Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator seen participating at a conference at Hekima University College in 2015. (NCR/Joshua J. McElwee)
When theologians or others raise concerns about the exclusion of women from decision-making roles in the Catholic church, critics often say such concerns only come from a certain subset of the Western faith community. They say those in places like Africa, where the church is burgeoning, have other worries.
Yet one of the most trenchant voices in recent years for the full inclusion of women in Catholic ministry has been a Nigerian Jesuit theologian and priest. In 2012, for example, he came to the premier annual theological conference in the U.S. with an unsparing message.
Discrimination against women within the Catholic community is so manifest, said the priest, that the church "totters on the brink of compromising its self-identity as the basic sacrament of salvation."
Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator told that year's annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America that the state of women's participation in the church leads to a deeply discomforting question.
"We stand before God, as Cain was, befuddled by a question that we simply cannot wish away at the wave of a magisterial wand," he said. "The question is: 'Church, where is your sister? Church where is your mother?' "
In the years since, such blunt words on the situation of women in the church have become common for Orobator, who heads Kenya's Jesuit Hekima University College. In March 2015 he addressed the matter at the Vatican itself, telling the second Voices of Faith event that girls in Africa are often treated as if they were "children of a lesser God."
Orobator, 49, previously served as the head of the Jesuit province in eastern Africa. He was one of the delegates sent to Rome for the order's October election of their new global superior and many Jesuit leaders openly speak of him as a possible future superior himself.
The Nigerian is also widely influential in U.S. theological circles, often making trips to speak at American Catholic colleges and universities. He has published several books that are frequently cited in others' works, focusing on the African experience of Catholicism, the struggle to end violence across his continent, and feminist theological ethics.
In an October NCR interview in Rome shortly after the election of the new Jesuit superior, Orobator praised Pope Francis for creating a new commission to study the possibility of Catholic women deacons.
Calling the idea a "real and present question," he said he hoped the pontiff would not continue "dragging this out for centuries or decades ... but [come] to some clearly defined position now because it is a question for now."
"It involves lives of people and people who feel called to ministry in the church but at the same time feel they are not able to live out this call," said the priest. "My hope is that we don't drag this out for another decade."
In an earlier, wide-ranging interview in 2015 on the sidelines of a pan-African theological conference hosted in Nairobi, Kenya, by his university college, Orobator said he is compelled to speak about the status of women in the church largely because of how he saw his mother and sisters face sex discrimination in Nigeria.
The theologian also portrayed the struggle for women's inclusion as something personal, or even almost selfish. He said he cannot feel whole or complete until women are better represented in church structures.
"I feel almost violated because I feel that my humanity, which should be full and complete on the basis of mutuality and equality, is not being given that opportunity to have that experience of completeness," stated the Jesuit.
"Humanity is not about one side," he continued. "It's about both. It's man, it's woman; it's male; it's female — it's all together."
"I feel that there's something in me that will continue to be violated as long as that wholeness is not achieved, or as long as I participate, whether unconsciously or inadvertently, or by virtue of my belonging to this institution," stated the Jesuit. "As long as I participate in that process of exclusion, I still feel violated. I feel responsible."
"This is my deeply held conviction," he concluded. "As long as there's exclusion, we're not whole. We're not complete. We're not an integral body. Something about our integrity is violated. And we're responsible for that."
African symbols, images of God
Orobator's vision of a more mutually inclusive church draws on a background of symbols and images that are far from the American or western European experience.
In his 2008 book Theology Brewed in an African Pot, for example, the Jesuit centered his considerations on how Africans understand the Trinity with a reflection on an archetype of a particular woman in the culture of Nigeria's Yoruba people, known as the Obirin meta.
In the Yoruba language obirin means woman and meta three. It is an image of a mother strenuously at work in three different ways at once: perhaps walking while balancing a big pot of water or produce on her head, with one baby strapped to her back and another in her womb.
Taking the image even further, Orobator described a painting by Ugandan Jesuit priest and artist Kizito Busobozi that shows an Obirin meta type balancing firewood on her head, a baby on her back, and a bearded man suckling at her breast.
"This image of an African woman offers a unique way of understanding the reality called Trinity," the theologian broke into the narrative in the 2008 book. "Talking about God, it would not be out of place to think of God using the symbol of Obirin meta."
In the 2015 interview, Orobator said the issues he sees with exclusion of women in the church are rooted deep in how the faith community imagines and describes God.
"We've cut out this image that suits us perfectly but it's only one side," he said, calling it a "truncation of the richness of our symbolism."
He compared how we describe God today to how Jesus described God in his various parables in the Gospel teachings.
"Look at Jesus describing the faith as the mustard seed or seed that is sown," said the theologian. "There's such richness to it that it would almost appear sinful to want to reduce it to one thing and hold onto that thing for the rest of eternity."
"We never exhaust it," said Orobator. "It's inexhaustible. It's the font of mystery. We can't exhaust it. It's always something new that comes out when we peek, when we search, when we look."
"But then, we have developed a theological tradition that is so monolithic, that is so one-sided," he continued. "And we have almost sort of entrenched this in a set of codes and creeds and doctrines and dogma that we are so wedded to we can't let go. Because we think we're going to destroy God's image, or our image of God."
The Jesuit said one question facing the global faith community is: "Where do we find the resources for generating even richer images of God?" His answer: A combination of scriptural analysis and exploration of our own human experiences.
"That means not just male or female [experience] but both," he clarified.
"When my mother greets our God, she uses a variety of images," said Orobator. "It's God who is father, it's God who is mother, it's God who is provider, it's God who is strong, it's God who is compassionate."
"That's how I grew up," he said. "If God is father to me, I want to be able to celebrate that in the experience that ... my mother has. That's when it becomes complete for me."
Inequality of experience for women
A convert to Catholicism from African traditional religion, Orobator says his decision to speak loudly about women's exclusion stems mainly from how he saw his mother and sisters treated in Nigerian society.
Growing up, he said he saw his mother minister as what he calls a priestess, with "all the freedom in the world to express and to participate and to be fully integrated into our religious experience."
"Yet outside of that religious experience, where my mother or several of my sisters who feel deeply appreciated, the rest of society was in a way for me unkind to them," he said.
"Unkind to my sisters, who never had opportunities for education like I did because I was a man and they were women," he continued. "Unkind to my mother, who didn't have the opportunities to go to school and be educated because she was a woman."
"On the one hand in the religious space there was some mutuality, almost equality and freedom to be part of an experience that is so deeply formative," he explained. "Yet on the other hand, such stack evidence of exclusion and marginalization."
"Becoming a Catholic, there is almost a sort of replication of that, that structure of on the one hand acknowledgement, recognition; on the other hand, exclusion," he stated.
"I struggle with that and I ask myself why?" he said. "Who benefits from this?"
Becoming a Jesuit, Orobator said he recognized he had been given resources and an institutional standing that allow him to speak out in a way many women cannot.
"I realized that there are certain privileges that I can draw on ... on the basis of who I am as a man, a Jesuit, a priest in a church that claims to be champion of justice, of equality, of mutuality but which other people cannot draw on simply, as far as I can see, on account of their gender," he stated.
"And a lot of that takes me back to my experience before Catholicism and I say why this duality?" he continued. "Why this tired system where people are placed on different levels, and sometimes it's down to gender? Why?"
"I cannot live with that duality," he stated bluntly, giving the example of his sisters, who he said are "disadvantaged for life" because they did not have the opportunity he did as a Jesuit to go to high school or college.
"Something in me revolts against that," said Orobator. "Something in me simply refuses to accept that on the basis of some category we have created we can then determine who is in, who is out; who belongs and who doesn't belong."
"I have a fundamental — I would even say existential difficulty — in accepting such dichotomy, such arrangements that are fabricated based on norms that I believe don't come out of the Gospel, but rather are elements of a tradition that in my own reading may have been taken out of context or rather no longer apply to our present context," he continued.
"As a Jesuit ... I have come to know women who are competent in their right, in whatever field they are [in], but especially as women in religion, in theology," said Orobator.
"My belief is that such competence, or such depth of religious conviction, they add up to a wealth of resources and gifts for building the church," he continued. "And it would seem to me almost irrational not to take that into consideration, not to be open to that wealth of resources and gifts that the body of the church, which we call the body of Christ, needs."
Acting to include women in education
Orobator's words on better including women in the church have been backed by rather substantial action.
Several years ago an international theological group called Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church secured funding for seven African women to pursue doctorates at African Catholic universities.
They are among the first women on the continent to have the opportunity, and their supporters hope their education might serve to further the advancement of women just as similar U.S. initiatives in the 1960s and '70s have led to substantial increases in the number of women teaching theology and participating in church leadership structures.
Orobator has served as the academic advisor for several of the women, dedicating time and effort to help them pursue their research and keep on track for their degrees. The first of his advisees, Sr. Veronica Rop, graduated in May with a doctorate from The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, which is affiliated with Hekima.
The Jesuit is also taking steps to encourage more female enrollment at Hekima, an undergraduate institution that also educates many of his province's young Jesuits. He says he is in talks with several international groups to get funding for scholarships for east African women, so they might have the resources the young Jesuits are offered by being part of the order.
Orobator says having more women in classes with the future priests is a priority.
"I think it's healthy for Jesuits and people who are studying ministry to study in an environment that is much more reflective of real life situations," he stated, adding that seminarians can sometimes have a sense of "feeling special, sequestered, consecrated."
"I think it's also formative in a sense that we learn to relate to the other, even in our language, in our theological discourse, when at least we notice that we're not the only ones," he continued. "That's very important."
"When I've taught courses in Christology or Trinity and raised issues relating to feminism, I just feel that the reaction would have been so much different if there were other women in the room than what I got from the Jesuits, who are all men," he added.
'The way you live, move, have your being'
Orobator is shaped by a faith experience that is a mix of cultures and attitudes, religions and schemes of thought.
One small window into that mix is the soft clinking sound that comes from his left hand as he gestures while speaking. Around his wrist is a thin bracelet of cowries, the small seashells that an American might find at a seaside surf shop.
Those small shells, with spotted patterns and teethed grooves, indicate something that Orobator says other African Catholics have questioned him about: that although a Christian convert, he still maintains ties to his upbringing in traditional religion.
He says he has worn the shells since he was a child and considers them a cultural marker of who he is and where he comes from.
"I don't see how that conflicts with being a Christian," he stated. "I wear cowries because this was so ... important for us in my own religious tradition as an Africa."
"Cowries played a very important role in mediating relationship with God," Orobator explained. "You offered cowries to God or to the gods as offering, or as a sign of something you were giving up."
"It's a reminder that I am still in that relationship with God," he stated. "I'm not cut off from it."
"I'm not saying that I'm practicing African religion and it's syncretistic," he said. "I feel there is African religion, there is Christianity, but for someone who has had experience of both it's hard to say where one stops and the other begins."
One aspect of maintaining ties to his prior faith life, Orobator says, is that African traditional religions do not have written norms or expectations of behavior as most Christian denominations do.
"It was more like a way of life that you lived in and moved in and had your being," he explained. He says that in his practice of African religion there is a "concreteness" to one's relationship with God.
"It's not through abstract concepts," said the Jesuit. "It's very, very concrete symbolism of relationship, of friendship, of direct encounter, which makes me want to even go deeper, closer to this experience that I call God."
Asked to explain the visceral nature of that relationship, Orobator speaks of his prayer life as an active experience full of sights, sounds and tastes, not "simply trying to be still and meditative."
His description of the experience interestingly mirrors how 16th-century St. Ignatius of Loyola, one of the founders of the Jesuits, taught his confreres to pray.
In his set of spiritual exercises, Ignatius encourages his followers to place themselves fully within a Gospel story -- Jesus healing the blind man, or speaking to the woman at the well -- and to imagine all the physical aspects of the story: the sun beating down over the Mediterranean, or the smell of dirt and muck on the blind man's cloak.
Orobator says his prayer is not some abstract experience: "No, I'm in my body and I talk to God."
"In African religion, there's that presence," he continued. "You are surrounded by a world of deities and spirits. And I feel that in my experience as a Christian, that when I pray as one example, it's not a transcendental relocation or evacuation of my senses of anything material."
"No, I just feel at home when I feel and speak and smell and touch and hear who God is and who God is with me," he stated. "I feel God is encountering me here and now. And I'm trying to reciprocate, to respond to, to be present to that invitation and encounter."