by Okey Ikechukwu
The drama, or is it melodrama, in Ahiara in Imo State over the appointment of a Bishop is interesting in more ways than one. It is at once a confrontation between a people’s belief that one of their own should man their affairs in the headship of the religious community and the fact that the ‘affairs’ in question concern spiritual matters over which the people should have no say. While the demand that a son of the soil be made the Bishop of the Diocese has the support of the traditional institution and the people of the area, the person chosen and duly (or is it unduly?) consecrated as directed by the Papacy is being rejected. The matter is an emotive one and everyone is up in arms, including a pressure group made up of priests. They insist that the new Bishop will neither have access to the area nor know peace and it is all based on alleged Anambraization of appointive church positions, ostensibly because a Nigerian Cardinal is from Anambra State.
True or not, a Cardinal’s ontological status is being called to question here – and not by the Pope or the leadership of the Catholic Church. This places the secular and non-secular at loggerheads, wherein the presumably religious is developing ‘solidarity’ and strengthening its position by appealing to the secular and even mobilising same. It seems obvious to me that faith in God, the authority of the Catholic Church as an institution that draws its authority from non-human quarters and the presumed sacredness of the priesthood will all be the worse for what is going on. But this is not new or strange, as there have been several flashpoints throughout history. We also remember its recurrence here in Nigeria, with the 1990s ‘edition’ of this same episode in Warri as a major landmark.
This brings us to the background to the title of this piece. It was Sonnie Ekwowusi who asked me to write something with the title, “The Catholic I was”, two months ago. This was after he read the piece, “My Mother, My Friend”, which made references to the fact that my late mother was a devout Catholic and she tried to make an even more devout Catholic out of me. Sonnie had said: “Look, after reading your piece today, my question is ‘what happened’? We talked some more and I repeated what I had said to him in the past, that what I found in The Grail Message, made me a better Christian, he said: “No, no, no Okey, look you should write an article titled “The Catholic I Was”, etc. etc.
I was tempted to write the said article immediately after the burial of Bigman’s Wife, following an incident that occurred in her Parish. As Matron of the Block Rosary Crusade, she was naturally to be mourned by the Crusade, the Mary League and sundry other organisations through which she tried to offer some guidance. The leader of the Rosary group came to clarify a few things and, after listening to him and seeing the conditions the family must meet for the group to attend the funeral and ‘mourn her properly’, I assured the young man that our meeting was going to be a short one.
Then I said: “Please listen very carefully, so that there will be no misunderstanding between us on this matter, especially since what I am about to tell you will not be further discussed in the hope of a change of position. We shall not give you any of the things you have asked for, including the money which you say is for ‘maintenance, because it is your duty to honour your matron if she meant anything to you.” He quickly explained: “Sir, you see, this is in our constitution. When a member dies, the family must bring these things so that we can come and mourn with them and even bring our band and accompany the coffin”. The Crusade leader also explained that the same conditions applied to all their members and leaders.
I told him that my understanding of the purpose of the organisation is not just to gather and pray for the sins of the world, but to also train people so that they do not contribute to future sins. One way of doing the latter is to give young people the right foundations for a spiritually sound life and by pointing them to the right values. But the leader went back to the provisions of their constitution. I told him that I had taken a terminal position on the matter and said: “I understand your point, but the implication of what I am saying is that the family wants you to be at the funeral, but without meeting your demands.” I then advised him to talk with his Parish priest and his group and look see whether they would come on those terms.
When he said that the members won’t be happy, I told him that he was their leader and that he should discuss the matter honestly with them and find out whether the practice was right and even whether they should not do something about the constitutional provision in question. I pointed out that they must find a way, as younger people who are being groomed for moral uprightness and how to live according to the Will of God, to inculcate the culture of honour and even sacrifice. They just must each contribute N50 (not N100), hire a bus and pay their respect to a woman who took them as her children.
When he tried to argue further, I reminded him of my opening statement and assured him that my mother’s burial would not be the occasion to violate my understanding of her beliefs about proper upbringing of future leasers. We sat down to review how, as a little boy I once led the prayers during the monthly general congress of the Crusade, in the town. I told him of the raffle draw to bring a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary to Umuahia and how I always refused to take my commission after selling my booklet, because my parents taught me that God’s work should not be commercialised; since He is the Origin of Life and since we exist solely by His Grace.
I then urged him to see himself as appointed to play the historic role of working out a more spiritually rewarding constitution for members of the Crusade he was leading, assuring him that I was going to raise the matter with the parish priest. I later did, after the funeral Mass, where I narrated what you just read above and then urged the priest to intervene. As I said to the young man, to the parish priest and to the congregation, the amount of money they wanted was not the issue – and was actually paltry. They know how to reach me for substantial contributions to their group, but it was the principle of discouraging people who step forth in God’s name from walking around with a feeling of instilment regarding the contents of other people’s pocket that was the issue. Christ’s disciples were never paid or hired as prayer warriors, were they? My position was that we should all must use the occasion of funerals to reflect that it could have been anyone of us, rather than adopt practices that would breed a cross-less and Godless Christianity. It is to the credit to the Crusade leader that he came with his group and held nothing back.
It is therefore against the background of some of the forgoing, that Sonnie inflicted the title of an article on me. It is also against that background that I find the Ahiara saga incomprehensible. True, the church is not infallible and history testifies eloquently to that. But that does not reduce my perplexity on the Ahiara matter. Spiritual leadership combines the authority of position with the authority of knowledge. But it does not end there, because the ‘knowledge’ in question here is not supposed to derive its authority from academic learning (epistemic authority), or the one conferred by mundane laws (legal rational authority).
The reason a 70-year-old man will call a 28-year-old young man ‘father’ and accept what he says without question is because the old man looks beyond the young physical body to and considers him an agent of a higher authority –and this says nothing about the truth of such belief. That is perhaps why I am totally unable to conceive, to say nothing of understanding, the idea of an association of agitating priests. The Catholic I was would have suffered seizures, rather than contemplate such a thing. The Catholic I was would also have been confounded to see a situation wherein the authority of the Pope appears, even remotely, to actually issue in the line of fire.
I know that the following possible interpretations may be given to this article: (1) the man is no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church and therefore must have lost touch with the more ‘progressive’ developments in the group; (2) the writer and his parents are of Anambra extraction and he may even have been recruited, or conscripted, to defend a decision of the church which is the outcome of the hegemonic endeavours of his kinsman; (3) this writer may well just be an agent of mischief who should be ignored – after being called a trouble maker, of course! But I take solace in the fact that, in addition to Nwala, Nnoli, Ogban Iyan, Asobie and all my brilliant leftist lecturers in the University of Nigeria, I had Catholic Priest lecturers like the World Who’s Who Thomist scholar, Chukwulozie, Onwewuenyi and Okolo, with whom I agree that “Sound ethics must be based on sound metaphysics, one of the cardinal elements of which is belief in God; without which there can be no basis whatsoever for morality. In the matter under reference, “the people” must be acting on the (false) belief that ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God.’ I do not recall any prophet called “the people”.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Okey Ikechukwu