By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
BEAUFORT — St. Peter Church is just like home for Father Anthony Naaeke. Never mind that he comes from Ghana, West Africa. The Lowcountry landscape is similar, the heat is just as high, although “the humidity is awful” and the people are friendly.
Naaeke is a 34-year-old graduate student in corporate communications at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is spending his summer vacation in Beaufort to experience a different part of the country. He arrived at St. Peter’s May 7, thanks to a priest friend who contacted Father Ronald Cellini, pastor of St. Peter, and helped arrange the visit, and will stay until August 24 when he has to return to school.
In the meantime, Father Naaeke fits his summer studies in between meeting his host parishioners and bringing Communion to sick people in the hospital, the elderly in the local nursing home and those who are homebound. He also shares the Mass schedule with Father Cellini and managed to squeeze in two weeks in June at the University of Dayton for a special workshop on religious and pastoral communications.
It all seems to be the perfect working vacation for this priest who has known his vocation since he was a child growing up in Nandom in the Catholic Diocese of Wa.
After hearing him relate the story of his Catholic childhood and close-knit family who prayed together nightly, it is not surprising to hear him speak of his respect for the priesthood.
“Despite my limitations as a human being, God makes it possible for me to celebrate the Eucharist and speak on his behalf,” he said.
The bishop of Wa, also wants Naaeke to speak on the Lord’s behalf. Bishop Paul Bemile chose the young priest to study communications. Naaeke graduated from St. Victor’s Major Seminary and was ordained Dec. 14, 1991.
His first assignment was as chaplain to a public school in Dagaare where he taught Bible knowledge and English for two years. Next, he was sent to Nigeria for three months for a course in radio production and communications management. His bishop wanted him to come to America in 1996 but he could not get a visa. So for the next year he was assigned to a parish for pastoral work where he found great joy in the youth ministry.
“I look forward to working with the youth again,” he said. “They are so interesting, inquisitive and always desiring to achieve something. I like to support them and help them to realize their goals.”
Naaeke has many ideas and goals, however the primary one is getting out the good news and it is a challenge. In Ghana, radio and word of mouth are the primary means of reaching a large audience and he, like his bishop, has to work around that. Villages often have no electricity or phone systems and one household may have a television operating off of a generator.
Certain media messages, however, have had a negative effect in his country, Naaeke said. Teenage pregnancy is a chronic problem and the western influence of television is destructive.
“Violence and sex are two key topics of media brought to people,” Naaeke said. “The media has presented a way of life that is not real. If the church takes a leading role in this they will have time to analyze what we see so they can sift the good from the bad.”
Naaeke said that churches in the United States have more means of communications individually than in the whole of his home diocese.
“It makes communication really difficult for us in the diocese,” he said. “Even the bishop has no fax machine. To communicate between parishes you have to travel there yourself. I want to propose certain things but we don’t have the resources. If we go to a village to show a film we have to bring a television set with a generator.”
When he returns home he would like to teach media education and was before to deacons in seminary and catechist training schools and secondary school.
His studies at Duquesne will help him be able to communicate the word of God effectively to people not only by word of mouth but many other ways. In Ghana, Naaeke said that people also communicate through drama, music, storytelling and proverbs.
The Diocese of Wa has an eight-page Catholic newspaper and Mass is sometimes broadcast on radio. Naaeke has already been editor of the paper and has made radio programs of morning reflections and liturgy. He also recorded two 60-minute tapes of spiritual reflections which were sold and was surprised at their popularity.
Catholicism was brought to his homeland through the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers, who arrived in Jirapa, Ghana in 1929.
Wa was chosen as the See city because it was the administrative capital of the region. Naaeke’s parents were part of the first generation to be baptized into Catholicism. His hometown of Nandom now has the largest Catholic population in the diocese. Last Easter, they baptized 700 people.
“Catholicism spoke to the hearts of people,” Naaeke said of the conversions. “The God that Catholicism was attentive to their needs … in tune with their own life expectations.”
The priest said that Ghana is growing economically but, generally, people are suffering. He said that the daily wage is not sufficient to take care of one person let alone the needs of one family.
“The income of one day is just enough to buy a Coca-Cola, about 75 or 80 cents,” he said.
It’s the talk about communications that gets him enthusiastic. He records his homilies here for possible use at home. When he does return to Ghana, he is unsure of what he will do, his bishop will decide.
Until then, homesickness makes an occasional appearance and the priest feels alone sometimes. At those moments, he prays. He tries to spend an hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament every day. He also has a devotion to St. Anthony which came from seeing his father read the St. Anthony’s treasury every morning. But, he said, he is comfortable at St. Peter because Father Cellini treats him like a real brother.
“He respects me and thinks that I have something to contribute to this parish,” he explained. “He provides me with freedom and the liberty to do what I can do.”
Father Cellini described his visitor as prayerful, scholarly and kind.
“He has been a real blessing, particularly with the African American community,” Cellini said. “He has brought a lot of life to our parish. I wish we could keep him with us.”
Father Naaeke has made his presence felt both in Pittsburgh and in his second home, for a while at least, in Beaufort.