Nigerian seminary celebrates centenary with a record number of clerics

Seminarians and leaders of the Nigerian Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, Jan. 13, 2024. (OSV News photo/courtesy Bigard Memorial Seminary)

(OSV News) — The Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, Nigeria, is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2024. Officials say the sheer statistics warrant a big celebration: the institution has 780 clerics — a number not seen in years in seminaries across Europe and the Americas.

Nigerian Christians are one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world, but the rector of the seminary, Father Albert U. Ikpenwa, told OSV News the growth in vocations and of the Church in Nigeria is a function of positive Christian teachings.

“The Church in Nigeria is growing not because of persecution, but because of the Christian values,” he said.

As it celebrates 100 years, Bigard Seminary has “so far produced 4 Cardinals, 14 Archbishops, 35 Bishops and thousands of priests as well as prominent Nigerian, Sierra Leonian and Cameroonian citizens,” its website said.

The Nigerian seminary is an example of an African trend, but not a worldwide one. Globally, in 2022, the number of priests decreased by 142 priests as compared to a year earlier, going from 407,872 to 407,730, according to the most recent Vatican data. Europe suffered the largest drop — 1.7%. At the same time, Africa showed a sustained dynamic of 3.2% growth in a number of priests.

In 1970, European ordinations to the diocesan priesthood represented 55% of the global total. By 2019, there was a significant shift: the number of European ordinations had dropped in half, reducing their share to 23% of the worldwide ordinations. Meanwhile, African ordinations rose to 28%, surpassing Europe for the first time.

Nigeria shines as the beacon of Africa’s surge in religious vocations. Despite having fewer than half the number of Catholics as the United States — 31.5 million, counting for 15% of the country’s population in 2019 — Nigeria has shown a consistent rise in vocations since 1970.

The rector of the seminary in Enugu said that many of “those Christian values are compatible with the good aspects of our culture. They include respect for life at all stages, love of neighbors, family values,” to only name a few, he said.

Father Ikpenwa added that Christian teaching has also exposed some of the negative aspects of Nigerian and African cultures and traditions “such as killing of twins or those accursed by the gods, maltreatment of widows, outcasts,” among other examples.

“Many young people enter the seminary and embrace the priesthood because they want to promote Christian values — the good news of salvation and the good aspects of our culture for the good of the body and soul,” Father Ikpenwa said.

“Evangelization is the key word,” he added.

Bigard’s centenary, marked by various cultural and religious events, reflects the seminary’s enduring legacy and its pivotal role in Nigeria’s religious vocation boom.

During the Jan. 25 commemorative Mass in Igbariam, in Onitsha province, Bishop Godfrey Onah of Nsukka said that seminarians “are to be led by the hand by their formators and teachers towards discerning their vocations, and realizing their individual missions.”

The seminary, he said, “should not be seen as a place of selection but rather a place where men who nurture the desire to serve God are led by the hand by those whom God has sent to lead them.”

Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu was founded in Onitsha in 1922 and opened in 1924. It underwent several moves before settling in its current location in 1951. It was named after benefactors Stephanie and Jeanne Bigard, French mother and daughter, foundresses of the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle, who supplied the fund for the building.

The seminary, which has been led by local rectors since 1970, has played a pivotal role in training priests across various regions and inspiring the creation of additional seminaries.

In 1982, Bigard Seminary was visited by Pope St. John Paul II — the first Nigerian seminary to receive such a guest. The pope praised the seminary’s discipline and academic standards during his address.

“The high number of your seminarians must never be used as a reason for accepting a lower quality of performance,” the pope said then. “Of first importance in the seminary must be friendship with Christ centered on the Eucharist and nurtured especially by prayer and meditation on the word of God.”


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