By Edward Pentin
ROME, APRIL 26, 2012 (Zenit.org).- At a time when state authorities are threatening the conscience rights of Catholics, the idea of a government subsidizing pilgrimages to Rome for their citizens in the interests of improving society and democracy is almost unthinkable.
Yet that is what Nigeria and a growing number of African countries are doing, and with notable success.
Last September, the Nigerian government signed a formal agreement with Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, the pilgrimage office of the Vicariate of Rome, to fund services to pilgrims.
Since then, more than 10,000 Nigerian pilgrims of different Christian denominations have been welcomed by ORP, which has organized visits to shrines and churches, provided catechesis classes, and held special pastoral events such as an ecumenical prayer ceremony. ORP, which is also an organ of the Vatican, provides assistance to the pilgrims in Rome that is then continued during their onward journey to Greece and the Holy Land.
The motive for funding this initiative is a simple one for the Nigerian government. As a country known for its ethnic and political divisions and tensions, the state has recognized that bringing its citizens together on pilgrimage is a way to overcome prejudice and minimize conflict.
The country’s population is roughly half Muslim and half Christian, and has for some time offered government-subsidized pilgrimages to Mecca for its Muslim citizens. But in recent years the government also agreed to help Christians in a similar way, offering grants so they could visit Christianity’s most holy sites. The initiative is seen as particularly worthwhile now, when the terrorist Islamist group Boko Haram is committing atrocities against Christians in the name of Islam.
“State funding for pilgrimages is something that is not easily comprehensible to a Western mind,” explains Father Ceasar Atuire, ORP’s administrative delegate. “But if you look at the way Africa works, religion is considered to be something that helps people to become good citizens. Democracy requires virtue, but if you don’t have virtuous citizens, democracy doesn’t work, so encouraging people to become truly religious is also a way of promoting a civil way of living in democratic society.”
A native of Ghana, Father Atuire points out that Africans are “naturally religious,” a characteristic that is “totally different” to the perception of religion in the West, which is increasingly consigning religious expression to the private sphere.
Many of the Nigerian pilgrims are “simple, poor people," Father Atuire says, for whom these pilgrimages will be the only chance they will have in their lifetime to visit Rome or the Holy Land.
He recalls that one of the “most beautiful moments” since this collaboration began was an ecumenical celebration in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. “It was a moment of prayer, where all the pilgrims, who are not always Catholic, can have a moment of meditation, and also time to pray for unity and peace in Nigeria,” he says.
He notes that most of the pilgrims don’t know each other and yet may have grown up with prejudices against one another’s Christian confession as well as religion.
“Traveling together and seeing we have so much in common, all borne out in Scripture -- that in itself creates a better disposition between people who don’t share the same religious background,” says Father Atuire. “Secondly, during these pilgrimages, Christians have a duty to help their country to become more peaceful, especially now that these extremist Muslims, a small faction in Nigeria, are leading to some degree of resentment toward Muslims. The idea is to try to help them overcome this; Christians are called to charity.”
Seeing the success of the Nigerian initiative, he says his office has received “quite a number” of requests from other African countries such as Togo, Benin, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. He attributes the interest to socio-economic changes taking place on the continent.
“What is happening, especially in West Africa, is that the economy is really growing,” says Father Atuire. “I’m from Ghana where we recorded an 11% growth in the economy last year, creating a big middle class.”
He says much of ORP’s work with the Nigerian pilgrims is evangelization, requiring plenty of research and preparation of materials. Furthermore, as not all pilgrims are fluent in English, the Rome pilgrimage office has asked some Nigerian students studying for the priesthood in Rome to help with translating. The ORP office, working through ecclesial communities on the ground in Nigeria, also carries out checks to ensure pilgrims can obtain visiting visas and are not likely to stay illegally.
He doesn’t foresee African governments necessarily continuing to fund pilgrimages. Malaysia, he notes, did something similar with its Muslim pilgrims but as the country became more prosperous, government aid was withdrawn. But he remains convinced that state support of whatever kind for such initiatives is a worthy investment.
“I’m not in a position to teach anyone anything, but the West would do well to look at this,” says Father Atuire, who has just written an Italian book on pilgrimages called “The Journey of Life – The Pilgrimage." “Religion doesn’t have to live in conflict with the good of society. If we want to face facts, in the Western world a lot of social assistance and social work is carried out by religious organizations where they go beyond what the political system has to offer."
“These religious communities become support groups , they step in where the government system doesn’t really reach,” he adds. “And that is a service to society.”
Despite being the center of Christianity, walking pilgrimages to Rome are not as well known as those to Santiago de Compostela or to Jerusalem, mainly because the pilgrim routes have not been adequately maintained.
But thanks to another new initiative from Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, part of the ancient Via Francigena route that runs from Canterbury to Rome was inaugurated today, allowing pilgrims to walk from Assisi to the Eternal City.
Known as the "Via Francigena of Saint Francis,” the hundred-mile route passes through the beautiful and historically rich Umbrian and Lazio regions via Rieti, an ancient hilltop town 40 miles from Rome. ORP said it had organized the inauguration “in the knowledge that the great spiritual, cultural and artistic heritage which the Way crosses, from Assisi to Rome via Rieti, should be valued and known by many people.”
Father Atuire said in a statement that it is “essential to promote a culture of a journey that allows one to rediscover the simplicity of little things and the beauty of going slow, in harmony with nature.” He added: "This search for harmony, which in the first place involves man with his Creator, God, itself becomes a spiritual quest."
ORP said that not only does the route allow the pilgrim to learn about a part of Italy that is rich in history and spirituality, but it can also be an instrument for those “searching for an answer to the question on the meaning of life.”
The Via Francigena of Saint Francis, which has now been cleared and signposted, is divided into 14 stages. It takes its name from the “poverello of Assisi” who, in 1209, travelled to Rome with 11 companions to request Pope Innocent III’s permission to form a new religious order that was to become the Franciscans.