Date Created: 2018-09-05 13:39:00

Yoruba Cultural Heritage and Priestly Life

               Rev. Fr Peter Seyi  Adeyemi.


This paper is a brief intervention on Yoruba cultural heritage in relation to priestly life in the Catholic Church. Most of the Yoruba cultural heritage can be extracted from our beliefs, ethical values, practices, institutions, myths, folktales, and proverbs.  Yoruba cultural heritage is very rich and it provides pragmatic ways of living a virtuous life. The Catholic priesthood has its own values and norms which stand out over the ages as beacons of light in the world with its imperfections and evil. It is presumed that a priest can best minister to the people of God if he knows and operates within the cultural heritage of the people to whom he is sent. Failure to integrate the cultural heritage of the people will spell disaster for the priest and the community. I therefore intend in this paper to highlight some cultural heritage of the Yoruba people that can enhance our effectiveness as ministers entrusted with the sacred mysteries of Christ and his Church in Osogbo diocese.  

Yoruba Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage simply put is the totality of the legacy both tangible and intangible inherited from the past generations of ancestors passed on to the present and preserved for the future generations for posterity. Tangible cultural heritage will include buildings, monuments, books and historical sites. Intangible cultural heritage is of direct concern to us in this paper and this, “consists of non physical aspects of a particular culture, often maintained by social customs during specific period in history. The ways and means of behavior in a society… These include social values and traditions, customs and practices, aesthetic and spiritual beliefs, artistic expression, language and other aspects of human activity.” [i]

 Every priest is taken from among men from a particular culture, in our case we were born and brought up within Yoruba culture. Kwame Gyeke asserts that, “the term ‘culture’ in a comprehensive sense… encompass the entire life of a people: their morals, religious beliefs, social structures, political and educational systems, forms of music and dance, and all other products of their creative spirit.”[ii]  The above  mentioned points are of immediate interest to us within the context of Yoruba people worldview. 




Orature which mean oral literature is typically found within all indigenous rhetorical traditions. Ajibade George points out that orature covers: “A wide range of oral literature such as: praise descriptive poetry- (oriki), masquerade poetry (esa), epithalamium (ewi ajemoyawo), riddles (alo apamo), Ifa poetry, and hunters’ genre (ijala-iremonje”.[iii] Orature is a fertile area of culture that can promote the cause of evangelization. In a typical local parish a good knowledge of orature and its usage will help the local folks to connect easily with the Gospel message. Some Catholic priests in Yoruba land are already using “ewi genre” to teach authentic Catholic doctrines by waxing records that explain the sacraments and relevant doctrinal issues.

Proverbs, Dictums and Maxims

Yoruba intangible cultural heritage is rich time-tested proverbs, dictums and maxims distilled by experience and handed down over the ages as the collective wisdom of our ancestors in their attempt to teach, guide and reprimand traditional society. The proverbs if utilized maximally will facilitate the incarnation of the Gospel message and effective pastoral ministry. Wiredu testifies to the importance of proverbs in these words: “Our traditional culture is famous for an abundance of proverbs- those concentrations of practical wisdom which have a marvelous power when quoted at the right moment to clinch a point of argument or reinforce a moral reflection…”[iv] The above find apt expression in these two Yoruba proverbs:

Yoruba bo won ni “Owe ni esin oro, oro lesin owe ti oro ba sonu owe lafi n wa” “Bi owe bi owe la nlu ilu ogidigbo, ologbon ni njo omoran ni n mon, ewe koko lafi se awo re ganmun ganmu lafi nlu beeni ko gbodo faya.”

The aspect of our priestly ministry where this should be explored to the maximum is when preaching the word of God. As ordained ministers we use sermons to explain the word of God after its proclamation from the sacred scriptures during liturgical celebrations. The duty of the preacher is to use his skill and acquired knowledge to interpret the Bible passages proclaimed by way of exegetical analysis, illustrations and pastoral application to reality and daily experiences of the faithful. Timothy Dolan posits that a preacher should transform the proclaimed word of God to “doctrinal meat,” draw “scriptural lessons” from them and by way of pastoral application give “moral instruction” to guide the faithful.[v] From our collective experiences, we have all listened to highly inspiring sermons before with power and authority behind the spoken word. Such have the characteristics of evoking emotions of sorrow for sins committed, joy and peace of mind for virtuous living and the desire to effect the necessary behavioral spiritual or ethical change in our personal conduct as the case may be.

The people of God will easily grasp our message when it is seasoned with apt proverbs. Besides solid doctrinal content, accurate scriptural analysis and moral instruction in homilies, the method of communication is highly essential because, “talking and eloquence are not the same. To speak and to speak well are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks,”[vi] asserts Benjamin Johnson. “Owe lesin oro oro lesin owe…” Most Catholics drawn away from the Church by Pentecostal preachers in Nigeria today were not won over by sound theological homilies or better moral indoctrination but by fluent articulation of issues that are at best described as motivational speeches under the guise of sermons.


Inculturation has been defined as “the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture or cultures”.[vii] As a term it also designates the process by which the Gospel takes root in local values, discovering and using their richness, as well as purifying their deficiencies…[viii] Inculturation is one important heritage theologians of Nigeria extraction including our first generation Bishops in Yoruba land have left us that we must preserve. Bishop Fagun’s contribution to the translation of liturgical texts will remain evergreen in the annals of history,  so also is Archbishop Okogie’s intrepid role as social crusader in Nigeria, Bishop Julius Adelakun’s effort to allow faith and culture shape his Episcopal ministry is outstanding, the pastoral zeal of Archbishop Job of Ibadan, the role of Bishop Abegunrin as the harbinger of peace in Osun state are all pathways that these prelates have opened for us in Yoruba land as our cultural heritage in priestly life. Similarly, all our elderly priests have shown us many priestly values based on their experiences of Yoruba cultural heritage; we shall do well to document such and preserve them.     

Collaborative initiatives and Yoruba Culture:

Yoruba will say : “Ajeje owo kan ko gbe ru dori” “Ookan to ni o n ba esan se ko le di mewa lailai” Ordained ministers in Yoruba land will thrive when we allow others to be part of the ministry. The welfare committee of the parish pastoral council can help reach out to parishioners that are not active or those who have crises of faith. The legionaries can be mobilized for house to house visitation while the members of Catholic charismatic renewal movement are very good at public outreach for grassroots evangelization. The faithful are only waiting for the order and the right motivation from the priest to move into action.  

     Yoruba people will say “awo ni n gbe awo ni igbonwo, ti awo ko ba gbe awo ni igbonwo awo a te awo a ya.”This proverb distinctly emphasize the importance of collaborative effort among traditional Yoruba priests, which should the Roman Catholic priesthood strongly emphasized in the fraternal brotherhood of laying on of hands during ordination. Priests need one another to succeed in the ministry.     

Yoruba Ethical Values and Taboos :

Ethical values and taboos constitute indispensable Yoruba cultural heritage a priest must imbibe at all cost. The Yoruba ethical values are summed up in the concept of “Omoluabi.”  The concept of Omoluabi is a Yoruba all-encompassing word that expresses the attitude and character of a man or woman of outstanding virtues and someone who upholds values of all kinds. According to Fayemi (2009), “The concept of Omoluabi in Yoruba thought probes deeply into the Yoruba understanding of characteristics features constitutive of a person.”[ix] Omoluabi is considered a child; “the baby begotten by the chief of Iwa – such a child is thought of as a paragon of excellence in character.”[x]

Fayemi attempts a brilliant synthesis of scholarly literature on the concept of Omolabi, following the analysis of Prof. Sophie Oluwole (2007),the concept is given epistemological foundation thus: “Omo ti o ni iwa bi eni ti a ko, ti o si gba eko”(A person that behaves like someone who is well nurtured and lives by the precepts of the education s/he has been given).In Yoruba worldview Omoluabi is someone that is given a deep knowledge, wisdom, and therefore well trained to be self disciplined and to develop a sense of responsibility that shows in private and public action which earns individuals social integrity, and personality in Yoruba society.[xi] From the point of view of Prof Wande Abimbola, the concept of Omoluabi encapsulates a conglomeration of principles of moral conduct, oro siso,(spoken word), iteriba, (respect), inu rere, (having a good mind to others) or goodwill, otito,(truthfulness), iwa,(character), akinkanju,(bravery), ise, (hard work) and opolo pipe, (intelligence).[xii]

In scholarly discussion virtue has been defined as goodness of moral character or persisting excellence in being for the good. A person of outstanding virtue is not just good for some time or perform occasional good actions but the individual is always good all the time whether in private or in public.  Yoruba people will say, “Iwa rere loso eniyan.” The way the ancient Yoruba trained their children to acquire virtues was similar to the Aristotle’s chronicle of the ethical training of youngsters in Athenian polis.  In Aristotle’s view we acquire virtues largely by habituation, that is, by acting as if we already possess them.  For him virtue is not just a matter of performing certain right actions but also of the way in which these actions are produced. Aristotle holds that early upbringing is indispensable for the formation of virtuous character. In his understanding children are brought up to do certain things and avoid others even when they would have loved to do otherwise. There are taboos (eewo ) in Yoruba land that help keep people in check from perpetrating evil.

A good priest will be conscious of the traditional taboos in the local community and not encourage people to break those that safeguard morality and security even-though some of such may be outdated in contemporary time. Similarly, the priest cannot afford to do what he likes; his actions must be guided all the time by norms of priestly code of conducts. The Yoruba people have the dictum that “awo  kii to oju ogberi da ifa inu.” It is standard ethical practice among traditional priests that they do not downplay the importance of their priestly duties before those who are not initiated into the mystery system. The same point makes it a taboo as well, in other words, something that should not be contemplated at all. 

  Yoruba Cultural Heritage and Priesthood

Yoruba people have a definite and clear perspective of the priesthood from the traditional angle and expectations. They emphasize discipline, competence, mastery of subject matter, sacrifice and self control. Prof. Wande Abimbola describes the training of Ifa priest thus:

The training of Ifa priests is a supreme example of sacrifice in human endeavour…The aim of the training is to give the would be priests a disciplined attitude to many problem in life. In ancient times, Ifa priests were the guardians, counselors, philosophers and physicians of their various communities. It was therefore, the primary aim of the training to prepare would be priests adequately to meet the grave responsibilities of important positions in the community. [xiii]

The purpose of this excursus on traditional Ifa priestly training is to emphasize the fact that the  stark illiterate old men and women in our rural Yoruba parishes have clear perspectives about the basic standards a good priest must possess from traditional experience.

Rev. Fr. Prof. Thomas Ilesanmi in his epic writing titled: Aroko Leti Opon Ifa, describes the enormity of the obligations involved in priestly life in traditional Yoruba culture in these words:

Ifawumi, Ise awo le!

Ole ju gbogbo ise ti n be laye.

A pe e lawo, nitoripe

Ohun toju awo nri po ju teniyan miiran lo.

Bee si ni kokooko ni enu awo gbodo wo.

Boniwa ba maa wi

Won a ni : bojuri enu a dake

Beleyin ba maa fo

Won a ni: Kii se gbogbo ohun toju bari,

Loye kenu  maa so…

Ile eni lati I jekutele onidodo

Obe kii mi ni ikun agba.

                                 Lati ojo alaye ti daye,

Kiko enu eni ni ijanu

Ni imonran agba omoran.

A kii saba so oju abe nikoo

Kabe ajoyi ma ba a sowo eni lese.[xiv]      

The above points succinctly assert that priesthood according to Yoruba traditional perspective is for people who are mature and not for individuals still dwelling in their infantile stage though in adult skin. A priest who ministers in Yoruba land will ignore the above traditional priestly values to his own regret.  

Catholic Priesthood and Adoption of Cultural Heritage

It is not everything about the cultural heritage that can be adopted; some cultural heritage may be at variance with the Gospel values, such must be discarded. As learned men, our approach should be critical but constructive exploration of our cultural values that can enhance our priestly ministry.  Kwasi Wiredu made a fascinating point in this regard, he writes: “There is an urgent need in Africa today for the kind of analysis that would identify and separate the backward aspects of our culture from those aspects worth keeping.”[xv]

 The exploratory effort must focus on restoration, innovation and updating of the cultural values in the light of the contemporary changes in the world.  Indeed an attitude that can proof to be an obstacle to the usefulness of cultural heritage to the priesthood “is to regard our traditional worldviews as timeless, self-validating ones whose constitutive elements require only elaboration not critical examination”.[xvi] After exploring cultural heritage worth keeping we should eliminate the undesirable elements. According to Pope John Paul II: “The church respects all cultures and imposes on no one her faith in Jesus Christ, but she invites all people of goodwill to promote a true civilization of love, founded on the evangelical values of brotherhood, justice and dignity for all.”[xvii]



The Yoruba cultural heritage mentioned in this paper are not exhaustive; they are just tip of the ice berg. I am of the opinion that we only managed to touch some relevant aspects. All said and done we have all be ordained to serve the people  according to the mind of Christ while at the same time we are conscious of their cultural heritage that can help us serve them better. I will like to conclude in the words of Archbishop Gomez who remarked that: “Nothing human is alien to the priest. He sees it all. Every parish is a microcosm, a miniature world in which countless human dramas and dreams play out. The priest walks with his people as they are born and as they die; he is with them in times of joy and times of sorrow; in sickness and suffering, in health and happiness.” [xviii] The perceptions of the people of these phenomena of human existence are highly dependent on their cultural heritage. A good priest therefore must therefore have adequate knowledge of the cultural heritage of the people he is sent to minister to.


A text of paper presented at the orientation program for the new priests in Catholic diocese of Osogbo on 4th June 2012 at St Benedict Catholic Cathedral, Osogbo.


[ii] Kwame Gyekye, African Cultural Values An Introduction, (Accra: Sankofa Publishing Company,2000 edition),xiii

[iii] George Olusola Ajibade, “Multifaces of Word in Yoruba Orature,” in Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 3 no 1 2005,p.1

[iv] Wiredu op cit. P. 4

[v] Arch Bishop Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium: The Year for Priests, (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2000),304.

[vi] John P.Bradley, Leo. F.Daniels, Thomas C. Jones, The International Dictionary of Thoughts: An Encyclopedia of Quotations From Every Age for Every Occasion, (Chicago: J.G. Ferguson Publishing Company,1969),249.  

[vii] Stephen M. Beall, “Translation and Inculturation in the Catholic Church,” the text of paper presented at the International Conference on “Rethinking Translation,” Milwaukee, June 10 1995.

[viii] Cormac Burke, ’Inculturation: John Paul II and the third world,’ http//eapi. Admu.edu.ph/eapr 95 I burke. htm.  Retrieved  23 November, 2011.

[ix] Fayemi, Ademola Kazeem, “Human Personality and the Yoruba Worldview: An Ethico-Sociological Interpretation” The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol.2, no.9, March 2009, p165.

[x] Ibidem,p.167.

[xi] Ibidem,p.168.

[xii] Ibidem,p.169.

[xiii] Wande Abimbola, Ifa An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus, (Ibadan: Oxford University Press Nigeria, 1976),18

[xiv] T. M.Ilesanmi, Aroko Leti Opon Ifa, Ile-Ife : Amat Printing & Publishing Nigeria,1998),107. 

[xv] Kwasi Wiredu, Philosophy and an African Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1980, p.41

[xvi] Olusegun Oladipo, ed. The Third Way in African Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Kwasi Wiredu, Ibadan: Hope publications Ltd, 2002, P.162

[xvii]  Discourse of John Paul II to the Pontifical Council for culture, 15 January 1985 in L’osservatore Romano- weekly edition in English- 11 February 1985, no 3.

[xviii] Archbishop Jose H Gomez, Men of Brave Heart: The Virtue of Courage in the Priestly Life, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division,2009),7.


No Comment on this post
Leave a comment