Being conclusion of speech by Fr. Hassan Kukah first published yesterday
It is worthy of note that today’s ordination is taking place on the 40th anniversary of the foundation of this Seminary, the National Missionary Seminary of St. Paul and her supporting agency, the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSP), by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria under the leadership of Dominic Cardinal Ekandem of blessed memory. By divine providence, this month marks also the centenary of his birth. Thus, about a week from today, June 23rd, the Archdiocese of Abuja, which was also his brainchild, invites all of us to the party marking the one hundred years of his birth!
In a society that is being pulled apart by atavistic cleavages and divisions, we priests must become instruments of peace and unity, just like Cardinal Dominic Ekandem strove to be in his own days. Yes! He was an instrument of peace and harmony. He was a bridge-builder where polarising forces and selfish interests were hard at work. Being the visionary leader that he was, he founded this Seminary as an instrument of unity and service to humanity. So, you new priests of today, like this great Father of our Faith and your Founder, Dominic Cardinal Ekandem, must do all within your power to rise above the atavistic forces that are attempting to pull this country apart. Like the great patriot that he was, the Cardinal worked for the unity and progress of this blessed land. You too must, and in fact, all who call this land our home, must speak and work for peace and justice in our Church and Society. We must become champions of united positive actions. This constitutes a great part of our vocation as Christians but even more for us who have been called to the priestly ministry.
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Today, as we ordain these five young men priests, we must reflect on the meaning and ministry of priests. Here we return to the words of the French priest, Fr. Henri Lacordaire, whose timeless words transcend any other definition of the Catholic priesthood. He said to be a priest was to:
To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures;
To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none;
To share all suffering; to penetrate all secrets; To heal all wounds;
To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope.
These are difficult times; they are times that try our patience. But they are times of hope and courage. The priesthood will continue to be challenged because there are many versions of the priest, as there are parishioners. Thankfully, we are called to serve and not to seek popular approval or applause. Again, the timeless words of one of our priests remain when said:
The priest exists for the community and only for the community. But not everyone in the community thinks the same.
Some bless him, others pity him, and so many others ignore him.
If the priest is young, they say he is inexperienced.
If he is old, they say he is outmoded, ill fashioned and conservative.
He should retire!
If he dresses well, he is a middle-class snob. If he dresses poorly, he is an agitator.
If he is happy and enjoys life and believes in love, he is wordly and not a churchman.
If he lives an ascetic life, they say: He is a “monk” and not a committed priest of the 21st century.
If he is jovial and makes people laugh, he is a joker and a clown. If he doesn’t laugh with people, he is distant, proud and full of himself.
If he visits his parishioners, he is never at home…He is a walkabout. If he does not, he is proud and lacks pastoral prudence.
The poor are angry if he associates with the rich and they call him a capitalist. The rich are insulted if he devotes himself to the poor and they call him an economist.
If he is generous and helps the poor, he is a populist. If he is moderate and judicious in spending, he is called a stingy man.
If he decorates the church, he is spending too much. If he does not, he is allowing things to deteriorate.
If he asks for funds, he likes money a lot. If the parish fund is low, he is a “bad business man.”
If he talks of moral decadence, he is putting up a holier than-thou attitude. If he doesn’t, he is morally lax and condones evil.
If he is out-spoken and criticises the social order, he is a radical prophet, if he is gentle and prudent in criticism, he is a cunning diplomat.
If he is agile; he is hyperactive. If he is sick and weak; he does not care about his health.
If he dies, Oh! There will never be a priest like him again!
We are not called to solve all the problems of our time. However, today’s priest must wake up to the reality of the return to the twin forces of neo-paganism, sorcery, witchcraft, shamanism among our faithful for whom Christianity is merely superficial. This skin-deep faith cannot survive the challenges of hostile forces of secularism that threaten to engulf our public life. The solution is not the superfluous expressions of dubious religiousity, which have turned the churchman into a rival shaman, extracting favours from a reluctant god, who responds to incantations and is seduced by false sacrifices. Do you recall Paul’s shock at Ephesus when he asked the brethren there if they had received the Holy Spirit? Their answer was: We have never heard of anything like the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). It would seem clear that we Christians must address the issues of whether we have indeed heard and accepted such a thing as the Holy Spirit. Because if we have, then its fruits of love, charity, prudence should be the glue to hold our society together.
Finally, our people must embrace community life and be ready to hold on to the shared values that held us together. It was not wealth that held us together. It was largely the sense of solidarity that we had, a gift that was always considered part and parcel of our DNA, as Africans. I leave you with the words of one of the greatest writers, our own Chinua Achebe, who said: A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to redeem them from starving. They all have food in their own houses. When we gather together in the village ground at moonlight, it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his compound. We come together because it is better for kinsmen to do so. Therefore, let us continue with the team spirit and enjoy the power of togetherness. Let us smile not because we do not have problems but let us smile because we are stronger than our problems.
• Fr. Kukah delivered this speech at the at the ordination of deacons at the National Missionary Seminary, Gwagawalada – Abuja