LAGOS, Nigeria » The young woman slept soundly on the cool marble floor before the altar, a break from the chaos at home. In the courtyard, neighborhood teenagers filled giant jerrycans with purified water from a stone fountain. In an aisle, a rail-thin young woman from a nearby slum said she had not eaten since yesterday but was expecting sustenance here.
Behind its high spiked iron gates in this frenetic megalopolis of anywhere between 11 million and 21 million, the church of Christ the King is protector, feeder and healer.
In the 6 a.m. darkness, this working-class church is already filled with parishioners in shirt-sleeves and T-shirts, a pool of hymn-singing light in a blacked-out neighborhood. Six Masses are celebrated here each Sunday for up to 10,000 people, and 102 people were baptized last Saturday. The parish priest, the Rev. Ikenna Ikechi, dreams of building a multistory community center to accommodate his growing flock. "Our only limitation is space," he said.
The Roman Catholic Church’s explosive growth here and across Africa has led to serious talk of the possibility of an African cardinal succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, and clerics from Nigeria, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has the continent’s largest Catholic population, have been mentioned as top contenders.
With 16 percent of the world’s Catholics now living in Africa, the church’s future, many say, is here. The Catholic population in Africa grew nearly 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, far outstripping other parts of the world. While the number of priests in North America and Europe declined during the same period, in Africa they grew by 16 percent. The seminaries, clerical officials here say, are bursting with candidates, and African priests are being sent to take over churches in former colonial powers.
Untainted by the child sexual abuse scandals, the church here draws parishioners, many in their 20s and 30s, who flock eagerly to services, which can last hours, with no complaints.
"After work, a lot of young people come to Mass," said Chinedu Okani, 29, an engineer in Lagos who was attending a service at the Church of the Assumption in the Falomo neighborhood. "It provides a serene environment."
He acknowledges another attraction, too: that the church is a functioning institution in a country that lacks them.
"The welfare system is not working here," Okani said. "We find a way to make up for it: the family, and the church."
In Nigeria, at least 70 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and 80 percent of the country’s oil wealth goes to 1 percent of the population. The police do not respond to calls, and electricity is spotty.
Outside Christ the King, on the dirt streets of the Mushin neighborhood, there are armed robbers and no lights. It is little wonder that the priest must gently shoo away parishioners lingering to read or chat in the church’s arcaded meeting spaces under generator-powered lights.
"A lot of it is the challenge of living in Nigeria," said Ikechi, who was educated at Fordham University in New York. "We can’t rely on the government for water, light, security. Whatever you want, you have to provide for yourself."
For his parishioners, he said, "what they face is huge. So they tend to come to God as their last resort. You can’t go to the police. Who will you go to? You will go to God. Some of them, where they sleep is so bad, they just come to sleep here during the day."
After a devastating bus accident recently the church paid parishioners’ hospital bills, the priest said. "Otherwise they would die," he said.
In this way the church is fulfilling a role it played in its distant European past, providing for the people where the state cannot, but some question whether the African church’s growth and size can be sustained as the continent’s institutions develop.
"When people say Africa is the future, I say, ‘Oh, isn’t it the past?"’ said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "I see it as a repeat of the past, what happened in Europe centuries ago. What’s going to happen in Africa when everybody gets a television set, when modernity comes?"
For now, that question is largely academic here.
"Almost every system has collapsed," said Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. "The entire architecture of governance has collapsed. The church remains the only moral force.
"The church offers the best schools, social services, medicine. The God talk in Africa is a mark of the failure of the economic, social and political system," Kukah added. "We are being called left, right and center to mend the broken pieces of what are considered the failing states of Africa."
In a continent rife with corruption, the church also provides a singular moral voice. Kukah, for example, has played a large role in good governance and human rights commissions, including the investigation into the 1990s military dictatorship.
In Congo, where the number of Catholics has more than tripled in the past 35 years, Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa has fiercely criticized the government, including the tainted election results that secured President Joseph Kabila’s re-election in 2011. The Catholic Church deployed an extensive network of independent observers during the December elections, and the bishops’ council later denounced the "culture of treachery, lies and terror."
"It’s the church’s engagement on behalf of the Congolese people, the promotion of the whole man, you’ve got to bring forth bread and the Gospels," said Bishop Bernard-Emmanuel Kasanda of Mbuji-Mayi in Congo. "We have to be with the people. Moral authority, yes. This is what pushes people towards us."
In Nigeria, where over $5 billion was reported missing from a minerals ministry on Friday, the latest in a series of seemingly endless government scandals, the church offers an alternative to a life mired in corruption, poverty and hopelessness.
Laurence Emeka, 30, who sells telephone accessories at an open-air stall, rose at 5 a.m. last Sunday to attend Mass at Christ the King before going to work. The service gave him a kind of sanctuary. "Peace, satisfaction, confidence in God," he said. "It helps me cope with the circumstances of daily life."