Taken from the Latin Mass Society's February 2002 Newsletter.
By Michael Davies
In August 2001 I received a letter from Nigeria. It came from a young Nigerian priest, Father Evaristus Eshiowu. He explained that reading some of my books in 1998 had started him on his journey to tradition. While undertaking higher studies in the USA he was able to assist at the traditional Mass, and, with the permission of his bishop, he entered the Fraternity of St. Peter. When he returned to Nigeria he asked his bishop for permission to establish the traditional Mass and, as he expressed it in his letter, “he is as enthusiastic as myself at seeing the Latin Mass back on the altar in his diocese.” The bishop’s enthusiasm extended to the length of giving Father Evaristus the land on which to build a church for the exclusive celebration of the Traditional Mass. Although Father Evaristus had been offering the Tridentine Mass since 1999, he had arranged for an official inaugural Mass to take place on 8 December 2001, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Father Arnaud Devillers, Superior General of the Fraternity of St. Peter had agreed to come to Nigeria to celebrate the Mass, and Father Evaristus wished me to come to establish Una Voce in Nigeria on the same day. He also expressed the hope that Una Voce would be able to raise some money to help with the construction of his church.
I must admit that I was not too enthusiastic about the idea. I discovered that I would have to endure a comprehensive series of inoculations for such maladies as Yellow Fever, Polio. & Hepatitis A, not to mention the necessity of taking far from tasty and very expensive anti-malarial tablets. I was also warned that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous countries in Africa to visit. Nonetheless I decided to go rather than disappoint so enthusiastic a young priest
When I arrived at Heathrow airport on Tuesday 4 December I must confess that I felt a little apprehensive when I saw an apparently endless queue of Nigerians each of whom had at least four large cases, not to mention large cardboard boxes tied with string. How, I wondered, would the 747 take off with so much luggage, and not a single empty seat in the coach class? It did take off, however, at 22.15, and arrived in Lagos at about 06.15. I waited almost an hour for my case, and began to fear that it had been lost when I was approached by a gentleman who asked whether I was Michael Davies. His name was Patrick and he had come to meet me.
My case eventually arrived, and Patrick picked it up and we set off for the customs and immigration. “This is a friend of mine,” said Patrick and we passed straight through without stopping, and received several salutes. I learned later that Patrick is a well-known TV presenter. I was greeted by Father Evaristus and Father Devillers, we had some breakfast and set off by car for Imo State.
Our journey took nine hours and we were driven by a member of Father Evaristus’s traditionalist flock, a vehicle mechanic by profession, who could certainly be taken on by any formula one racing team. The roads we travelled on were pitted with potholes, and there seemed to be no concept of driving on any particular side of the road. When the potholes appeared drivers would simply swerve to the other side without slowing down or showing any awareness of oncoming traffic. We encountered long streams of commercial vehicles and also buses large and small, all of them packed to bursting point. Most of them had pictures of Our Lord or Our Lady or St. Michael painted on them, together with such statements as “Jesus is my Lord” “Trust in Mary”, “Christ the King” or the one that I found most pertinent— “Examine your conscience,” something which I did repeatedly throughout the journey. No retreat master has ever focussed my mind on Judgement Day as vividly as the driver of Father Evaristus.
When we eventually arrived in Imo State, Father Evaristus warned Father Devillers and me that we would attract a lot of attention as we would be the first white people that the younger generation would have seen. He was correct. Whenever the car slowed down as we passed through a town or village smiling faces would be pressed against the windows of the car, hands would wave, and the words “white man” were shouted in amazed tones in Igbo. During the Biafran war (1967-1970) the Irish priests had, to their great credit, stayed with their flocks, and were promptly expelled by the tolerant, peace loving Muslims after their victory.
Before going to the retreat centre where we would be staying, Father Devillers and I were taken by Father Evaristus to meet his bishop, the epitome of the culture and spirituality one expects to find in a Catholic prelate. He greeted us most warmly and said that we must visit him during our stay. When we arrived at the retreat centre some very Catholic looking nuns welcomed us. I was somewhat surprised that there was no mosquito net upon my bed, but was informed that this was the dry season and that there were no mosquitoes—so much for the $75 I had spent on anti-malarial tablets!
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception was on Saturday, and in the two intervening days Father Evaristus took us to meet some priest friends and to the shrine of Our Lady where the Saturday Mass would be celebrated. The two priests offered their Masses at the shrine on Thursday and Friday. I was extremely impressed by the acolytes. The boys had been trained to perfection. It is at this shrine that Father Evaristus will build his church. The foundations have already been dug.
I asked Father Evaristus if he would take me to visit a Catholic primary school. Having been a primary school teacher for thirty years I wished to compare a Nigerian school with a British one. My arrival at the school almost caused a riot, none of the children and few of the teachers having seen a white man before. The children wore smart yellow and blue uniforms, were very lively and very polite. I visited the class for eleven year olds, the age group that I taught, and was surprised to find that in mathematics they were about two years ahead of British children of their age. Their English was also of an excellent standard, and the religion that they were being taught would have been over the heads of many Catholic high school children in Britain. It made me sad to find that each child had only two old and well-worn textbooks, one for Mathematics and one for English, and a single exercise book was used for every subject. I was even sadder to find that there were no reading books in the school, not one. It would be a wonderful gesture if Catholics from English-speaking countries could send some books to this school, books that their own children no longer use. I would suggest stories, fairy tales, lives of saints, traditional religious text books, books about animals, geography - anything, in fact, that would interest children of eleven and below. Books for five and six year olds would be particularly useful. They should be sent to Father Evaristus by surface mail, airmail prices are prohibitive, and I would suggest small parcels with no more than about half a dozen well-packed books in each. Just imagine what an impact it would make on this school if a hundred readers responded to this appeal and sent half a dozen books each.
That evening the two priests and I were invited to dinner with the bishop. He thanked Father Devillers and me most profusely for encouraging Father Evaristus with his important apostolate.
On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, while on our way to the shrine we saw hundreds of girls going to their high schools, all in very smart and very distinctive uniforms.
I asked Father Evaristus why there were no boys on the way to school. He explained that very few boys go on to high school. They have to work to help support their families. In Nigeria there is no state welfare, no state medical provision, no state pensions. It is up to every family to provide for its poor, sick, or elderly members. In every township or village where the traffic slows down, boys from the age of twelve upwards attempt to clean windscreens or sell anything from fruit, nuts, or bread to Coca-Cola. On the steep hillside near the retreat house where I stayed young boys, and sometimes girls, spent all the daylight hours digging stones out of the hillside, carrying them in small baskets up the hill to the roadside, pouring them into larger baskets to be collected, and then descending the hillside once more. They do this almost every day throughout the year with the exception of the most important holy days, and, as the years pass, they have to descend lower and lower to excavate the stones which are, incidentally, placed in the trenches dug for the foundations of new buildings. Large piles of these stones lay beside the foundations of Father Evaristus’s church. Whenever we passed these boys they ran up to our car waving and smiling, shouting: “Father, Father!” when they saw the priests, and “Whiteman, whiteman!” when they saw Father Devillers and me.”
We arrived at the shrine two hours before the Mass was due to begin. At least five hundred of the faithful (almost all ladies) had already gathered and were saying the Rosary. In Nigeria a Rosary consists of fifteen decades. The sound of plain chant could be heard, and a few hundred yards away I found a choir (almost all ladies) practising the Gloria. Father Devillers and I went to listen to them, which seemed to please them very much. They told us of the eagerness with which they were waiting to sing at the Mass. We were photographed with them. Nigerians enjoy having their photograph taken. Members of Father Evaristus’s family arrived. He introduced us to them and we had a photo taken. With every minute that passed more people arrived for the Mass, the vast majority being ladies. Their husbands and sons had to work. Three Monsignori and some diocesan priests also arrived, as well as a television crew, and at last the Mass began. The congregation had grown to about 2,500 most of whom were outside the shrine, but this did not pose a problem as it has only a roof and no walls. Awnings had been set up to protect the faithful from the sun.
The Mass was one of the moving events of my entire life. I have never heard singing like it—even at Chartres. The entire congregation sang the ordinary in perfect harmony, many with tears in their eyes. The distribution of Holy Communion took almost an hour, a third priest assisted Father Devillers and Father Evaristus. During the distribution the choir sang in Latin and in their own language, with the full participation of the congregation. The Igbo hymns, all in honour of our lady, were exceptionally beautiful, and also sung in perfect harmony. I can certainly affirm that I have never witnessed greater religious fervour and devotion than I experienced at this Mass. The Igbo are a people whose Catholic faith means more to them than anything in life.
After the Mass a ceremony of welcome took place, presided over by a chief with a very good sense of humour. Representatives from five dioceses read carefully prepared formal addresses of welcome to Father Devillers and myself. The representatives listed the abuses spreading throughout many dioceses in Nigeria which their Catholic instinct, what Dietrich von Hildebrand would have called their sensus Catholicus, told them were unacceptable during the Mass. They complained of dancing during the Mass, clapping, the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, the replacement of Catholic hymns by Protestant Pentecostal choruses, standing for Holy Communion, Communion in the hand, Communion distributed by laymen, standing for the reception of Communion, standing during the consecration, the removal of statues from churches, general absolution replacing individual confession. It is heartbreaking to see the faith of these devout Catholics being undermined by these abuses. For Father Evaristus there is only one viable solution—return to the traditional Mass.
I had an hour long meeting with representatives from the different dioceses, explaining to them how to establish Una Voce chapters in their dioceses and how to establish a national organisation. It may well be that in the years to come Nigeria will be sending traditional priests to the countries of the first world. It could certainly be a great source of vocations. Father Devillers interviewed two potential candidates for his seminary during our stay.
I was very sorry when the time came for me to leave Imo State and the most fervent Catholics it has ever been my privilege to meet. Almost everyone I met asked me to return, and I promised to do so if the dedication of the church comes before October 2003 when I shall be resigning as President of Una Voce. I promised Father Evaristus that I would do all in my power to help him raise the money for the construction of his church. The credibility of the newly established traditional movement in Nigeria depends on its speedy completion. I appeal to every member of Una Voce to send a donation for this purpose, no matter how small, but a few large donations would make a great difference. I am convinced that the apostolate of Father Evaristus is of very great importance to our movement, and I beg you to be generous—and generous too with your prayers.