It takes a certain amount of courage to quit one supposedly respectable profession for another seen as less dignified. In the eyes of many, a priest in a Catholic Church has more social standing and acceptability than the chief priest of a community shrine. To wit, most families will readily welcome to lunch or dinner a man in a cassock and bishop’s mitre than an appropriately be-costumed custodian of a deity, complete with fluttering feathers on a red cap studded with cowries. So, when news filtered through weeks ago that Rev Fr. Pius Oyeniran Abioje has left the Catholic Church for African Traditional Religion, THEWILL thought he had done something truly extraordinary. Michael Jimoh reports…
“The only way to get rid of a temptation,” the great Irish wit Oscar Wilde once mused, “is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the thing it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
For 15 long years as a reverend father, Pius Oyeniran Abioje dedicated his life to the church he swore to serve. Like most ordained clergy of the Catholic faith, he conducted mass every Sunday, gave out communion to worshippers, never missed novenas and listened with avuncular patience to parishioners during confessionals. He would also have presided in his parish during Lent, Easter, Christmas and some such Christian festivals. Most of all is the obligatory self-denial, the vows of celibacy every priest of the Roman Catholic Church must swear to.
But something snapped as a missionary of the RCC. He turned his back on the very religion he espoused from his preteens through adulthood. In other words, he reneged on his avowal to the church and not only that but also took up his African Traditional Religion, the religion he grew up with as a young boy.
In one of the frankest and brilliant Q&A by Alexander Okere published in Punch of March 26, 2023 headlined “Why I abandoned Catholic priesthood, embraced traditional religion, married – Ex-Reverend Father,” the former Catholic priest bared his mind on why he quit the Catholic Church. Pius’s road to the priesthood pretty much followed the classical route – a boy in a mission school then seminary school and, ultimately, Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
Named after Pope Urban and established in 1627, the university has been a prime Roman Catholic institution for “training priests, religious brothers and sisters, and lay people for service as missionaries.”
Ordained in 1985, Pius served as a Catholic missionary until 2000 then he quit. He was fed up and so, in Wilde’s aphorism, yielded to the very things that tormented his soul for so long. “Resist it and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”
In a straight-from-the-gut response to Okere’s question, Abioje said at one point that, as a priest, “I began to envy married people.” Of course, that was forbidden to priests like him. To overcome the eternal torment, Abioje promptly got married. He was also enamoured of his ATR even while donning the cassock. He disrobed himself thus leaving the priesthood behind for good. Now, he is back to the religion he was born into.
In the beginning
As a young man growing up in Iwere-Ile, Oyo state, Pius probably escorted his father to community meetings, needling him with juvenile questions as he tried to keep pace. Or maybe an uncle, who will forever indulge the lad on their way to the village square or Oba’s palace, the chief himself presiding over this or that issue, all of them known to each other possibly living in some mud or brick houses away from one another.
On special occasions like communal festivals, the chief’s compound or village square would be crammed with locals, masquerades, drummers and singers in tow with yelling youngsters like Pius invariably tagging along. Such was the life for Pius then and, like most other kids in his age bracket, he loved it.
It was not all about merriment though. Sometimes, there were disputes to settle between dissenting couples, say, or family palaver over land matters. In those cases, the road led to the chief’s compound where issues were resolved amicably.
In some other cases, the road led elsewhere depending on the gravity of the offence. If someone was accused of stealing, for example, a tethered goat disappearing mysteriously overnight and now seen in another compound chewing the cud, both the accused and the accuser (and of course a retinue of curious folk) will beeline it to the village shrine to unmask the rogue.
Once apprised, the resident chief priest himself would out the thief in no time, with the possible consequences that may befall him if he continues to proclaim his innocence. That way, the chief priest not only made the scoundrel a subject of public ridicule there and then but also deterred those who might have a similar inclination among the spectators.
Like most other youngsters in Iwere-Ile, Pius went to school and then life turned around for him suddenly. A more than average student who didn’t miss his classes, Pius was less inclined to attend church. The church authorities thought it wise to correct the boy’s erroneous ways, to make him a convert by all means.
“I was taken away from African Traditional Religion in primary school,” Pius told the Punch journalist of his early romance with Christianity. “The missionaries saw that I was not going to church and sent their men after me to ask me why. I told them that I was a traditional worshipper but they told me that there was no contradiction and that I could practice ATR and go to church.”
In Pius’s own interpretation, the missionaries played on his immaturity as a youth. They knew there was no way he could practice both religions at the same time, that is, some sort of syncretism. “I started going to school. God is a conspirator because he brought a Catholic priest to sponsor my education after primary school. I don’t know how he (the priest) connected my uncle and took me back to the church. One day, I started feeling like becoming a priest and went to consult a diviner when I was a mission boy.”
With oracular prescience and precision, the diviner told him he was going to become a priest. Startled by the declaration, Pius made bold to ask what the diviner meant. He will become a priest in the Catholic Church, the man repeated with the finality of one worth his consulting board (Opele.)
In one of his many journeys in Italy in 1527, a diviner saw a Franciscan monk beside his horse and then knelt before him, saying “I must kneel before his Holiness.” 20 years later, the same monk became Pope Sixtus V in 1547, fulfilling Nostradamus’s prediction on the streets of Rome 20 years before.
Likewise, what the diviner at Ibadan told Pius came to pass as well and thus began his priestly education, first at St Kizito’s Minor Seminary Ede Osun state. That was in 1973. Next was SS Peter and Paul Catholic Seminary Bodija Ibadan Oyo state four years later. In 1981, Pius attended the Harvard of priests-to-be in the RCC – Pontifical Urban University Rome. “I was sent to Rome with the current Bishop of Oyo Diocese, Emmanuel Badejo; we studied together in Rome and that was where we completed our seminary training with a university degree. We returned to Nigeria and I was ordained in 1985.”
From then on and like most of his colleagues in various parishes under the RCC, Pius performed his ecclesiastical duties with aplomb, devoting himself entirely to his religious responsibilities and forsaking his secular ways. Still, there was that niggling doubt plaguing his innermost being, one of which was what people did in the name of religion, “the uncharitable ways of Christians and Muslims,” he recalled to Okere.
Fifteen years was enough to convince Pius he wasn’t who or where he wanted to be. In 2000, he left. “Along the line, I saw that it (priesthood) was not where I belonged but I could not just rush out of it. In the first instance, I never saw myself being celibate, that was why I was surprised when I saw myself joining the priesthood and I had to consult a diviner. I started envying married people.”
Rather than burn with unquenchable longing, Pius promptly got himself a spouse, most likely in line with one of Christendom’s most revered missionaries. In I Corinthians 7: 8-9, Apostle Paul wrote that instead of pining away in celibacy, those of the priesthood can do otherwise. “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Drawn irresistibly to his native religion, the man has since pledged his allegiance to the ATR he grew up with. By that, Pius has now joined the long-depleted ranks of worshippers of ATR, bells a-jingling in many local shrines since then, as any one can imagine.
If it is a loss to the Holy See, it is no doubt a big gain to the standard bearers of ATR, long ago denied their say and mode of worship by the forceful invasion of Christianity and Islam. With the priest’s defection or change of mind, if you like, ATR has scored a big one.
In any Catholic stronghold in times past, Pius’s action would have been considered heresy and would most certainly result in instant excommunication or maybe worse. But not this time. It is not hard to see why. Except for a few, most religious institutions in many parts of the world today have modernised, and have become more liberal and tolerant of such actions.
While some people “were shocked and disappointed” by his disavowal from the RCC, Pius gleefully told the journalist that “my bishop said he was happy that I did not accuse anyone of being responsible for my decision to leave.”
On why the reverend father left a church that had given him so much, a degree at the Ivy-League religious university in Rome, a Master’s and doctoral degrees at Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, Pius’s response is typical of one with a deeply analytical mind.
To begin with, Pius informs the journalist, “there had been questions within me about celibacy and certain Christian doctrines about whether somebody died and took away my sins or whether somebody should not marry more than one wife. Those things didn’t really fit well with me. But one cannot just take a decision and leave like that. People asking why I left the church after it trained me forget that I also served the church, including being a teacher at SS Peter and Paul Major Seminary from 1994 to 2000. I was a parish priest for years and even as a seminarian, I taught people catechism.”
Besides, Pius isn’t shy of exploding some biblical myths, some things that just do not add up for him. “If you tell me that a woman gave birth to God and that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. How did you know she was a virgin? We met Jesus when he was 30 years old, so how do we trace how he was born? All these myths were created. You want me to believe all that? Or that Jesus died and took away our sins? Did he die or was he killed? Jesus was killed. We know the conspiracy that killed Jesus and what hurts me is that this conspiracy that killed him was swept under the carpet and people say God wanted him to die so that he can redeem human beings. You turned God to Ogun taking the blood of a dog annually or Sango taking the blood of a ram annually. So, God needed the blood of his son to redeem humans? Are we redeemed?”
On his taking up ATR, Pius has no apologies at all. In his priestly duties and as a former Head, Department of Religion at University of Ilorin, for decades, Pius would have had firsthand knowledge of the world’s religions. After all, ATR did not embark on any crusade, inquisition or jihad. It is one of the most democratic religions in the world, not compelling converts by force of arms or incendiary literature. It does not, above all, seek to colonise its adherents in any way, as Christianity and Islam have.
In Beyond Belief, his sequel to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, Trinidad-born Oxford-educated Nobel laureate VS Naipaul made clear how those converted to Islam have become colonised peoples. “Islam, in its origin, is an Arab religion. And the people who are non-Arab Muslims are, in effect, converts – converts who have had to turn their backs on their cultures, on their own early faiths, on their own civilisations, on their sacred lands. Their sacred sites have become the sacred sites in Arabia. Their sacred language is Arabic. So, they are greatly disturbed because, in a profound way, they are colonized people. The book is therefore the neurosis of conversion.”
The same can be said of Christianity, forcing millions of converts all over the world to “turn their backs on their own cultures, on their own early faiths, on their own civilisations, on their own sacred lands.” For now, Pius has liberated himself from the religious colonisation he endured for decades and returned to his roots, returned to his early faith and belief. That is something truly extraordinary.