Bishop Braxton Ordains Six Priests for the Archdiocese of Onitsha
A Total of Twenty-Six Priests Ordained
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
I. The Ordination
I had the privilege of being the ordaining prelate for six men to the sacred Priesthood of Jesus Christ on Saturday morning, July 13, 2013, in the historic Cathedral-Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity in the Archdiocese of Onitsha in Nigeria. The liturgy was the second part of a larger ordination for the Archdiocese. I am very grateful that this pastoral visit to the Archdiocese of Onitsha, like my previous visits, was made possible without any expense to the Diocese of Belleville.
The Cathedral was filled to overflowing with religious sisters, priests, and the faithful in splendid, festive traditional robes. The moving Liturgy of Ordination was sustained by the enthusiastic singing of the choir and the congregation in Latin, English, and traditional languages. On the previous Saturday, July 6, 2013, The Most Reverend Dr. Valerian M. Okeke, Archbishop of Onitsha, ordained twenty others, bringing the total number of new priests to twenty-six. The total should have been twenty-seven. However, the night before the ordination one of the transitional deacons I was scheduled to ordain, Reverend Mr. Michael Idoko, became ill and had emergency surgery.
The priests I ordained are: Reverend Linus Ezedinachi, Reverend Anthony Ezepue, Reverend Cletus Iduh, Reverend Ignatius Nwose, Reverend Vincent Ogbatue, and Reverend Benjamin Okonkwo. You will note that the first name of each of the ordinandi is that of a Christian saint or biblical personage. Almost all parents give their children the name of the Catholic saint whose feast day is closest to their date of birth. I promised the newly ordained that I would ask the faithful in Belleville to pray for the fruitfulness of their ministry.
It was the second time that Archbishop Okeke had generously invited me to share in the joy of the great harvest of vocations that his archdiocese is experiencing. The Archbishop and I have been friends for many years and, in an expression of fraternal concern for the needs of a sister diocese, he has generously assisted me by sending fidei donum missionary priests who are serving throughout southern Illinois.
Currently, these priests are REVEREND MICHAEL C. MBONU, Administrator, St. Edward Parish, Fairfield and St. Sebastian Parish, St. Sebastian; REVEREND PAUL NWANEGBO, Administrator, St. Liborius Parish, St. Libory and St. Anthony Parish, Lively Grove; REVEREND VINCENT OBI, Administrator of St. Polycarp Parish, Carmi and St. Patrick Parish, Enfield; and REVEREND JUSTIN OLISAEMEKA, Administrator of St. Mary Parish, Centralia and St. Lawrence Parish, Sandoval.
The first two priests to come to us from Onitsha were REVEREND IGNATIUS OKONKWO and REVEREND PATRICK OKWUMUO. Last year, after serving six years as administrators of St. Mary Parish, Eldorado, St. Joseph Parish, Elizabethtown, and St. Mary Parish, Harrisburg; and St. Stephen Parish in Flora and St. Augustine of Canterbury Parish in Belleville, they began advanced studies at universities here in the United States.
Archbishop Okeke has also assisted us by recommending two Vincentian priests who are serving here. These are: REVEREND URBAN OSUJI, C.M., Administrator of St. Mary Parish, Valmeyer and Chaplain at Gibault Catholic High School; and REVEREND OSANG IDAGBO, C.M., Administrator of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Waterloo and Immaculate Conception Parish, Madonnaville. He has expressed a willingness to send us additional priests in the future if the Archdiocese continues to be blessed with so many vocations
II. Reasons for Growth in Vocations
The Archdiocese of Onitsha has one of the largest seminaries in the world with large ordination classes each year. Currently, the Archdiocese has more than one hundred priests serving as fidei donum missionaries around the world. They have a significant number of priests in graduate studies in Rome and abroad. As seminaries are closing in Ireland, they are expanding in Nigeria.
The present growth and vitality of the Catholic Church in Nigeria and other countries in Africa are a part of a major shift in the growth of the Church from the northern hemisphere, where the Church is in decline, to the southern hemisphere. This shift was underscored by the recent election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina as Bishop of Rome and 266th Successor of St. Peter, the first Pontiff from “the New World.” More than forty years ago, Pope Paul VI addressing the Church in Africa said, “In the past, the Church in Europe and the United States sent missionaries to evangelize the people of your land. Now you have become missionaries to yourselves. I foresee the day when you will be sending missionaries to Europe and the United States to re-evangelize those who live in an almost completely secular culture.” My recent days in Onitsha led me to conclude the Holy Father’s prophetic words are coming true in our day.
There is no simple explanation for the rapid growth in vocations in Nigeria. (I visited a monastic cloister with 120 women and many postulants. I also visited a monastery for men with even more members.) Nigeria is a young developing nation that only attained independence from the yoke of British colonial rule in 1960. Christians constitute about 51% of its youthful population of more than 170,000,000. (It is the largest country in Africa and the sixth largest country in the world.) Catholics are about half of the Christians or 24% of the population. Members of the Islamic faith are about 48% of the population.
Nigeria is one of the world’s leading exporters of oil, and critics of the Nigerian government argue that various forms of political corruption are a key reason why oil wealth is not used to fight poverty and improve education, healthcare, housing, and road construction programs. Some commentators have suggested that the lack of economic development, the absence of widespread western education and technology, the hierarchical structure of Nigerian society, and the perennial presence of various traditional religions in the culture may all contribute to a ready openness to Christianity and particularly to Catholicism.
Other observers think the tensions between Christianity and extremist violent followers of Islam (such as the Boko Haram, which favors the Islamization of all of Nigeria by imposing the Quran’s Sharia Law and engages in deadly attacks on Christians) have made the Catholic faith stronger under persecution.
The first-time visitor is immediately struck by the pervasive presence of the Catholic faith and the commitment of the people to their faith, their love of the Church, and their strong desire to provide support for their priests and bishops. Walking across the square from the Archbishop’s Residence to the Cathedral at 7:00 in the morning for the 7:30 Mass, you will notice the Cathedral is already filled to capacity and overflowing. Some are those who participated in the earlier 5:15 AM Mass and have remained to pray prayers of thanksgiving. Most have arrived early to pray their personal devotions before Mass.
Entering the sacristy you will find seven servers are already present, neatly vested in cassock and surplice, in spite of the heat. These young men, Knights of the Altar, have a thorough knowledge of what is needed for Mass. Working in silence, they have already prepared the sanctuary, laid out the appropriate vestments for the celebrant and put the Roman Missal in order. Throughout the Mass, they know every aspect of the liturgy and reverently assist the priest with hands folded and do not need to be instructed. Meanwhile, you may find ten or more additional Knights of the Altar fully vested in the sanctuary and prayerfully participating in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. This scene is repeated in parish after parish. With so many large groups of altar servers who love the Mass, it is not surprising that a good number of them enter All Hallows Junior Seminary with the support of their pastors who know them and their families very well. Their parents prayerfully encourage their vocations without pressuring them.
Throughout the day, you will see an amazing sight for American eyes. At 6:00 AM, Noon, and 6:00 PM when the Angelus Bell rings, large numbers of people stop where they are and pray the Angelus. The merchant selling shoes in the outdoor market, the student riding his bicycle, the woman sweeping the streets, the businessman in a dress suit with his briefcase and talking on his mobile phone, the guard at the guard tower, nuns and priests--- they all stop to meditate on the mystery of the Incarnation, some kneeling in their places.
Whenever I visited the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, open day and night, there were always thirty to forty people present in adoration. An unending stream of the faithful continually moves in and out of the chapel. Many of those in prayer are young people, men as well as women. Those passing by on foot or in cars usually paused for a moment of prayer or made the sign of the Cross as they passed.
The Nigerian seminary program is longer than ours in the United States. American priests are usually ordained when they are twenty-six or twenty-seven. Nigerian seminarians are more likely to be ordained at twenty-nine or thirty. Their formation includes additional pastoral years as well as a year devoted exclusively to spirituality and interior formation. This spirituality year places great emphasis on developing a personal life of prayer, spiritual direction, in-depth study of Sacred Scripture, obedience to the Word of God and the Church, and the detachment and personal discipline needed to be faithful to the commitments made at ordination. The benefits of this additional formation seem apparent. Even though the presbyterate there is very young, leaving the priesthood after ordination is almost unheard of and public rejection of the moral teachings, doctrines, and disciplines of the Church is very rare. And most significant of all, not one priest has been accused of sexually abusing a minor.
III. The Sacred Canopy and the Secular Age
While the Church in the United States might well benefit from some of these practices, it probably would be unwise to attempt to imitate the Nigerian program. Just as it would be unwise for Nigerian priests to imitate certain aspects of the priesthood they might observe in this country. The Catholic Church in each nation exists in radically different cultural contests.
The Catholic Church in Nigeria exists in a cultural context in which what sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, called “the sacred canopy still endures.” This term is used to describe a culture that is marked by a sense of the sacred, a sense of mystery, a sense of the holy. The agrarian people live very close to nature resulting in an almost natural experience of the divine.
They have a personal experience of what Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., meant when he wrote “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
While many Nigerians are knowledgeable of the sometimes startling theories of modern science and Scripture scholarship, it has not led to the same skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism found in many western cultures. Their deep belief in God and the saving work of Jesus Christ had not been undermined. Nor have they undergone the social and sexual revolutions experienced in the United States since the 1960s. There is still a sufficient acceptance of the authentic truth of Christianity and the Scripture for the government to resist the legalization of “marriage” between two people of the same gender. Abortion remains illegal except when there is a serious risk to the mother’s health. (Sadly, 11% of maternal deaths are due to illegal, unsafe abortions.) Nigeria’s population is very youthful and, in spite of numerous challenges, various surveys suggest that among many of the people, there is a great spirit of optimism and great respect for authority, history, and tradition.
The Catholic Church in the United States once existed in a culture covered by “the sacred canopy.” Indeed, many Catholics, especially older ones, hold religious and moral views very similar to Catholics in Nigeria. However, those views are no longer supported by the
dominant culture which, influenced by rationalism, materialism, and empiricism, has become increasingly skeptical of traditional religious belief and Christian moral teachings.
As a result, while American culture pays lip service to a vague generalized “spirituality,” civil laws and public policies increasingly suggest that religious beliefs are matters of “personal opinion” and have no place in the public square. More and more people doubt the existence of God and embrace the “religion of secularity.” Moral principles are viewed from the lens of relativism. Actions once considered sinful are no longer thought to be so. This has led to laws that permit abortion at all stages of gestation, and the “redefinition” of marriage as no longer exclusively a union between a man and a woman – that everyone should simply “marry” “whomever they love”.
If Nigerian culture exists under “the sacred canopy,” American culture has now entered what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the secular age” in which belief in God and acceptance of Church teachings can no longer be assumed. In this secular age, large numbers of people still live by traditional religious faith. In some communities, these faiths are flourishing. But such faith is no longer nourished by a religious culture.
This becomes apparent when we look in our churches on Sundays. More than 80% of Catholics once participated in Sunday Mass each week. Today, perhaps one in four Catholics are at Mass each Sunday. Catholics who once held firmly to Catholic moral teachings and sacramental practices now do so in declining numbers. This can be seen in empty confessionals on Saturday afternoons; and in the indifference to Catholic teachings on the nature of the Church, on ministry in the Church, and on Christian morality. More and more Catholic couples who come to the parish to arrange for the sacrament of matrimony are already living together. Many are surprised, even offended, if the priest explains that this arrangement is contrary to the clear teachings of the Church on the nature of sacramental marriage.
All of these factors, as well as the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the fact that the Church is not authorized to admit women to the priesthood, the requirement for priests to forgo marriage, and the fact that the priesthood no longer enjoys the “status” it once held, make it harder to nurture vocations in a secular age. The population of the United States is considerably older than Nigeria’s and in spite of the extraordinary wealth, power, and influence of this country, various surveys suggest that, in significant areas of the nation, there is a spirit of pessimism as well as a diminished respect for authority, history, and tradition.
Obviously, the above brief descriptions are inevitably simplifications of very complex situations. Differences have been highlighted for the sake of contrast in an effort to shed light on the two distinct cultural contexts within which the Church works for vocations to the priesthood. Both countries have extraordinarily dedicated and faithful priests, religious and laity working diligently to promote the priesthood. Both countries also face enormous internal political, economic, social, and religious challenges that must be addressed for the good of all people. The Catholic Church in each country is making important and timely contributions for the common good, even in the face of opposition.
IV. Vocations in the Diocese of Belleville
I have shared this extended reflection with you for two reasons. The first reason was to provide you with a partial glimpse of the Catholic Church in Onitsha to help you to understand our sister Church which is so generously assisting us in our pastoral ministry by sharing its abundant harvest of priests with us.
The second and more important reason is to invite you to continue to work and pray with me for vocations to the priesthood, so urgently needed in southern Illinois. As you know, I have recently appointed Reverend Nicholas G. Junker to be the Director of Vocations to the Priesthood in the Diocese. He will begin this important ministry in September when he moves from Sacred Heart Parish in DuQuoin to the Cathedral of St. Peter. I am confident that Father Junker will dedicate himself fully to this effort. However, we would all be deceiving ourselves if we think this appointment will suddenly produce an abundance of vocations.
While Father Junker will initiate many new efforts, he will not succeed on his own. As I have told you many times, all priests, deacons, religious, and parishioners should consider themselves to be “co-directors” of vocations. If the new Director is to succeed, it is imperative that we all generously cooperate with him, welcome his visits to our parishes and schools, and put into place activities and programs he may suggest. We must also renew our personal initiatives, take action on our own, make suggestions in our parishes, cooperate with the activities of the Serra Club, pray the Diocesan Prayer for Vocations, and speak personally to the young who manifest a dedication to the Church.
St. Paul teaches us that faith comes by hearing. The same is true of vocations. They come by hearing. But the Holy Spirit does not make contact with potential priests by sending them a text on their mobile phone. He speaks to them through all of us: parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, religious, deacons, priests, and bishops. We must all do our part if we are to hope that God will light the fire of a vocation to the priesthood in the hearts of young men in our diocese, our parishes, and our families.