May the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with us all. Amen.
1. First of all, I thank Mons. Nwalor and all of you, the presbyterium of Ahiara diocese for the warm welcome you have given to me since my appointment by the Holy See as the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese. Your enthusiastic and loyal acceptance of this last intervention of the Holy See is a sign of better days ahead. May the Spirit of the Lord continue to guide us all along the way of love, unity and peace. Amen.
2. I presume that we are all agreed that the situation of the diocese in the last few months is an anomaly that should not be allowed to persist any longer. The apparent condition of “impasse” is in no-one’s favour, except in favour of the enemies of the Church. There must be a way out of the impasse.
3. A lot has happened in the last few months. Positions have been taken and utterances made which have given rise to a crisis that ought not to have been. We must now be ready to leave the past behind us and face the future with a new sense of deep faith in God and in his Church of which we are all proud to be loyal sons and daughters. We are in the Year of Faith. We need to affirm and deepen our faith in God and in the mystery of the Church, which is not only human but above all divine, like her divine Founder. To believe in the Church as mystery is to trust that God is acting in the Church in a way fully known to Him alone.
4. Our faith tells us that God constantly acts in human affairs, especially in the community of faith gathered in his name. Our first reading of today from the Book of Exodus is one of many biblical references to such divine action in the history of the people of Israel, the image of the Church, the new People of God. With powerful arms, God led the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt. The text says that there were about 600,000 men on the march, not counting women and children. If we count them, and allowing for an average of five members in each family, we will be talking of an immense caravan of about 3 million people. We are told that other oppressed people of all sorts joined them. We are not to forget their animals too.
5. This was after 430 years in Egypt, since their arrival there under Joseph in search of food in the midst of famine. Gen. 46:26 remarks that the house of Jacob that went to settled in Egypt was made up of 70 persons, including Joseph and his two sons. By the mysterious plan of God, Jacob left the Promised Land on self-exile to Egypt, where God made a nation out of his family. Psalm 135 celebrates the wonderful work of God, which was totally against all human reckoning.
6. In our search for peace, unity and reconciliation, we must rely on the almighty hand of God who can do all wonders. Paul in 2Cor 5:19 tells us that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, and has entrusted to us the news that this reconciliation between God and the world has taken place. This is also the guarantee of the reconciliation between human beings among themselves. If we are ambassadors of God’s reconciliation, it is all the more expected of us to be a clear sign of that reconciliation with God and among ourselves.
7. We shall be fully and genuinely reconciled if we seek the will of God, guided by the Holy Spirit, and listening to his promptings and inspiration, as he speaks to us in different ways and at times from the most unexpected direction. But he certainly speaks to us through the authentic voice of the Church, built on the solid rock that is Peter, who today is in the person of Francis, our Pope. If we are to hear what the Spirit is saying to us, we must be prepared to relinquish rigid positions, be careful about our utterances and discourage rumours that foment divisions and rancor. We have to do all we can to build up in our diocese the Church of God that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. In particular, the apostolicity of the Church in any place is guaranteed by the diocesan bishop, who is in collegiality cum et sub Petro, and through Peter, in communion with the college of bishops all over the world. It is this college of bishops properly understood that are the authentic successors of the apostles. Any local Church not within this college is like a branch cut off from the tree, dangling lifeless and fruitless on its own, a tragedy we must do all we can to avoid.
8. We all know that the bishop in the diocese is the chief shepherd over the entire family of God in the diocesan community. The presbyterium in particular have a duty to submit to the authority of the bishop since they have no independent pastoral mandate over the people of God without, less still against the Episcopal mandate of the diocesan bishop. On the other hand, the clergy are the “closest and necessary collaborators of the bishop” in shepherding the flock. The bishop cannot operate without the clergy. There is therefore a joint responsibility, each in his own appropriate level. In the Church of God, there is no alternative to this divinely established structure.
9. It is on this understanding that I have accepted the extra burden of being the Apostolic Administrator of this diocese. As I have already said on the day of the announcement in your bishop’s house to your Monsignor Nwalor and the board of consultors, I cannot but work with the clergy on ground and the structures in place. I am offering you, the diocesan curia and indeed the rest of you the clergy of Ahiara, diocesan and religious, my sincere confidence and trust to keep the affairs of the diocese running smoothly. I stretch to you all my hand of fellowship. On your part, I expect loyalty to your ordinary in utterances and pastoral activities. All this is necessary to get my job done as quickly as possible. It is my priority concern to ensure the unity of the entire presbyterium among themselves as a priestly family, in loyalty to the Church, all for the good of souls. Salus animarum, the first law of the Church, this must take priority over all other considerations. As shepherds in the Church of God, we have a sacred duty not to confuse, less still mislead the flock of Christ, “the Church of God, which he bought with the blood of his own Son”. (cf the speech of St. Paul to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, Acts 20:28.)
10. Finally, I wish to take this opportunity to commend and congratulate Mons. Theophilus Nwalor for the generous service he has rendered to the Church of Ahiara under not so easy circumstances. May God reward his efforts. I thank him for agreeing to be among my most valuable advisers and consultants during my hopefully brief period of assignment here.
11. I also take this opportunity to inform you all that I have appointed Rev. Fr. Louis Asiegbu as the Vicar General of the diocese during my short term as Apostolic Administrator. Since I am still busy with my primary assignment as Archbishop of Abuja and with many other engagements, I will not be able to spend much time in Ahiara. I need someone who can be for me and for you a point of reference. As Vicar General, he will stand in for me in my absence from the diocese. I thank Fr. Asiegbu for accepting this assignment. I recommend him to all of you. I am confident that you will receive him with the enthusiasm and loyalty that you have so far demonstrated in my regard.
12. I end by recalling the sweet memory of your great apostle and pioneer bishop, the late Victor Chikwe. May his gentle soul rest in peace. May our Holy Mother Mary, Mother of the Church continue to cover with her mantle of protection the Church of Ahiara, dedicated to her patronage. Amen.
The Priest and The Chair
“And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse.” (Mal. 2:1-2a)
Every day, the people of God sit back and listen to the priest tell them how to conduct themselves, but today the priests that are at the receiving end as the Lord calls them out for bad behaviour. Many are being led astray by their false teachings and wrong example of life. The Lord is categorical that any priest or religious leader who keeps acting in that way will start to lose his respect and worth in the eyes of the people. In the Church, the priests are held in very high esteem but also to a very high moral standard, because they supposedly know the commandments more than everyone else, and are more conditioned by their training to comply. Accordingly, more eyebrows than usual are raised whenever a priest commits a transgression in the community. Thus, in the First Reading, the Lord cautions the priests against favouritism and hypocrisy – that blessings will turn into curses for them. The curse will result from the fact that when what seems to be good is exposed to have been immorally acquired, it turns into an object of ridicule and condemnation.
In the Gospel, Jesus knows that people could be let down by the conduct of their priests and he wants everyone to look beyond their human frailties, and be free to embrace his teaching. He differentiates the religious office from the man who carries out the office, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practise what they preach.” The chair of Moses or cathedra in Greek symbolizes his teaching authority. In those, days a teacher would sit on his cathedra to make authoritative pronouncements. Today, every bishop has a cathedra is his cathedral. And when the Pope speaks ex-cathedra, it simply means that he is exercising his teaching authority as the Vicar of Christ.
The scribes and the Pharisees taught the Law of Moses with authority but did not act accordingly, so their false piety is unworthy of imitation. We no longer have the scribes and the Pharisees, but we have the priests. They are the ones who have been schooled for long years in the Law of Christ and his Church, and when they speak, it is in the name and authority of Christ. But we know that they don’t always live up to the standards required of them. One area of pain for the people today is that of bad and ill-prepared homilies. As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium: “We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!” There are many Catholics today who shop around for a place to hear a sound and uplifting homily.
But. worse still, we know that some priests have been like the scribes and the Pharisees and not practiced what they preached. We know that many children and vulnerable adults have suffered intolerably over the decades, and families rocked apart by the actions of some priests. Consequently, many in the community have been outraged, many have left the Church, and many of those involved have faced justice. It is what it is!
However, the priesthood remains valid, not because of the priests but rather due to the merits of Christ. The Church belongs to Christ and so does the priesthood, irrespective of the conduct of individual priests. That’s why the Council of Trent defined the principle of “ex opera operato”, which means the efficacy or validity of a sacrament flows from the power of Christ working in the sacramental action and not from the holiness of the priest. This point highlights the difference that Jesus is seeking to make between the office and the officer. The priesthood is an essentially good and necessary thing, and we need it all the time. The priesthood was created by God and is a guaranteed instrument of grace and salvation – it’s one of the seven sacraments. But the conduct of individual priests will not always measure up to their calling. This is a fact life occasioned by original sin.
In our Second Reading, St. Paul spells out the qualities of model priest – humble, caring, and loving. He wants every priest to be meek and humble and to care for the people the way a nursing mother cares for her children. The priest should work assiduously and try hard not to be a burden on the people. That way, the people will come to receive his message as the message of God. Thus, the bishops, priests and deacons must not let themselves be carried away by their ego, tittle, power or honour so much that they become hindrances to the message of Christ. We are reminded today that authority comes with responsibility and accountability. This warning is valid for everyone, priest and laity alike – we all most practice what we preach, and we must stick to the same standards that we demand of others.
Therefore, should we have the misfortune of coming across a priest not living up to his calling, let us remember to distinguish the man from the office he holds. Let us do what we can to call his attention, but we must never be co-operators in evil. Most importantly, we must always pray for such that he may fall back in line. Please, let us always pray fervently for our priests that they may all become shepherds after God’s own heart. Amen!
Understanding the essence of Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is one of those major Christian festivals which has gradually become Paramount in the Church’s liturgical Calendar. Like the ash Wednesday ritual which begins the Lenten season, the palm Sunday practice which used to be a purely Catholic Church ceremony has been appropriated by the entire Christendom worldwide. Simply understood, it is a spiritual carnival commemorating the historical solemn but triumphant entry of our Lord Jesus Christ into Jerusalem about two thousand and seventeen years ago.
Here in Nigeria and Owerri town in particular almost every Christian irrespective of his or her denomination participates in the open air religious parade which heralds this yearly spiritual rite with relative joy. Bona-fide Catholics normally carry palm fronts singing and chanting pleasant choruses unto Jesus the son of David. At the end of this divine all encompassing fiesta, true Catholics are seen on their way home carrying beside their Bibles, Sunday missals or bulletins palm fronds with cross adjustments to match the occasion of Palm Sunday. This formal ritualistic procedure portrays the sacredness and importance of the palm fronds in the Holy celebration of the Easter which is the culmination of our salvation history.
The gospel according to Saint Matthew Chapter 21 verse 9 and following gives us a true imagery and insight concerning all that took place in Jerusalem many years ago on this special day popularly ascribed to palm. The Scripture has this to say, “And the Multitudes that went before and those who followed Jesus cried out saying, Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest”.’
One remarkable incident was that when Jesus Christ, the beloved son of our heavenly father ventured into Jerusalem the entire city stood still. This showed the greatness, influence, power, majesty and Omnipotence of our Lord and master in whose honor we file in procession today jubilating.
In the midst of this sacred fun-fare, one significant lesson was that Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on an ass which is the most humble and peaceful animal and not on a war horse as one would imagine, yet his glory shrouded humanity. He did never appear as one who was going to face his detractors and enemies that later crucified him. Nothing portrayed him as a monarch, king or ruler. He had no siren, no police orderlies, no bodyguards or any pretentious paraphernalia. Even at that, the crowd in Jerusalem recognized Jesus Christ contrary to his desire. What a contradiction!
Though humble, yet some extra biblical records have it that the people of Jerusalem acknowledged him as Saviour, King and Royal Majesty. He was clearly identified as a shoot springing out from the branch of David. Jesus Christ’s kingship no doubt was unlike our present day modern monarchs who deck themselves with pump and ostentatious spectacles. He was not like some of our present political leaders who have turned themselves into demi-gods or modern day colossus that bestrides the narrow world. The triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem forms a wonderful image of meditation for different generations in Nigeria and the world at large. His kingdom manifested the kingdom of God on earth; that kingdom best located in the hearts of men. Invariably, Christ was showing that in the kingdom of God Almighty, the uncreated creator, the uncaused cause must be worshipped in spirit and in truth.
It is important to note that this annual celebration significantly sanctifies the use of palm frond in our ordinary set up. For instance, in our African traditional religion, palm fronds have far reaching symbols and signs which are for the most part negative. It is worthy to note that Christianity with its purifying effect transformed the connotation of palm frond with this ceremony. Therefore the placing of palm fronds along the roads that lead to our places of worship reminds us that we are celebrating something holy, sacred; solemn and deeply religious. Other leaves are not used because their parent trees shed their leaves once a year unlike the palm tree.
The lessons of Palm Sunday are so numerous. The ceremony lays emphasis on the need for us human beings to be humble and unassuming. It calls us to regard and respect one another, to obey constituted authorities and to be prepared at all times to serve and not to be served following the life style of Jesus Christ our Saviour. At all times, we should be concerned about what we shall do for people and not what people should do for us. By extension, let us also ask what we can do for our nation, our state or our local community to enable it advance economically, to move forward and not backwards.
The passion is God saying to us, “No matter what you do, I will keep on loving you, I will never let you down. If we reject him, betray him, scourge him, crown him with thorns, even if we crucify him, he will continue to love us and he always re-echoes, ” Father forgive them for they know not what they do”. What he expects from us is that humility to ask for forgiveness like Peter.
Jesus Christ the only begotten son of our heavenly Father who was crucified, died and buried took the lead through his humility on Palm Sunday. It is left for us to emulate his pattern of life in giving ourselves up for the good of others. Carrying the palm fronds in our hands with our Bibles may not be enough but applying the shining examples and lessons of Jesus Christ in our daily lives wins the race. The Palm Sunday which is part of the Lenten season should be a big and enduring lesson to all of us in our Christian lives. We wish every Christian in Nigeria a very happy celebration of Palm Sunday.
Rev. Fr. George Nwachukwu
Director of Communications/Media
Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri
Courage, Be Not Afraid!
A Pastoral Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province Issued at the End of their First Plenary Meeting held at the Assumpta Pastoral Centre, Owerri, from the 17th to 18th January, 2017
We the Catholic Bishops of the Owerri Ecclesiastical Province held our First Plenary Meeting of the year at the Assumpta Pastoral Centre, Owerri, from January 17th to 18th, 2017. Having deliberated on a number of pastoral and social issues affecting our people and nation, we issue the following Pastoral Statement to express our concern and solidarity with you our people.
Gratitude to God and Commendation
- The recently concluded Great Jubilee Year of Mercy has reaffirmed the Church as a sacrament of hope and encouragement for the people, a Church whose mission is to proclaim God’s loving compassion and goodness. With this sense of divine mission, we want to reassure you our dear people that we share your joys and hopes, your griefs and anxieties, your pains and sufferings.
- These indeed are trying times for all of us, with all the moral, economic and political hardships facing us as a people. Nevertheless, we remain grateful to God who has continued to sustain us, safely guiding us through the past year 2016 and leading us into the New Year 2017.
- We commend you our people for your patience and resilience in the face of so many difficulties and challenges which you are going through in these turbulent times. We know that government too is facing difficulties and challenges; yet we would like to commend her for those areas of their responsibility where visible progress has been made. To all those who have been playing prophetic and consolatory roles in the midst of our people’s suffering, we equally express our gratitude. Do not relent in your efforts. And for all those in our families, communities and institutions who have remained faithful to God and to their duties, we extend our sincere appreciation and commendation.
The Plight of our People
- Across the length and breadth of our states and nation, we are confronted with the continued hardship facing our people in different spheres of our local and national life. With regard to the normal respect that ought to be accorded to every human being, many of our people have been cowed, leading to a loss of their usual self-esteem and confidence. Many of the institutions established to cater for their various needs have been assaulted or modified in ways that leave the people short-changed and wondering what next. There is a sense of dismay all over the land, except for those benefiting from the current overall hardship. We decry the backlog of unpaid salaries to civil servants, the non-payment of pensions and gratuities to retirees, and the unfair slashing of financial entitlements. We are well aware that the economic recession in our nation has added to the general hardship. This situation continues to make life more miserable for our people. That is why a greater sense of compassion and care is called for from all sides.
Decay in our Value System and Social Infrastructures
- We observe with regret that even those value-systems that were the strength of our communities and the backbone of our human and material development are suffering serious erosion. Our educational system is in a sorry state. Instead of being citadels of character formation and learning, our schools and universities have become incubators for indiscipline, cultism and corruption. Our health institutions continue to be degraded by quacks who hawk all kinds of drugs to the gullible populace. And there are those businesses producing substandard, adulterated and fake food and other merchandise.
Unfortunately, this malaise has not spared our traditional and religious institutions which have become infested with fraudsters who abuse these institutions for personal monetary gains. Even some of our own Catholic priests have fallen into this kind of abuse, creating in the minds of our people a largely materialistic sense of religion.
Encouraging our Youth and People
- Young people are always the hope of every nation. In spite of the hardship in our nation, we urge you not to allow the uncertainties of today and the fears of tomorrow to paralyse you; don’t be lazy! Be careful not to be influenced by corrupt leaders who flagrantly display their ill-gotten wealth. Do not allow them to use you for their dirty businesses of thuggery, kidnapping and killing that disregard the value of human life and property. Drug peddling, use of hard drugs, 419ning, gambling, armed robbery and prostitution must not be your option; they are ill winds that blow you no good.
Our dear young ones, be disciplined and remain focused. Heed the voice wisdom; be modest and prudent. Respect authority and the rule of law. Appreciate the values of hard work, do something today to become somebody tomorrow. We your Bishops wish to reecho the words which the Holy Father, Pope Francis, addressed to young people like you during the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland: “Today, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life, is calling you to leave your mark on history. He, who is life, is asking each of you to leave a mark that brings life to your own history and that of many others. He who is truth is asking you to abandon the paths of rejection, division and emptiness.”
- Difficult times require extraordinary responses; and so we enjoin you our people, leaders and followers alike, to cut down on all forms of oppressive, flamboyant, ostentatious and wasteful living for a simpler and more purposeful style of life. And so, we exhort you to rediscover those age-old tested values of our ancestors in faith and culture, the fear of God, the value of discipline, respect for family values, provision for the common good, care for the other, especially for the less privileged, the drive for hard work, entrepreneurship and creativity. Our people have survived very difficult times before; surely, we can do it again.
Our beloved people, you are dear to our hearts. In the words of Jesus, courage, be not afraid! (cf. Mt. 14:27). Do not allow our difficult times separate you from the love of God (cf. Rom 8:35f.), “Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourself what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and mature.” Rom. 12:2).
- In all these circumstances, we want to remind our priests of their responsibility to shepherd our people to greener pastures and refreshing waters (cf. Ps 23). Do not abandon the flock entrusted into your care; do not mislead them in your liturgy, proclamations and way of life (cf. Ez. 34).
We invite all our people to intensify prayers for our nation, especially in these critical times and work together for a better life. In times like this, the Church has always relied on the maternal intercession of our Blessed Mother Mary, Help of Christians. May She commend us in our present challenges into the redeeming hands of Her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
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