The atmosphere in St. Joseph’s Catholic Chaplaincy, Imo State University, Owerri, became electric on the arrival of the youthful and charismatic Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, Most Rev. Professor Godfrey Onah. He was there to honour the invitation of Monsignor Theophilus Ibegbulam Okere, who turned 80 on October 30, 2015. Bishop Onah, was at the head of the Mass, attended by several priests and religious, as well as scores of Catholic faithful and other lovers of Monsignor Okere, including the Champion Newspaper publisher, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and Chief Victor Umeh of the All Progressives Grand Allianctate. He later granted Saturday Vanguard‘s Chidi Nkwopara an interview at his home in Nsukka.
His experience since becoming Bishop of Nsukka Diocese
It is not easy to say what it has been like. It is like being thrown into the water, when you don’t know how to swim and you know you have to keep afloat to remain alive. I think I found myself in that position, of one who does not know how to swim and he is thrown into the water. I think I have been trying to remain afloat,. But it is God’s grace that is keeping me afloat. I spent years being trained as a candidate for the Catholic priesthood. I didn’t receive any training for the office of the bishop. And there has been no time either to learn on the job. But I thank God for the grace. I thank Him for the love He has shown me also in a special way through the people of Nsukka Diocese. The priests, the religious and the rest of the lay faithful, and even non-Catholics and non-Christians in Nsukka. I can tell you I have experienced their love in an overwhelming way, from the first day I was ordained and installed until now. It has been difficult for me getting to understand all the aspects of my responsibilities as a Bishop. But one thing I have tried to continue to try to do is to remind myself that I am primarily a Catholic priest and to remain a priest for my people.
So, these two years, I have just tried to be a priest, a father to the people of Nsukka Diocese, not just to the Catholics but all Nsukka people. And I must say it has been most fulfilling in spite of the difficulties. One of the first things I learnt as a Bishop is that I no longer have time that I can call mine. Even when you are alone, you are not alone for yourself. Either you are thinking and working for them or you are praying for them. But I think that is also what a Christian life is supposed to be, imitating our Lord Himself in being there for others. Pope Francis reminds us repeatedly that anyone who is preaching the gospel has also to know that he is distributing joy, the joy of the gospel. And he said something funny that preachers of the gospel should not look like those returning from a funeral. And my experience as a Bishop in Nsukka has confirmed to me that any time we are really committed to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is an inner joy that overflows to the outside in us, because as the saying goes, a little bit of fragrance always sticks on the fingers that distributes roses.
Age of Nsukka Diocese
We thank God that on November 19 this year, the Diocese turned 25 years since its establishment. It was erected by Pope Saint John Paull II on November 19, 1991, with Bishop Francis Okobo as its pioneer bishop. It was carved out of Enugu Diocese and Nsukka is generally speaking, in spite of our diversities, a rural Diocese. These 25 years have been incredible on what the Lord has done for us. If statistics will give us any idea, it may help to know that when the Diocese was erected, we had only 27 parishes and today, we have 154 parishes and chaplaincies. One of the chaplaincies, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, functions as a full fledged parish because of its population. Outside that, we have two Colleges of Education in the Diocese and one hostel for students. So, that is about records.The priests at the creation of the Diocese were just a little above 40 and now, we have 270 priests incardinated in the Diocese. But, let us not be deceived by numbers. I only said if statistics are to be used as an indication. The Lord has been very kind to us. In a gradual but steady way, the church in the Diocese has continued to grow. The pioneer bishop was a tireless, selfless pastor. He kept nothing back to himself. Neither his time nor his energy, nor even his health! I know God will reward him with eternal life at the end of his life and I am sure that he is already seeing that his labour was not in vain, from what is happening in the Diocese. And of course, the foundations had been laid by the earlier bishops of Onitsha Archdiocese and Enugu Diocese, when they first came to Nsukka, a little over 100 years ago, in 1910, as the record of the visit of the missionaries has shown. They came from the Archdiocese of Onitsha, until Enugu became a diocese and Nsukka eventually became a diocese. Sometimes, there are tremendous crises before anything meaningful change can take place. Our own history will not be different from the history of Christianity in the other parts of the world, except perhaps that we are luckier, in the sense that the first years of Christianity in our area, in Igboland generally, have not led to the physical martyrdom of many Christians, contrary to what was the history in most other parts of the world. But that does not mean that it is any less easier for the message of Christ to be accepted in the context. As I said earlier, we are a rural community and in rural communities, traditional affiliations go very deep. People in urban centres or mega cities, can easily disengage from their cultural roots and cultural affiliations than those who live within rural settings. And as you very well remember, our culture is very intimately interwoven with the traditional religion of our ancestors. And many of our people are unable to make the distinction between what is religious strictly and what is cultural. And for the faith in this Diocese, that is an area where a lot of work still has to be done. Bishop Okobo, like Bishop Eneja before him, always insisted on the need to be authentically Igbo or Nsukka people and at the same time authentically Christians and Catholics. I think the effort we have to make now is no just a question of letting the gospel values penetrate our culture, but rather letting Christianity produce its own Igbo culture. As Pope Saint John Paul II also said, a faith that does not become culture is a faith that has not really matured. And you know, culture as expressed in language, way of life, institutions, the church after 100 years in our place should be able to produce culture. Culture is dynamic. I have always told my people that many of the things we are fighting and dying for in Nsukka as our culture, were either borrowed or imposed by Igala people, when the Attah of Igala colonized Nsukka area. No cultural practice germinates from a place like mushroom. People borrow from their neighbours in order to adapt to the challenges they meet in their daily lives. Christianity proposes to us values that will help us adapt best to those challenges and in using Christian values, we create a culture. Culture is man made. It is created by human beings. The Igbos for instance, are so known by their celebration of kola nut. I am not sure that any Igbo man will be able to tell you exactly where that thing came from. But it is our culture, at least for now. And if some bad habits our people are picking up have also become our culture as our people say: “When a bad habit last a year, it becomes a tradition”. Why can’t it be the contrary? When good things are sustained, it becomes a tradition! And the fact that it is possible for Christianity to create a culture for us, is also seen in our language already. So many Christian terms have become part of our language. “Amara”, even without its translation, “gratia”. And Christianity has entered into our proverbs. And when a system contributes to proverbs, then it is making in-road into the language. For example, “Anahi asa okwu chukwu asa” (you don’t respond to homilies) and “onye bu uzo gaa uno uka, na aho oche” (the first to arrive in the church chooses his seat). These are all Igbo proverbs. This shows us that if we allow Christianity and Christian values, they can transform the way we used to understand reality and help us to adapt better. When most Igbo now want to show you how God has blessed them, they will tell you that they stayed for five, six, ten years after their marriage without any child, but suddenly they got twins! Before Christianity, it was a curse, not a blessing. We are celebrating our jubilee and our emphasis should be on making serious effort to understand the Christian message in such a way as to make it transform our lives as individuals and as members of a society.
I would like to tell you that the Diocese has the need to create about 30 more parishes but I don’t have priests to man them now. That gives you an idea that there is still a lot of need for priests? And besides parishes, we now have institutions that could be better run or directed or supervised by well trained priests for such purposes.
Copying pentecostal pastors
It is unfortunate. But I will tell what one of my priests once told me. I heard he did something he shouldn’t have done. I sent for him and sought to know what happened from him. Immediately he came down, he was all apologies and told me: “Father Bishop, I am sorry. I know I was wrong. I found myself in a situation similar to that of Moses, who was driven by the Israelites to break the tablet on which the Commandments we’re written. These people pushed me to the wall and I had to adopt an extreme measure. I am so sorry and I, know I was wrong”. I give this example because sometimes I see these priests using the usual traditional Catholic method to attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful and they watch the growing apathy, lack of interest from these Catholics, who then move in droves to Pentecostal fellowships and crusades. And there is therefore, this temptation in the priests to do what the Pentecostal pastors do, at least to keep their faithful. If, for example you pray for someone and he is healed or God blesses him you don’t advertise it, you don’t make noise about it, God did it and not you. I call it temptation and every Catholic priest should realize it is a temptation. So long as it has to do with, let me say for instance, the method of delivering your homily and making it interesting, of preparing it well in the first place, and making sure that your homily is scripture based and related to people’s life experience. If that is what anybody wants to imitate from any other group, that is wonderful. We can always learn good things from others. But in the area of watering down Christian doctrine, or let me call it Catholic doctrine, in the area of tailoring religion to suit personal needs rather than making religion reflect our relationship with God, in the area of making Christianity mimic our traditional religion, full of evil spirits and people out there to harm you, and you have to use this and this to ward them off, that is not Christianity. And Catholic priests who imitate them know that they are doing what is wrong.Their training in the seminaries continues to insist on the proper way to minister to the pastoral needs of the people. But unfortunately, some are beginning to think that the only thing that counts now in Christianity and the priesthood is what we would call success.But, can I say this? From the human point of view, Jesus was a failure. He preached for three years and in the end, he was crucified like a common criminal and not one of his close disciples was near to him by the time he was dying! All those are marks of a total failure by human standards.Fidelity to Christ, even when it means the cross and suffering. That is one thing that Catholic priests should never abandon. I have heard many people who moved from the Christian groups to the Catholic Church, saying that the Catholic Church was the only place where they could find meaning in suffering, because in the other Christian denominations, there is sometimes the tendency to say that Christ has suffered for us and sufferings is no longer our lot but suffering remains. So, I will tell Catholic priests, you don’t solve the problem of people moving away by doing what you are not supposed to do. Some times, I use a very radical example. If one has a sister, a blood sister, who is wayward, running after men and selling her body, and one feels embarrassed by that and it is a shame to the family, and one wants to win one’s sister back and keep her in the family and he prepares a room in his father’s house and says, my dear sister, please don’t run after men again. Don’t go out selling your body again. Come here and stay here at home and do it here at home and bring your clients here”. Have you solved your sister’s problem? The answer is no. You don’t solve the problems of Catholics who join Pentecostals by turning the Catholic Church into a Pentecostal movement. And by the way, the problem is not with Pentecost. The problem is with the selective interpretation of the actions of the Holy Spirit.
Craze for indigenous heads
In the history of the church, we have always had moments of crisis, breakdowns, moments of building up and growth. The church in Igboland has made tremendous progress and registered a lot of growth since the civil war. The civil seem to have increased our resilience as a people and increased our faith in God. But don’t think that while we were growing in faith, Satan was there applauding. He would always want to get into the system and thwart the plan of God for us. Satan has always tried it. Each time God gives humanity any gift, Satan tries to change the objective for which God gave that gift. He gave man companion. That companion became temptation. He gave man free will. That free will became a source of sin. He sent Christ to redeem us from sin and Satan wanted to change Jesus’ plan for salvation. He was like us in everything except sin. But even then, Satan did not give up. Until he died on the cross, Satan told Christ to come down from the cross, if he was truly the son of God and we will believe you. Christ did not give up until he eventually died. So, at every moment of our history, Satan is there. Christ instituted the priesthood as service for his people and Satan wants some of us to use it as a source of power against the people, for ourselves, for our personal growth and enrichment and aggrandizement or whatever, for our own ego. Anybody who understands the priesthood and understands the episcopacy, will know that nobody has the right to be priest or the right to be bishop. Nobody. With regard to coming from one’s own area, there are all the arguments about the advantage of somebody who understands the people culturally. There are all the arguments about the sense of belonging that a people will feel if their own son is their leader. There are all the arguments about the possibility of human manipulation of a process that should be left to the Holy Spirit, yes using human beings but principally directed by the Holy Spirit. All those are arguments. But, those arguments don’t remove anything from the basic principle that the priesthood is a gift, a gift from God. You either accept it in faith or every other thing behind the priesthood crumbles. I will give you a few examples. How is it possible that you accept that a man pours water on you and mumbles some words and you become transformed and your sins are washed away and you become son of God? That a man picks a piece of bread and mumbles some words and that piece of bread changes and becomes the body and blood of Christ, who is God and man? And the man imposes hands on you and says something and you are transformed from that village criminal that you were to a man, who calls God down from heaven? How can you accept that because a church teaches you that and the same church teaches you that one man has the last word to say who will be bishop here or there, and you say no, I won’t take that one? Ah! My dear friends, it is a packet. If you don’t take one, please leave the rest. This is what it means to belong to a church, a body of faith. I know the case you are subtly referring to. Everybody knows it. It has hurt us deeply and spiritually. And I will put this on record for the whole of Igbo people. No matter how the Ahiara case ends, we will all come out of it weakened! But I will ask: How did we get so low? What went wrong? What happened to the church leaders in Igboland? What did they do or did we do that made it possible for some priests to suspect that some church leaders manipulated the process of choosing a bishop? What body language or style of life, action or inaction in some leaders of the church, made people even to think that, that was possible? that is a question that we have to continue asking. How did it ever happen that in the Catholic Church, a set of priests will be begin to think that what was decided by the Pope, was manipulated by some other person in the Catholic Church? Of course, we know the Pope is the Head of a Church that spreads throughout the whole world and he may not even know some of us who work directly in the Vatican. He may not know some of us personally. Like every leader, he will depend on his co-workers and when they have recommend, he studies their recommendation and makes his pronouncement. If anybody made a mistake along the line, let God judge him for his mistake. Everybody has his own responsibility according to his standing in life. But I don’t think it helps our cause as Christians, as Catholics, as Igbo people, to insist in areas where you have no right to do so. And I will say this, and that is if we want to push the logic to its ultimate conclusion. Before we can allow a group or priests in a diocese to determine who becomes a bishop in their diocese, we must first insist that in that diocese or in every diocese, the faithful must themselves choose who will be their priest. Who will get ordained a all in the first place. Our people don’t choose their priests. Some times, they tell bishops don’t ordain this man. We know him. He shouldn’t be a priest. And after having listened to them, praying over it, trusting in the Holy Spirit and following his conscience and goes ahead and ordains him. And the person becomes a priest and now denies the Pope the right to listen to all the opinions about who should be a bishop and following his conscience and directions of the Holy Spirit, makes his own decision, does it sound reasonable to you? I don’t understand it. But the basic problem comes when we think that the bishopric, the bishop’s office is for the exercise of power. My brother, I have never seen people struggle to serve anywhere. People struggle to gain. Nobody struggles to die in place of others. If people really knew what it means to be a bishop, I wonder how many would want to be bishops. And again, how does being a bishop make one a better Catholic, a better Christian? Whether the bishop is your elder brother or another person, provided that person really leads you to do the will of God. The Catholic Church has never pretended to be a democracy. By the way, it is ridiculous that while we are fighting about our right to determine who becomes our bishop, we can’t even speak out when councillors and local government chairmen, senators and members of the house of assembly and governors are imposed on us by a few people.We accept that willingly, sing for them and clap for them. In a democracy where we have the right to choose and take people to court when they do the wrong thing, we don’t but when the Pope decides, that is the time we carry protest, demonstrate and shout blue murder. Do you know what that is called in English? Perversion!
Message to Nigerians
We thank God for the gift of faith. We ask that He strengthens that little faith that we have and that Catholics throughout Igboland be truly Catholics in word and in deed. Nigeria needs Christian witnesses and Catholics should be ready to be such witnesses everywhere and all the time. And please ask your readers to pray for me, pray for bishops, pray for the Catholic in Nigeria, pray for the Catholic Church in Igboland. This is a very difficult time.