By Valentine Umoh
The great genius of the Indian struggle, the prophet of non-violence, the spiritual guru of the 20th Century, Mahatma Gandhi, was once asked by one of his adherents how he could effect change in others so that they too can buy into the philosophy of non-violence. Gandhi replied rather calmly, “Be the change you want to see in others.” In the same vein, the change that catholic youths can bring to our society would be materialized only when individual catholic youth recognize that the change must begin with themselves.
But then, what is the need for change? What is there to be changed? How can the change be realized concretely? Above all, where is the place of God in the whole scheme and struggle for change? While asking these pertinent questions, we must not forget that there are two types of change: Positive change and negative change. Positive change will be a change in the good/right direction; negative change will conversely be a change in the bad/wrong direction. While positive change brings growth, negative change brings retrogression.
What is there to be changed?
A philosopher of antiquity, Heraclitus, while reflecting on the question of change, asserts that the only thing that is universally constant is change. There is need for change because there is something that clamours for change. And since we are only proposing a positive change, then the change either moves from bad to good or from good to better, towards the best and never vice versa.
Even the man denied of the endowments of the senses could perceive (intuitively) that there is need for change in the Nigerian society. This is how the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria described the pitiable state of the nation:
Nigerians continue to live in fear and tension. In spite of the acclaimed efforts to beef up security in the nation, bombings and senseless killings of innocent Nigerians, continue in the northern part of the country, while kidnapping and periodic murders and armed robberies continue in the southern part. The failure of government at all levels and other security agencies to provide adequate security for all Nigerians is a grave form of abuse of human dignity. This unfortunate situation leads to distrust of government and allied authorities. It creates loopholes for evil doers to thrive and for the proliferation of arms and dangerous weapons under the guise of self-defence.
A society which is reputed to be highly religious, yet has almost nothing to show for it; a society where corruption has become an institution; a society where societal values and religious virtues are constantly devalued and relegated; a society which is gradually lacking cohesion due to increased individualism; a society where religious fanaticism has replaced authentic piety; a society where people cut corners in order to circumvent delayed but earned gratification; a society that has masked itself in a religious garb, while standing antithetically to its basic principles (The Constitution). Ours is a society that worships God more with the lips than the hearts and hands. Any appeal to change must emanate from her religious consciousness. Europe today enjoys a culture that was built upon Christian principles, even though many of them today are either atheists or do not even enter the Church except at baptism, wedding and funeral. One may question in the case of Nigeria: why has religion not been able to bring about this change all this while? Does religion have any question to answer?
Can Youths be agents of Positive Change in the Society?
A Non-Governmental Organization in the United States, Mercy Corps, where mandated to carry out a researched on the reason for Youth involvement in crimes and the possibility of their being agents of positive change in the society. After their research, they submitted their report with some recommendations. I stumbled over this document and adapted the following:
When young people are able to actively participate in processes that affect their communities, they gain confidence and skills that can profoundly transform how they perceive themselves, their surroundings, and their options. Youth are a force for positive change — the generation that can help transition their countries into productive and secure nations. However, they are also the primary participants in conflict today and are increasingly concentrated in transitional and fragile environments. The reasons youth participate in conflict are multi‐dimensional — they lack economic opportunities, political voice and a sense of belonging or connection to their communities.
From a practitioner’s standpoint, we’ve observed that where many conflict prevention policies and conflict management efforts fall short is in the profile of the youth with whom they engage. Ironically, the tendency is to engage with the easiest to reach ‐ youth less engaged in violence, those in school and/or already engaged with their communities. In addition, developmental interventions often fail to adequately integrate approaches that simultaneously address the root causes of conflict, youth‐specific drivers of conflict or legitimate youth‐specific non‐violent alternatives.
Mercy Corps youth programs reach over 3 million young people in the toughest places, at the most critical time, with the right support so they can thrive, advance the well‐being of their families, and help transform their communities and countries in positive ways. Their report can be adapted to the African and particularly the Nigerian situation where millions of idle youths are being hired to perpetrate much havoc in society. Their report confirms that youths can be agent of positive change in our society. Since youths in general have the capacity of effecting this positive change, religion can therefore give its youths added impetus to carry out this assignment. Let us therefore now look at the possibility that religion can guarantee this.
The Charge against Religion
Religion deals primarily with the relationship of human creatures to their Creator, at the vertical level. Horizontally, it involves some sort of communion with one another, expressed in the concept and practice of the love of neighbour.
It is precisely at the horizontal dimension of religion that “the problem of the role of religion in violence and in conflict resolution rears its ugly head.” Since religion gives its adherents a specific identity, it often falls into the danger of generating a lop-sided and unilateral worldview, and the promotion of intolerance and animosity. This danger is even more active in situations where religious difference coincides with racial, ethnic, political and economic differences.
Today, therefore, instead of expecting religion to be the harbinger of attitudinal change in the society, it is rather seen as one of the areas that really require change and reformation in the attitude of adherents. According to the erstwhile Secretary General of UN, Mr. Kofi Anan, “Religion is often associated with light. But we all know that the praxis of religion can also have its dark side.” He then went on to point out the many ‘sins’ of religious extremists, which include oppression and discrimination against the weak, nationalism, hatred, persecution, insensitivity and indifference to these vices. In the face of all these, can we still expect any change from religion?
The Instrumentality of Religion
Religions have been preaching and teaching virtues and positive human values and would continue to do so. The virtues which religion teach and uphold are such that would be transformative of the society, were the adherents able and determined to imbibe them fully and put them into practice. The gap between theory and praxis becomes a serious worry for any leader in any religious setting, who on his own part, is never completely innocent of this dilemma.
The instrument of religion can be effective if the message of salvation is not coloured, doctored or adapted unreasonably to suit some personal interests or motives as is the case in most churches and mosques these days. If the preachers of the Word do not exhibit a higher level of living, in which case, they are less entangled by the offerings of the world, then the message would never sink into the people. People feel deceived if the preacher does not live out, in an exceptionally contagious exemplary manner, what he preaches.
On the other hand, radicality, or what one may call ‘prophetic aggressiveness’, is required for the world which appears deaf to the message to experience attitudinal renewal through the agency of the Word. Confrontational evangelization is best fit for the propagation of the gospel. It is this gospel that would inform the attitude of the people towards a reformation. Attitudinal change will hardly be realized if the gospel is never accepted, adopted, assimilated and practiced by individual Christians.
Can the Catholic Youths be that Religious force in effecting Positive Change in society?
Yes, it is true given their religious background and training, catholic youths if they interiorize the values and morals of Catholicism can be a religious force in effecting positive change in society. Jesus Christ taught in Matthew 5: 13 -16 thus:
“You are salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”
I am very convinced that it was through a thorough and reflective understanding of this Divine teaching that the CYON chose their motto: let your light shine. Let your light shine means that as a Christian but more so as a catholic youth you must distinguish yourself in the society in virtue, moral character and good deeds. It means that you must be the voice of the voiceless, defender of the defenceless and father to the orphans in this our society filled with all forms of wickedness and darkness. It means that you must live above other of your peers in order to show the light of Christ to the world around us.
Effecting such a positive change in our society with endless list of immoral and corrupt practices is really challenging. But there is a need to begin something no matter how little from anywhere. Let us now be specific and concrete.
Look at our academic institutions, the place supposed to be the citadel of learning and formation of future leaders. But what do we see? All forms of immoral and corrupt practices. This ranges from examination malpractices, fraud, stealing, sexual immorality (teachers abusing children) etc. Without pointing accusing fingers at anyone but this is the situation of things in most of our public schools. What is most appalling is that in some of these schools, Catholics are principals, head teachers, and class teachers. Yet they do nothing about these forms of devalues. They compromise their religious principles and values and become silent about it. Why? Everyone is doing it. So, if you cannot beat them, join them. This means that the gospel message is yet to be implanted in their hearts. So, as a Catholic youth, if you wake up and find yourself in this situation, can you effect a positive change? But I doubt how someone who was a product of examination malpractice can decide to change such an evil system.
How about those Catholic youths who work in public offices and those who work as government functionaries? Do we not still hear cases of embezzlement of public funds in a Catholic/Christian led government and offices? If this disgusts you, then you must resolve not only to make the difference but more so to be the difference.
How do Catholic youths effect the positive change that our society needs? It can only begin with you and it can only begin now. That office that you occupy in the choir, in the CYON, in the Parish or Station laity or pastoral council, the committee of friends and youth associations in your community, have you been able to be faithful to it? Have you been able to change the corrupt system that was handed over to you? Have you been able to set a new pace and good standard? Or are you simply continuing in the bad system that you inherited?
Many a time we have concrete opportunities to contribute to the positive growth of our society. Do we make that suggestion? Do we air out our views? Or do we not simply keep silent?
Catholic youths can be agents of positive change in our society when each of them as an individual and as a group are able to rise up and say NO to the corrupt practices that destroy our societal ethics and values. There is no one who is totally ignorant of the happenstances of our society. You can determine to make the difference. It takes only a crop of individuals to spark up positive revolution/change in any society.
Catholic youths can be agents of positive change when they get involve in what is happening in their society and their environment. For instance, do you turn up for church projects/ meetings and assignments? Do you join hands in carrying out community tasks and activities such as clean-up exercises?
Pope Francis talked more often about a growing and increasing globalization of indifference. Many people stay aloof, are not involved in what is happening in society. Some do not even know their fundamental rights and the civil rights and obligations. Some cannot even tell when and where the government is right or wrong. You can only effect a positive change when you are ready to get involved in what happens in your community. Odumegwu OJUKWU titled one of his works: Because I am involved. He understood perfectly the struggles and agitation of his people because he had allowed himself to get involved with the concerns of his people.
You can only understand the struggles, agitations, sufferings and problems of the Catholic Church in Abiakpo Nkap, of the CYON of Abiakpo Nkap, of the people of Obot Akara only when you are involved. And you cannot be an agent of change except you perfectly understand/comprehend the history of a process, struggle and project of that particular society and culture.
The Biblical example that appeals to us at this point in time is the story of NEHEMIAH. The commentary of The African Bible summarized him thus:
“He was appointed governor of Judah by the king of Persia. His first duty was to fortify the city by building the walls. In his duty he met with opposition, but through determination and faith in God he succeeded. He returned to Persia but came back to Jerusalem and spearheaded the spiritual renewal of the city. Because of his position in the Persian court, he had sufficient influence to enable him to carry out this enormous task…Nehemiah himself was a layperson with boundless energy and commitment to his people, a fine example of service to God and neighbour.”
He together with Ezra and Zerubbabel rebuilt the broken walls of his nation. He perfectly understood the struggles, agitations and problems of his people and for the love he had for his fatherland, he put all his resources together to help uplift his nation. In the end, he was happy to see his efforts appreciated by his people.
We have many instances of such people in our society in the past and even in the present to emulate. Are we to mention Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr, Odumegwu Ojukwu, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe? And I will also add Godswill Akpabio for his commitment to changing the poor/low mentality of our people. We can get inspiration from these models and be that change our society needs in whatever way we can.
Concluding Remarks – Final Exhortations
Positive change, which is guaranteed by religion, is such that is fundamentally rooted in the divine. It is the action of grace working in and through us, and not a result or consequence of human science or manipulation. The grace of God has sufficiently been made available to all men; it is only the question of man appropriating and utilizing maximally the superabundant grace that faces us always.
Positive change effected by religion is felt more concretely in the society where the real struggle takes place. The incapability of the society to bring about this change informs this appeal to religion. Religious gatherings should thus not only be opportunities to offer praises, adoration, thanksgiving and petition to God, but should also serve as platforms to appeal to people’s consciences. They should serve as avenues to culture and nurture the required dispositions to change. Above all, a radical life of witness will do more than mere preachment, which (without spirit-filled content) differs less from the blabbing of desperate politicians.
– Youthfulness is a one in a life-time stage. You will always reap what you sow – whatever you sow during your youthful stage you will reap in your old age.
– The evil that men do not only live after them but with them.
– Be careful what you do today because it will come back to you someday; change your ways while it is still day; make hays while the sunshine. Avoid procrastinating what you can comfortably do today.
– Youthfulness is a time to discover yourself – your potentialities, your capacities. Try to discover who you are. You are the only person that can tell the truth about yourself. There is the you in you that only you know.
– Don’t be afraid of criticisms- they help to make you better and build you up for future challenges. Remember there is a part of you that you do not know but only your friends and enemies can tell you.
– Never forget that there is a God above watching you in all you do and remember that there are many things about you which your friends and enemies do not know but only God knows. Never forget that you are not a product of chance – you are a product of a conscious thought of God. In whatever you do always surrender to his will. Sometimes, it is difficult to decipher the will of God – ask him to guide your steps.
– Do not waste your time on things that will not benefit you and your future. Remember, your future is in your hands; the way you lay your bed is how you will lie on it. Invest your time, treasure and talent in ventures that will sustain you and your future. Be visionary and always plan in time. Never be taken by surprise.
– Invite Mother Mary into your life. She is always there for those who fly to her patronage. She can intercede for you when ‘there is no wine’ (cf. John 2:3) in your life. Be constant in invoking her intercession especially through the Holy Rosary. Make the Rosary, a prayer close to your heart.
I want to use this opportunity to thank you all for your audience and participation. I thank you who have not only found out time to be here but for being active members of the Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria, Abiakpo Nkap parish. I bet you that there are many youths even in this parish that have not yet seen the need and importance to belong to this organization. While encouraging you to keep kindling in you the fire of the Catholic Faith that you received at baptism, I also challenge and send you to go out in search of those other brothers and sisters of ours who have either not yet joined this organization or have fallen along the way, speak to their heart and win them over here. For together; we can do something beautiful for God.
I pray that the Almighty God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary the mother of youths should revive you in His grace so that in all things you may seek to do only that which pleases God and that when our earthly sojourn is ended we may be worthy of seeing God face to face in the Beatific vision – the ultimate end of all our struggles. Amen.
CYON…LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE
 Originally a lecture presented to the General Assembly of Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Abiakpo Nkap on their 2016 Youth Week celebration at the Church Auditorium, Obot Akara – Nigeria.
 CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF NIGERIA (CBCN), Promoting Authentic Development, A Communiqué issued at the End of the Second Plenary Meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria at the Bishop Anthony Nwedo Pastoral Centre, Umuahia, Abia State, 8th – 14th September 2012, 4.
 B. O. UKWUEGBU, “What Has Religion Got To Do With The So-Called ‘Religious Conflicts’”, in The Nigerian Journal of Theology, Vol. 22, (June 2008, p. 30).