Maiden Encounter of Bishop Godfrey Onah with Ex-Seminarians from Catholic Diocese of Nsukka Easter Thursday, 8 April 2021

“They too Were Disciples and Friends of Jesus… But they Didn’t Become Priests.”

  1. Peace be with you. My dear friends and brothers, in the Name and with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose glorious resurrection from the dead we celebrate today, I greet you: “Peace be with you!” Happy Easter to all of you and thank you very much for honouring my invitation. That you are here today, without even knowing why I invited you, since it was not stated in the invitation that was publicised, shows me how much you trust and respect me.
  2. Ever since my years as a minor seminarian, I have never stopped wondering what has become of many of my friends and mates who did not continue the journey to the priesthood. Many of these were very promising in our days in the Seminary and, by our human estimation, would have made very good priests. Apart from the inscrutable mystery of why some of the best (still by our human estimation) never became priests, I have never been comfortable that these inestimable human resources have never been properly harnessed and mobilized for the explosive transformation they could occasion in the Church and in the society: the superlatively intelligent, the deeply spiritual and prayerful, the prodigally generous, those highly talented musicians, artists, footballers, athletes and dramatists, the creative geniuses, those disciplinarians who had the rigidity of military officers… What has become of all of them?
  3. Of course, Divine Providence often surprises us when many of these end up as illustrious men in the Church and in the society. But quite a few have completely disappeared from the radar, like missing aircrafts, while the wreckages of some have been found in dark valleys of inglorious living.
  4. We know that the majority of those who enter the Seminary do so at least with an initial honest intention of becoming priests. But we also know that a very little percentage of them make it to the priesthood. Being a Bishop now offers me an opportunity and a platform to bring together those who passed through the Seminary but did not become priests, as many of them as possible, in order that together as one Family, the Church, we may begin to reflect on possible forms of pastoral and societal reengineering.
  5. In my opinion, one important question that each ex-seminarian should ask himself often is not: “Why did I leave or was I asked to leave the Seminary?” but rather: “Why did God allow me to experience the Seminary at all?” For I am firmly convinced that even if one spent only a day in the Seminary as a seminarian, there must have been a reason in God’s divine plan for it. My faith and experience in life tell me that nothing happens in a person’s life for nothing. I believe, therefore, that there must be a reason why God permits so many young men to pass through the Seminary, even when he knows that they will not become priests. Was God not preparing these men for special roles in the Church and in the society at such a time as this?
  6. There are three figures in the Gospels that I find very illustrative in this regard. They too were among the disciples and friends of Jesus, but they did not become priests or bishops. They were not among the Twelve. They are: Nichodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene.
  7. a) Nichodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews and a secret disciple who came to Jesus by night (Jn. 3:1-2). His private conversations with Jesus provided the occasion for some of the most fundamental teachings of our Lord (Jn. 3:1-21). When the plot to kill our Lord was thickening, as one of the Jewish leaders, he was the only one to raise an objection, albeit a weak one: “Does the law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?” (Jn 7:50-51). Although they silenced him with an argumentum ad hominem, that question must have weighed on their consciences from that time onwards. Then, after the crucifixion and death of our Lord, he was one of the few who had access to the body and offered it a proper burial, without which the story of the resurrection would have been less credible.
  8. b) Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man (Mtt. 27:57), a member of the council of elders (Mk. 15:43; Lk 23:51) and secret disciple (Jn. 19:38). Because of his high political position at the time, he had access to Pilate and asked him for permission to bury our Lord properly and, because he was a wealthy man, he offered his private tomb for the burial. Without these, the story would have been very different.
  9. c) And there was Mary of Magdala, the grateful disciple of unflinching fidelity, who had received spiritual healing (Lk 8:2). She, it was, who dared to mobilize other women and went to the tomb when every other disciple was gripped with crippling fear of what had happened two days earlier and became the first to encounter the risen Lord.

These three disciples and friends of Jesus could get to places and play the roles which none of the Apostles (bishops and priests) could, at very crucial moments in the history of our salvation. Today, many of you, dear disciples and friends of Jesus who are not priests, can get to places and play some important roles that no bishop or priest can dream of: as husbands, fathers and heads of families, civil servants, professionals, captains of industries, business men, academics, traditional rulers, politicians, security personnel, labourers and artisans, ordinary citizens on the rough and rugged terrains of daily life…  The days you spent in the Seminary were a preparation for this.

  1. If you are still wondering why I invited you, may I draw your attention to the timing of this encounter, which was providential. When first I nursed the desire to meet with you and conceived the idea of inviting you, I never thought that it would happen during the Easter Octave, the most glorious and joyous week in the Church’s liturgical calendar. The natural time to try to fix this type of meeting would have been the week after Christmas. But having this encounter today, by the special arrangement of Divine Providence, helps me understand why we are here today. In the Gospel reading of today (Lk 24:35-48), the risen Lord appears to his fearful and bemused friends and brothers and offers them this reassuring greeting: “Peace be with you!” Then he refocuses their attention from the lost opportunities of their past to unlimited mission of their future, the mission of bearing witness to his resurrection and its implication for humanity. It is possible that some of you have not yet come to terms with their past as having once been seminarians. Today the Lord is telling all of you: “Peace be with you!… Why are you so agitated and why are these doubts rising in your hearts?” He is asking each of you to see whatever has happened in the past as part of God’s plan and to now focus on the assignment ahead, namely, bearing Christian witness wherever you may find yourself. The Church and our society needs you now more than you can imagine.
  2. This encounter today should be seen as on occasion of grace and an opportunity for gratitude. Each of you ought to be grateful to God and to the Church for the formative experience in the Seminary. The Church is grateful to you for the roles you play in the Church and in the society at present. All of us are grateful to God for who you are today. We ask him to continue to bless you and your families, to sustain you in your mission and lay apostolate. Bear in mind that for every ex-seminarian who is a priest, there may be as many as ten ex-seminarians who are not priests. Yes, we are all ex-seminarians! And together WE, ALL OF US, ARE THE CHURCH. It is my prayer that the event of today will serve as the beginning of more regular and fruitful encounters between us, involving, as times goes on, many more of those serving from the pews and those serving from the sanctuary. The invitation to today’s meeting was not and could not have been personalized, since we do not have an updated database on our ex-seminarians. Creating one would be a first positive step forward. And some of you may be in a better position to take the lead in this regard.
  3. May God keep you in his love.

 

+ Godfrey Igwebuike Onah

       Bishop of Nsukka

     Thursday 8 April 2021

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