A long procession of loud, yet eager group of merrymakers- more than 300 of them- have taken over the alleyways.
There is brass band music. And of course, plenty of dancing. One song of praise follows the other on the lips of everyone.
They sing songs like “Mary, mother of God; you have done well. You have given birth to the saviour. You have done well…,” one of the most popular songs of all time in the Catholic church in Ghana.
Young and old alike, drenched in sweat. There is brass band music. There is a lot of clapping and waving of handkerchiefs.
The crowd thickens as they move and the dancing is so intense that dust from the red-earth neighbourhood road blows up into the sky.
At one point, it’s hard to see people from a distance.
The town is Apowa, a bustling peri-urban community just on the outside of Takoradi.
It is a day before Father Stephen Daniels holds his first mass at the St John the Evangelist Parish, the Catholic Church he was born into in Apowa.
In the bucket of the Toyota pick-up, he stands with his mother, Sarah Daniels.
He, in a plain white cassock, his mother in a white ‘kaba’ with black stripes and bright headgear.
The hundreds and well-wishers following their convoy are dawning white t-shirts with the inscription; The Grace.
“It is the grace of God indeed. That is why so many people, so many friends are dancing on the streets, thanking God for me because no one thought I could be a Reverend Father,” Stephen said.
Stephen says he knew, when he was just 12, that he would be a Catholic priest.
He worked as a mass server even before that age. In the Catholic Church, mass servers are lay assistants to priests.
They attend to supporting tasks at the altar such as fetching and carrying items for priests, ringing the altar bell, helping bring gifts, among other duties.
In many instances, they are the closest people to the priests and walk almost in the footsteps of priests.
“I have a calling and I am happy I am able to answer this call today,” he said.
Stephen’s celebration marks the end of more than ten years of training in seminary.
It’s the beginning of a new phase of the priesthood; a life of isolation from family and what is supposed to be an eternal union with the church and its people.
“My prayer is that God makes him strong. That God leads him, just as he started with him in seminary. That he has the fortitude to keep to his vows and serve God well, says Mercy, his mother.
Priesthood is one of the main pillars of the church. Over the years, since the time of the apostles, the practice of priesthood has been one of the main pillars of the church and without the occasion of the priesthood the church cannot function,” says Adomako Baafi Emmanuel, a member of Knights of St. John International, a subsidiary body within the church.
The Catholic Church sets and continues to maintain very, very strict requirements for priests.
After over a decade of training before ordination, one has to take three vows; of chastity, of obedience and of poverty.
The oath of chastity requires that you do not have any sexual relations with the opposite sex or bear children.
That of obedience requires that you surrender your life and will to the church and the superior clergy that you would work under – that everything you’d do with your life would be determined by the church and what it wants.
The oath of poverty means that an ordained priest would not go after any wealth for himself and that every wealth he acquires would be for God and the church.
“It is only those with genuine reasons that are able to successfully emerge as priests. The priest is given out as a gift to God and the church.
Although some tend to resign, priesthood is a lifetime commitment,” says Adomako of the Knight of St John International.
It is a tough journey and not many make it to the end.
One of them is Knox Kwofie, now 31 years.
Born into a Catholic family, Knox, like Father Stephen, was a Knight of the Altar as a boy.
His dad was a catechist (lay caretakers who lead the church in the absence of the priest) at their local church in New Amanful, also a small beach town on the outskirts of Takoradi.
Knox’s parents had always wanted him to be a priest.
“My dad would tell me that if I became a priest, I would bring honour to the family. He had served the Catholic church his whole life and he was looking forward to my ordination one day,” he said.
Knox entered the seminary with 12 of his friends. Eight of them left the vocation and abandoned the dream to be priests before ordination.
“For many, it was the oath of obedience. It is difficult to surrender your future like that. I was given the opportunity to think about my choice and whether I really wanted to be a priest.”
Knox, who is now an accountant, says he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to commit to a lifetime of priesthood without options to do anything else.
“I decided to leave and go home,” he says.
While the oath of obedience is what stood in the way of people like Knox, it is that of chastity that does for many others.
In a country where family is extremely important and where many families place a lot of value on marriage and procreation, it is a tough call to forgo any of these.
“One major challenge that draws people from priesthood is celibacy. Priests vow to stay chaste without the joy of the family of procreation. The ordinary Ghanaian male would always want to raise his own family and wouldn’t want to vow to celibacy,” said Adomako.
“I gave birth to 6 boys and 3 girls. There are people who do not have any children at all. So, if God has given me 6 children and he, in his own wisdom, wants only one to come and do his work, to come and carry his cross, who am I to stop him? Because my son won’t give birth? No,” says Mercy Daniels, Stephen’s mother.
Father Stephen says many of his mates in seminary were either sacked or left on their own too.
Many of them had failed the chastity test or had either come to the realisation, after self-introspection, that they could no longer live up to the calling.
“The sort of things that we see in seminary are enormous. It is not easy. Some start but are unable to finish. Some get ordained hoping to finish but they drop out or get sacked,” he said.
The Catholic Church heavily revolves around its priests. Several parts of its service like communion which is at the very heart of Catholicism- can’t happen unless an ordained priest is in the church.
And yet, the church does not have a priest for every church or what it calls an outstation. Some have blamed the strict standards it has for people who want to go into priesthood training.
When asked about this, Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology and director of seminarian admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, said “the number of active priests in ministry would continue to decrease due to death, retirement, and an attrition rate among able-bodied priests who abandon the ministry for different reasons. This latter factor will continue to be significant going forward.”
Where attrition rates in some parts of the world are forcing seminaries to shut down, the Catholic church, at least in Ghana, hasn’t reached that tipping point where attrition rate from priesthood training affects the number of priests it needs to effectively run, according to Adomako of the Knights of St John.
“Ghana has no problem with inadequate priests unlike other places where priests have to be brought in from other Dioceses. Places that have inadequate priests are trying to bring in permanent diaconate so that married men who would like to serve can also serve.
Ghana is not lacking priests at all. In a year, we can ordain about 50 to 100 priests,” he says.
Back at the St John the Evangelist Parish, a day after Father Stephen’s outdooring and wild town procession, friends and family have traveled from far and near to see his first mass.
His mother is spotted in an expensive white and yellow kaba with a head gear to match.
His father, Isaac Daniels is wearing an agbada with the same colours to match his wife’s.
“I am overjoyed,” he said. “Not everybody gets this honour. Not every family gets this blessing. The Lord has done something huge in my life. So much so that I do not even know what to say. This makes me want to worship him forever. I will. I will give him my all until he himself calls me to come home,” he says.
In the Catholic Church, the family of priests are highly respected and honoured for giving up their own to the Church.
The family becomes part of the church through their contribution to the Church.
The respect accorded to such families puts priests on their toes as whatever they do will have implications on themselves and their families.
Adomako thinks that may be the driving motivation for many young people wanting to be priests.
“Many young people follow these family pressure and go into the seminary,” he says.
Inside the church where Father Stephen is having his mass, many well-wishers are full of praise and adoration for the family.
“No one thought this was possible. No one thought I, Stephen Daniels, could be a priest one day. I want to live this calling to the end,” he said.
As many people, those known and others unknown to him, walk up to him to request selfie opportunities after the service, many of his family and close friends look on in visible pride.
It is uncertain how long the Catholic Church is going to hold on to these very strict standards it has of its priests.
Pope Francis I, the head of the Church since 2013, is seen by many as one of the most liberal of all time.
The last time he is on record to have spoken about the matter, he said it “is a matter of discipline, not of faith.
It can change” but added: “For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures… Tradition has weight and validity.”
Going on further to say that the rule must be strictly adhered to, and any priest who could not obey it “has to leave the ministry.”
In 2020, he disappointed liberal Catholics who thought he had been handed a golden opportunity to relax celibacy rules for priests when he had to make a decision on allowing married men to be ordained in the Amazon to make up for the dwindling number of priests in that region.
He refusal to approve the ordination of married men reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries-old commitment to celibacy among priests.
The decision, one of the most significant of his papacy, was hailed by conservatives who have long held that any move to relax the rules in anyway, anywhere in the world would be a slippery slope that could open the floodgates for similar demands to be made from elsewhere.
“I foresee a lot more changes coming in because the church has to meet the demands of the time it finds itself. The vocation of priesthood might experience some changes. During the time of the first Vatican, there were Popes and priests who were married and so if there are changes that will fit into the demand of the times then it will be in the best interest of the church,” says Adomako.
Knox is still a committed member of the Catholic Church and says he is happy for his friends who were able to make it to the finish line and have now been ordained. Asked whether he regrets his decision, he said “no”.
“I think that there are many things I can still do in the church to serve God. I would have been happy if I were an ordained priest. My family would be extremely proud but I think they have now come to realize that it was not for me and I am happier being out of it,” he said.
As the church service wraps up, Father Stephen continues greeting everyone who stretches a hand and puts up a smile for everyone requesting a photo-op.
“This is what I have chosen. This my new life. My new family and I want to do it with everything I have,” he says.