Ordained to Serve
(“To Serve God and His People”)
A Homily preached at the Silver Jubilee Thanksgiving Mass of
Most Rev. Anthony John Valentine Chiedozie Obinna, Archbishop of Owerri,
at Maria Assumpta Cathedral Owerri on Thursday 5 September 2019
Godfrey Igwebuike Onah
(Bishop of Nsukka)
«The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves… I am among you as one who serves» (Lk 22: 25-26)
My dear Friends in Christ,
Today we join the Bishops, the Clergy, the members of Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Laity of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province in giving thanks to God for his many blessings in the past 25 years since the creation of the Province. Understandably, the thanksgiving celebrations have been planned in stages, in order to give us time to pause awhile and reflect on the various dimensions of the great things the Lord has done for and in his people in this quarter of a century. Today, our attention is focused on the blessings we have received in and through the person, the life and the ministry of our Archbishop and the Metropolitan of Owerri Province, Archbishop Anthony John Valentine Chiedozie Obinna. Our thanksgiving reflection today, guided by the Word of God that has just been proclaimed to us, intends to be a simple reminder that the Bishop, like every Priest and Deacon, is ordained to serve; it equally intends to invite all of us to thank God for the various ways in which Archbishop Obinna has sincerely tried all these years to lead the People of God through service.
Although we sometimes sing the “Ecce sacerdos magnus” for living and serving Bishops (the hymn was originally the introit for the Mass of pastors and confessors who are already saints), given that the text is in the past tense, it would seem that the proper time to sing it would be after the death of the Bishop. For it is only then that it can be affirmed that “in his days he (did what) was pleasing to God” (“onye mere ihe na-aso Chineke mgbe o na-achi”). Our prayer is that those who will be there when the lifeless body of Archbishop Anthony Obinna will be lying before the altar will then be able to sing “Ecce sarcedos magus” with a clear conscience, as did the homilist at the funeral of the Servant of God, Bishop Michael Ugwuja Eneja.
Looking at the life of the majority of Christians down through the ages, one is often left to wonder how seriously we take our own religion. If one were to summarize in a few words what Christianity is all about, one could say that it is a way of life characterized by love, which is expressed through self-sacrificing service of neighbour. Unlike the other religious leaders of his time, our Lord Jesus Christ taught and demonstrated that true worship of God does not consist in keeping a set of rules or performing determinate ritual actions, but rather in loving God and neighbour, to the point of giving one’s life for one’s friends. «As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love… Greater love has no one than this that one gives one’s life for one’s friends» (Jn 15: 9-13). All the teachings and actions of the Church are meant to make people embrace this way of life and live it out in action.
It is therefore sad to note that some of the Church’s administrative and pastoral actions, which are meant to bring Christ’s Gospel of love nearer to the people, like the creation of new Ecclesiastical Provinces, Dioceses and Parishes, as well as the appointment of Bishops and Parish Priests, often turn out to become causes of struggle, quarrel, intrigues, slander, divisions and “genetically transmitted” resentment. On a Jubilee day like this, we have a sacred responsibility of asking ourselves why this is so.
What have we as Christians done with positions of leadership, whether in the Church or in the larger society, that has made people forget that such positions are for service? What body language, what manner of leadership, from Bishops has led people now to talk of “struggling for the bishopric” or some priests positioning or posturing to be made bishops (even though that is a futile exercise)? What have we done with our positions of service that now makes even members of the Institutes of Consecrated Life (Religious Priests, Sisters and Brothers) struggle and manoeuvre to be made Superiors General? People hardly ever struggle to serve. The struggle is usually for power and personal gain. It is my opinion that those who struggle and campaign to be made heads of the various bodies in the Church (clerical or lay) should never get it, because most likely, such persons are not seeking the positions in order to serve but for some other personal or selfish reasons.
Christians have carried the same attitude over to public life. How many of our public servants are really servants in the true sense of the word – including the Christians in public service? Are our civil servants actually serving us in public offices? Not minding that minister is just the Latin word for servant, how many of our ministers really see themselves and act as servants – including the Christians among them? «The leader among you must be the one who serves.»
The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua appeared on the Nigerian leadership horizon like a meteor. When at his inauguration as the 13th President of Nigeria he promised to be a servant-leader, Nigerians were ecstatic and immediately fell in love with the man. It was as if he had introduced a concept never heard of in Nigeria. Yet, more than half of Nigeria’s population is Christian. Had Nigerian Christians never read this passage from today’s Gospel before Yar’Adua? «The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves… I am among you as one who serves» (Lk 22: 25-26). Of course they had. But perhaps they never thought it applied to them, nor did they see it lived out by other Christians in leadership positions. When, therefore, we Christians pay only lip service to our own values, their adoption by others, or by the secular society, challenge us to self-examination and personal as well as collective conversion. As Msgr. Theophilus Okere once observed, the driving principles of the French Revolution and Communism, namely, justice, freedom, equality and universal brotherhood, are all core Christian values, which Christianity somehow failed to adequately implement. Thus he affirms: «It took the French Revolution and its philosophers to get society as society, serious again on these values, preached for ages without effect by Christianity. [And] it took the rude shock of Karl Marx’s atheistic materialism to force the attention of the world on the crying need of justice for all. Though both movements “failed”, that failure is rather an indictment of the one, moral force equipped and mandated to effect these programs in the world». This is food for thought on our style of leadership today. If our people are surprised and excited when they see a leader who is a servant, then we have reasons to ask ourselves questions about our own style of leadership.
Let it be said that leading through service of neighbour is neither easy nor a way of life that can be adopted in a once-and-for-all manner. No. It is rather a painful life-long process, that is learned only by kneeling at the foot of the Cross, contemplating the victimhood of Christ’s priesthood. The context of the dispute among the Apostles in the Gospel reading of today was the Last Supper, the first Eucharistic celebration, and very close to the Passion and death of our Lord. The Apostles had just received the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time and Jesus had just told them that he was about to suffer and to die. And they started disputing among themselves over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. In such a solemn and sad situation, in which one would have expected them to be worried over what was about to happen to their Master, they were rather struggling for positions of power and importance. What an embarrassment! What a shameful thing for these most intimate friends of the Master! What a patient Lord and Master we have! Rather than express his disappointment at the behaviour of his friends, he patiently taught them that their greatness should be in service. It was not easy for the Apostles to learn and practise this. It will not be easy either for the successors of the Apostles or for any other Christian. When therefore we notice that many of us in leadership positions are not servants of the people, we should realize that we are only earthen vessels holding divine treasure (cf 2 Cor 4: 7). That notwithstanding, we have to keep trying to learn and internalize this principle; for without diakonia, our priesthood loses its very essence. Without the diaconate, we cannot be either Priests or Bishops.
Since leadership through service is not easy to find, we have good reasons to celebrate and to thank God when we find a good specimen of it. Ordained Bishop 4 September 1993 (26 years ago at the age of 47) and appointed Archbishop only 6 months later (while he was still trying to figure out what being a Bishop meant, Amarachi Obinna chose for his episcopal motto: “To serve God and His people.” Before his episcopal ordination, Fr. Anthony Obinna was fully immersed, after a thorough specialized training, in the diakonia of the truth, as a lecturer at the Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri. There he was engaged in the service of divine truth: seeking it, loving it, embracing it and bringing it to others through education. This, says Pope St John Paul II, is a special service to humanity (Fides et ratio, 2). And since his elevation to the episcopal office, his dedication to this service has intensified, to the point of becoming a consuming passion. Anthony Obinna is in love with the truth and seeks it diligently at all times, through prayer, meditation and study. Yes, he is a man of prayer (“a call for prayer: can we say the Rosary?”), a seasoned intellectual and an avid reader with a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge. This prepares him adequately for the special service of teaching the people of God and of proclaiming the truth as a prophet. A service that is highly needed in Nigeria at this moment.
Today, Nigerians expect so much of their Bishops. In the darkness and gloom that have enveloped our country, many are looking expectantly at the Church for a ray of hope, however faint. Whether it is about the perceived Islamization and “Fulanization” of the country, or about the current effort of the Federal Government to stifle every form of opposition, people are asking: What is the Church doing? And by the Church they simply mean Catholic Bishops. But I ask: What else can the Bishops do that they have not done already? The Bishops have prayed and continue to pray for Nigeria. The Bishops have spoken clearly and consistently against bad governance, from the time of military dictatorship, when the voice of the Church was the only one that could not be silenced, till today, when military dictatorship has returned in another form. The Bishops have expressly stated that this country is in trouble. The Bishops have told the government repeatedly that the only way out of the catastrophe that is about to happen in this country is justice and fairness: respect for those parts of the Constitution that are just and fair; amendment of those parts of the Constitution that were so framed as to favour parts of the country, either geographically or religiously. This country is experiencing deterioration on a daily basis and our people are losing confidence in themselves. There is a decay of infrastructure and near total collapse of security. All these have been pointed out by the Catholic Bishops on several occasions. What have the Bishops not said? At the peak of insecurity in this country the Bishops candidly advised the President to resign, since he could no longer provide protection for the lives and property of Nigerians. Repeatedly the Bishops have engaged every President of this country.
But what about our Christians, including our Catholics, who are in government? There are card-carrying Catholics in all the political parties that have ruled Nigeria since the return to democracy. What have these Catholic or Christian members of the ruling parties done to translate into concrete action the indications that the Bishops have given? Bishops have marched the streets in prayer and protest. Bishops have taken the Government to court in some States. The only thing that we have not done and will never do is to incite our people to violence, because that would be wrong. However, the Federal Government of Nigeria needs to know that our youths are losing confidence in the peaceful and nonviolent way we are proposing. And I would like to state clearly today, out of respect for Archbishop Anthony Obinna who has been foremost in speaking out in defence of good governance both in his State and in the Country, that the current Federal Government of Nigeria will hold itself responsible if it refuses to listen to the voice of reason and the calamity we all fear befalls our dear country.
The Islamization and “Fulanization” project has gone beyond being a hidden agenda, for it is now being implemented openly and with impunity. But then there is a limit to the extent to which the people can be oppressed without their reacting to the oppression. We therefore appeal to all those in Government at different levels in this country to remember that they are there to serve ALL the people of Nigeria.
To our Christians I would say what I have said repeatedly in other occasions, that a Christian people cannot be Islamized, until it has first been de-Christianized. And we are now de-Christianizing Nigerian Christians and even Christianity itself by the convenient, self-made or customized form of Christianity that is now very popular in Nigeria; a Christianity devoid of the cross, suffering and service. We are also de-Christianizing Christianity by the promotion of fetishism and neo-paganism in the name of culture.
United with and configured to his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and power (Acts 10: 36), Archbishop Obinna uses every means at his disposal to proclaim the liberating truth of the Gospel – (welcome or unwelcome) in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking and encouraging his brothers and sisters, always with patience and sound teaching (cf. 2 Tim 4: 2). He has been heckled and harassed, even in the Church while at the service of the truth for the benefit of God’s people; persecuted and prosecuted (even by presumably cradle Catholics) for condemning the anti-Christian and antihuman social evil of the osu (and ohu) caste system in Igboland; dubbed a partisan politician for defending the right of the people to good governance; labelled a tribalist (even by some colleagues) for underscoring the importance of language in the promotion and evangelization of a people’s culture. It is easy to imagine him at some moments like St Paul: «pressed on all sides, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, bowed but not broken» (2 Cor 4: 8-9).
But, Amarachi, you cannot give up at this point. It is too late. You would lose your identity. Anaghi amu aka ekpe na nka. Like St Martin Bishop of Tours you can only pray thus: «Lord, if I am still needed by your people, I will not refuse to serve. Your will be done». (Lee m Dinwenu; ekwuputagom ikpe nkwumoto Gi). Yes, his people and YOUR people still need you. They still need your perceptive and discerning mind; they still need your clear and irrepressible prophetic voice. We know that it is not just years but the weight of responsibility that has shrivelled your charming face, bent your elegant frame and shaven your head without water. But you must plod on! For the Spirit of the Lord God is upon YOU, because the Lord has anointed YOU to bring good tidings to afflicted Nigerian people; he has sent YOU to bind the broken hearted and disillusioned Igbo youths, to proclaim Christ’s liberty to the captives of wicked ancestral and cultural beliefs and practices and the opening of the prison to those Christians who are bound by their false beliefs; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour to those in positions of authority who make a difference through service-leadership, and for those who persist in causing Nigeria and Nigerians further distress, even while devoutly saying the “Prayer for Nigeria in Distress” – the day of vengeance of our God.
Without forgetting the other forms of service that you must render to God and his people, never relent on your diakonia of the truth. And may God who began this good work in you bring it to completion, so that at the end, when he calls you to himself, your people can sing without contradiction: “Ecce sacerdos magnus, qui in diebus sui, placuit Deo.” Ad multos annos!