There has been a debate on the contribution (or lack of it) of European Christian Missionaries to the development and self-understanding of Africans since the publication of the book, The mission on Trial (1977). Some acute observers of the history of ideas have recently reopened the same debate on a local level with particular reference to the Church in Nigeria. A quarter years after the first centenary of the coming of the first missionary heralds of the Gospel in Eastern Nigerian in 1885 is a landmark. In the history of the universal Church, it is a brief period. In the history of evangelization in the Eastern part of Nigeria, it is a vital period. The faltering steps of early days have gradually given way to a robust and fast-growing community of faith, with elements of joys and sorrows, problems and plans, the successes and failures. It helps us to understand better the growth of social, intellectual, political and material development brought to the people of the area by this Church.
The social, cultural and political problems hampering Nigeria’s quest for unity and appropriate human development have become major staples of contemporary concern of the Church in Nigeria (Obinna, 1995).
The multi-dimensional aspects of development in the
various facets of the Nigerian Society have received the attention of the
Church and still beckon on the Church for dialogue, critical and constructive
dynamism if the church must continue to be relevant today and into the future.
Indeed the history of the Church in Nigeria does not make full appreciative
sense without a decisive entry for the better into the economic, cultural and
socio-political development of the nation (Onwuanibe, 1995). Only with such
vigorous engagement for the authentic progress and development of the nation
can the Church’s message be welcome in the seeking of solutions to emergent
development problems facing the country. Ultimately, human development is about
the realization of potential. It is about what people can do and what they can
become–their capabilities and about the freedom they have to exercise real
choices in their lives.
The Holy Ghost Fathers had been in Eastern Nigerian for about eighty-five years. Not until after the Nigeria-Biafra war has their influence been somewhat minimized. Arriving originally from France in 1885, the Roman Catholic Missionaries exerted a considerable influence on the lives of the people of the region far out of proportion to their number. They became a factor to reckon with in the history of the development of the region.
The former Eastern Nigeria has been carved out into nine separate States of Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, Akwa-Ibom, Cross-River, Rivers and Bayelsa. The missionary efforts of the Holy Ghost Congregation covered the above-mentioned areas with their take-off point at Onitsha, Anambra State. There were only four missionaries who arrived at Onitsha in 1885. By 1918, there were a total of thirty-two Roman Catholic missionaries—Priests, Brothers and Sisters. The beginning of the Church in Nigeria was slow and arduous, but persistent as those great missionaries such as Fr. Leon Alexander Lejeune, Monsignor Pierre Le Berre, Fr. Joseph Lutz, Fr. Horne, Brothers Hermas and Jean-Gotto, Mr. Charles Townsend and Bishop Shanahan courageously made their way into the hinterland to bring the light of Christian faith in Nigeria especially in Eastern Nigeria in the early 1900s (Onwuanibe, 1995, 66). The missionary activities continued to spread to reach the remote part of Igboland, Efikland and other parts of Eastern Nigeria.
The impact of the Church can be felt in the dismantling of inhuman practices and institutions such as slavery, human sacrifice, killing of twins, and in the establishment of Christian villages which eventually gave way to schools for formal education. Translation of the Gospel into the vernacular languages and the production of catechisms in vernacular languages showed the good sense of recognizing the native culture, for language or tongue is a main vehicle of culture and development. Many local customs were banned as “pagan” and there is need today for inculturation in terms of appraising and recognizing good traditional values (Onwuanibe, 1995).
By building schools which range from the primary to secondary levels the Church recognized
the importance of education in development.
The Church has also had a programme of medical, social and personality
development. She lays great emphasis especially through the voices of recent
ecclesiastical hierarchy on the determining role of a just and widespread
development for all the corners of the
globe. She sees this condition as a prerequisite for world
peace via international solidarity. She even gives development a new name: peace (Paul VI, 1967). The Church therefore stresses on the true condition of integral development, one that does not disfigure the human person by a neglect of any of the important constituents of his personality.