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Fishers of Men

Joe Humphreys

Cross and Scalpel: Jean-Marie Coquard among the Egba of Yorubaland, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 536 pp, £34.95, ISBN: 978-9780812874
Berengario Cermenati: Among the Ebira of Nigeria, by Edmund M Hogan, Heinemann Educational Books (Nigeria), 288 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-9780811822
Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, by Robert Calderisi, Yale University Press, 304 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300175127

The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the first pope from outside Europe in more than a millennium has drawn fresh attention to the Catholic Church’s role in the developing world. Pope Francis might be seen as an end product of those early European missionaries who stepped ashore in Latin America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries holding the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.

In Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development, Robert Calderisi tells of one such encounter in 1532 when a Spanish priest encouraged invading soldiers to imprison and then execute an emperor of the Inca civilisation because he had dropped a holy book in his presence. Some seven thousand Inca warriors were slaughtered in the subsequent conflict.

Calderisi aims to assess the Catholic Church’s contribution across at least three continents over five hundred years in about two hundred and fifty pages. It’s the sort of task only a World Bank economist would have the confidence to attempt. As a popular and somewhat breezy treatment of the subject, his book stands at the other end of the spectrum to a brace of studies by Edmund M Hogan, Ireland’s foremost missionary historian.

A priest for the Society of African Missions (SMA), for which he has worked extensively in Africa and serves as archivist, Hogan broke with a tradition among religious orders of publishing history as uncritical testimonial when he wrote The Irish Missionary Movement: A Historical Survey almost twenty years ago. It remains a key reference work today, and Hogan’s two latest books can be seen as building on that legacy, tackling two controversial figures with links to his own congregation: French priest-doctor Jean-Marie Coquard (1859-1933) and Italian Berengario Cermenati (1874-1942) who fought to give Catholicism a foothold in central Nigeria.

Taking a worm’s eye view to these relatively obscure religious figures, he paints a complex picture of missionary history that shuns the sort of generalisations Calderisi is after. Nonetheless, Hogan is keen to convey that his work has contemporary relevance, and in telling the story he embraces the modern style of “descriptive or narrative history”. Defining this as going beyond mere chronology or anthropology, he writes: “The purpose of good narrative history, with its interplay between story and imagination, is to produce an experience (rather than a formal understanding) of a time, an event, a milieu, an atmosphere. Its strength lies in its capacity to recreate the past through an authentic experience.”

This approach has its risks: too much invention can undermine credibility. How sure can we be that emotions and dreams attributed to Cermenati, for example, are real? How can events in a remote Nigerian community ninety years ago be traced so precisely? In lesser hands, the reader would lose faith but Hogan is meticulous in his referencing, and authoritative in his grasp of detail. When first introduced, for example, to Cermenati’s political enemy – the British colonial administrator in Nigeria Captain Frederick Byng-Hall ‑ Hogan embarks on a summation of the Byng-Hall lineage that would do Burke’s Peerage proud.

Of the two characters, Coquard is the more likeable but Cermenati the better drawn and Hogan’s account of his power struggles both within and outside the church offers a good insight into missionary life. Just as an army marches on its stomach so too does the preacher. Cermenati, we learn, never left home without his trusty chef, and his correspondence is littered with references to yams and fufu, a local staple.

The tactics of the Catholic Church in winning hearts and minds are laid bare. Schools are used as a gateway to filling pews on a Sunday. A ploy pioneered with great effect by the Holy Ghost Father Bishop Joseph Shanahan is imitated by Cermenati, with mixed results. Hogan also charts how the early missionaries used the colonial administration where possible. When a Catholic officer took over at the British consulate, Cermenati encouraged him to come down hard on unorthodox Protestant denominations whose noisy “hand clapping” caused offence. Hogan doesn’t shy away from the sectarian nature of such early missionary work. He writes:

It must be said that competition between religious denominations was one of the driving forces of the great nineteenth century Christian missionary movement. The fear that Protestantism might win the day in these new ‘untilled fields’ loomed large in the Catholic promotional literature. Catholics were anxious to catch up. Raising the spectre of Protestant victory was often as effective in loosening purse-strings and attracting recruits as images of the ‘poor benighted African’ wallowing in paganism. In ‘letters from the missions’, published in the journals of Catholic mission fund-raising agencies, accounts of the perfidy of Protestant missionaries abound.

Hogan is also insightful on the cultural differences within Catholicism. Coquard, who was born in Brittany and began his working life as a merchant sailor, was an avid reader of Le Petit Messager, one of the church’s propaganda sheets, and came to religious life with a more internationalist outlook than the average Irish missionary. “Whereas bishops and diocesan clergy in Ireland generally regarded the missionary movement as a ‘foreign product’, depriving the Irish Church of funds and personnel that could be best used at home or for the Irish Diaspora, in France (and especially Nantes), bishops and secular clergy saw the missionary movement as integral to their diocesan work,” Hogan explains.

Although fifteen years younger, Coquard was the more modern missionary, not just preaching but bringing practical skills to his ministry. A self-taught surgeon, he set up a hospital in Abeokuta, forty miles north of Lagos, which would later be staffed by Irish priests and nuns. “Coquard holds the record for the longest missionary tour in the SMA, the twenty-five years between 1908 and his death in 1933 easily beating his nearest rival, William Lumley, an Irishman who spent a tour of eighteen unbroken years in Northern Nigeria,” notes Hogan.

Cermenati was another important figure in the SMAs – hence Hogan’s particular interest – but the author doesn’t hold back on his flaws. The Italian was an admirer of Mussolini and had both fascist and fantasist tendencies. “His object was less the service of a community than the conquest of a people.” Hogan also gives a rarely heard account of the British colonial attitude to Catholic missionary priests. One British official in Nigeria describes them as “narrow-minded” with a low standard of education: “The outlook of all of them is limited and they have only one aim, and that is to obtain converts.” As Hogan has previously documented, however, British attitudes to the church’s work typically came from an imperialist and particularly anti-Irish stance; early missionaries were often suspected of having republican or anti-colonial sympathies.

Hogan tries to represent the African view from this period of history, although the absence of written records no doubt hampered his task. At times he also stands accused of laying the “narrative history” on a bit thick. On one occasion, for example, he describes how Cermenati and Byng-Hall “emerged from the trenches” and that the former “sues for peace” when in actual fact they met for tea and compromised on a minor enough point of disagreement.

As for Calderisi, a Canadian economist and lecturer, he too writes as an insider of sorts. Describing himself as “a committed but by no means uncritical Catholic”, he confesses that he stopped practising for about a decade in protest at Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s controversial encyclical on human reproduction.

Well-connected in the diplomatic circuit, he meets a huge array of church personnel from cardinals to lay volunteers in the book. Along the way, he interviews Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin about his role as papal spokesman at the1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

A strong point for Calderisi is his ability to deal with figures. The Catholic Church, he tells us, operates 140,000 schools, 5,500 hospitals, 18,000 clinics, 16,000 homes for the elderly and handicapped, 10,000 orphanages, 12,000 nurseries, and 37,000 centres of informal education. Approximately 65 per cent of Catholic hospitals are located in developing countries and in some African countries the church provides 30-50 per cent of basic health and education services.

Bringing his economist’s perspective to holy work, he suggests the church should focus more on inequality rather than just poverty, and he calls for a new partnership with commerce. Catholic organisations, he says, should “join forces with business people who see enterprise – or ‘making the market work for the poor’ – as a key part of fighting poverty”.

Where he is on less sure footing is making claims about the church’s political or developmental legacy. A host of statements are advanced, purporting to build a picture of the church’s benign influence on the world. “Pope John Paul helped avert a major war between Chile and Argentina that could have set their development back for decades.” Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, “the politician who made the greatest single contribution to reducing poverty in Brazil as president in 2003-10, was a product of … Catholic trade unions”. The UN Declaration of Human Rights was “laced with Roman Catholic social philosophy”. And so it goes on. But when he gets to the punch line it’s disappointing watery:

Overall, while it is difficult to prove by conventional methods, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. With the possible exception of the central ministry of education of the People’s Republic of China (because of the sheer numbers involved), and despite its obtuseness on the role of the market and family planning, the Catholic Church has probably lifted more people out of poverty than any other organisation in history.

Some of Calderisi’s historical research may also raise an eyebrow or two. Was John XXIII really “affable, outspoken, and ready to set the cat among the pigeons” while also being “a bon vivant, down to earth, and capable of seeing the ridiculous in life”? At times intelligent and inspired, Earthly Mission is also self-indulgent and infuriating ‑ a bit like the Catholic Church itself. In a couple of pages, Calderisi has jumped from a worthy account of the 1931 papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno to a banal exchange he had with a Muslim taxi driver in Paris that seems to serve no other purpose than to reinforce the impression that he travels a lot.

For all that, however, certain qualities shine through, especially in his encounters with what might be called ordinary Catholic Church members across the developing world, like the priest whose life had been repeatedly threatened in El Salvador because of his work in social justice. The author asked him how he measured his contribution over decades of service. “Like others I met, he answered simply: ‘I don’t think in those terms. I’ve just tried to be helpful.’”

Or like the nun Calderisi met in Chile who is fighting against HIV/AIDS by providing a full range of contraceptive services to locals despite objections from her parish priest. The author describes how she went to her pastor to seek his formal protection and he humoured her on repeated visits without ever giving her the stamp of approval she’d been looking for. Eventually, she told Calderisi: “I got the message. He didn’t want to say yes or no to what I was doing.”

Or like the priest in Bolivia who was driven out of the country by the army in the late 1960s and still feels guilty he never returned to support his oppressed colleagues. “We drive through life with our low beams on,” he told the author. “Back then I wanted to change the world. Now I’m just trying to prevent the world from changing me.”

It is in is dealing with the personal that Hogan’s books excel too, particularly in describing the cruelty of religious orders to individuals like Cermenati and Coquard. Despite the fact that he had dedicated his life to his church, it eventually turned against Cermenati; rumours spread that he was “a drunkard” – without evidence, Hogan points out – and he was recalled to Italy for an inglorious retirement.

Bishop Joseph Shanahan faced a similar fate when he was accused of getting too friendly with the young nuns who doted on him like a father. (Again, the charges were without any proof and were later withdrawn, as recounted by the late Desmond Forristal in The Second Burial of Bishop Shanahan.) For Coquard, the first bout of sniping came in 1897. “The criticism was in the form of rumours that circulated in Lagos claiming he was engaging in surgical procedures involving women that might well be unseemly and inappropriate,” Hogan writes. “The source of the rumours appears to have been some of his own confreres in Lagos who either through jealousy or loose talk – more likely the latter – did not altogether approve the notion of consecrated men engaging in obstetrical work, nor rejoice in Coquard’s celebrity.”

Acting on the complaints, the local bishop ordered Coquard to discontinue obstetrics. Such diktats broke many a lesser priest but “there is no evidence that Coquard, who … denied any wrongdoing, took the slightest notice of this prohibition.”

There’s poignancy too in Hogan’s passing references to the many priests and nuns – none of them household names ‑ who gave their lives to the cause. Among them was Sister Consolata, born Bridget Murphy in Co Cork, who was the first member of the Missionary Sisters of our Lady of the Apostles to arrive in Abeokuta in 1936. She worked for twenty-one years as a nurse at the hospital, dying from malaria on August 8th, 1857 aged fifty-four. Today, in Abeokuta’s Lantoro cemetery, you will find a headstone with her name on it.

Joe Humphreys is a journalist with The Irish Times and author of God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World, publihsed by New Island.



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