Reflections from Africa on destroying idols and saving souls

When my brother Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J. visited me at the mission parish in Togo, West Africa, he wasn’t expecting to be smashing idols with a sledgehammer and burning the remains. But that’s exactly what he did.

Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ, destroying ancestral idols in Togo, West Africa. (Photos courtesy of the author)

When my brother Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J. visited me not long ago at the mission parish here in Togo, West Africa, where I’ve served for the past seventeen years as a priest on loan from the Archdiocese of Washington, I don’t think he expected to be smashing idols with a sledgehammer and burning the remains. But life has its surprises, and that’s exactly what he did.

Here’s how it happened.

During Peter’s visit, a delegation from one of the prominent families in this large rural village where our mission is located came to see me with the great news that they had decided to renounce their ancestral idol. And they asked me to destroy it. Hearing about this, a few other neighboring families decided to do the same with theirs. Excitement began to build, a Saturday morning was selected, and plans were quickly made.

When the great day arrived, we began with Mass, followed by a procession of hundreds from the church to the homes, with our large parish choir leading the way with songs and drums and trumpets. My great young Togolese assistant pastor Fr. Jonathan Togbe and I blessed bags of salt and buckets of holy water, and our altar boys carried a crucifix and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of our parish. We knew we needed the extra protection of these sacramentals.

The blessing of salt and holy water. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I decided to delegate most of the idol destruction to Peter, who carried out the work with gusto, amid tumultuous shouts of joy from our faithful as they sang Yesu enye dzidula! (Jesus is the winner!). Down the idols went, one after another. It all culminated with the demolition of the main pagan sanctuary, once the last idol had been removed from it and destroyed, and the placing of a large cross in the midst of the rubble to claim the site for Christ.

Peter turned to me at one point during the festivities, and confided to me that this was “about the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” I’m sure it was, Peter. Good job, and thanks for your help.

Here are a few reflections on this adventure.

Scripture tells us on the one hand that an idol is nothing, that it has “no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:4). That is certainly true as regards the lack of personhood of the physical object itself. Idols are “gods of wood and stone, the work of man’s hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell” (Deut. 4:28). On the other hand, Scripture also teaches that there is a relationship between the physical object and demonic forces. The Psalmist laments that the Israelites’ faithless ancestors “served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Ps. 106:36-37). St. Paul warns the Corinthians that, while he does not imply “that food offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything,” nonetheless “what pagans sacrifice [to idols], they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons” (1 Cor 10:20).

We have to be very careful about anything to do with demons. In recent years, there has been an alarming upsurge of interest in Satanism in the United States. I sometimes ask myself if the renunciation of false worship and superstition that is an optional part of some of the ceremonies in the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, and is often skipped back home, should be made mandatory by the US bishops, as it is here in Africa. People need to understand that Satan and the other evil spirits are real, and that they are much more powerful than we are. Africans know this. Americans should. Jesus didn’t call Satan the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 14:30) for nothing.

However, in that same passage Jesus goes on to say that Satan “has no power over me.” Demons know who Jesus is and are terrified of him (Lk 8:28), and every Christian should have complete confidence that as long as he or she is united to Jesus through sanctifying grace and the sacraments, there is absolutely nothing to fear. Pope Benedict XVI, on his 2009 African trip, urged Catholics in Angola “to offer the Risen Christ to your fellow citizens. So many of them are living in fear of spirits of malign and threatening powers . . . Who can go to them to proclaim that Christ has triumphed over death and all those occult powers?”

Indeed, during our adventure here in the village, while the large crowd of Christians rejoiced triumphantly, there were others who stood behind them, not singing or shouting with joy but observing fearfully. They were wondering, I was told later, when the demonic retribution for this insult to the spirits would come, and what form it would take. When weeks passed and nothing bad happened, that made an impact. Jesus is the winner indeed.

Pagans and everyone else have a right to know that the one who possesses all power, who created and sustains the whole universe, is also infinitely good and loves them beyond measure. They have a right to know that he has given proof of this love by sending us his Son, who shed the last drop of his blood and then rose again to save us from the misery of sin, suffering, and death. They have a right to experience the joy of liberation from all the forces of evil. They have a right to learn about and share in the victory of Jesus, to hear about and enter by faith into the new life he offers them here and now, with its unshakeable hope of life forever in God’s glorious kingdom.

And so, yes, they have a right to baptism. One of the organizers of the Vatican’s 2019 Amazonian Synod, an Austrian bishop whom I will charitably describe only as being very confused for a very long time, made the astonishing statement that in over forty years of missionary work in Brazil he had not baptized a single person and did not intend to ever do so. Apparently, this bishop thinks that baptizing indigenous people would be some sort of unwarranted cultural imposition. Apparently, Jesus does not think that. His final words to his apostles were “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20).

What about cultural differences, though?

Fr. Willam Ryan (left) and his brother, Fr. Peter Ryan, S.J. (Photos courtesy of the author)

Here in Togo, after the farmers have removed corn kernels from the cobs and gathered them into shallow basins, they clean up the kernels by tossing the basins up and down, catching the kernels and letting the breeze carry away the chaff. I tell them that this is what Christians everywhere in the world need to do with all the customs and attitudes they encounter. Every culture is a mix of bad that must be rejected and good that should be preserved. St. Paul exhorts us to “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9).

So, idol-worship here needs to end. Africans need to freely choose to renounce it, full-stop. (I recall that a lady back home asked me if the people here couldn’t have kept their idols just as souvenirs of how they used to worship! Um . . . no). But there are plenty of admirable aspects of African culture that they should preserve and treasure, and that we Westerners can learn from. One is that Africans value the elderly precisely because they are elderly. In the US, generally speaking, the older a person is, the fewer people there will be at his funeral. Here it is just the opposite. Older persons are considered to be repositories of wisdom, and when one passes away it is considered a great loss.

Another is the simple, common-sense awareness of Africans that a man is a man and a woman is a woman and that’s that. The West currently finds itself in a full-blown crisis of confusion about “gender identity” and the givenness of being a male or a female human being. I suppose that in Africa there are examples of that confusion, but here in Togo and in my travels in other African countries I have yet to encounter any. I have no doubt that if I were to call a general meeting of the village here and ask the people if they think a boy could decide to be a girl – and if by so deciding he would then really be a girl – the entire population would look at me as if I were from a different solar system. There is not a whole lot of concern here about pronouns.

Our pastoral approach here in Togo is a bit different from that of the Austrian bishop in Brazil. Sister Noella Lucie, our parish secretary, is one of three Togolese nuns who serve at the mission. Recently I asked her to go through all our baptismal registers and count the baptisms we’ve done since the mission got started in 2006. She got back to me about a half hour later with a smile and with the total: 3,155 adults, children and babies.

Of course, we’re well aware that numbers aren’t everything and that baptism is a beginning, not an end. But numbers are something, and they are something important. We give God thanks that, by his grace and goodness, over three thousand souls from our parish’s three dozen villages were washed clean of original and personal sin, that they crossed over from darkness into the kingdom of light, that they were created anew and incorporated into the Lord Jesus.

I pray that many more will be baptized in the years ahead, and that – whatever the final number is – every last one of them will arrive safely in heaven after a life of heroic Christian discipleship on earth, having bravely carried their crosses and faithfully followed Jesus, who guarantees victory to those who love him to the end.

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About Fr. William Ryan 1 Article
Fr. William Ryan served in the Peace Corps in Togo from 1973 to 1975. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1980. After serving for many years in Hispanic ministry, he returned to Togo in 2006 to become the founding pastor of the mission parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe. His younger brother Peter, is a Jesuit priest who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.


  1. Great article. What Africa and we need is the perennial truth of the Catholic faith. Memo to self: reread Cardinal Sarah’s account of how the French missionaries worked among his community in Guinea, bringing Christ to the people through their words and lives.

    • Hi. I appreciate the priests who have left their homes in the USA for far lands in Africa. I was PERSONALLY Baptized and received my First Communion in 1954 in Accra Ghana West Africa by a Black American priest Father Washington when I was in 4th grade . Though not a Roman Catholic now. I am a Pentostal Christian Covenant Believer in the LORD JESUS Christ the SON of God my only LORD and my SAVIOR and my the Redeemer God of the Bible in Permanent UNION Oneness inside my LIFE and in my HEART forever. I still Value a lot of TRUTHs I Studied in my Cathetism Classes in the Derby Avenue Sacred Heart School. I still Follow some Roman Catholic priests such as Fr. Cedric Pisegna CP, and Bishop Barronand some few others.
      Even I have bought and Read about 15 Books from Fr Cedric Pisegna CP. I also have bought some materials from Bishop Barron from the Word on Fire.
      God Bless all your Calling and your Faithful Obedience to the call of our LORD and SAVIOR JESUS Christ the SON of the LIVING God.
      Thanks. God Bless. Nii.

    • Father Peter, you took the words from my mouth. I was thinking of this reply as I read the article. We can smash idols in Togo but give them a position of reverence in a. Entities old Catholic church in Rome. Sacrilege.

  2. 2nd Commandment—You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them of worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6 Idol worship needs to end here in the states as well.

    • I think the only graven images folks in America worship are on our currency. Materialism & upward mobility become idols.

      • That’s the Catholic version. God’s 2nd commandment is what I stated. Catholic church added a 2nd coveting commandment so they can break the 2nd commandment with their idol worship. If you covet your neighbors wife, you’ve already broken the adultery commandment that was given beforehand. Read all of Exodus 20:1-17.

        • Sigh. This old, boring anti-Catholic trope? No one “added” commandments. The different numbering of commandments is due to various factors (this essay explains it well). I’ll just note how amusing it is that anti-Catholic Brian appeals to extra-biblical additions (that is, chapters, verses, and numbering of commandments) to a Catholic book (the Bible) in order to make obviously false claims against the Catholic Church. You can do better, Brian. If you cannot, you should do a little more studying and less slandering.

  3. If I were to call a general meeting of the village here and ask the people if they think a boy could decide to be a girl – and if by so deciding he would then really be a girl – the entire population would look at me as if I were from a different solar system (Fr Ryan SJ).
    Reason why Africa’s Catholic Church is the hopeful vanguard for reevangelization of the West. And why Africa’s bishops are basically ignored by Rome, why little is said or done regarding the martyr Church of Nigeria.
    We’re living in a virtual different solar system in the West, and aberrant Vatican policy that supports it with a policy of radical inclusion. Africans experience deliverance in Christianity from the horrors of witchcraft, ritual atrocities, barbaric cults like the Nyau Nyau I had contact with in then remote W Malawi. Our Western culture, once rich in the faith, has become jaded in process of apostasy. Would that African bishops were to be a decisive influence in the next, hopeful, papal conclave.

    • Common sense helps to keep the truth from being ignored.
      Knowing what GOD has said and practicing it requires a strength of deep belief. These people became Catholic had the strength to leave what they were born in to.
      We in the west were born into the GOD’s church but are spineless in staying and living by his commandments. The world distracts us from GOD and we substitute material ownership as more important. Owning little material goods keeps us focusing on GOD. Owning a house, car, music in of itself is not bad, but when we use it to stay busy so as not to focus on what lasts forever is deter mental to our spiritual life.

  4. False religions are not morally equivalent to Christianity, or even morally neutral. That is a lesson lost on apostate Rome today. Just this past week, two dozen people were arrested in India for practicing child sacrifice to some god or other in the Hindu folk-religion of their villages. REAL indigenous peoples know the liberation that comes from the Veritas and Caritas of the Gospels.

  5. Okay Folks, the results are in and late in the 4th quarter, Togo in on track to decisively trounce, clobber, beat the entire Amazon Region, much to the regret of Our Lord Jesus Christ who suffers for the lack of souls in the latter.

    The score is Fr. Ryan and Team Togo 3,155 and Austrian Bishop and the Italian Mission 0, Zero, Goose Egg, Nada, Nuthin’, Zilch, Zip.

    Read that again! 3,155 to 0 !!!

    Although it is late in the game, NOTHING is impossible with Our Lord Jesus Christ so we’re hoping Team Amazon can pick up the pace and make a decent showing. It will take some hard, tough work but if the missionaries there, roll up their sleeves and unroll their rosaries, the Virgin Most Powerful can lead many souls to her Son Our Lord!
    God bless these Jesuits.

    That’s it from the Sports and Souls Desk ….

    PS Found this article about an Italian mission in the Amazon which hasn’t baptized ONE SINGLE SOUL for 53 years.

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