By SIMON EBEGBULEM, Benin City
…Says ‘I paid over 100 priests’ school fees’
*Warns against hasty judgment on clerics owning jets *Killings by Boko Haram, inexcusable
A retired Archbishop of Benin Catholic Archdiocese, His Grace, Archbishop Patrick Ebosele Ekpu, recently, marked 50th anniversary as a priest. Since his retirement three years ago, the Uromi born cleric has dedicated his life to praying for the Church. On October 26, 2013, His Grace will be marking his 82 birthday. Sunday Vanguard met him last weekend for this interview. He spoke on how he trained over 100 priests in school, the crisis in Benin Catholic Archdiocese, insecurity in some northern states, the acquisition of private jets by men of God, gay priesthood and some national issues. Excerpts:
How is life in retirement?
We thank God it has been very pleasant, restful as I will like it to be.
What motivated you into priesthood?
“It is God’s grace. Only God calls and one responds and it is also His help and inspiration that keeps one going.
Are you not worried that the Catholic Church is losing its followers to the Pentecostal churches?
We lose some faint hearted members but the majority remains. If you look at the Catholic Church, say in Benin- City, you will see that as some people are dropping out, others are coming because the number of the parishes is increasing which is a sign that the Church is alive and growing stronger every day.
While you were the bishop, many new parishes came up. How did you achieve that?
“It was God at work, one tried to propagate the gospel and people listened and accepted it.
How do you view the crisis in the Catholic Church in Benin- City which has seen some persons calling for the installation of a Benin bishop?
I have always told them that they should pray for a good bishop no matter where he comes from because, to me, the Catholic Church is like a university. If you establish a university in a place, what the university needs is the best brains available to help to bring up the youths in the place not whether he comes from there or not. It is worrisome and I will say it is lack of faith; if you believe in God and do what is right, the correct thing will come up, not by our chosen but at God’s own time.
But why is it that there has not been a Bini bishop just like they are agitating? There is a similar case in Mbaise, Imo State where the people said they want a bishop from their area.
“Well, we are trying to politicize something that is essentially spiritual. If you take the case of Mbaise for example, was a Bini man sent there to be the bishop? Or was he an Hausa man? Isn’t it an Igbo man that was sent there? But they said no, they want a particular tribal or ethnic origin of the person, it is lack of faith and that is why I said spiritual problems have to be tackled with spiritual forces and what is happening is a question of lack of faith. If they have faith, they will not be agitating. If we accepted somebody who is from Ireland, or from England to be a bishop, why will you say you don’t want a fellow Nigerian as bishop? Don’t you see that something is wrong somewhere?
The way forward
I was active as a bishop in Benin Archdiocese. At that time, the archdiocese encompassed the whole of Edo State. Each time I wanted to translate the mass into Bini language, I had only one Benin priest who was able to assist me in the translation, all those who are complaining, some of them cannot read and write Bini language. And that is why I laugh each time they try to politicize church activities.
Shouldn’t the Church train more Bini priests for this purpose?
“The Church will if you find the candidates. If the candidates are not there, will I come and take your child and make him go and speak Bini? But the Church has always trained Binis who are interested in priesthood and we will continue to do that.
What do you say about the Edo Liturgical Group that is championing this cause?
In the Catholic Church, it is the bishop of a place that is the head of the liturgy. Liturgy means public worship, so the bishop is ultimately responsible for the liturgy in the Church. Who appointed them as Edo Liturgical Group or who authorized them? Such people have no basis to arrogate to themselves a position they do not have. They do not know the principles of what they claim to represent. Who guides them?
The Church is also facing the issue of gay marriage. How do you react to that?
We all are responsible for the development and better enlightenment of our citizens because we are throwing our culture away; if you are a biologist, have you ever heard where a male cow is going after a male cow or a male camel going after a male camel? If we saw a lot of that practice, then we might say it is natural for a man to do that, but you know that the issue of procreation is such that it is social, it is the environment that affects people’s behaviour and if the social environment encourages what you are doing, or promotes it, then one easily falls into but if it does not, then it will not develop.
Even if you remove Christianity, does the African culture promote the killing of your neighbor just because you disagree? What are they using to kill these Christians? Is it their own manufactured ammunition or those manufactured by the very Europeans you said you don’t want their culture? The dresses they wear, where are they from? The food they eat, what is it served on? Is it not got from western civilization? They are not sincere and they have no love for their fellow Nigerians. And their actions being politically motivated cannot be eliminated. What they are doing is evil and is inexcusable.
Are you satisfied with the Federal Government’s handling of the situation?
The security situation in the country could have been better managed but, as it is said, who is government? You and I are the people who elected those representing us and managing the government, therefore, to some extent, we the populace are also liable for the defects we see in government because when elections comes, somebody comes and gives you money and you take and go to vote for him, you forget your future and the future of your children and children’s children. Who is to blame? Is it just those hungry for power or those of us who accept bribes to vote for them?
We are all liable and co-responsible for whatever deficiencies we may notice in society. I think Nigerians should seek more of their fellow Nigerians and of their future and therefore be circumspect in whom they vote into power to represent them. Again talking about governance, government should have the political will to put the right persons in the right positions. If somebody is found wanting in any of the sectors, send the person packing and put the right person there.
What is your view on the growing acquisition of private jets by pastors in Nigeria?
If they bought private jets, how did they come about the money? Félix Houphouët-Boigny built a basilica. I remember visiting Abidjan and from there I went to Yamoussoukro. It was the Nigerian ambassador to Cote D’Ivoire who told us that the man built the basilica from the resources of his family, that his father had a large expanse of land and that they had a lot of cocoa from which they made their wealth. But an outsider will say that he used government money to build it.
So if that pastor had also bought a private jet and used the resources of his family, you probably will say he has used his followers’ money, but if indeed he uses his followers’ money and his followers allow him, then they have endorsed what he is doing. It may not be a good example he is showing others, but he has not abused his position or somebody else’s right. But if he uses the Church’s resources, I will say he has some questions to answer to his worshipping community and his God whom he claims to serve. Churches are springing up every day in Nigeria, but they don’t seem to be able to check corruption and immorality.
As you very well know, the Church does not have a police force, a CID or FBI or CIA; it is lack of commitment, lack of faith on the part of those who claim to be Christians or Church goers but really are not convinced or converted to the truth.
How do you see churches owning schools and tuition fees are beyond the reach of many members?
The easiest approach would have been that you give a peanut salary to the teachers and you know what will happen, they will not do their work, they will not be there; so if they are going to be retained and do an honest day’s work, they have to be paid good salaries and since those churches or schools do not receive subvention from government, well, I don’t know where you want them to get the money from to pay good salaries to the teachers.“So where does that leave the children of the poor who are members of that church?“If there are really deserving ones, you give them scholarship. And how do you know they are not giving them scholarship?
Even the Federal Government, with all the oil money and all the taxes it collects, has it been able to give scholarship to every citizen? It is not done anywhere, nowhere, as they say in America, there is no free lunch; somebody pays for it. In Nigeria, we want every problem solved, but, as Christ himself said, the poor will always be with you, you cannot be able to answer all the needs of all the poor people in the world at once, it has to be gradual and the more people they train, people are more conscious of the defects of their neighbors and those followers will be able to take care of some of them and the Church takes care of the rest and the government with its social welfare programmes takes care of the others.
Marriage for Catholic priests
The position of the Church is that if you want to be a Catholic priest in the Western right, you do not get married, so, before you become a priest, you have a long time to think about it, whether you want to make the sacrifice or not. It is a sacrifice, not God’s law. Therefore, we should adhere to the tradition and discipline of the Church. If you know you cannot adhere to the rules, you have a choice to go into other vocations. But the rule of the Church remains the rule.“
If you had not been a priest, what would you have been?
I would have liked to be a lawyer and an administrator. That is what appealed to me, that is a profession you have to be free, even your parents have no right to decide for you what you have to do, they can advise but the ultimate decision lies with you. I felt God was calling me to be a priest and that is where I can make my own contribution to God’s glory and work out my own salvation. And I have no regrets being a priest today.
What have been your most challenging and happiest moments?
Challenging moment will be when you find the people or leadership cadre that you have prepared disappointing you and following a course that is contrary to what you have prepared them to handle. One of my happiest moments was when I ordained 14 priests at a time at the University of Benin chapel in October 2, 1998. If you look at all the Nigerian priests in Archdiocese of Benin City, Father Patrick Osinbor and Theophilus Uwaifo are the only ones that I did not ordain and train, any other one, by the grace of God, passed through my hands.
It was very difficult because I had to look for money to pay their fees and then it came to a time that, in the seminary in Bodija, Ibadan, I had over a hundred students whom I had to pay for and it was by no means easy. I tried to harness all the resources available and appealed to friends and members of the Church who understood what my goal was and they assisted. ASUU strike“I would humbly request them to sit down and talk over their different problems and when decisions are reached, they should be followed. Government should honour agreements they reached with ASUU.
How do you assess Oshiomhole’s administration in Edo State?
I hear many people praise him, I think he is a sincere man, he had been on the other side of government, he was a labour leader and therefore knows the problems of the workers and I think he tries to respond to them. He is doing very well, people are not disappointed.
Message to Nigerians I say let us take some moments off and think about what we think is best for us and how we, together with government, can move the nation forward. For the Catholics, I want them to go back to the basics, renew their faith in God, be loyal to God and be sincere in truth and in spirit to follow our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ.