By ANDREW NELSON, Staff writer | Published April 20, 2017 | En Español
DECATUR—Religion and science have intertwined in Father Jean Ikanga’s life and it began with a fearful mother.
The woman in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo desperately wanted help for her 9-year-old daughter, sick with “evil spirits.” Concerned by her story, he provided prayer and pastoral counseling but also asked the woman and her daughter to meet with a psychiatrist at the University of Kinshasa. Through this collaboration, the “spirits” that plagued the child were revealed to be post-traumatic stress from seeing the youngster’s father killed, witnessing and experiencing rape and other violence. It was Father Ikanga’s first exposure to the mystery of the brain and how it processes what goes on inside the body.
“That story changed my life,” he said.
He felt he needed more knowledge to use science and medicine in service of the Gospel. And that’s what set him on a path to Emory University.
Scientific understanding reinforces faith
After more than a decade of scientific and medical education in the United States, Father Ikanga is a neuropsychologist and a fellow at Emory. He has found faith and science build on one another.
Astronaut John Glenn spoke about the wonder of space and how it broadened his faith. Father Ikanga felt the same.
“I came to a faith understanding that to look at the human body and not believe in God is impossible,” he said.
He recalled conversations with surprised colleagues when he told them that not only is he probing the unknown areas of dementia, but also he is a priest celebrating Mass on the weekends.
“They could not imagine a priest becoming one of them. For them, the priest is in the sacristy and at the altar, not in the lab. They are bewildered a priest can be a colleague,” he said.
He responds to them with the observation of how he is surprised a scientist can balance the demands of research with being a parent.
For him, the lab and the effort to earn his doctorate fulfill God’s mandate found in the Book of Genesis.
Bringing new knowledge to serve Congolese
A member of the Society of the Divine Word religious order, Father Ikanga, 45, sees patients at Emory University School of Medicine, Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. He has studied in the United States since 2006, starting at Regis University in Denver, where he earned a bachelor of science while serving at a local parish. He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Detroit Mercy, living in the Jesuit house there and helping out in Detroit parishes. His internship and residency for the past three years brought him to Emory medical school. He is in residence at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.
In his native country there are few clinicians to aid people living with the aftermath of violence. He believes he will be the only neuropsychologist in the Congo, where there is a population of 67.5 million people, 50 percent of whom are Catholic. The Congo is Africa’s most Catholic country, about one-quarter the size of the United States.
After studying here, his goal is to lay a foundation for a new program at the Catholic University of St. Augustine in Kinshasa in neuropsychology. While in Detroit, he also attended physician assistant training. He wanted to be prepared to assist people with ailments when a nurse or doctor wasn’t available when he returned to his native country.
Sitting in a cafeteria at the hospital, Father Jean wore a blue checked shirt and a lanyard and badge common in corporate settings. At the hospital, his focus is on science for his patient’s sake, not matters of faith.
“My colleagues know I am a priest. To my patients, they don’t know that I am a priest,” he said. “They come to be treated. They don’t come for pastoral work. That does not come up in discussions.”
Born to coffee farmers, Father Jean is one of eight children. Growing up, he’d play soccer in the afternoon after Mass. He smiled thinking about hunting with his father on the lookout for porcupines and gazelle. His Catholic family attended Mass every Sunday, where he was an altar boy, and he went to Catholic school.
His ambition was not to become a priest as a young man. Instead, he saw himself as either a pilot or a doctor. He said at home he learned about the faith and at school he learned about science. “I was a bright kid. Anything math, that was my topic.”
His vocation grew out of watching a priest spend time with his family. He saw the priest care for his mother and father during a family crisis. That memory made an impression on him. At Mass later when the final song was the prayer of St. Francis, he realized his desire was to be “a channel of peace like the priest was to my family.”
His dozen years of seminary and training followed. He was ordained in 2003 at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, the parish where he was baptized and grew up.
Classroom experience demanded new understanding
Congo has suffered through war for decades in some parts. An estimated 6 million people died in conflicts there from 1996 to 2003, according to Catholic News Service. The United Nations deploys some 19,000 troops there, its costliest peacekeeping operation.
Father Ikanga’s religious superiors thought it would be good for him to study and bring treatments back to his country as a founding member of the university program.
The experiences in the classroom have not been easy. He arrived at Denver’s Regis University as an undergraduate in his mid-30s, sitting in a classroom of younger students who had grown up accustomed to pursuing science.
The experience deepened his faith, the opposite of what he feared when he began his academic work. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t at times conflicted.
Many times in his ministry he blessed human remains at funerals with incense. Studying for his bachelor of science degree in Denver, he faced the task of dissecting a brain. The prospect left him uneasy.
But a professor first schooled students on the ethical principles of treating the human body with respect. “This reconciliation between faith and science moved me into learning from bodies which were donated to science,” he said.
He believes it is God’s mandate that fuels science. He reads the story in Genesis of God’s command to “subdue the world” as an instruction to push the boundaries of knowledge.
God gave us the responsibility to “be co-creators and continue the work of creation,” he said.
Illness seen as Good Friday, with Easter to follow
He confronts the heartbreak that comes from brain afflictions in his practice. His area of expertise is dementia that robs a person of memory.
He was asked how to view this medical condition through the lens of Lent and the Passion of Jesus.
“Dementia is a Good Friday in our life. I know there will be an Easter Sunday when suffering is over. And we will be face to face with God,” he said.
All illnesses require patients and the people who love them to look toward Easter, he said.
His postdoctoral fellowship at Emory is scheduled to end in the fall. His goal is to cultivate a relationship between the Atlanta campus and the Catholic university in his native country.
His aim is to help people by working as a scientist and as a priest to “cast out demons” of medical and scientific ignorance.