The Making of a Bishop

Lessons from Ghana

No one seemed more surprised than Fr. Dominic at the letter Pope Benedict XVI sent to my Brooklyn parish last December. The pope asked the fifty-four-year-old Ghanaian priest, who had served at St. Columba Church for nearly four years while studying at Fordham University, to be the bishop of a new diocese in his homeland.

Fr. Dominic Yeboah Nyarko was known in the parish as quiet, intelligent, and hardworking, but not the politically attuned sort I would have imagined as a bishop. Yet he came up with a motto (“God’s grace is enough”), went to the Vatican to greet the pope, came back with a beautiful set of color photos of the occasion, and invited his Brooklyn parishioners to attend his installation about five thousand miles away in Techiman, Ghana. Along with another member of the parish, Deacon Larry Coyle, I decided to take him up on it.

The trip that followed changed my preconceptions about the church in Africa, and gave me a new appreciation for the vital role of men like Bishop Nyarko. While they are valued here, these foreign priests tend to be seen as a stopgap for the shortage of diocesan priests. But the journey to Ghana persuaded me that though they are desperately needed in their homeland, they are also needed as missionaries who can link American Catholics to the vitality, sense of mission, and social concerns of the church in Africa.

The March 29 Mass to create the new Diocese of Techiman in central Ghana and to install its first bishop took place on a soccer field behind St. Paul’s Catholic Church. It was the hottest time of year in a country just a few degrees north of the equator, and the temperature rose to around one hundred. More than ten thousand people were there, most of them seated on plastic chairs beneath long tents that lined the field. Some cooled themselves by fluttering souvenir fans that pictured the new bishop. A terrific drumbeat heralded the arrival of the chiefs, with the prime chief taking his seat on a stately throne across the field from the altar.

I sat next to Matt Essieh, who grew up in Sampa, a village where the new bishop had served as a priest, a three-hour drive into the sticks from Techiman, mostly on heavily rutted dirt roads. He now owns a software company and lives in Oregon. He’s also a Commonweal reader. When I’d met Essieh the evening before, he was wearing a shirt and slacks. But for the Mass he wore traditional clothing that flowed in shades of green.

As we waited for the Mass to start, Essieh talked about the role of bishops in Ghana. “Besides dealing with the spiritual side, they have to deal with social issues, foster religious dialogue, and bring harmony among different tribes,” he told me. “The church is one of the strongest and most durable institutions here. The government structure is still evolving.”

I was beginning to see the magnitude of the task that faced the mild-mannered Bishop Nyarko. He was expected to provide schools, hospitals, water, and jobs while seeking to smooth relations with Muslims and negotiating with powerful chiefs and government officials to maintain peace. Or, as Cardinal Peter Turkson, the archbishop of Cape Coast, said to him in his homily: “What must you be as a pastor? You become for them what Moses was for the people of Israel.”

The fifty-nine-year-old archbishop, an affable man with a round face and graying hair, then eased into an intricate analysis of Moses as leader. “The people of Israel cried to Moses for bread and for water,” he said to the new bishop. “You also have to perform the service to provide bread and water.” This was quite literal: tainted water is a huge public-health threat in Ghana.

Cardinal Turkson said that at first Moses thought he was to be solely a spiritual leader, but he learned he had to perform many functions: to call his people to courage and to collaborate with them. The cardinal recounted a story from the Book of Numbers in which the people besieged Moses with complaints. After Moses told God he couldn’t take it anymore, God instructed him to draw together seventy elders to share the burden of leadership. “You have to share this job with your collaborators,” the cardinal told the new bishop, invoking the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which calls for decision making to be as decentralized as possible. It is a principle that the church rarely applies to itself.

By this point, Cardinal Turkson had shattered my preconceptions about the Catholic Church in Africa, which my reading had led me to believe was very conservative, dogmatic, and focused on evangelization at the expense of social concerns. On the solemn occasion of the erection of a new diocese, Ghana’s highest-ranking churchman had modeled the church as servant. Then the celebration kicked up.

The Mass, which lasted five hours, was a music festival. The sounds ranged from an elegant Kyrie in the tones of Gregorian chant to an ecstatic Gloria, filled with the beat of drums. Preparation for the offertory gifts brought the celebration to a new level as dancers dressed in shades of blue, gold, orange, and green leapt and skittered barefoot over the dusty field. On one side, a brass band played hard. And all around, thousands of people got up from their seats to bounce and dance toward plastic basins where they left donations. The music unified the crowd as people swayed to the drums’ rhythm and waved white handkerchiefs. It was obvious from the enthusiasm that the church in Ghana has struck a chord with its music in a way our church in the United States has not. This music was truly rooted in the local culture.

Vatican II cleared the way for African Catholics to use their own music and dance in their worship, and also opened the way for charismatic renewal groups (there is an active one in Techiman), the use of tribal symbols (such as the chief’s chair presented to the new bishop), and the bright colors favored in Africa. It’s hard to imagine how the church’s remarkable growth in Africa could have happened without the council’s liturgical reforms.

In Techiman that day, it seemed that the church had taken the teaching of the council and not only run with it, but danced with it, too. The joy expressed in worship on that sweltering soccer field was so affecting that my fellow traveler Deacon Coyle told me it was one of the most emotional moments he’d ever experienced, a comment he would later repeat in a homily given at our parish.

The following morning, a Sunday, opened with a procession—a parade, really—through the center of Techiman to welcome Bishop Nyarko. He mounted a pickup truck and, from the shade of a large umbrella, waved a white handkerchief as singing crowds pressed from all sides. As the procession arrived on the grounds of St. Paul’s Church, people broke into spontaneous dancing. I could see that Bishop Nyarko, who at first seemed overwhelmed by the flood of calls and e-mails that poured into his Brooklyn rectory from Ghana after the announcement of his appointment, was easing into his new role. That became clear when he gave his first homily as bishop at a Mass, once again celebrated with a congregation of thousands on the soccer field.

Bishop Nyarko spoke in Twi, so I didn’t understand, but I’ve never heard a homily that drew so many laughs. His timing must have been impeccable, and as I followed his cadences, I was eventually able to guess when the next cascade of laughter would flow. I was told later that he had told stories of everyday family life. The worshipers clapped at the end of the homily; a bishop and his people had bonded.

If the church is “God’s building,” as St. Paul wrote, it often feels as if many of the rooms are sealed off from one another. But a visit with Fr. Paul Agyei, another Ghanaian priest who had served in my home parish, opened doors.

He took us to Our Lady of Fatima Church in Sampa, then to some of the ten parish “outstations” he and a second priest serve. We saw the wells he’d dug (one 167 feet deep), the car wash he started to create jobs, solidly built schools, and some of the four churches he was building simultaneously in the outstations. One, in the very poor village of Dobor, was called St. Columba of the Woods—named for our Brooklyn parish.

Our trip into the rural areas revealed that Ghana itself has a severe shortage of priests, despite immense growth in the priesthood there. (Fr. Agyei’s Diocese of Sunyani and the new dioceses carved from it, including Techiman, grew from having 3 priests thirty-five years ago to 122 today.) There is heavy reliance on lay catechists, who play an esteemed teaching role but cannot administer the sacraments.

This raises the question of whether it is right for American parishes to import so many priests from places like Ghana, where the local priest shortage means that rural Catholics often have to walk many miles to attend Mass with any frequency. I find it troubling, but there are arguments to be made in favor of sending African priests here. Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi of Sunyani told me that in the United States his priests have been able to get an advanced education not available in Ghana.

Beyond that, international priests can create an osmosis that will invigorate the entire body of the church. My hope is that they will teach from their experience. Let them tell us stories of how it’s being done in Africa.


Related: Importing Priests, from the dotCommonweal blog

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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