of age within global Catholicism. As the Churches of many western countries seem jaded and tired, Africa – despite the many challenges – exudes an energy that is infectious.
At various points in Church history, some countries are what we can call a ‘source Church’ – for a large part of the recent missionary history of Africa, Ireland was such a ‘source Church’. That role is now being replaced, and priests and missionaries from countries like Nigeria are stepping up to the plate.
Just as the Church in Spain and Italy was the source for the Counter-Reformation, and the Church of France and Germany the source for the Second Vatican Council, countries where the Faith is fresher are proving to be the vibrant source that the tired Church in the West needs today.
Archbishop Okolo comes to a Church and society in Ireland facing many challenges. Relations between Church and State here are now, thankfully, unrecognisable from when Archbishop Brown arrived in 2012. Within the Church, there is new energy. People speak of a fresh and increasing enthusiasm for youth ministry that has been lacking for decades.
But the challenges are immense. Not least the transformation from a society where belief in God was axiomatic, to one where it is just one choice amongst others.
A missionary nuncio from a missionary land will have much to teach us about re-embracing the joy of the Gospel. Tar anuas a Spioraid Naoimh.