By CHIDI NKWOPARA
Monsignor Theophilus Okere was born in 1935 in the rural Nnorie community, Ngor Okpala local council area of Imo State. He grew up like any other child and was ordained in 1962 at Mbutu Okohia by His Lordship, Most Rev. Godfrey Mary Paul Okoye to become the first Catholic priest from Ngor Okpala.
He sat for the first school leaving certificate in 1949 and in 1950, got admission to study in Holy Ghost College, Owerri. He studied philosophy at Catholic University, Louvain, Belgium. He finished his degree in December 1971 and then did his thesis on African Philosophy becoming the first to venture into that area.
His doctoral desertation was: “Can there be an African Philosophy: A hermeneutical inquiry into the conditions of its possibility.” And for the past 50 years he’s been working in the Lord’s vineyard. In this interview with CHIDI NKWOPARA, the priest fielded questions on his ecclesiastical voyage in the last 50 years. Excerpts…..
How did you come about the name, Theophilus and what was growing up like?
My late father told me that the name, Theophilus, was given to me at baptism in October 1935, two months after my birth. My father was always travelling to Owerri to watch court proceedings where he heard someone calling his son, Theophi-lus and was immediately impressed with the name. He later took me to Mount Carmel Catholic Church, Emekuku for baptism where he gave me the name.
How did you get into the seminary?
I recall that Fred Konyeaso, an ex-seminarian from Ezeogba, Emekuku, was teaching then and he reminded me that a seminary was to begin at Okpala in 1951 and I transferred to St. Peter Claver Seminary, Okpala. I was diligent and did very well in my studies. I remember only once that I did not retain the first position in class.
We did the GCE in 1954 and I also combined the Advanced Level. We were the first set to take the GCE rather than the Cambridge. I can say we were already matured before we came to senior seminary. We owe this development to the two brother priests, the Dohenys. They brushed us up. At our level, we had already mastered singing the Plain Chant at Okpala. For the seven years I was in the senior seminary, I was one of the few cantors who led the singing throughout.
Was there anything spectacular during your ordination?
I was ordained in 1962 and there was a bit of drama during the event. My bishop, Rt. Rev. Joseph Brendan Whelan, told me to make a choi-ce. He explained that he was going on vacation to Ireland and would not be at my ordination. He said I had a choice to go to Onit-sha to be ordained by Archbishop Hill along with my Onitsha classmates or if I insist on being ordained at ho-me, he would invite Bishop Okoye, who was then in Port Har-court diocese, to carry out the exercise.
The parish priest would not want any celebration because he didn’t have the money to entertain anybody. He advised that I could take guests to my Nnorie country home and I told him it was fine by me. So, we had the ordination at Mbutu Okohia. Bishop Okoye came with several people, Catholics and Protestants, including Eronini and Lawrence Egu from Port Harcourt. I said my first mass at Nnorie on August 5, 1962 and by October 2, I was already in Ireland for higher studies.
What happened on your return?
I stayed in Ahiara Mbaise Parish for six months. Thereafter, I was posted to teach in Bigar Memorial Seminary, Enugu. I sought to revolutionize the study of Philosophy, which was at the time, essentially scholastic. When we were studying in Louvain, we went through all these books in their original language. We had to learn their language to know what they were saying and not what somebody else said that they said. That made a lot of difference in Enugu.
Can you mention some of your big time students?
There are many of them in big jobs now. The Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. Valerian Okeke, was my student. All the bishops around, including the one at Enugu, Ogoja, Okigwe, Awka and Umuahia, were my students. Som-eone was telling me that Rev. Fr. Jerome Okon-kwo is the new Vice Chancellor of a new university.
The list is endless. So, we have produ-ced a lot of people. I started the Ikot Ekpene branch of Bigard Memorial Seminary, which was eventually renamed St. Joseph’s Seminary. I left them in 1983 to start Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Ulakwo. I have been able to cover the entire gamut of the seminary ecclesiastical institution in Igboland and Eastern Nigeria. This explains why my students stretch throughout the eastern dioceses, which are progressing till now.
You’ve spent 50 years as a Catholic priest. Looking back, are there things you think you should have done differently?
(Had a good laugh) I will rather say very little. My personal attitude does not allow regretting what could have been. If I was in different circumstan-ce, I could imagine. If I was not a priest, if I was married, how could I have raised my children? If, as a priest, I was made a Pope, what could I have done? These are not what I think about. I think more positively of the opportunities I have had. And you can see, even from telling my stories, the little I have told that I relish, that I enjoyed life. I took seriously whatever came my way!
Can you remember your saddest moment and what was it?
Well, there might be more than one. Yeah, my sad moments obviously had to do with the bereavements I have had. I am from a big family of 10 siblings. My initial sad moment was when my elder sister died in 1974. Then, of course, the one where my brother, Eugene, a lecturer in Soil Science at University of Nigeria, Nsukka was brutally murdered three weeks from his wedding day and five weeks from his travelling to the University of Reagan to do his post-graduate work in soil science! He was on his way distributing his wedding cards when he was murdered at the Ulakwo bridge.
That was a rude shock. Others came in their turn. My elder brother also died while I was still teaching in Ikot Ekpene and then my grandmother, they all died in the same year, 1981. In 1988, I did my silver jubilee and a year after, my younger sister, Ursula, died. So, personally, those were the years of grief.
Did you ever stop to look at your work as a priest?
Well, yes! After all these deaths, I ran off to think of the lacuna that had been left in our work, especially as a priest. The seeming intransigence of the world that we live in, enmeshed in evil, in not making the effort to be better. That can be frustrating and it frustrates me a lot. I think of it a lot as I get older.
I ask myself: Is it that we have not put in our best? If so, is our best so bad or so poor that we haven’t made any significant difference? And when I say “we”, I am not just referring to priest but all Christians, because we are there together. Priests are only specialized in certain areas. But all of us, Christians, our job is really to Christianize the world and is that it? And when I ask this question, I feel a dissenting sense of defeatism.
Are we really progressing?
If you think that we had made progress, can we not see today, how much we had gone down the hill again? Not only on superstition but the things like armed robbery and kidnapping in Igboland, robbery and thieving were such a taboo in Igbo society, but today, it is the in-thing. The only sin is being caught. if you can steal us blind, even as a governor, then just don’t get caught. They get away with murder.
They get away with massive embezzlement. Nobody asks any question. With these things, you just wonder where we are heading. The thieves of today are all virtually baptized Christians. And since most of us here in Igboland are Catholics, most of the thieves are Catholics and you are asking me what I regret?
Are you now saying you have regrets?
You can see my regret because as I go now into the evening of my life, I begin to wonder what I achieved in the morning of my life. What has it come to? Of course, I can always console myself as I often do with Jesus. But there would be another generation of church. Let us be responsible for the time we are in. Let us do all that we can, while we are here, hoping that another generation may stand on our shoulder and stand higher and do better with the world.