|Tuesday, August 14, 2018|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
he present article is a reflection on the danger posed to authentic planting of Christianity in Nigeria today by the activities of charlatan pastors and powerful “priest-healers” of the healing ministry and miracle centers, scattered all over the country.
In fact, two months ago, I sent out a post via my WhatsApp platform, concerning some aberrations that happened within that period in some of the so-called Healing and Prayer Ministry or “Adoration Centers.” We focused our attention in that WhatsApp post, however, in Eastern Nigeria, discussing some incidents of aberrations reported then to have taken place in some of the miracle workers’ and seekers’ centers in that part of the country.
Surprisingly, that WhatsApp post went viral in the social media. A good number, however, welcomed it with appreciative comments, while two commentators, in particular, lashed out on me for daring to raise my voice against those aberrations in the healing ministry of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers.
The two individuals, who didn’t approve of my take against the aberrations in the activities of the self-acclaimed healers and charlatan workers of miracles, felt I was against prayer and healing ministry. Unfortunately, instead of them discussing the substance of the write-up, they decided to launch personal attacks on the author, thereby missing the point raised in the article.
The two critics accused me of being jealous of the powerful-priest healers. One of them went to the extent of saying that I may even end-up like them if I don’t mind my business. In my usual characteristic, I never replied either of the parties, because I didn’t see the need for it. In any case, I felt indebted to all those who commented on the write-up. Because their reactions, whether in favor or against, whatever it were, showed that our write-up achieved its objective.
We wanted simply, with that WhatsApp post on prayer and healing ministry, to raise the issue and call for public debate on the aberrations happening in those miracle centers, especially, the unorthodox activities of the powerful priest-healers and charlatan pastors of the healing centers. It was our conviction that keeping silence over these aberrations is not the right strategy.
This is because, at long run, the poor masses, deceived today by the charlatan pastors and priest-healers, will eventually rise up tomorrow to condemn the Church and other public authorities for not doing anything to protect them from the menace of these charlatan pastors and deceptive priest-healers. We therefore, suggested in that WhatsApp post, that at least the authorities concerned should have issued some public statements to dissociate the Church from the unorthodox activities and aberrations happening in the healing and ‘adoration centers’ – the miracle workers’ and seekers’ prayer groups.
That was our suggestion then, and we still subscribe and maintain that position. Otherwise, many and more innocent poor faithful and other citizens will continue to fall victims of these charlatan pastors and false religiosity of the priest-healers.
In the present article, I wish to expand on the argument raised in that WhatsApp post two months ago. This will help the reader have a bird’s eye view of what is at stake and why we toed the path of our argument concerning the aberrations and unorthodox activities of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers of the healing and miracle centers in Nigeria today.
In the first place, let us begin with the question, “What danger does healing ministry and spirituality of workers and seekers of miracles pose to the planting of authentic Christianity in Nigeria today?” In what follows, we shall attempt to offer our answer to this question:
The Danger of Christianity of Workers and Seekers of Miracles in Nigeria
The main attraction of the healing and miracle centers as we have them in Nigeria today is to obtain physical healing, acquire material wealth or other personal needs. Some go there in search of fame and popularity for political purpose – for success during political elections. Others frequent these healing centers and miracle workers to seek divination, visionary’s forecast, as well as vendetta over their imaginary or rather perceived and unperceived enemies for alleged witch-crafts’ attacks.
For this, some fear that these healing meetings and miracle centers could turn or rather transform Christianity into a functional religion that would have the purpose of meeting people’s temporal needs. Such unorthodox beliefs and practices of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers, make Christianity look like a magical religion, a return to aberrations of the paganism of the yesteryears.
Furthermore, the activities of most of the “priest-healers” and charlatan pastors of the healing and miracle centers conceal the Mystery of the Cross in the life of Christians and, of the eschatological dimension of the Christian faith. Thus, the desire to avoid any witness to the sanctifying grace of suffering and to reflect on the eschatological goal of the Christian faith, would be nothing but the continuation of the temptation of Christ – Christianity without the cross (cf. Mt 4:1-11). This is the greatest danger the deformed healing ministry poses to Christianity in Nigeria today.
Majority of the people frequent the healing centers only for the sole purpose of receiving miracles for healing or material acquisition, and not for their spiritual growth or conversion. In fact, for most of them anything goes. The important thing is that one obtains the desired miracle, physical healing or miracle to acquire quick material riches.
And for the pastors or priest-healers, it is the tithes and donations given by the faithful and wealthy members as well as corrupt politicians that count. Thus, they don’t care about the life style of people who support their ministry. Whether benefactors of their healing churches and adherents themselves are people of questionable characters, is a secondary matter. This is why whenever election approaches, these healing and miracle centers become a kind of ‘pilgrimage centers’ for corrupt politicians seeking for popular votes during elections. Pastors receive them with open hands, and even often campaign for them from the pulpits in the churches.
Therefore, politicians use the healing centers and their pastors as well as pulpits of some priest-healers, to seek popularity for elections. In most cases, the powerful priest-healers and pastors of these healing and miracle centers are the ones that influence government policies and control state governors and sometimes, the president, vice-president, senators, ministers, commissioners, and other highly placed individuals in government and society.
Worse still, the charlatan pastors, including some of the so-called General Overseers of the Neo-Pentecostalism and their healing centers, don’t even care about the conflict or rather incompatibility between their role as religious leaders, priests and that of seeking an elective political post in government. They comfortably, participate in partisan politics. Some vie for elections and become vice-president of the federation, senators, legislators, ministers, commissioners, local government Chairmen or women, etc.
Thus, in Nigeria today, one notices the fascination with the ‘gift’ or ‘charism’ of healing. Gifted priest-healers and pastors show little restraint in publicizing their “miracle rain” through “testimonies” in imitation of North American Neo-Pentecostal and fundamentalist Christian groups. The priest-healers and pastors appear very conscious of their self-acclaimed healing power – a power which is often times maintained through the exploitation of the superstitious and irrational beliefs, of which distressed faithful are easy victims.
The orderly exercise of charisms for the benefit of the community appears not to be uppermost in the minds of some of these “healers.” So, in some of the healing and “adoration” miracle centers in Nigeria, we have priests who parade spiritual gifts to fascinate the faithful or to make money. These priests are compared to the charlatans in the towns who make real money from their superstitious practices in imitation of the traditional medicine-men, or the “Tele-Evangelists and preachers”, who publicize their ‘gifts of healing so as to attract more people to their much-room “churches” or healing centers.
In fact, the worst part of it all is the behavior of some priest-healers. There are unsavory stories of what some of them do to seek healing power from whoever or whatever can offer them that. Some even visit and frequent the prayer meetings of popular charismatic preachers and healers of the New Religious Movements. They go to the charlatan pastors and charismatic preachers or healers, asking for prayer to acquire spiritual power, strength and healing techniques. Some of them would go there for prayer to subdue their perceived rivalries in the ministry, or to get a particular favor from their superiors, not minding the embarrassment they are causing to the Church.
One begins to wonder what is wrong with these priests! Where is their long years of formation in philosophy, psychology and Christian theology they have received in the seminaries before their priestly ordination? Is this the sense of pastoral ministry they received in the seminary before ordination? Is this the Christian up-bringing they had received in their families and parishes even before entering the seminary? Above all, where lies their faith in the Risen Christ and His Church? What then would such priests be teaching their congregations about Christ and the Church? All this implies that there is a danger even in the mainline churches on these matters.
In addition, most priest-healers in the mainline churches appear stubborn, and bishops find it difficult at times to exercise their supervisory ministry over the powerful “priest-healers.” Often, the faithful wonder why the gift of healing is lacking in other priests. Often also, the priests themselves forget that by virtue of their Ordination and Sacred Orders they have received, they have been invested with spiritual power, which includes a kind of gift for healing for their pastoral ministry.
That such a gift often manifests itself at particular moments in the course of a priest exercising his pastoral ministry does not make that individual priest special or above others and the community, in the exercise of the ministry of healing. So, it is a question of priests knowing the spiritual power they have received in virtue of their sacramental ordination, the reason for it and how to exercise such spiritual gift for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church in unity and love.
This last point is very important considering the unfortunate incidence of the so-called powerful “priest-healers.” The way some of these priests isolate themselves from the community, arises from the failure to understand that both the community and the individual are healed in the legitimate and orderly exercise of charism within the Church and under the supervision of the competent authority, the Bishop.
The Spirit gift is given for the building-up of the Church as One Body of Christ. So, any healer who leaves the Church on the ground of what he claims as his gift and begins his own congregation of healing ministry, works against the Holy Spirit. The emerging trends of the abuse of “sacred power” and the misunderstanding of order and charism in the Christian community, complicates the motive for which some priests have opted for organizing prayer groups for miraculous healing independent of the normal parish life.
Added to the above is the practice of the charlatan pastors of the healing and miracle centers, including those of the so-called General Overseers’, the Neo-Pentecostal congregations in the country. The unorthodox activities of these charlatan pastors and founders of the New Religious Movements (NRM) in Nigeria, is therefore a threat to authentic planting of the Christian faith in the country. What most of them offer their adherents is a distortion of authentic Christian faith and spirituality.
Christianity is not primarily an emotional and utilitarian religion. It is good to offer consolation to people, but the Christian faith is not rooted on mere consolation, shielding people from experiencing the suffering and Mystery of the Cross. Christianity is defined by the Cross of the Crucified and Risen Christ, which is the demonstration of God’s love, through which, humanity was redeemed by Christ himself. Christianity is rooted in the response to the faith in crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
This implies that accepting suffering as part of life and especially, for the sake of Christ and his Church, is a paschal joy, fruit of the Holy Spirit. In many of these healing and miracle centers, this aspect of the salvific dimension of suffering and the Cross, is not emphasized. This is why we maintain our position in this article that these prayer meetings for healing and obtaining miracles are a distortion of Christianity.
Moreover, the charlatans of the healing churches and miracle centers do not explain to their followers in Nigeria the fact that physiological sickness is part of human existence. When one is sick (this is different from diabolic disturbance or possession), has some difficulties in his/her business or place of work, and when a married couple cannot have a baby (especially, a male child as in some traditions), it does not mean that an evil spirit or witch is hunting the couple, family or individual. These are facts of life that should inspire Christians to a deeper faith, and not to lapse in their Christian faith or worse still, seek instant miracles from the charlatans of the healing centers.
Furthermore, it is incorrect to assert that in these healing and miracle centers we have what some refer to as the “African expression” of Christianity and ways of adapting the Christian faith to the cultural and religious sentiments of Africans. That it is only a clash of cultures – one African, the other European, and that this situation has brought about the emergence of these healing centers or prayer groups in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
It is also wrong to assert that the activities of the priest-healers are antidotes to Christians leaving the mainline churches to go to the New Religious Movements in our land. The fact is that there is not much difference between the activities of the charlatan pastors and the unorthodox activities of the self-acclaimed priest-healers of the mainline churches. They both work within the same frequency and latitude.
Thus, it is important to reemphasize once more that many of the healing centers and activities of charlatan pastors and priest-healers represent transformation or deformation of authentic Christian spirituality. They are also deformation of our African Traditional Religion (ATR. This is why the African Bishops at the Synod for Africa in Rome in 1994, said that many of the practices of the charlatans in these healing centers in our big cities and villages have very little to do with true traditional religiosity.
Again, some Christians that attend the prayer and healing meetings, “praise what they describe as the lively celebrations of the worship and active participation of people that cannot be found in their mother-church. That is why they attend these healing centers, to experience a spiritual growth and signs and wonders that take place.” But it is clear, however, that the practice of the charlatans in these prayer and healing meetings is a distortion to the true Christian spirituality.
Furthermore, the way these charlatan pastors and priest-healers are advertising their healing ministry on television and social media, clearly indicates their deeper motivations – to make money, attract people and for each of them to be considered a famous healer and miracle worker. At times, these charlatans try to convince their followers (especially sick people), to believe in miracles and healings that have never really occurred, by predicting wonder-works that are everything but real. As a matter of fact, this behavior ridicules the faith.
No doubt, whoever believes in Christ will perform the same work as Christ did himself and will perform even greater works (cf. John 14:12). But the question is: Who is performing these works? Here is where the challenge lies: While the existence and the need for charismatic gifts in the Christian communities are acceptable, they should not be excessively emphasized because, although in the Corinthian Church (for example), these charismatic gifts abounded, scandals and abuses were also evident, unparalleled in other New Testament ecclesial communities.
Thus, these charismatic gifts do not mark or guarantee an authentic Christian living. If the Spirit acts as He wills and when He wills, it is then evident that an authentic Christian life should be characterized by a true conversion and righteousness that would totally rely on God.
The point is that both the priest-healers and charlatan pastors of the healing centers do not preach to members of their congregation about true Christian conversion and righteousness. They don’t even go on outreach to convert non-Christians, but rather look only for a way to woo or lure Christians from the mainline Churches, especially, Catholics and Anglicans to join them. Most of their victims are often the youth who come to live in big cities from their villages or distressed poor people in search of easy way of getting cure from their health and meeting the poverty challenges in the society.
In fact, most of the youth, after they have been brought up in their mother-churches while in villages, become easy victims of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers once they arrive in the big cities. Hardly, do we hear of conversion of non-Christians by the charlatan pastors and priest-healers. Those who frequent the healing and miracle centers become worse in their spiritual growth and pursuit of righteousness since these are not the primary aim of their going to those centers. Most of those who frequent the centers continue to live their irregular Christian life in spite of being members of these healing groups.
Moreover, as we pointed out time without number in our previous articles, activities of the so-called General Overseers, pastors and founders of the most thriving miracle and healing centers in our big cities, pose the greatest danger of all to the survival of Christianity in Nigeria. They not only present false and deformed Christianity to the people, but have gone to the extent of dominating the national umbrella body of Nigerian Christians, “Christian Association of Nigeria” (CAN). Thus, pastors of these New Religious Movements and healing centers have assumed the leadership of CAN and made themselves the mouthpiece of Nigerian Christians before the present federal government with its anti-Christian agenda.
We are already witnessing the messing-up of CAN by its present executive leadership, composed mainly by pastors of these miracle and healing churches, the so-called General Overseers or founders of churches of the Neo-Pentecostal movements in Nigeria. Since this group of pastors, General Overseers and miracle workers, hijacked CAN Executive leadership machinery, the national umbrella body of Nigerian Christians has lost its flavor and sense of direction.
CAN executive leadership is now infested with the virus of bribery and corruption at the expense of blood of innocent Christians and indigenous populations of Nigeria massacred on daily basis by the marauding Fulani herdsmen militants and Boko Haram terrorists. CAN executive leadership just for a gift of peanuts from the Nigerian government, would cancel a scheduled Christian nation-wide prayer procession, meant to protest the incessant killings of Christians by Fulani herdsmen militants and the federal government scandalous complicity in these killings.
The most painful of it all, is that this is happening at this most critical moment of the history of Nigeria, when everyone is looking up to Christian churches and their leaders to help give sense of direction to Nigeria again. Unfortunately, pastors of these healing and miracle centers who took over the leadership of CAN, have shattered all that by hijacking the national umbrella body of all Nigerian Christians. All this shows how insecure Christianity in Nigeria today is, if it continues to be under the leadership influence and spirituality of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers.
The Challenges Ahead
All these furnish us with the challenges posed by the healing ministry to the ecclesiastical authorities and the gifted priest-healers themselves, as well as the lay faithful in Nigeria.
In the first place, it challenges the Church to revisit its program for priestly formation in the Nigerian context. The program for the training of our priests must not neglect to reflect the local situation we are living today. In our Nigerian context, for example, seminary program must not ignore the areas of interreligious dialogue, intra-ethnic co-existence and good governance both in civil and ecclesiastical sectors, and also, some lessons on church, priests and politics.
The seminary formation program in Nigeria must also not ignore the question of pastoral ministry in the areas of healing and health. In fact, this aspect should assume an important place in our seminary formation.
Furthermore, the issues of poverty, poverty alleviation, the role of the Church and clergy as well as a well-thought program for the financial maintenance of priests must be looked into in our local churches.
African local churches are yet to give an adequate attention to the financial maintenance of priests. Europe and North America haven’t this problem. We could borrow from their program of priests’ maintenance. This is because, in Nigeria, and some other African countries, most priests often feel they are on their own and so would look for a way of survival in financial matters. Retired and sick priests often feel abandoned and left to die in their abandonment and isolation.
Again, in Nigeria and other African countries, most priests feel there is no clear mapped out program of how to take care of them in moment of difficulties, and especially, when one is not among the favorites of their ecclesiastical superiors, the case is all the more complicated. So, some of the priests would take to healing ministry as survival mechanism in financial matters.
Therefore, we are confronted with the question: How does the Church in Nigeria take care of its working and energetic priests? How does the Church in Nigeria take care of its sick, retired, and elderly priests? How does the Church in Nigeria look after its priests doing further studies both at home and abroad? Do these categories of priests in Nigeria have their dignity intact in whatever life situation they found themselves as bona fide priests of the Church?
More importantly, what are the financial arrangement of the Church in Nigeria for its priests and religious doing mission in foreign lands? Most of African priests both at home and in diasporas in missions are living almost life of indigence and survival of the fittest. Often times, their ecclesiastical authorities not mindful of this, impose financial levy on these priests, the amount the priests in mission must be remitting annually to their home Dioceses or Religious Congregations. This is not minding that most of these priests on mission are living indigent lives in foreign land.
Be it as it may, none of the above points justifies the aberrations in the healing ministry today. Thus, all those who find themselves in healing ministry are challenged to revisit the traditional spirituality of being endowed with gifts for the service of the community, in order to appreciate the deep meaning of charisms for the up-building of the community as was lived by early Christian communities (cf. 1Corinthians 12). This means that ministry in the Church should be seen as an essential service and not as the ladder towards rank and privilege.
On the other hand, the upsurge of healing centers in many parts of Nigeria should challenge the Church to show greater concern for the integral welfare of each, and every Christian. This is a crucial point for the liberation and health of the community itself. If Christians feel at home, and are cared for within their communities, their gifts will be fully deployed for the witness of the Kingdom.
Aside from their exaggerations, charisms experienced in Christian communities are in tune with the early experience of the Apostolic Church and with the African worldview. The services that the Spirit of God causes to be rendered to the community and the world are multiple, and they are communicated through these gifts. Christians become wholesome persons by the act of rendering this service. So, the task will need to discern which gift is really from the Spirit.
Here the role of the competent authority (Bishops) becomes paramount, since the gifts are given for the service in the community. They should be scrutinized by those who are invested with the responsibility of shepherding the flock of Christ.
This is because these healing centers are leading to the multiplication of New Religious Movements, which surely, works contrary to the work of the Holy Spirit in building-up the Church of Christ in unity and love. The multiplication of healing centers and activities of the charlatan pastors and priest-healers act against any effort to promote unity in the one faith within the Church of Christ.
The Holy Spirit is a gift of the Risen Lord to His Church. The Holy Spirit accompanies the Church in its evangelizing mission. The Holy Spirit offers every baptized person in Christ the help necessary for his or her salvation to be realized (Vatican II, Ad gentes, no. 4).
The stress is on conversion in Christ. Even when the Spirit works in the hearts of non-Christians and/ or weak Christians (or neophytes), He always seeks the collaboration and guidance of the teaching authority of the Church. So it happened with Cornelius’ experience (cf. Acts 10).
Cornelius was in touch with the Spirit, but when the Spirit decided to communicate the salvation, He required Cornelius to search for the Apostle and hear his words. This experience of the New Testament ecclesial community has a practical consequence for our healing ministry in the present religious context.
Every charism in the Church is linked with the work of evangelization and conversion to the crucified and Risen Christ, in collaboration with the whole Church. In other words, the authenticity of each charism has to be proven, and has to respect the apostolic tradition and the teaching authority of the Church.
So the attitude of the organizers of prayer for healing must be one of obedience to those works of the Spirit who, in the Church calls us to engage together in the marvelous works of mission. The organizers must obey the teaching of the Church for their ministry to be for the good of the common faith in Christ and for believers’ edification in the Mystery of the Risen Lord.
This is how the healing ministry becomes a missionary activity: a kind of “con-celebration” of the Spirit with the ecclesial community, a sacred and liturgical action (cf. Romans 15:16).
In this context, it is correct to stress that the situation in Nigeria which forces people to frequent these healing and miracle centers, is characterized mostly by political instability, economic crises, insecurity of life and property, unemployment, ethnic-cleansings, terrorism, wars, injustice, marginalization, social disorientation, poverty, despair, etc. All these factors spur people to address themselves to the charlatan pastors and false religiosity of the priest-healers, looking for a way to survive in their daily life cf. “Ecclesia in Africa”, nos. 40-41).
It means that in Nigeria today, the Church’s evangelizing mission should face the problem created in the country by the healing ministry and miracle centers. The Church should pay attention to the challenges of the healing ministry, deepen people’s faith and the healing role of the Church’s pastoral activities. This means also that the Church should intensify its evangelizing work for integral human development in the country.
Christianity in Nigeria will lack in its purpose if it continues to grow and develop on the spirituality of workers and seekers of miracles and on the sentimental worship, which offers only temporal consolation to the people. Christianity is far more than a religion of consolation, “miracle-rains”, and sentimental worship.
Nigeria needs a Christianity that is truly rooted in Christ’s Easter-mystery, in which people will encounter His person, dignity and the integral growth of His Body and Spirit, as well as of His culture and His society as a whole. This will pave the way for authentic inculturation and internalization of the Gospel message, the emergence of true spirituality that is authentically Christian and African at the same time.