Fr. Mbaka and the Renewal of Catholic Spirituality in an African Style
by Stan Chu Ilo
(DePaul University, Chicago – USA)
I contend in this essay that the Catholic Church in Africa can no longer dismiss Pentecostal or Charismatic groups as marginal Christians who are simply spreading false Christianity and spreading the so-called prosperity Gospel, while watering down the Gospel message. This is because these groups are becoming increasingly attractive to many African Catholics who live in Africa as well as those who live outside Africa. I will use the ministry of Fr Ejike Mbaka of the Adoration Ministry in Enugu, Nigeria as a good example of the growing influence of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements and spiritualities in Africa. An accountable Church in Africa must have its boots on the healing grounds of ministries like Fr Mbaka’s. But ministries like these in Africa clearly show the tension between charism and authority in the Church in Africa, and offer opportunities for creating a capacious tent in the Church where all the gifts and ministries of all of God’s people are being discerned, received, celebrated, and used for the transformation of the Church and the world. Fr Mbaka’s ministry has also generated some controversies with regard to his predications of elections results, and the violent demonstration of some of the members of his Adoration Ministry early in 2021 that led to the vandalization of the Holy Ghost Catholic Cathedral, Enugu, Nigeria, the diocese to which Fr Mbaka belongs.
Why Pentecostalism and Charismatism?
A few examples outside Nigeria also show that this phenomenon is a continent-wide irruption of a complex phenomenon, which has not been fully researched, and understood by African theologians. In addition, there are no clear and consistent pastoral guidance given to these groups by many pastors in the local churches in Africa; there seems to be little accountability for these gifts. In many cases, what is common is that pastors issue warnings and instructions to Catholic faithful about aspects of these Pentecostal and Charismatic groups or with regard to certain abuses by some priests, religious or laity who lead these groups or particular ministries. The pastoral response has been reactionary and not pro-active. In 2006, for example, the Catholic bishops of Southern Africa came up with a strong statement warning Catholic priests that they can no longer be sangomas or witchdoctors. However, evidence from the field show that the practice of casting out demons, water spirits, witches and wizards, in order to heal people of all kinds of sickness is growing among Catholic priests in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi to mention a few countries. In 2015, the late Archbishop Kisito Lwanga of Kampala, Uganda came out with a strong statement banning priests and laity from instituting healing ministries or adopting non-canonical forms of exorcism, which they copy from Pentecostals and practitioners of African Traditional Religions (ATRs).
However, these groups are becoming more influential today than in the past in Africa. For example, many founders of Pentecostal groups in Nigeria, and many so-called healing priests like Fr Mbaka command more membership and influence in most cases than their local bishops. In Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for instance, the shepherds (berge) who run the over 150 new communities (communauté nouvelle) in the city — a Charismatic and pneumatic outgrowth from local parishes — are more powerful than pastors and even local bishops. In Abidjan, I was told by a local priest that any priest or bishop who tries to impose any restrictions on the communauté nouvelle risks losing his source of livelihood. In Kenya and Ghana, for instance, the Catholic Charismatic movements are stronger than any other Catholic group in the country. The belief in devils and evil spirit is so strong in places like Kenya that Paul Gifford reports that in the 1990s when the government of Kenya set up the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Cult of Devil Worship in Kenya, Catholic bishops joined other Christian leaders in welcoming the move because they were convinced that most of their parishioners often refer to these demonic possessions and ancestral concerns in their daily choices and interpretation ofevents in their lives.
Therefore, we cannot dismiss as irrelevant to the Catholic Church in Africa the fact that many priests and seminarians are steeped in the Pentecostal mindset. Many reasons explain this attraction which is beyond the focus of this discourse. Many people argue that many young priests are becoming more charismatic and Pentecostal because being a healing priest, or beginning a ministry of their own is perhaps the most valid path to becoming a powerful priest who commands respect among one’s peers and controls a lot of money from generous and appreciative donors and followers. But such reasoning about why some African priests and seminarians are becoming charismatic seems simplistic. One needs to dig deeper why such a mindset is prevalent also among the laity who flock to such charismatic or Pentecostal priests and healers.
What is undeniable is that in many parts of Africa, Pentecostalism and Catholic Charismatic movements are now becoming as the Cameroonian social scientist and Jesuit theologian, Ludovic Lado notes, ‘new factories of hope’ in Africa. However, what kind of hope are they offering Africans? Will these new factories and the kind of medicine which they offer expire, leaving God’s people in Africa still hanging on the Cross of suffering, poverty, sickness and despair? It is fitting then to attempt a modest introductory essay on one of such ministries, the most influential in Nigeria today, the Adoration Ministry of Fr Ejike Mbaka of Enugu Diocese, Eastern Nigeria.
The pastoral and the theological response to these emerging groups have been to see these priests as ‘healing priests’, ‘strange priests’ who are catering to marginal groups of people with weak faith or some troubled souls and people who are psychologically disturbed. But how can one draw such conclusions without scientific evidence and research? There are few empirical and multi-sectoral research on what is going on in these ministries. Paul Gifford’s conclusion is quite challenging but true with regard to the neglect of this aspect of the life of African Catholics in theology and in pastoral care: “The rank and file of African Catholics have remained largely unmoved by theological debate, not least because it entirely ignores the religious imagination of so many of them.”
Gifford is right in pointing out that African theologies are largely at a different level from the actual faith of African Christians. There is a serious disconnect between systematic and dogmatic theologies in Africa and pastoral concerns, practices and the actual faith and beliefs of African Christians. Most of our influential theologians are only influential among their theological peers and not in the Christian communities even in their own villages or local contexts. African theologians seem to be speaking to themselves and not to the people. As a result, the life of the church, the beliefs and practices of our people; our politics and social life appear to be untouched by our theologies. There is then the need for more self-critical theological studies and writings which extend a critical analytical compass to accounting for the cultural and religious assumptions of the religiosity of Africans and how they shape the actual faith of God’s people.
Theological Reflection on Fr Mbaka’s Ministry
I was part of an extensive report on the Ministry by American theologians and socio-cultural anthropologists at 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 their visit, the center produced series of well received and detailed scientific report which can be viewed on YouTube as well as a review report titled: “All Night at Fr Mbaka’s Adoration Ministry: A Real and Moving Presence in Nigeria” (https://www.catholicsandcultures.org/all-night-fr-mbakas-adoration-ministry-real-and-moving-presence-nigeria).
I decided to write this personal theological opinion on the ministry to raise some important questions on accountability for spiritual gifts in Africa and many other parts of the world where new religious movements are often being suppressed because they do not belong to the mainstream. Interestingly, Christianity began as a marginal and obscure movement with clear roots in the Jewish communities of the first centuries. 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?
Most Adorers or umu ikuku (or ‘children of the wind’ 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 outlier like Mbaka appears maybe once in a generation. This imperfect ministry is contributing in small ways in the renewal of African Catholic culture and has become 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 site where ordinary Christians are reimagining and experiencing a new heaven and a new earth beyond the current institutional narratives and spiritual practices in the received traditional Christianity of the mainline churches.
Researchers from the Center for Catholics and Culture, 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 (me) describes it as the “Pentecostalization of Catholicism… [while] at the same time it is trying to Catholicize Pentecostalism.” There are three undeniable realities about Mbaka’s ministry which I find very refreshing and deeply meaningful.
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 has grown from there to the prayer meetings at GTC field, then a parish in GRA, and subsequently to the new Adoration Ground. Only God can raise such a man from his little-known family and from a small town of Ituku in Enugu state to such spiritual heights. Like the Patristics 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 our people.
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 sacramental routine governed by liturgical rubrics and baroque ritualism of the missal and set and repetitive prayers by leading the worshippers to an infinite harvesting of God’s power and the surprising freshness of the Holy Spirit and the explosion of God’s boundless miraculous power.
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 expression to their divine encounters in a way that is expressive, spontaneous, and surprisingly fresh leaving the people satisfied 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 rather the man of God, 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 boundless motion toward God with their gaze focused always on the exposed Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
I argue here that we must pay particular attention to how Fr Mbaka is renewing Catholic traditions, cultures 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 the claims and practices of those priests, religious, bishops and laity who still erroneously believe that a Mass celebrated in Latin sounds more solemn or more Catholic than a Mass celebrated in vernacular. Mbaka is thus helping us to see that the renewal of Catholicism in our land will not come about through the retrogressive replication or restoration of ancient rituals and liturgical norms that often no longer make sense in Europe or America whose missionaries and church officials introduced these Western rituals to African Catholics.
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 and captures their cultural and spiritual imagination, while harvesting the 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 and we must study this ministry closely and objectively to help ritualize these practices and discern what is right and wrong in them.
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 find in the Adoration Ministry a Catholic home that is also a home for other Christians. Mbaka is thus teaching us that we African Christians are not served by the denominational battles or the claims that our Catholic Church is superior than other churches. The future of Christianity in Africa will be defined not by replicating denominational wars, 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 is exactly what Mbaka does in the Adoration Ministry. I dare to say that the Adoration Ministry is a factory of hope for many weather-beaten souls today. Many of these Christians do not find such liberating and comforting messages in their own churches or in their parishes: here sometimes Sunday masses do not nourish their souls, as a greater part of the Sunday celebration is dedicated to fundraising and singing the praises of the few rich people and politicians whose occasional presence at the Sunday liturgies could sometimes lead to a change in the liturgy; even in some rare occasions could delay the beginning of the Mass if the VIP was running late. People who come to Fr Mbaka’s ministry 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 the Mbaka. 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 entrepreneurship. This man of God seeks not only to provide spiritual healing for the sick but also physical healing through medical services 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 of priests might think the path for the renewal of the Catholic Church in Africa is the rigid attachment to Roman education, Roman liturgy, Roman clerical culture, and Roman structures of the Church, Mbaka without explicitly contesting these structures and their relevance is quietly reinventing them. He is showing that Catholic culture is infinitely translatable and cannot become a prison of 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. 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 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, 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 Western Christianity and in some versions of the Roman Catholic tradition today, where we speak more of the Church 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. African Christians who look up to Rome or Lambert for guidance will struggle in the years to come with how to negotiate the moral contestations in the Western Church and society today. 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 and why Mbaka and his likes are here to stay. 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 Roman, and less Western going into the future.
Catholic Charismatism and Pentecostalism are here to Stay in Africa
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.” 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, we can no longer dismiss Pentecostals and Charismatics in Africa 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 measures. Given this reality, greater effort should be made by theologians and church leaders to listen and 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.”
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 speaks of the power of God in the Blessed Sacrament, and the healing graces and dynamic force that flows 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 claims to have 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, bearing the message of hope, and dabbles into politics where lacks the language of discourse, the tactics, strategy, or expertise on how to deal with the very corrupt and unpredictable politicians in the country. It verges on personal hybris when he veers off into election predictions which could become a form of idol worship and abuse of prophecy.
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 on a traditional Catholic spirituality—Eucharistic Adoration and Charismatism—and transforms it into an African spiritual worship that deploys all the rich and varied sources for renewal and authentic 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 would do greater things than they had done. Many great Catholic healers like Archbishop of 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. The ecclesial and communal origin, dimensions and goals of all charism must be embraced by all people who have received different gifts from God.
 Details of the ministry and its energetic Adoration and healing sessions can be found in his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_dboLzOK7V4UcwdNI56S1w
 Christopher Comoro and John Sivalon, “Tanzania: Marian Faith Healing Ministry,” in Popular Catholicism in a World Church, eds. T. Bamat and J.P. Wiest (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 157-82.
 Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa. London: Hurst and Company, 2015, 3-4.
 David Maxwell, “Christianity and the African Imagination”, in Christianity and the African Imagination: Essays in Honor of Adrian Hastings. David Maxwell and Ingrid Lawrie, ed, Leiden: Brill, 2002, 19-20.
 See for instance the critique of African Catholic theology’s abandonment of the enchanted world of the Pentecostals in Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa. London: Hurst and Company, 2015, 107-144. See different responses to Gifford, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, Religion and Faith in Africa: Confessions of an Animist. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018, 85-86. While admitting that Gifford’s analysis has some merits, I show some limitations of his analysis, see Stan Chu Ilo, “Searching for Healing in a Miraculous Stream: The Fate of God’s People in Africa” in Stan Chu Ilo, ed. Wealth, Health, and Hope in African Christian Religion: The Search for Abundant Life. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018, 49-55.
 Marian Burchardt, “Salvation as Cultural Distinction: Religion and Neoliberalism in Urban Africa”, Cultural Sociology, vol 14, no. 2 (2020), 171.
 See Allan Anderson, African Reformation: African Initiated Christianity in the 20th Century. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2001.
 See for instance James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006.
 Emmanuel Katongole, “Africa”, The Blackwell Companion to Catholicism, ed. James J Buckley et al. NY: John Wiley and Sons, 2007, 133.