Missionaries from Africa are working here in Maine. What does that say about us? Well, we need missionaries to bolster our faith because it’s waning. Yes, we used to send missionaries to Africa because they were more in need than we were, but that situation has reversed. There’s a critical shortage of priests here in Maine, but not in Africa — or not in western and central Africa where Father Innocent Okozi had been working. Now he lives in Bridgton, Maine where he is pastor of St. Joseph Parish, which includes St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in nearby Fryeburg where I attend, as well as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, which includes St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Norway, Maine, Our Lady of Ransom Church in Mechanic Falls, and St Mary Church, Oxford, ME, which is open only during the summer.
When I grew up in suburban Boston in the fifties and sixties, our parish alone had half a dozen priests. Now one has to cover multiple parishes here in Maine, even while church buildings are being closed down and sold off all over the state. Young men in New England and in other, more liberal parts of our country are reluctant to devote their lives to the priesthood compared to former times. Seminaries have few applicants. That’s not as much of a problem in conservative Catholic dioceses in the midwest and south, but here the shortage has reached critical levels.
Last month I had an opportunity to talk to Father Innocent about this and other topics. “There was a time when Europe and America used to send a lot of priests to Africa. That was a time when there was a vocation boom on this side,” he said. “And now, Africa is enjoying a similar thing.” Some bishops in Africa are reluctant to send their priests out, but if the Church in Rome looks at its worldwide situation, there’s more of a shortage in the United States than elsewhere, except Europe, which faces a more acute shortage than the United States.
Father Innocent cites two reasons for the shortage: families have fewer children and “their priorities have changed, a lot.” There is less openness to the spiritual life among baby boomers, but the generation following them is seeking that out more, he said. “Because they grew up in a [spiritual] vacuum?” I asked. “Exactly,” he said. Let’s hope he’s right about that.
He came to Maine originally for pre-doctoral work in psychology at UMO, the University of Maine Orono, and checked in with the Bishop in Portland as a courtesy. Soon he was filling in at masses in different parishes and, when he finished his studies, then-Bishop Malone asked him to stay on. He and another Nigerian priest, Father Samuel Madza, SMA were both assigned to Bridgton and Norway, with Father Innocent as Pastor. Father Innocent baptized my twin grandsons last year and Father Sam presided over my nephew’s funeral shortly after.
Christians are persecuted by radical Muslims in Nigeria. Most of the world first became aware of Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram when they kidnapped 200 girls from their school in northern Nigeria last April. The name “Boko Haram" means “western education is forbidden” in Hausa language. The girls have since been sold into slavery or forced to “marry” terrorists. It’s actions are very similar to those of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with whom the United States had recently gone to war.
According the Gatestone Institute, “in the last four years alone, approximately 1,000 Christian churches have been destroyed by Boko Haram and its Muslim sympathizers in a nation that is approximately half Christian half Muslim.” According to Human Rights Watch, Boko Haram killed 2053 Nigerian Christians just in 2014.
Father Innocent was born the oldest of eight children. As he was studying for the priesthood during the late 1980s and early 1990s in southern Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire respectively, his family moved to the Borno State in Northern Nigeria, which has since become a major hotbed for Boko Haram depredations. His father was transferred there by the automobile dealer he worked for and his mother worked in the restaurant industry. Father Innocent visited them during his Christmas vacation and witnessed firsthand what was then just developing.
A local Muslim boy was interested in one of his younger sisters, who invited him to a Christmas service. His father was a local leader. As Father Innocent described it: “[If he attended] not only would [his family] disown him, some family members may poison him.” Then Father Okozi’s mother was warned by the meat sellers from whom she purchased beef for her restaurant that radical Muslims were planning to poison the meat, knowing that Christians purchased a lot of it during Christmas. Then there were plots to attack Catholics as they left midnight masses on Christmas Eve. Shortly thereafter, his family moved away from Borno State to a safer part of the country. “When I read about [what’s going on now], I thank God they moved before things got worse,” he said.It’s ironic that priestly vocations are booming where Christians are persecuted, and waning where they’ve gotten complacent.