Edwin Mary Akaedu walks with a cane in one hand and a rosary in the other as he goes from the church to the small room he lives in on the property of Nne Enyemaka Shrine in Umuaka, Nigeria. I interviewed him on the Feast of the Assumption, during a parish party celebrating the first traditional ordination in Nigeria in over forty years, which I wrote about elsewhere.—MS
How well known is the Latin Mass here in Nigeria?
The majority of Catholics don’t know about it, and the bishops and priests are doing nothing to help them. I use myself as an example: I was baptized in the extraordinary form and confirmed in it. I made my first holy communion in it. At the time the transition was taking place, I noticed the difference. But after some time I completely forgot the old form.
What brought you back to the Latin Mass, then?
When the transition took place, there was a sense of orderliness in the Mass. The hymns were more Catholic, though they were translated into the vernacular. There was some serenity in the conduct of the new Mass. But as time progressed, this began to change. It became more evangelical,
more Pentecostal, very noisy, very loud. Things which we Catholics are not. For instance, during the Lenten period I went to Mass in one of the cathedrals. There was beating and dancing in the church. So at the end of the Mass I went to the priest who was in charge, and asked him, “Why this thing in the church during this period?” He couldn’t give me an answer. I said, “Tradition has it that during the Lenten period, all the musical instruments will go silent.” It struck me. I started looking for a church where the Mass is conducted in a more quiet way.
There was another incident that happened. Everybody was becoming more religious because of the impression that the world was ending in the year 2000. There was all kind of devotion to Our Mother Mary, and personally I love devotion to Our Mother Mary, so I was drawn to it like any other person. We got ourselves together, to do a consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. During this period, Fr. Evaristus came from America. He was also devoted to Mother Mary and had a big interest in that movement for the consecration of ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Our members beckoned him to be our chaplain, which he accepted. So in the process we became closer to him. He then introduced us to this two thousand Hail Mary Devotion.
How often did you say it?
Once a month. We gather here once a month to say the prayer.
When do you begin?
We start about 8:00 p.m. and it would go to 3:00 a.m., concluding with the Mass, the traditional Latin Mass. That was the first time that it happened. We never understood what he was doing.
So the first time you saw the Latin Mass again was after praying the Hail Mary two thousand times?
Yes. So gradually he started explaining to us what the traditional Latin Mass was all about, and from there many people who were already aware of the abuses in the new Mass all over Nigeria, in one way or another started coming to this place when they heard about his presence and that something different from what was in vogue was happening here. He then introduced us to Una Voce International. He said that we should organize and form the Ecclesia Dei Society of Nigeria. At that time, I was elected the president. With that, our eyes opened. We found our joy in Latin. The Mass was quiet, good, and acceptable. We were very happy.
Unfortunately, the priests in our parishes were hostile. They threatened us and thought we had gone out of the Church. There was all kinds of blackmail against those who were coming. But because of the joy that we found in the Mass, we never got tired. We kept coming. And today with the ordination Mass attended by the bishop and all the priests, you see that effort has been rewarded. Even those who are interested in the ordinary form are getting fed up with the kinds of things that are going on in the Church.
How did the Biafran War affect the implementation of the new Mass?
Before the war, most of the priests were white missionaries. Almost everywhere you have the white missionaries and the traditional Latin Mass. People were quite okay; they were enthusiastic. Confession was popular. If you were not Catholic in Igboland, you were looked on as if something is wrong with you. When the war came, a lot of people were driven into hiding. Hunger was there. Massacres. The trauma of murder and the threat of the invading forces killing everybody.
After the war, the government controlled by the Muslims took away all the schools. They sent back all the missionaries. And in this short period of time, the Church was left in the hands of a few indigenous priests. It was hard for them to satisfy all the needs of the people.
At that time, we didn’t even know what Vatican II was. We didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly, they started introducing changes. For instance, before that time we were told that whenever we do the Glory Be—to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit—we must sign ourselves. I still remember vividly the day I came to the Church and they said, “It is no longer necessary to sign yourself. You just need to bend a little bit.” Up to then, that had been the wrong thing, and the correct thing was to sign myself. Now very few people can remember to bend their head or genuflect. I saw when that was changed in the Church. When the altar was changed, I also saw that, but I didn’t know why they were changing it. I just saw the altar and the priest instead of facing the tabernacle was facing the people. We never knew why they were doing it, but we were taught to respect the priest and respect the Church, so whatever they told us, we believed.
What about the idea of inculturation?
Usually, the Igbo man is too eager to imitate the West. He travels a lot, and wherever he goes, he copies the culture. It is a kind of pride for the Igbo man to say, “I’ve been to London. I’ve been to America.” He must come home and dress like them. An Igbo man copies, so whatever happens in the West automatically affects us here. If in the West you go to church and see a woman with her hair uncovered, the Igbo man will have a prejudice against it and ask the Igbo woman to dress like the white one does. Look at our dressing. Everything is Western.
This also affected our worship. The Igbo priests would travel outside and come home with a new idea, and everyone would buy it. The idea of inculturation was not native. It was introduced. Like every Western fashion, it was quickly taken up by everyone. We had to localize things. We were changing hymns. We were changing from organ to local musical instruments. Things soon got out of hand, completely out of hand! Sometimes you would go to church and never guess that it was Catholic. People got fed up, but we did not know what to do. We never knew there was an alternative.
In such a situation, Fr. Evaristus was a revolutionary. He brought the culture of the Church back to Nigeria. It is a wonderful thing he did—he and Bishop Ochiaga. It was a marvelous thing. The rest of the Catholic Church in Nigeria was saying no. Because Bishop Ochiaga allowed this, they were attacking him at the bishops’ conference. They were angry with him. Why did he allow this thing to come here? If it had not been the case that Ochiaga was known in Nigeria as someone very sound and decent in his Catholicism, it would have ended differently. They respected him because he is a very disciplined Catholic. That led them to remain quiet.
We are very happy that people are now beginning to know that there is an alternative. What I am telling you, people may not realize in the West. Catholic professors in the university here do not know about traditional Catholicism. You may be surprised. Educated as they are, they don’t know what traditional Catholicism is all about. They can’t understand. They think we are dividing the Church. They call us Lefevbrites, followers of Marcel Lefebvre, and say we are not Catholics. Summorum Pontificum has not been exposed to the people. It is a big battle here. We are trying to educate the people so they realize that this is Catholic.
Is the average priest or bishop in Nigeria becoming more sympathetic to the Latin Mass?
On the whole, they hate the Latin Mass. I can certainly say that. However, some of them are sympathetic. If I use Orlu Diocese as an example, the presence of Ochiaga is helping things a lot. He ordained almost all the priests in the diocese, so they cannot look him in the face and say no to what he likes. Ochiaga ordained the currently reigning bishop a priest, so he cannot say no to Ochiaga. As of now, the presence of Ochiaga is moderating things. We can hardly know what will happen to this diocese when he is no more, but we are trying to reach out to priests to explain things. Some of them are sympathetic, but they do not want to come and learn the Mass. They just don’t want to learn it. In other dioceses, it is a different ballgame altogether. There is outright hostility. The answer is always no. Most of them do not even want to hear that there are priests who want to learn this Mass. If you venture, you are punished.
When you encountered the Latin Mass again for the first time, what most struck you about it?
That event I told you about, when there was loud music during the Lenten period, struck me greatly. It affected my whole person. The use of instruments was an embarrassment to me. When I saw a Mass that was very quiet, I had a rest of mind. Before that, if I would go to the new Mass, I would come home angry. Then I came to this one, and I would go home a happy person. I saw that devotion to Mary was emphasized here. There was also talking about sin. The nature of sin was being emphasized. I was told: This is the right way to live, this is what God wants. We were taught the faith afresh and in a better way. I thought: If I follow this route, I will make heaven.
Today the Church does not tell you in very clear language that this act is a sin. It doesn’t do it. Instead, everything goes, everything goes! I know people who attend the new Mass who are even patronizing the Pentecostal churches when they are sick or when they have problems. I mean, nobody is troubled by that! Here the dos and don’ts are emphasized. You are either here or you are there. In the Church today they’re trying to reconcile evil and good, which is an impossible mission. It is an impossible mission. It cannot be achieved. Here they tell you, “If you do this, you will go to hell.” It is clear. I think we should be happy about that.
What do you say to those curious about the Latin Mass?
The first step is to be devoted to the Mother Mary. Once you are devoted sincerely to Mother Mary, she will draw you to the Latin Mass. I attribute my being devoted to the Latin Mass to her. She drew me to this place, and I am happy about it. Fr. Evaristus is highly devoted to Mother Mary. I think it was the reason for his success, because he was heavily persecuted.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.