By Gabriel Osu
Tomorrow, June 16, 2011, the lay faithful,clergy, religious, friends and well-wishers shall roll out their drums in joyful celebration of their Chief Shepherd—the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lagos and highest ranking Catholic clergy in Nigeria; His Eminence, Antho-ny Cardinal Olubunmi Okogie who clocks 75 years on earth.
Masses shall be celebrated and intercessory prayers said at the various parishes in the arch-diocese, to be rounded-up with a con-celebrated High Mass at the Holy Cross Cathedral, Lagos. Afterwards, members of the Knights of St. Mulumba, in company with other Papal Knights, Medalists, priests and distinguished Catholics from all walks of life shall converge at the Holy Cross Church Hall for a reception in honour of the man of the moment, Anthony Card-inal Olubunmi Okogie.
For those conversant with the affairs of the Catholic Church in Lagos, the birthday of His Eminence, is an annual bash that has come to stay not only because of its significance in the life of the celebrant, but also owing to its relevance in the socio-economic and political development of Nigeria.
It is not all about merriment. It also serves as a period of sober reflection for us as citizens of Nigeria. Okogie uses the occasion to bare his mind on current issues affecting the growth and development of our society. For a man who has remained relevant in the nation’s scheme of things since the past four decades, this is not unex-pected.
The revered man of God thus have so much to thank God for, especially for sound health—body and mind—and the grace to serve in His sacred vineyard. But these aside, this year’s celebration is one with a difference; a sort of tripartite in nature.
Aside clocking 75, the year 2011 marks the 45th year anniversary of his ordination as a priest and 40 years anniversary of his consecration as bishop. He was consecrated bishop of the Oyo diocese on August 29, 1971.
For millions of Catholic faithful and indeed Nigerians as a whole, Okogie is a phenomenon of sort. He is a thorough-bred and outstanding clergy who over the years has remained vibrant and committed to the advance-ment of not only God’s kingdom, but also the emancipation of the Nigerian masses who have never enjoyed any fair deal from those at the helm of affairs.
He has helped to redefine the role and relevance of the clergy in the quest for an egalitarian society. No stranger to contro-versy, this Edo-born prince has severally stood out against the suffering masses; to lash out at harsh governmental policies and to speak out against injustices of any kind. He’s not satisfied with hiding behind the cloak of his sacred office. Though this often brought him into head-on-collision with the powers-that-be, he is not scared or intimidated.
As a former chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, under the regime of the former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Okogie was a torn in the flesh of the govern-ment, checkmating their excess-es and ensuring that Nigerians had a say on issues relating to their collective well-being.
Even under the maximum ruler, late Sanni Abacha, Okogie rose to the demands of the moment, refus-ing to be silenced or intimidated by the gun-trotting khaki men. During his reign as president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, CBCN, Okogie stood out like a colossus to ensure that the interest of the Church and indeed all Christians in Nigeria were protected.
In the area of educational development, his role in fighting against retrogressive govern-ment move of taking-over all a missionary schools after the civil war cannot be over-emphasized.
Indeed, Okogie fought like a wounded lion. By pricking the conscience of successive govern-ments, through numerous press interviews, write-ups and meet-ings, and getting them to under-stand the injustices behind its action and its attendant negative effect on the nation’s educational sector, Okogie was able to raise a heightened and renewed social consciousness that brought together the collective effort of all stakeholders in the education sector who stood up for justice.
Today, most of the missionary schools have been returned and they are perform-ing excellently well. No wonder then that this outstanding prelate has remained a referen-ce point till date.
In his priestly duties, Cardinal Okogie has been most exem-plary. A sticker to excellence and hard work, he believes that nothing but the best is good enough for God. He condones no frivolity amongst his flocks, including fellow priests. It is difficult to catch him off-guard in his pastoral and administrati-ve duties and never wavers in the midst of challenges.
Even at the age of 75, His Eminence is still very strong and alert, paying attention to every detail that needs his attention. Some may perceive him as a saint and others as being too strict, but one thing you cannot take away from him is that he is a man of vision who knows what he wants and how to get there. Since his enthronement as archbishop, the archdiocese has witnessed remarkable growth in all aspects—be it pastoral, liturgi-cal, infrastructural and all-round spiritual development.
This can be attested to by the quantum leap in the number of priests, over 85 parishes, numerous quasi parishes and mass centres spread across the nook and crannies of the state.
Because of the growing number of the faithful and parishes, the Lagos Archdiocese can also boast of a large number of missionaries, diocesan priests and religious from other climes who readily join hands to ensure that the work of God continues to grow from strength to stren-gth.
Despite the proliferation of Pentecostal churches in the state, the number of practicing Catholi-cs is on the increase. Recent sta-tistics show that there are over 2.5 million Catholic faithful in the Lagos Archdiocese. Not a mean feat!
Okogie has also focused much in the area of infrastructural development as is evident in the erection of modern edifices in the various parishes. The on-going Augustine University, Epe, is a clear testimony of his foresight and determination to ensure that the church remains relevant to its social responsibilities, even as it attends to the spiritual needs of the faithful. There is the on-going construction of a world class Catholic Hospital at Ijede, amongst others.
In recognition of his outstand-ing attributes and commitment to his calling the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory elevated him among the revered Princes of the Church when he created him a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
This made him the highest rank-ing Catholic priest in Nigeria. By this too, he becomes the third Nigerian to ever rise to this en-viable position. The first was Dominic Cardinal Ekandem of blessed memory and Francis Cardinal Arinze (retired).
Anthony Cardinal Okogie was born on June 16, to Prince Michael Okogie, an Ishan father and Lucy Adunni Okogie (Nee Afolabi), a Yoruba mother; both Catholics. He entered St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary, Ibadan in 1954 and later left for Rome in 1963 for further studies.
He was ordained priest at Holy Cross Cathedral, Lagos on December 4, 1966. Shortly after his ordination, the Nigerian Civil War broke out and he was sent to the warfront to counsel soldiers. He rose to the rank of major before his retirement. Okogie was consecrated bishop of Oyo diocese on August 29, 1971 at St. Benedith’s Cathed-ral, Oshogbo.
He was made auxilliary bishop to the Apostolic administrator of Lagos, late Bishop Anthony Saliu Sanusi in 1972. He was enthroned as archbishop of Lagos on June 17, 1973.
*Very Rev. Msgr Gabriel Osu, is the Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos.