A NIGERIAN Catholic priest in Brisbane has written a heartfelt book about his experiences working in a suburban Australian church, including dealing with culture shock and bridging cultural barriers.
“At times, having a foreign priest is a source of tension for some parishioners who have not done much with people from other countries, particularly Africa,” Fr Emmanuel Aguiyi, who is parish priest in Brisbane’s Alexandra Hills-Capalaba parish, and dean of Redland-Bayside Deanery, said.
He has spent the past 18 months distilling earlier essays and writing afresh, and in A Contemporary Missionary delivers a lively memoir that is both sharp and an educative view of highly-secularised modern Australia – but nonetheless a place with a spiritual hunger.
“I’ve had the wonderful experience of walking in a culture that is completely different to my original culture, and I’ve witnessed the challenges, the joy, and I think it’s worth sharing,” he said.
“And I thought if parishioners could hear from a typical priest who had come from overseas they would begin to understand the mindset of such priests.”
Fr Aguiyi was part of the second intake of Nigerian missionaries sent to serve in south-east Queensland because of a shortage of priests.
It was an arrangement initiated by former Brisbane Archbishop John Bathersby in 2006, and since then more than a dozen priests have arrived from Nigeria’s Umuahia diocese.
During that time Nigerian seminarians with several years’ training have also been sent to complete their training at Queensland’s Holy Spirit Seminary in Brisbane.
Early in the book, Fr Aguiyi takes aim at a 2011 Sydney Morning Herald story in which the co-founder of the group Catholics for Ministry Paul Collins describes efforts to “import” overseas priests from Nigeria, India and the Philippines as an “imminent disaster”.
“Many of these foreign priests are inexperienced and come from cultures that are tribal and patriarchal,” Dr Collins wrote.
“They have little or no comprehension of the kind of faith challenges that face Catholics living in a secular, individualistic consumerist culture and that places a strong emphasis on equality, women’s rights, and co-responsibility between clergy and lay people.”
Fr Aguiyi provides a candid response: “Possibly, in the eyes of Paul Collins, this is an academic way of claiming that priests (from the countries mentioned above) are not only morons, but also unintelligent primitives who can neither understand nor comprehend the challenges of today’s modern societies.
“But until people with a similar mindset to Paul Collins heal themselves of their biases, my background as an African would continue to challenge my mission,” he wrote.
Fr Aguiyi was born in 1971, a year after the Nigerian civil war ended.
Missionary priests had been forced out his country, and so it gave rise to a new interest in young men entering into the vocation of priesthood and religious life.
He came to Australia already with 11 years’ experience as a parish priest and seminary rector, yet throughout his book he recalls myriad strange encounters and exchanges that confused and frustrated and tested his spirit.
“It’s beyond culture shock,” Fr Aguiyi said.
“The values in Australia are mostly opposite to the core values of my society.
“As a communal culture we look out for each other, the community has a say and gets involved in everybody’s business and we don’t take offence at it.
“I arrive in Australia and the prime values are privacy and independence.”
On his first Sunday in a new parish, Fr Aguiyi writes that morning tea was organised after Mass and the parish priest was on hand to introduce him to everyone.
“It was not long before I discovered that I was not the only stranger who needed an introduction,” he wrote. “In fact, the parish priest was introducing his parishioners more to each other than he was introducing me to them.
“Surprisingly most of his parishioners did not know each other, at least by name.”
Even after many years, Fr Aguiyi admitted that he still didn’t know the neighbours in his suburban street – a fact brought to the forefront when a neighbour taking an afternoon walk discovered a corpse near his home.
“In a typical African setting, the community would likely have gathered, either as a group or as concerned individuals, to discuss the matter,” he wrote.
Instead there was no gathering of the neighbours; Fr Aguiyi had to scan the newspapers and the Internet to find out what had happened.
Through many encounters, Fr Aguiyi said he may have often felt alone, but he was not lonely.
“Believing that I am alone with Christ, rather than lonely each time I have no company, has become a way of life and spirituality for me,” he wrote. “I really believe that it has been a profound value in my life.”
However, he said he had not stopped wondering “why presbyteries are often big houses; maybe the economics of building them big is good, but definitely not the psychology”.
“I do feel at home each time I visit the homes of my friends and parishioners who otherwise would have been perfect strangers to me,” he said.
It is not contained in his book, but Fr Aguiyi’s parish newsletter reveals his own cultural understanding of life in secular Australia, and how he is facing the missionary challenge.
He invites his parishioners to attend a barbecue stall at the local Bunnings store – which he describes as “an opportunity to evangelise and show ourselves for whom we really are – Children of God who work so hard to make our communities better places”.
“Of course it is no longer pastorally efficient for us to wait in our churches and attend only those who come to us,” Fr Aguiyi wrote.
“We will be preaching with our presence rather than with our mouths. In this ministry, a smiling face is more effective than a shouting voice.”
Fr Aguiyi sees a time when he will return to Nigeria, richer for his experience as a suburban Australian priest.
A Contemporary Missionary is dedicated to Fr Aguiyi’s mother who died last year.
“She planted the seed of faith in me and nurtured it,” he said.
A Contemporary Missionary is available from www.morningstarpublishing.net.au; St Paul’s Bookshop Brisbane; Alexandra Hills-Capalaba parish office, Alexandria Hills; or by contacting Fr Emmanuel Aguiyi at firstname.lastname@example.org The book costs $24.95.