By Valentine Obienyem
While reviewing the on-going youth week’s programme, I observed that a significant part of the agenda involves the reading of the Diocesan Chaplain’s Address. This signifies that the Youth Week was meticulously organized and executed simultaneously across all churches in Awka Diocese. I extend my gratitude to His Lordship Dr. Paulinus Ezeokafor, the Diocesan Bishop, for coordinating this unified programme for the youth, as well as acknowledging the efforts of Fr. Paschal Udoh and others involved, including our parish priests and the youth.
The preceding observations highlight the Church’s profound commitment to the youth’s development. The programme encompasses both spiritual and secular aspects, emphasizing the Church’s dedication to fostering the holistic growth of young individuals.
This aligns with the purpose behind St. Pope John Paul II’s initiation of World Youth Day in 1985. This global event aims to unite millions of young Catholics from diverse backgrounds to celebrate their faith, exchange cultural experiences, and engage in various spiritual activities, culminating in a Papal Mass.
It is essential to acknowledge that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have issued numerous Apostolic Exhortations directly or indirectly addressing the youth, such as “ChristifidelesLaici“ by Pope John Paul II and “AmorisLaetitia” and “ChristusVivit” by Pope Francis.
The latter document was a result of the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, the Faith, and Vocational discernment. Pope Francis has consistently shown a profound dedication to the youth, urging them to actively participate in the Church and society.
His messages consistently emphasize themes of hope, love, social justice, and environmental care. Notably, one of his passions is to listen to young people, understand their challenges, and support their growth and development. This aligns with the Church’s present endeavours during World Youth Day, fostering a nurturing environment for the youth’s engagement and flourishing.
Today, our chaplaincy is commemorating this year’s event, which is also celebrated internationally in Lisbon, where the Pope just arrived. As we focus on putting trust in the youth, it becomes important to define who falls under this category. Although there is no specific age range, youth are generally considered as individuals in their teenage years and early adulthood, typically ranging from 12 to 30 years.
It is crucial to highlight that this phase is marked by significant personal growth, educational pursuits, social development, and the formation of one’s identity and values. Consequently, numerous programmes are tailored for the youth to support their growth, as overlooking this period may lead to one becoming a disruptive misfit.
Indeed, it becomes clear why the Church encourages us to engage in discussions on various topics that impact the youth, as our Chaplaincy has specifically tailored it to address the spiritual challenges affecting you. It is essential to recognize that when these challenges go unaddressed, they can lead to an escalation in youth depression. So, what are these challenges we need to discuss?
Let us begin by acknowledging that each of us faces unique spiritual challenges. In certain villages, you may observe elders being accused of various crimes, including what is known as “Ikpansi.” The Church is deeply concerned about your spiritual growth, aiming for you to become an elder who uses their developed competencies to contribute to the growth of both the Church and humanity, rather than growing into an elder “naakpansi.”
For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the challenges faced by the youth today. Spiritual challenges, in this context, refer to the obstacles or difficulties that the youth encounter on their spiritual journey. Recognizing the existence of these obstacles and their challenges is a crucial step toward personal growth and the deepening of one’s spirituality.
The first obstacle we must address might come as a surprise, as I refer to it as obstacles constituted by your parents.
As parents, it is crucial to reflect on our parental duties. Unfortunately, some young people grow up in homes without proper upbringing. I recall an incident at a barber’s shop where I saw a 4-year-old child with artificially dyed hair, requested by the mother because he was “graduating” the next day. It is perplexing when parents engage in such actions without understanding their impact on the child’s development. This lack of conscientious parenting may extend to neglecting the child’s Catholic upbringing, such as receiving Holy Communion, Confirmation, and other sacraments on time.
When parents fail to provide the right examples and orientation, it can adversely affect the youth’s spiritual growth. As these young individuals enter higher institutions, they may be susceptible to various doctrines that challenge their faith. We often witness Catholic youths in universities facing a crisis of faith because they were not properly grounded in their beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
To address this concern, it is highly beneficial and advisable for undergraduates to join Catholic organizations during their time in school, such as the National Federation of Catholic Students (NFCS). These platforms offer an excellent opportunity for Catholic students to gather, share their faith, and engage in activities aligned with their beliefs and values, providing much-needed support and strengthening their spiritual foundation.
Technology presents another significant source of spiritual challenges in our lives. We are currently experiencing an era of daily technological advancements that have drastically transformed communication. However, when we closely examine technology, we realize that it can be used for both good and bad purposes.
The rise of artificial intelligence is particularly remarkable, and its capabilities can be mind-boggling. The problem arises when technology is misused, becoming a major distraction. Nowadays, it is common to witness individuals, including the youth, stepping out of church services repeatedly to answer calls when they could have easily switched off their phones for the duration of the service. This behaviour reflects how technology can interfere with our spiritual focus and connection.
Technology’s vast possibilities come with both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, it empowers us to achieve incredible feats and facilitates communication and access to information. However, there is a darker side to technology, as some individuals misuse it for harmful purposes. Activities such as cybercrime, watching pornographic material, cheating during exams, cyberbullying, spreading false information, and invading others’ privacy through hacking are among the negative consequences.
Excessive use of technology can also lead to addiction, particularly among the young generation. Moreover, uncontrolled technology usage can foster disbelief, skepticism, and the dangerous belief in the superiority of human knowledge over that of a higher power, diminishing the significance of faith in God.
An alarming trend on social media platforms is the use of nudity and inappropriate language to attract followers. The competition among content creators to share risqué stories has become a common theme, leading to a troubling normalization of such contents. These challenges highlight the need for responsible use of technology and the promotion of positive values in today’s digital age.
On the other hand, technology can be utilized positively and ethically to enrich one’s own spiritual life and contribute to the betterment of society. A remarkable example is Carlo Acutis, who passed away at the age of 15 in 2006 and was beatified in 2020. He is renowned for using technology to spread the gospel and inspire others through his digital initiatives.
You, too, have the potential to follow in the footsteps of Carlo Acutis by leveraging technology to elevate humanity’s quality rather than degrading it. Embracing technology responsibly can empower you to make a positive impact on yourself and society, becoming a force for good in the digital age.
Peer pressure is a powerful force that can negatively impact young individuals, leading them towards either authentic or inauthentic lives. It is crucial to remain true to yourself and stand firm against negative peer influences that may challenge your spiritual beliefs and values.
In some cases, negative peer groups may influence individuals to adopt harmful habits, like smoking, by cajoling and pressuring them. Refusing to give in might result in being treated as an outcast within the group.
Surprisingly, even at the secondary school level, some students seek the help of “dibias” to become rich at the cost of their spirituality. Such actions demonstrate how some youths are willing to embrace anything promising material wealth. The influence of affluent display by some “dibias” on social media platforms can deceive impressionable minds.
Engaging in these behaviours does violence to one’s spiritual life and can lead to harmful outcomes, such as the outbreak of epidemics of people trying to distort themselves in the name of seeking beauty. To preserve one’s spiritual well-being, it is vital to resist negative peer pressures and strive to lead an authentic and purposeful life.
We can acknowledge reasonable beauty enhancements, such as using make-up and wearing well-fitted clothes. However, we find utterly perplexing the trend of what we will call structural body enhancements, like buttocks and breasts surgeries. Engaging in such procedures may indicate low self-esteem, as those individuals appear fixated on following the trend without considering the regrets of those who did it in the past.
Similarly, some men plait their hair and wear earrings, adopting a style driven by those who operate on the same frequency as them, often keke drivers. They look up to nonentities as role models.
This situation raises the importance of role models in the formation of young individuals. The choices and behaviour of role models can significantly influence the youth, either positively or negatively. It becomes essential for young people to be guided by genuine role models who embody values, integrity, and self-confidence rather than conforming to fleeting trends or seeking validation from questionable sources.
Role Models and Mentorship: Do you have role models in your life? What criteria influenced your selection of them? Allow me to share a personal anecdote about my experience with a role model and mentor.
Back in the nineties, after finishing my secondary school, I had a profound love for literary works and found inspiration in Prof. Okey Ikechukwu’s writings. At that time, mobile phones were not in existence, and Prof. Ikechukwu was teaching at UNILAG while also contributing to the Guardian Editorial Board as a visiting member.
Driven by my admiration for his articles and aspiring to be like him in the future, I visited his office in Lagos to express my appreciation. At that time, I was not familiar with the concept of mentorship. Nevertheless, Prof. Ikechukwu recognized that I was a young man seeking direction in life and embraced the challenge. He took an interest in my development, eventually joining the Guardian Editorial Board full-time and co-founding The Comet Newspaper, which later evolved into The Nation.
Prof. Ikechukwu would visit me every Friday at my place and give me topics to write about over the weekend, which I would submit on Mondays. He would then refine the articles and have them published. This regular engagement led to my weekly publications, even during my undergraduate years. Through his mentorship, I began freelancing for newspaper houses and reporting on campus events, leading to exciting trips across Nigerian universities. Despite facing resistance from established journalists who felt I was invading, without proper visa, territory they had made their own by years of cultivation, Prof. Ikechukwu provided me with protection and support.
This experience highlights the significance of choosing good role models and looking up to responsible individuals for emulation. Role models offer us inspiration, positive influence, and tangible qualities that we can adopt and emulate in our own journeys. They play a pivotal role in guiding and shaping our paths toward personal and professional growth.
Who are your role models? Your role model does not necessarily have to be someone you come in contact with, but rather a person whose character exemplifies integrity, perseverance, and other admirable qualities. By prestigiously imitating their positive traits, they can inspire you to set goals for yourself and make better decisions in various aspects of your life, including deepening your spirituality.
When thinking of role models, names like Peter Cardinal Okpaleke, Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mr. Peter Obi, Chimamanda Adichie, Aisha Yesufu, and Prof. Chinyere Stella Okunna may come to your mind. These individuals serve as excellent examples of integrity and achievement.
However, it is equally important to steer clear of role models with a History of criminality, public figures known for dishonesty or unethical behaviour. Additionally, avoid looking up to celebrities associated with terms like “Baby Mama,” “Transsexuality,” “Crossdressing,” or any other infamies that promote negative values and lifestyles. Choosing role models wisely can profoundly impact your growth and development in a positive and meaningful way.
The Nigerian condition has become a major factor contributing to the loss of values, including spiritual ones. It is so evident that even the blind can perceive it. During the last election, the youth and the entire populace made sincere efforts to elect a government of their choice. However, their endeavours were regrettably frustrated by the country’s leaders, leaving many with hope placed in the judiciary for a fair resolution.
Presently, a prevailing sense of hopelessness pervades the nation, causing most Nigerians, especially the youth, to lose interest in the country. Persistent sadness is palpable among the people, and many express a desire to leave the country, evident in the long queues at passport offices and embassies. The mental torture caused by such circumstances makes it difficult for anyone to find inner peace in Nigeria. Low monthly salaries further exacerbate the situation, leaving young people feeling worthless and deprived of opportunities.
This deteriorated society has led to increased depression and frustration among young Nigerians. The lack of jobs and prospects has driven many to resort to hard drugs in futile attempts to forget their frustrations. In extreme cases, some have even taken their own lives. The call to patriotism alone cannot resolve these issues, as it is challenging for anyone to love a country that fails to provide basic necessities and opportunities. The Nigerian condition demands urgent attention and transformative actions to restore hope, purpose, and value in the lives of its people.
In our present reality, some households are struggling to put food on the table, and the condition of the country is forcing many schools to increase their fees. Consequently, some parents are compelled to withdraw their children from good schools and place them in more affordable schools with uncertain reputations. These challenges impact every aspect of our lives, including the spiritual well-being of the youth. Without proper guidance, a person facing depression or frustration may easily stray from the right path.
The current situation goes beyond affecting the youth; it demands on-going dialogue between the young and the elderly about the state of the nation and the importance of maintaining hope in ourselves. I recall reading a book entitled “Ready to Die” by Fr. Eugene Igboaja, which provides valuable advice on facing difficult times. It emphasizes the significance of not losing hope in ourselves, even if we might lose hope in others or the country. Surrendering to despair would only lead us to become “existential idiots.”
My advice is to hold onto hope regardless of the prevailing conditions. We should not allow the problems in our country to drive us into depression. As students or graduates we can seek to develop new skills and use the internet for meaningful engagements that can generate income. For those involved in creating skits, it is essential to be more creative by seeking ethical and innovative approaches instead of resorting to vulgar language, which seems to attract attention today. By maintaining hope, perseverance, and ethical values, we can navigate through rough times and contribute positively to our own growth and the betterment of our society.
In Nigeria, life has seemingly become cheap as the pursuit of materialism sadly leads to the triumph of secularism and the inversion of values. This trend has affected Nigerians, including the youth, causing a fast erosion of focus on spiritual values and priorities. The disconnection from their faith is contributing to the proliferation of senseless behaviour in society.
To combat these spiritual challenges, proactive strategies must be implemented to support young people on their spiritual journey. By doing so, we can help them find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in their lives, promoting a sense of purpose and direction amid the prevailing materialistic influences.
Excerpts from the speech delivered by Valentine Obienyem during the youth week at Sacred Heart Chaplaincy, Ngozika Estate, Awka and All Saints Catholic Church, Awgwu on the 1st of August, 2023.