This is not a very pleasant time to be a priest of the Catholic Church. From Africa to Australia; from the Amazon to America, there is no let up in the stream of controversies about the Catholic priesthood. Against a background of generational trials, and what Pope Francis recently decried as the ‘sabbatical mentality’ whereby some priests later renounce the priesthood, two of my priest friends, Rev Fr [Dr] Chukwuma Ofojebe and Rev Fr Hilary Okpalaji are marking the silver jubilee of their ordination on August 20, 1994 in the first week of January, 2020. For personal and pastoral reasons I am involved in the celebrations. And by virtue of the universal sonship of the priest, the events assume a fraternal engagement for the Church community as a whole.
I met Fr Chukwuma Ofojebe in March 2014 when we travelled in the same batch on pilgrimage to Israel. By the unit convention of the programme, we were lodged in the same hotel and rode in the same bus to sites at every stage of the journey. I was drawn to Fr Ofojebe by his homilies at Mass. He and the other Catholic priest in our unit, Fr Jude Nwankwo ensured we had morning Mass every day.
Easily, the homily occupies a centre – stage in the Eucharistic celebration. After the rites of consecration and the readings, the homily stands out in the liturgy of the word. A good homily can be soul stirring and uplifting and a poor homily can equally be as depressing. While it is no excuse, long, boring sermons have been known to send some to sleep during Mass.
In the past ten years I have tried to persuade some priests to collect their homilies and publish them as books. We live in a world in which it is apparently sophisticated to be secular. The sense of God’s supremacy, infinite goodness and loving invitation is continuously under erosion in a culture of materialism. While the standard biblical commentaries serve the needs of student – theologians any day, spiritual reflections with bearing on practical issues of modern living seem to me better suited for dialogue with a neo paganistic age.
I found Fr Ofojebe’s scriptural distillation at once simple and profound. I was struck as much by the coherence of his interpretations as by the clarity of presentation. It all seemed so effortless. His analysis of the readings frequently struck the right chord of reason and emotion. It was a gift he had nurtured over the years. It had become a part of him. For, you could not fail to notice that the home truths from the sermons were delivered unapologetically, mindfully and with felt humility. Needless to say, I looked forward to the next opportunity of his refreshing spiritual menu.
On our group’s visit to the childhood home of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Nazareth, it was the turn of a Catholic priest and indeed of Fr Ofojebe to highlight the biblical context of the holy site. As he began to talk about her virtues, something stirred in me. I got up, walked up to Fr Chukwuma, bent and whispered into his ear: ‘Fr’, I said, ‘this topic presents a chance to sing the song “were nne Mary mere nne.” Our eyes locked for a split second. ‘Fr, sing it’ I delivered. ‘You know we’re mixed up here. Will they welcome it?’ Mindful that we were keeping the company waiting, I said, why not; heading back to my seat as I said so.
Then, I soon realised that Fr Chukwuma had steered the reflection to the motherhood of Mary. ‘We’re brothers of Christ’, he said. ‘Are we then not all children of Mary?’ And he sang were Mary mere nne… [Take Mary as your mother and she will care for you as her child]. I sang heartily, loudly. I smiled inwardly saying without words: Mother, accept my little acknowledgment of you. And thank you for bringing me here. I was convinced it was Mary who obtained God’s approval for the sponsorship of my pilgrimage.
About two days after that I was robbed of much of my estacode while we toured a site in Galilee. Fr Jude Nwankwo one of the few I broke the sad news to, shared it with Fr Chukwuma. The following day at morning mass, Fr Chukwuma announced it and followed up with an appeal in the bus for donations to enable me cushion the effect of the loss. The response was massive. And I took away from that incident not just the spirit of good neighbourliness demonstrated by Fr but also the lesson of greater consideration for anyone in need. It is not easy to beg.
Fr Hilary Okpalaji is presently my home parish priest at St Kevin’s Parish, Nimo. A very outspoken person by nature, what first struck me about him is his great effort to keep personal contact with as many members of his parish as possible. It is not merely a matter of having elephantine memory and knowing hundreds of names.
It is about having a personal encounter with parishioners; creating a meeting point for intercourse. The familiarity achieved with individuals and groups becomes a pedestal for mobilisation and action in the parish community. It has worked to an appreciable extent. Fr Hilary has surprised not a few by calling them by their names at first meeting. He keeps a long list of telephone numbers. He calls to ask about personal and family wellbeing and on that note of close friendship, the discussion, somehow ends with a review of the work going on in the parish.
It is therefore not surprising that in the four years of his watch, the parish has recorded phenomenal growth in physical works and services. The church building has been completed and furnished, with attention now being paid to outside pavilion and landscaping.
The issue of spiritual growth is a tricky one; a subjective point for us mortals. But I am once more arrested by his homily. You cannot fail to observe the passion with which Fr Hilary preaches God’s word. He is literally consumed by the fire the scriptures ignite in the heart. For Fr Hilary, homilies are to be preached with all of the soul, spirit and physical energy. As the sermon gets the better of him, his voice rises and pierces the roof, waking up closed eyes and sleeping hearts. Fr Hilary does not just proclaim the word. He demonstrates it! He walks and works it out on the altar! For comparison, he comes close to the former national electoral commission chairman Humphrey Nwosu, nicknamed the dancing professor by his students for his generous gesticulation and demonstrations in class.
We are grateful to God for the gift of the priesthood in general and for the gift of our silver jubilarians. Their dedication to the difficult work of the priesthood has impacted positively in the lives of many. I am a witness. It is our prayer that the good Lord will increasingly look on the jubilarians with smiles of approval as they continue to walk the narrow priestly path.