…We render services to the society through our schools, hospitals
By Chidi Nkwopara
The Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, Most Rev. Professor Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, remains a fearless cleric and a reporter’s delight any day, anywhere. He was in Maria Assumpta Cathedral, Owerri, to celebrate at the Requiem Mass of late Monsignor Theophilus Ibegbulam Okere. He spoke on a number of issues including insecurity in the land. Excerpts:
How long have you served as Bishop of Nsukka Catholic Diocese and what has been your experience so far?
I have been a Bishop for seven years now and my experience so far has been challenging and exciting at the same time. It is challenging because things keep coming up, which you didn’t know or never knew that it would come up. It is exciting because the Lord has been good and merciful and the people have been good and wonderful with their love and support.
In the previous interview, you talked about challenges. You have repeated the same word again. Is yours a case of endless challenges?
It is the same old challenges, from the point of faith. Throughout history, the faithful and indeed all of us are always struggling to live out in practical life, what we profess in our religion. These include, but not limited to life of true and unadulterated love, life of forgiveness, life of service. Leading the people to be consistent, remains an eternal challenge.
Are these challenges not existential in nature?
I think you are not far from the truth. When you look at particularly, the circumstances of our country, any critical observer will rightly conclude that the social life and social situation has been very difficult and complicated. We all, are very familiar with it. So, the people are struggling especially with the economic realities and economic difficulties and that of course, puts a lot of strain on the living out on the faith.
So, when people are struggling to survive, struggling to find their daily means of livelihood, it becomes also a little more difficult to be coherent as Christians. Of course, you know that as priests and pastors of souls, we also try to help the nation and society find the correct steps to take for the benefit of all. It has not been easy. The world is also experiencing the same or similar problems. It is not peculiar to us in Nigeria, but we may have our own specific colouration of this universal problem.
Having identified these nagging problems, what plans have you put on ground to solve them?
I have mapped out a few modus operandi, in solving the identified problems. Now, with regard to the challenge of faith, catechasis, faith formation, being close to the people and always encouraging them, in my person as Bishop and through the priests and other pastoral agents. Happy enough, God has continued to bless us with healthy vocations to the priesthood and religious life. So, the pastoral agents are there, who help in educating the people, in their faith. Then, with regard to the social problems, I will say that, that is more difficult because we ourselves, don’t have the resources to solve the social problems of the people, especially when it comes to poverty.
We try as much as we can to start self help projects in parishes, for the diocese in order to provide jobs for a few, but we don’t have the resources to employ many or to pay them well. Again, through our schools and hospitals, we are offering the services we can, to the society. As limited as they are, I believe that, that is the way the Catholic Church, throughout the world, has played its part in improving on the tone of the life of the society.
As far as plan is concerned, we can only plan with regard to what we can control, so to speak. Pastoral plan is far easier to draw up than anything regarding economic plans for the Church, for instance, in a situation like ours.
Talking about the social and economic problems of the citizenry, one is inclined to believe that you, for instance, have access to the Governor of Enugu State. Do you make inputs when necessary, with regard to the people and their suffering?
With regard to the people and their suffering, governments throughout the world, always say they are doing their best. The global economic situation was not created by them and our own particular governor, is himself a Catholic. So, he is always there, listening to the moral exhortations of priests and bishops and also, sometimes, direct interactions with him and with some other people, who work in his government. But you know that our input and advice in that area, cannot be technical because we are not experts in technical advice on these issues.
So, we can only give moral exhortations and point out things, if we notice things that could be done or could have been done better. And I must say that as much as possible, in our own circumstances, there has been no confrontation and no sign of unwillingness of government to listen. Whether the government eventually, was able to do what we expect it to do, is a different kettle of fish.
What is the story of the Cathedral you are erecting in Nsukka Diocese? Is it new, old or refurbished?
(Laughs heartily) This is part of the reality of our own circumstances. Our Diocese is a largely rural Diocese, although the centre is located in the University town, Nsukka, but it is not a new cathedral so to speak. It has been under construction for a very long time. Before the Diocese was erected in November 1990, the St. Theresa’s Parish, Nsukka, had made several attempts to build a new church.
That, never really worked out. They had started some foundation, some stanchions but none of them worked out. When eventually the Diocese was created, its first bishop, Rt. Rev. Francis Okobo, embarked on a befitting edifice of worship, for the ever-growing population of Nsukka Diocese. And being a man who had vision about the future, he thought of a very large and imposing edifice, even though, he knew that the resources would be difficult to find. But one step at a time. We are in the 30th year of the erection of the cathedral and it is only now that we are hoping to bring it to a situation, or a condition in which it can be dedicated to the worship of God. It has not been easy because the resources of the people are limited and let me say that there has not been an aggressive drive for fund raising, knowing that the people are themselves impoverished, especially in the past years and with what is happening in the oil sector, which is the mainstay of our economy, the people themselves, have been struggling. So, we have been patient and trying to manage the resources we get well. This is why we are hoping that by next week, the cathedral will be in a situation that we will be able to dedicate it.
What tickles your mind as the dedication is now here with us?
The place of worship is a place of encounter with the sacred. It gives direction to the people. It offers orientation and stability to the people. So, not having one place like that as cathedral, from which the pastoral administration and the teaching of the Catholic Church, goes forth to other parts of the Diocese, has been a source of discouragement for the people I must say. It has also affected their religious confidence and sense of identity. I am noticing that as we are approaching a date for the dedication of the cathedral, more or less completed because it is not quite completed, it has only been brought to a stage it can be used and work will continue.
I notice that as we approach that date, the faithful themselves, and even non-Catholics and non-Christians are very excited. They are very excited because of what such a place of worship means to them and for everybody. That also puts me in the excitement mood. It has taken a lot of work and we never knew that we will be where we are now, at this moment in time, especially watching the economy.
The people have been very generous, very patient and also the fact that for now, we can say it won’t be like the statement of Jesus Christ in the bible that this man began a house and was unable to complete it. Any uncompleted project affects the psyche and the disposition of the person or people who started the project. So, at least, from that point of view, which is very reassuring, but more importantly, it is a sign of God’s presence among the people. The fact that the cathedral is there and complete, reassures the people in these difficult times that God is still with them.
While some people are happy with the new cathedral, there are obviously others, who are thinking that you should have channeled the resources to the building of industries. What is your take on this line of thought?
Yes, they are entitled to their opinion. I am aware that some people out there, may be asking why Nsukka Diocese should spend money building churches when people are facing excruciating poverty. Some may also ask why we are not giving them food and building industries. I’ll prefer to respond this way. I lived in Europe for many years and while there, I discovered that before Europe made its scientific progress, that progress was prepared by religious education that liberated the human mind from slavery to the forces of nature.
Without that, the scientific explosion in Europe would not have been possible. And again, one thing about Catholic churches especially and their places of worship, is that they don’t belong to any person in particular. Every poor person feels he or she owns this place and feels at home. Let me recall with glee that living and working in Rome, my parents visited the Vatican, and I will never forget their joy in entering St. Peter’s Basilica and claiming it as theirs, because it was and still is, a Catholic Church, where every Catholic is at home because it is the house of God and God is our father. So, from this point of view, that church, that cathedral, is a home for the poor. It is not something that oppresses the poor, but something that gives them hope.
The history of building this one and the system of fund raising, were such that every single person in Nsukka area, had the opportunity to participate. So, there nothing elitist about the building of St. Theresa’s Cathedral, Nsukka. So, everybody can walk into the Cathedral and can say that he or she was part of the building process. It is totally ours.
Are there special persons or groups that were outstanding in the process of realizing the project?
Definitely, there are, but I would prefer to de-emphasize such persons because, as Jesus said about the widow who contributed her two copper coins, which was all she had to live on. Some people who gave very little, may have given what cost them more than those who gave quite huge amounts. So, from that point of view, I would not single out any person or group.
We did organize some fund raiser, since I became Bishop and I know some people gave huge sums. Again, some of them wouldn’t want to be identified or singled out for mention. It may interest you to know that some people at a stage, some years past, started giving a bottle of beer to the Cathedral every week, N250 every week. They called themselves Club 250 and that meant a lot for me.
Yours is a rural Diocese and mainly populated by farmers and the academia.
Yes, it is and petty traders.
How do you reach out to them?
I visit a lot and move a lot. I am always in the midst of people, in different levels and recently also, the social media and modern means of communication, have also made it possible for us to reach a wider public outside our Diocese.
What about the security situation in your area of jurisdiction?
(Took a deep breath) Security is a major issue in our country, Nigeria. You may have heard that some time in 2016, a section of my Diocese was attacked by armed persons suspected to be herders and that was a very traumatic experience for the entire region. And there have been other cases here and there, but none has been massive as that one.
As many as seven of my priests have been kidnapped at various points of the Diocese and outside. So, that tells you all the story about the security situation in my area of jurisdiction. We are in God’s hands. Honestly speaking, I sometimes feel that even the security agencies are overwhelmed. There is so much trouble around that those poor security personnel may not even be able to attend to all the demands of their calling, no matter how well they try.
Any advice to Christians, government and security agencies?
My advice is that we should not give up or lose hope. God is there and He has created us in His image and likeness and sent His son to teach us how to be God’s children. If we really take Jesus Christ seriously, all of us will be better for it, the leaders, the led, Christians, non-Christians.
Christ’s message is for everybody. The church we build, which we referred to earlier in this interview, if it is not an external manifestation of our inner convictions of belonging entirely to God, then it is a mockery and a waste of time.
If however, it is external manifestation of of our firm belief that God is really in charge, then, we should submit wholly and entirely to Him. Only a total submission to God’s will, will make us love our brothers and sisters as brothers and sisters, and serve them whenever we are in public office. That is the only thing capable of turning this country in the right direction.
There is something I would like to underline at this juncture, since we are approaching the dedication of our cathedral. The first reading is taken from the book of Nehemiah. It tells the story of the Jews, when they discovered the Book of The Law, after their exile in the face of the destruction they had faced. When they saw the Book of The Law as guidance, they were weeping because they didn’t know they had such a guide and yet, they were wandering like people without a leader and guide. And the king, the priests and people were ultimately, happy that they found something that could lead them to restoration.
No matter how many laws we make in this country, if these laws are not founded on God’s will and word, we would be turning around and hurting ourselves the more. But if we accept God’s own direction, His words, especially His revelation in Christ, and build our civilization on that revelation of love and service, we will start building the kingdom of God on earth. Mutual distrust and emasculation of the truth, by whatever means, won’t help us to achieve this lofty goal.