By Fr. Hassan Kukah
As usual, Nigerians are doing what they do best: making themselves the laughing stock of the rest of the world, behaving like spoilt brats of a rich but irresponsible father, or like players in a game with no rules and no referee, a game in a field of moral free fall. Perhaps by way of a metaphor, that is really a summary of our condition. Those who have held the nation to ransom, non-state actors constituting themselves into a calumnious conspiratorial tag team of sorcerers’ apprentices believe that what they cannot have, no one can have. They are prepared to drag the nation down with them even if they do not know where they are going. We are forced to ask ourselves the timeless question, how did we get here and indeed, where are we?
The froth has come to the top: Nigeria’s broth of deceit and opportunism masquerading as politics has triggered a diarrhea with dire consequences for the public space. Except we concede that we are a cursed nation, it is difficult to fathom how we could have ended up where we are now, a nation in a permanent stupor and always unable to celebrate its victories not to talk of avoiding its sorrows. How did we leave so many doors open that a small coterie of nondescript individuals with neither known addresses nor antecedents suddenly took centre stage?
A first time visitor to our country in the last few weeks would think they have crashed into a party organised by drunken criminals who, in their bouts of raucous inebriation have resorted to a serious brawl with self injuries while overturning tables and food, destroying both glasses and plates. Given the huge opportunities and resources, is this where we should be? My people, what has God not done for us?
Suddenly, the nation seems to have come unhinged. Across the country, sounds of very irresponsible and provocative utterances fill the air. The media lapped it all up and by giving these adult urchins publicity, created the impression that the end of our nation had arrived. And yet, the late Chinua Achebe warned his Igbo people in general and Nigeria in particular of the consequences of the men with ideas leaving the stage to the money-miss-road ragamuffins, men and women with no records of service or achievement, men and women who elsewhere should be in jail taking up the stage and doing what they know best, creating a maelstrom, ratcheting up the volume of vitriol and creating a discordant orchestra of artistic chaos. My people, what has God not done for us?
But while all this was going on, look at the other side, the abode of reason, rationality and integrity. Look at what has happened to us in England. In one fell swoop, seven of our sons and daughters were elected into the British Parliament, an unprecedented feat in the history of Democracy anywhere in the world. The following week, England won the Under 21 World Cup with the assistance of three young men of Nigerian descent. In the same England, just a few months back, our son created history by winning the World Heavy Weight Boxing title. Talk about the colony striking back! My people, what has God not done for us?
Within the same kingdom, across the sea to Ireland, one of our favourite sons was also making history. After about a hundred years, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African as the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Jude Okolo to Ireland, the land of our missionary ancestors. After a hundred years, Rome announced the appointment of a Nigerian-born Most Rev. Dr. Eusebius Chinekezi Manugwu, as pioneer Bishop of Port-Gentil, in Gabon. After almost a hundred years one of our daughters is now Editor of the Harvard Law Review. Almost on a monthly basis, Nigeria has continued to receive news of the spectacular achievements of our children who are breaking academic records in America and Europe, feats that few people from any developing country have achieved. They are daily breaking the glass ceilings and scaling walls that racism and colonialism had erected for the black man. In almost every corner of the world, wherever black achievement is mentioned, if there are two names, both or one must be a Nigerian. My people, what has God not done for us?
We parade the best writers with the greatest world recognition for any one country in the developing world. Our sons and daughters have won some of the most prestigious international awards there are in various fields of Art, Science, Sports and almost everything. Our Medical personnel, Lawyers, Engineers, Professors, Scientists are in the most prestigious laboratories all over the world. It will be difficult to find any good University or institution of research and learning anywhere in the world that does not have Nigerians as their brightest and best teachers or students. So, what is going on? Are we under a tragic spell? My people, what has God not done for us?
When I look at our country, I feel a sense of both shame and pity not for myself but for our teeming millions who simply want to be left to do what ordinary human beings have come to take for granted elsewhere: get married, raise a family, live in peace and prepare the next generation. Is this too much the ordinary citizens of Nigeria to ask? We have become the butt of jokes around the continent and the world. Those who brought education to us are in awe of our intellectual capacity and they hide their jealousy by accusing us of being loud and arrogant. Our cousins on the continent, most of whom we have sent technical assistance to and tried to share our wealth with, look on us as a threat. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, as in the world of international diplomacy on the global stage, they never fail to collude with others to subvert our global ambitions and leadership claims. Where did we go wrong? My people, what has God not done for us?
Today, we stand on the crossroads of shame and seeming despair. An energetic and brilliant generation of young Nigeria, roaring to take their place in the public stage are held back by a political class which prefers to feed its gargantuan appetite. Governance has become a massive fraud and a heinous crime scene. The easy question is to ask, how do we get out of this self-inflicted mess where we continue to feed our children yesterday’s barf?
This is the world to which the young priests being ordained today are going into. This is the world that the next generation of our young people growing up are coming into. How should today’s priest be prepared to respond to the social questions of the time?
While all this is going on at a national political scene, we in the Catholic Church also have our own sad drama that has been playing out in Ahiara for the last five years. In Ahiara, the devil has had his day. Now it is the turn of God to have His way. This is not the time for judgment of condemnation. It is a time for those who have ears to adjust them so that they can listen to the voice of from the gentle breeze as Elijah did (1 Kgs 19:12). I am glad that a prayer for Ahiara is circulating among Catholics. Please recite the prayer. The devil cannot be more powerful than the prayers of faithful Catholics around the country and the world. We commit Ahiara Diocese and its entire people to our Blessed Mother. May she, the patron of Priests intercede for our brothers and sisters.
It is clear that we as a Church are not free from the cobwebs of confusion that adorn our society. Whether we call the events under question ethnicity or faithlessness or greed, the fact is that our society is in deep trouble. And here is the challenge of the Catholic priesthood. This is where I want to challenge all of us who are Priests especially to sit up and confront the rut in our society by really and truly being signs of contradiction, signs of hope amidst this despair. We can only do this if we free ourselves from the temptations of material power. I want to focus my thoughts on the Priests because even if our people are broken and injured as individuals or families, we are called to be their healers. But to play our roles, we must disengage from the blind material pursuit that has rendered our mission ineffective. For, as Chaucer said: If gold rusts, what will iron do?
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It is worthy of note that today’s ordination is taking place on the 40th anniversary of the foundation of this Seminary, the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul and her supporting agency, the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSP), by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria under the leadership of Dominic Cardinal Ekandem of blessed memory. By Divine Providence, this month marks also the centenary of his birth. Thus, about a week from today, June 23rd, the Archdiocese of Abuja which was also his brainchild, invites all of us to the party marking the one hundred years of his birth!
In a society that is being pulled apart by atavistic cleavages and divisions, we priests must become instruments of peace and unity, just like Cardinal Dominic Ekandem strove to be in his own days. Yes! He was an instrument of peace and harmony. He was a bridge-builder where polarizing forces and selfish interests were hard at work. Being the visionary leader that he was, he founded this Seminary as an instrument of unity and service to humanity. So, you new priests of today, like this great Father of our Faith and your Founder, Dominic Cardinal Ekandem, must do all within your power to rise above the atavistic forces that are attempting to pull this country apart. Like the great patriot that he was, the Cardinal worked for the unity and progress of this blessed land. You too must, and in fact all who call this land our home, must speak and work for peace and justice in our Church and Society. We must become champions of united positive actions. This constitutes a great part of our vocation as Christians but even more for us who have been called to the priestly ministry.
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Today, as we ordain these five young men priests, we must reflect on the meaning and ministry of priests. Here we return to the words of the French Priest Fr Henri Lacordaire whose timeless words transcend any other definition of the Catholic priesthood. He said to be a priest is to:
To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none;
To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; To heal all wounds;
to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope;
These are difficult times, they are times that try our patience. But they are times of hope and courage. The priesthood will continue to be challenged because there are many versions of the priest as there are parishioners. Thankfully, we are called to serve and not to seek popular approval or applause. Again, the timeless words of one of our priests remain when said:
The priest exists for the community and only for the community. But not everyone in the community thinks the same.
Some bless him, others pity him, and so many others ignore him.
If the priest is young, they say he is inexperienced.
If he is old, they say he is outmoded, ill fashioned and conservative.
He should retire!
If he dresses well, he is a middle-class snob. If he dresses poorly, he is an agitator.
If he is happy and enjoys life and believes in love, he is wordily and not a churchman.
If he lives an ascetic life, the say: he is a “monk” and not a committed priest of the 21st century.
If he is jovial and makes people laugh, he is a joker and a clown. If he doesn’t laugh with people, he is distant, proud and full of himself.
If he visits his parishioners, he is never at home…he is a walkabout. If he does not, he is proud and lacks pastoral prudence.
The poor are angry if he associates with the rich and they call him a capitalist. The rich are insulted if he devotes himself to the poor and they call him an economist.
If he is generous and helps the poor, he is a populist. If he is moderate and judicious in spending, he is called a stingy man.
If he decorates the church, he is spending too much. If he does not, he is allowing things to deteriorate.
If he asks for funds, he likes money a lot. If the parish fund is low, he is a “bad business man.”
if he talks of moral decadence, he is putting up a holier than-thou attitude. If he doesn’t, he is morally lax and condones evil.
If he is out-spoken and criticizes the social order, he is a radical prophet, if he is gentle and prudent in criticism, he is a cunning diplomat.
If he is agile; he is hyperactive. If he is sick and weak; he does not care about his health.
If he dies, Oh! There will never be a Priest like him again!
We are not called to solve all the problems of our time. However, today’s priest must wake up to the reality of the return to the twin forces of neo-paganism, sorcery, witchcraft, shamanism among our faithful for whom Christianity is merely superficial. This skin-deep faith cannot survive the challenges of hostile forces of secularism that threaten to engulf our public life. The solution is not the superfluous expressions of dubious religiousity which have turned the churchman into a rival shaman extracting favours from a reluctant god who responds to incantations and is seduced by false sacrifices. Do you recall Paul’s shock at Ephesus when he asked the brethren there is they had received the Holy Spirit? Their answer was: We have never heard of anything like the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). It would seem clear that we Christians must address the issues of whether we have indeed heard and accepted such a thing as the Holy Spirit. Because if we have, then its fruits of love, charity, prudence should be the glue to hold our society together.
Finally, our people must embrace community life and be ready to hold on to the shared values that held us together. It was not wealth that held us together. It was largely the sense of solidarity that we had, a gift that was always considered part and parcel of our DNA as Africans. I leave you with the words of one of the greatest writers, our own Chinua Achebe who said: A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to redeem them from starving. They all have food in their own houses. When we gather together in the village ground at moonlight, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his compound. We come together because it is better for kinsmen to do so. Therefore let us continue with the team spirit and enjoy the power of togetherness. Let us smile not because we do not have problems but let us smile because we are stronger than our problems.
Fr Kukah delivered this speech at the at the ordination of deacons at the National Missionary Seminary, Gwagawalada – Abuja