… We provide services to society through our schools, hospitals
By Chidi Nkwopara
The Catholic Bishop of Nsukka, Reverend Professor Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, remains an intrepid clergyman and a journalist’s delight any day, anywhere. He was in Maria Assumpta Cathedral, Owerri, to celebrate the Requiem Mass for the late Monsignor Theophilus Ibegbulam Okere. He spoke on a number of issues, including insecurity on the land. Excerpts:
How long have you served as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka and what has been your experience thus far?
I have been a bishop for seven years and my experience thus far has been challenging and exciting at the same time. It’s challenging because things keep coming up that you didn’t know or never knew would happen. 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?
They are the same old challenges, from the point of view of faith. Throughout history, the faithful and indeed all of us are always striving to live in practical life what we profess in our religion. These include, but are not limited to, the life of true and unadulterated love, the life of forgiveness, the life of service. Making people consistent remains an eternal challenge.
Aren’t these challenges existential in nature?
I think you are not far from the truth. When looking in particular at the circumstances of our country, any critical observer will rightly conclude that social life and the social situation has been very difficult and complicated. We are all very familiar with it. So people are especially struggling with economic realities and economic difficulties and that, of course, puts a lot of pressure on the life of faith.
So when people struggle to survive, struggle to find their daily livelihood, it also becomes a bit more difficult to be consistent as Christians. Of course, you know that as priests and pastors of souls, we also try to help the nation and society to find the right 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 unique to us in Nigeria, but we can have our own specific coloring of this universal problem.
Having identified these pesky problems, what plans have you put in place to solve them?
I have mapped out some modus operandi to solve the identified problems. Now, as regards the challenge of faith, catecasis, formation in faith, being close to the people and always encouraging them, in my person as Bishop and through priests and other pastoral agents. Quite happy, God has continued to bless us with healthy vocations to the priesthood and religious life. So, pastoral agents are there, who help educate people in their faith. So with regard to social problems, I will say that this is more difficult because we ourselves do not have the resources to solve the social problems of the people, especially when it comes to poverty.
We do our best to start self-help projects in the parishes, for the diocese in order to employ a few, but we do not have the resources to employ many or to pay them well. Once again, through our schools and hospitals, we are offering the services that we can to society. Limited as they may be, I believe that this is the way the Catholic Church, worldwide, has played its role in improving the tone of life in society.
As far as the plan is concerned, we can only plan with respect to what we can control, so to speak. The pastoral plan is much easier to draw up than anything related to the economic plans of the Church, for example, in a situation like ours.
Speaking of the social and economic problems of citizenship, one is inclined to believe that you, for example, have access to the governor of the state of Enugu. Do you make contributions when needed, regarding people and their suffering?
Regarding people and their suffering, governments around the world always say that they are doing everything possible. The global economic situation was not created by them and our own private governor, himself is a Catholic. So, he is always there, listening to the moral exhortations of priests and bishops and also, at times, direct interactions with him and with some other people who work in his government. But you know that our contribution and advice in this area cannot be technical because we are not experts in technical advice on these issues.
So we can only give moral exhortations and point things out, if we notice things that could or could have been done better. And I must say that, as far as possible, in our own circumstances, there have been no clashes or signs of the government’s unwillingness to listen. If the government was eventually able to do what we expect it to do, it is different.
What is the history of the cathedral that you are building in the diocese of Nsukka? 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 center is located in the university town, Nsukka, but it is not a new cathedral, so to speak. It has been under construction for a long time. Before the Diocese was erected in November 1990, St. Teresa Parish, Nsukka, had made several attempts to build a new church.
That never really worked. Some foundations had been started, some struts, but none worked. When the Diocese was finally created, its first bishop, Rt. The Rev. Francis Okobo, embarked on a building of worship appropriate for the growing population of the Diocese of Nsukka. And because he was a man who had a vision of the future, he thought of a very large and imposing building, although he knew that the resources would be difficult to find. But one step at a time. We are in the thirtieth year of the erection of the cathedral and it is only now that we hope to bring it to a situation, or a condition in which it can dedicate itself to the worship of God. It has not been easy because people’s resources are limited and let me tell you that there has not been an aggressive push for fundraising, knowing that the people themselves are impoverished, especially in recent years and with what is going on in oil. . sector, which is the mainstay of our economy, the people themselves have been struggling. Therefore, we have been patient and we have tried to manage resources well. That is why we hope that next week the cathedral will be in a situation where we can dedicate it.
What tickles your mind now that dedication is here with us?
The place of worship is a meeting place with the sacred. Give direction to people. It offers orientation and stability to people. So not having a place like that as a cathedral, from which the pastoral administration and teaching of the Catholic Church go out 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 realize that as we get closer to a date for the dedication of the cathedral, more or less finished because it is not quite finished, it has only been brought to a stage where it can be used and the 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 about what such a place of worship means to them and to everyone. That also puts me in a good mood. It has taken a lot of work and we never knew that we will be where we are now, in this moment, especially looking at the economy.
People have been very generous, very patient and also the fact that for now, we can say that it will not be like the statement of Jesus Christ in the Bible that this man started a house and could not complete it. Any incomplete project affects the psyche and disposition of the person or persons 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 people in these difficult times that God is still with them.
While some people are happy with the new cathedral, obviously there are others who think that it should have channeled resources to building industries. What is your opinion on this line of thinking?
Yes, they have the right to have an opinion. I am aware that some people may be asking why the Diocese of Nsukka should spend money building churches when people face excruciating poverty. Some may also ask why we are not giving them food and construction industries. I will prefer to answer this way. I lived in Europe for many years and while I was there, I discovered that before Europe made its scientific progress, that progress was prepared by religious education that freed the human mind from the bondage of 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 one person in particular. Every poor person feels that they own this place and feel at home. Let me remember with joy 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 their own, because it was and continues to be a Catholic Church, where all the Catholic is in house 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 the construction of this and the fundraising system was such that every person in the Nsukka area had the opportunity to participate. So, there is nothing elitist about the construction of the Cathedral of St. Teresa, Nsukka. So, everyone can enter the Cathedral and say that they were part of the construction process. It is totally ours.
Are there special people or groups that stood out in the process of carrying out the project?
There definitely are, but I would rather downplay those people because, as Jesus said about the widow who brought him two copper coins, it was the only thing he had to live on. Some people who gave very little may have given what cost them more than those who gave quite large amounts. So, from that point of view, I would not single out any person or group.
We have organized a fundraiser, since I became a bishop and I know that some people gave large sums. Again, some of them would not want to be identified or singled out for mention. It may interest you to know that some people at one stage, some years ago, began to give a bottle of beer to the Cathedral every week, N250 every week. They called themselves Club 250 and that meant a lot to me.
Theirs is a rural Diocese and mainly populated by farmers and academia.
Yes it is and small merchants.
How do you approach them?
I visit a lot and move around a lot. I am always in the midst of people, at different levels and recently also, social media and modern media, have also made it possible for us to reach a wider audience outside of our Diocese.
What about the security situation in your area of jurisdiction?
(He took a deep breath) Security is a major issue in our country, Nigeria. You may have heard that at some point in 2016, a section of my Diocese was attacked by gunmen suspected of being pastors and that was a very traumatic experience for the entire region. And there have been other cases here and there, but none have been as massive as that.
Up to seven of my priests have been kidnapped at various points in the Diocese and abroad. So that tells you the whole story about the security situation in my area of jurisdiction. We are in the hands of God. Honestly speaking, sometimes I feel like even law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed. There are so many problems all around you that poor security personnel may not even be able to meet all the demands of your call, no matter how hard they try.
Any advice for Christians, the government and law enforcement agencies?
My advice is that we must not give up or lose hope. God is there and has created us in His image and likeness and sent His son to teach us how to be children of God. If we really take Jesus Christ seriously, we will all be better, the leaders, the led, the Christians, the non-Christians.
The message of Christ is for everyone. The church we build, which we referred to earlier in this interview, if it is not an outward manifestation of our inner convictions that we fully belong to God, then it is a mockery and a waste of time.
However, if it is an outward manifestation of our firm belief that God is really in charge, then we must fully and completely submit to Him. Only 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 that I would like to underline at this juncture, as we approach 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 a guide, they were crying because they did not know that they had such a guide and yet they were wandering as people without a leader and guide. And the king, the priests and the people were finally happy to have found something that could lead to restoration.
No matter how many laws we make in this country, if these laws are not based on the will and word of God, we would be turning around and hurting ourselves even more. But if we accept God’s leading, His words, especially His revelation in Christ, and build our civilization on that revelation of love and service, we will begin to build the kingdom of God on earth. Mutual mistrust and castration of the truth, by any means, will not help us achieve this noble goal.