[The Concourse] Nsukka @ 30: Okobo’s template, Onah’s signature
When the polish prelate Karol Wortjila, emerged from the Conclave on Monday, October 16, 1978, as Pope John Paul II, not a few persons expressed morbid fear that the papacy under him may be a disaster judging from his background as a sufferer of the evil of Narcissism and the injustice of communism. He knew this. He perceived the apprehension among the people and opened his inaugural speech with the catch phrase: “Don’t be afraid!”
He would go down in history as the best and most saintly pope of the new era. Presiding over one of the longest pontificates in the anals of the church history, he left indelible marks on the sands of time.
He oversaw the end of communist rule in his home country and in diaspora Europe.
When he midwifed the peace-talk that engendered the lowering of Berlin wall, the world marveled in august awe! He literally raised the flag that forestalled what could have been a third world war, when the gulf was in turmoil in early ’90s.
Like his penultimate predecessor, Pope John XIII, he made the papacy a willing instrument of peaceful innovation devoid of racial, political or religious bias for mankind.
To his name was credited the good tidings that opened the doors for the new millennium, after which he passed on, having delivered on his predestined divine assignment.
No wonder the world ceased to exist on Saturday April 2, 2005 when his death was announced! His burial went down in history as the single most heavily attended funerals of all time.
Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah has been fittingly cutting similar image and resonating synonymous evangelical aura in Nsukka diocese, since his consecration as the 2nd bishop of the diocese on July 4, 2013.
His predecessor — the indefatigable Bishop F.E.O Okobo was due for retirement on 13th April 2013. A successor is needed, and urgently too.
The unbroken apostolic succession in the church demands it. Okobo was a one off man! A figure of many facets. His name alone radiated vocational tenacity.
Some of us who were toddlers in the days of old Enugu Diocese, grew up in Nsukka to see Okobo as the prototypical template of what a bishop should be.
He was handed the pioneer bishopric of a newly carved Nsukka diocese, which was named on November 19, 1990. His being newly consecrated at the same time made the situation more scary. 1990 was both remarkable and dramatic for us.
How would a new bishop administer a new diocese? We had earlier produced a saintly bishop — Rt. Rev Dr. M.U Eneja who was pontificating over Enugu diocese for well over two decades, as at that time.
But here, we have a new man for a novel ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
How would the new diocese fare under his shepherdhood? Because he worked as a priest in an already developed mega diocese, many could not place a compass on how he would fare in the new assignment. So it was a state of suspense.
But, following his appointment, on November 26 1990, Okobo returned from St. Peter’s Brasilica Rome, where he was consecrated on January 6, 1991 to establish a dynasty. From the onset he showed himself a no-nonsense man!
His motto was audacious and commanding too: “Surgite eamus hinc” – “Arise let us move from here.” And though some were reluctant to obey that order, he dragged all of us along.
At his installation on February 2, the same year he launched into the deep (Lk. 5:4) “semper paratas” – “very much prepared” for the work ahead.
Prior to that, he was elevated to the office of papal Chamberlain by Pope John Paul II in December 1987, which was conferred on him by Bishop Eneja on July 2, 1988. Suffice it to mean that Okobo rose in ranks to merit the pioneer bishop of the nascent diocese. He was eminently qualified!
And so he could pull impossible strings like he did in his days. He disappointed those who expected that the affairs of the diocese be treated with kids glove; and same goes to those who wished to be pampered as young diocesan faithfuls. He refused to be discouraged by the fiscal disadvantage of Nsukka of that time.
He went to the field immediately with few workers (approximately 70 priests) who incardinated for the diocese, and paltry 27 parishes. Yet he was not scared. Even though he is in dare need of more priests, Okobo did not renege in his taste for quality over quantity.
He shocked the entire Onitsha province when he came up with a two-year spiritual year program, instead of the usual one year, for senior seminarians in his diocese before they could proceed to Philosophy studies. He observed that much as we appreciate and desire sound academic pursuits in our priests, the church’s emphasis rests more on the spiritual dimension of their formation.
He summarily had 23 years of busy apostolate, building the faith of the people and defining the diocese. When the cotton was drawing close to his retirement, he wisely planned to round off his episcopacy with a Synod.
In that single event, he marked the 100th anniversary of the advent of catholicity in Nsukka, celebrated the 20 years of the creation of the diocese, and defined the faith of the people, inscribing it on the tablet of stone like Moses and placed it in the ark of covenant (1Kg 8:9) to bind on all the faithfuls.
It was a momentous period for our people. It was not easy adapting to the reality of a new diocese, but in 2013, when his time was up, everyone started missing Bishop Okobo.
Feelings of nostalgia gripped all. Nsukka as a diocese would not have developed the way it did if he did not deploy iron fist against mediocrity. Parishes were created at the speed of light, converts into Catholic Faith increased, and our indigenous seminarians were graduating “summa cum laude magnum!”
He met us in bricks and was leaving us in gold. From 27 Parishes when he assumed office in 1991, he was handing over 146 parishes spread across 13 deaneries, 241 priests, 205 major seminarians, 342 minor seminarians, 76 professed religious women, 5 professed religious men, 732 Catechists and half a million Catholic population to the incoming bishop.
So it was truly a hard reality to come by, that come April 14 2013, Okobo will not be in the saddle again for life.
Who would fit into his shoes adequately? How will it feel to start all over again and master a new bishop?
Among us the laity, we penciled some priests who, fit into our mental image of an ideal Okobo’s successor. Some of us arrived at it from informed hypothetic guess.
Will the lot fell to someone from another diocese? What is the wish of the metropolitan See at Onitsha?
The guess was so large.
Then we remembered that if the diocesan curia fail to ratify and present a common front, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) will pick someone in their rank and send to us. The church, like mother nature abhors vacuum, especially when it becomes prolonged.
That thought got us nervy. Some of us who had priest friends were always prompting them with the question: “Fr., how far? Any luck yet?”
But then little did we know God has something marvellous in the offing for the diocese.
Many knew one Rev. Fr. Prof. Onah from Imilike, who at that time was the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the Pontifical Urban University Rome. But no one thought of him replacing Okobo.
For one, reaching that height has placed him in global map, beyond the scope of ‘mere’ diocesan episcopal office. He is representing not just Nigeria ecclesial community, but more of entire Black race. If we pull him back, it may take centuries before another black man plateaus in that height again.
So Fr. Prof. Onah was off the guess radar.
But as the ‘sacred’ politics lingered, it became clearer by the day that surprises may spring up.
We, the laity waited along the pavement of the diocesan secretariat, while the presbyterium went into the enclave of the bishop’s court to take some salient decisions.
Seconds roll into minutes, minutes into hours, hours became days, days turned weeks, and weeks metamorphosed into months!
It was getting intense and palpating!
Then, a ‘white smoke’ of rumour emerged! “We may be settling for Fr. Onah.”
Feelers from the curia had it that “it was a hard choice but we have to make it. We are bringing home Prof Onah to succeed his Lordship.”
The priest who leaked this to me did it in strict confidence. But a little while, it became an open secret in public domain.
While I harboured the news, I remembered an insightful article authored by Rev. Fr. Christian Ele, in The Rising Sun Magazine (a signature journal of Good Shepherd spiritual year seminary Nsukka) in 2001. He wrote on “The influence of the holy spirit in the posting of missionaries.”
In that column, he said that though we believe (and rightly so) that the Bishop is responsible for the posting of priests to their places of primary assignments, the Holy spirit, indisputably has a way of remotely influencing the choice, so that even when it does not settle well with the lust of the people, it will in the end fulfil the divine purpose for which the choice was made.
He traced the origin of missionary postings to Acts. 13:2 where the holy spirit ordered the college of apostles to set apart Paul and Barnabas for a duty he has for them.
The above scriptural periscope was lucidly evident in Nsukka barely seven years after the installation of Bishop Onah.
The whole squabbles, delays and disagreements that greeted the ‘sede vacante’ brought by Okobo’s retirement and the hunt for a successor were necessary just to gift us a quintessential Bishop in Godfrey Onah.
It was not clear before, but now it is.
He has proved a worthy shepherd. People (especially Nsukkas) from around the world tune into his YouTube and other social media handles to listen and get blessed by his regular soul-enriching homilies, sermons and sound catechesis on Sundays and weekdays respectively.
Next to Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, who Americans attest preached so well in mass media that even house dogs listen to his teachings on TVs and radios, Bishop Onah has turned many into addicts of the gospel of Christ. A tele-evangelist per excellence!
From faraway Malaysia for example, Mr. Beneth Aba of Ada Agu Parish, sits eagerly every Sunday to follow the Bishop in Holy Mass. Million other diaspora Nsukka people do same.
When, a few days following his appointment as Bishop, a confidant shared with him his fears that he might reject such appointment if it was made, he easily dismissed his fears in these words:
“Although the Holy Father asked my consent before the appointment could be announced, I never considered refusal an option for at least two reasons.
“First, as an assistant parish priest, I never refused any assignments from my parish priest; when I was teaching in the Seminary, I never rejected any assignments given to me by the Rector; I have never disobeyed my Bishop nor turned down any of his assignments.
“I wasn’t going to start now by saying ‘no’ to the successor of Peter – the Pope.
“Secondly, if as a Christian and as a priest I did not believe that God speaks to me through my ecclesiastical superiors, then I would have serious difficulties in discerning the will of God for me.” (Excerpt from “The Story of a Shepherd” By Fr. Emeka Ngwoke et al).
He was audacious in his inaugural Mass like the Pope we cited in the introduction. He choose the catchphrase: “Volumnus Ieusum videre” – “We want to see Jesus” as his episcopacy motto.
The Pope in the opening clause of this piece dissipated the fear in many over his election by serving a “do-no-be-afraid” menu; Bishop Onah in 2013 inspiringly served a similar menuese: “Don’t be afraid – Let’s go and meet the Lord.”
In other words, “I was not the Bishop, Jesus is. So don’t live in apprehension gauging what I can do from what I can not. I am only here as a guide. We are all Jesus-bound.”
To the cardinal who pitied the great Pope John XIII saying “may God help you” as the pope dared to convoke an ecumenical council (Vatican II) within twenty four calendar months, he replied: “God is not helping me, I am the one helping God, it is His work.”
In today’s Nsukka, we have a bishop who is pious in helping God in the works of salvation. Early this year, he made news, abdicating the luxury of his office and riding on Okada, while on a pastoral visit to one of his parishes in the hinterland of Isi Uzo deanary.
As you read this, a dedication ceremony of a magnificent ultramodern cathedral is scheduled to hold in the diocese amidst pomps and pageants on Thursday19th November. In a space of seven years he was able to complete the cathedral building project started and roofed by Okobo.
A rare and laudable feat!
Like I wrote earlier in this space, “If you need a prophet, go to Nsukka.”
The elderly Bishop Okobo is emitting ancient blessings from his emeritus home, in Onuiyi bypass, while the youthful Bishop Onah is transmitting contemporary grace of fervor from his active cathedra. And from the great beyond, the Holy Bishop Eneja is conferring ancestral bliss and divine aura to his native homeland.
A triad blessings for our people!
Long live His Excellency Rt. Rev. Prof. Godfrey Igwebuike Onah.
Long live Rt. Rev. Dr. Francis Emmanuel Ogbonna Okobo (Rtd)
Gaudeamus de caelo Rt. Rev. Dr. Michael Ugwu Eneja.
Long live Nsukka diocese!!
Long live Nsukka cultural zone!!!
✍Eze Jude O.