What I learn from the death of our priest

The year 2018, which has barely three months to come to a close,
might well be described as the annus horribilis for the Catholic
Church in Nigeria, if one were to look at the number of priests that
have died in the last few months and the circumstances of their
deaths, ranging from herdsmen attack, kidnapping, and armed
robbery incident to illness, road accident, assassination, and
natural causes. One of the hard-hitting for me was the death of Fr.
John Ehichioya, my classmate. We studied together in Bodija and
in the final year of our seminary training we worked closely, he as
sacristan and myself as the master of liturgy. He was a very warm
and kind fellow, always eager to help out. After our ordination, we
both went on to become secretaries to our archbishops. He hosted
me once in Benin City when I travelled for a priest’s funeral in his
home diocese. I woke up one day to hear that Fr. John had died. It
was devastating!
More recently, the diocese in which I am ordained has not been
spared in this spate of deaths. Last month, armed robbers gunned
down a fine young priest, Fr. Michael Akawu, barely a year and half
in the priesthood, when he went shopping at a supermarket on
Saturday evening in Gwagwalada. Being a priest I knew at a
personal level, his death brought great sorrow to me, but also a
sense of shock. It was difficult for me to accept the news. Of
course, as priests, we are very much ‘used’ to hearing about death
and seeing dead people. We are often called upon to break news of
death to families, we pray for sick people in danger of death, hear
their confession, anoint them, and give them viaticum in
preparation for their final journey. We also are constantly
conducting funerals for our deceased family members, friends,
and faithful. But this constant interaction with the world of death
does not make the reality familiar.
Every news of death comes with its own shock. Death is not
something we can be used to. It is even more painful when the
death is of someone we know personally; someone we journeyed
together with in life, played together, ate together, laughed
together, studied together, and shared moments of joy and sorrow
with. Suddenly, you hear the person is dead. It is not easy to bear
such news. Even more difficult is the prospect of quick recovery
after the mood of mourning. For instance, while meditating on the
death of the priest who was shot by armed robbers at a
supermarket, I asked myself what was going through the mind of
this young man at the moment the bullet hit him. I imagined that
when he left the parish that fateful Saturday evening he would
have said to himself, “Let us just quickly go and get some
provisions from the supermarket before night falls so that I can
prepare for Sunday Mass.” But he never went back to the parish
that day; rather he was taken up into eternity.
At such a moment of dying, everything about life seems illusory;
everything we considered so important pales into insignificance. In
the face of death, the meaning of life throws up many existentialist
questions. What would I have done yesterday that I did not do? Is
this how my life is being blown away like a puff of wind? Am I
really dying? The more fundamental questions may also come to
the fore in those brief moments between bullet and death: where
am I going to now? Will I see God? Did I prepare myself spiritually
for this moment? Kyrie eleison! This is the reality of life!
I remember that in the seminary we were taught that every time we
celebrate Mass as priests, we should do so with adequate
preparation, undivided attention, and profound humility. We were
admonished to celebrate the Mass as though it were our first, last,
and only Mass. Recently, I went to a parish to celebrate Mass and
the reality of those words hit me again with both freshness and
newness. Hanging just over the vesting table was this bold
inscription on bronze: “O Priest of Jesus Christ, celebrate this Most
Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last
Mass; your only Mass.” These words are chilling to the nerve; but
they speak to the reality of life’s transience. We are here today and
by tomorrow we are gone. The Wisdom Books of the Bible are very
graphic in their description of this idea of life as short-lived, brief,
transitory, ephemeral, impermanent, momentary, fleeting and
evanescent.
As I reflect on the staggering number of priests that have died in
this year alone, a flurry of thoughts come to my mind. Many of us
who knew the priests who have died this year alone have personal
stories to tell about our friendships with them. But on hearing the
news of their deaths, we sometimes discover that we didn’t give
them the sort of attention we should give to our friends. For some
others, it is a wonderful story to the end; for quite some more, we
sense that we have failed to show our friends how much we loved
them and how much we appreciated their friendships and the
wonderful moments we shared on this side of heaven before they
were called to eternity. This thought is gradually changing my
approach to many friendships I share with priests and with many
people. It is even changing my approach to my family.
As priest, we know that our families have given us to God and this
thought sometimes makes us neglect them and focus more on the
people we are ordained to serve. But the truth is that the
priesthood does not cut us off from our families. Very often what
our parents and siblings want is just see us, to hear from us, to
know that we are fine; not so much what we might legitimately be
able to give them. I think that we need to value our families and
friends and give them the gift of our time and presence within the
space permitted by our pastoral ministry. They will not always be
with us; we will not always be with them. We must, therefore, learn
to create time for them.
The above thought is very important but it is part of a larger
stream of thoughts concerning how we relate with one another as
priests. In this light, this write-up is directed more to those of us
who are priests than it is to others, although many others too
might learn a thing or two from what I intend to say. One of the
very important documents of the Second Vatican Council is the
Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests. This document,
relatively short, starts with an ecclesiology of the priesthood in
chapter one and then moves on to speak about how priests should
cultivate the human virtues that facilitate good relationship with
their bishops and with their fellow priests. It speaks about how
older priests should relate to young priests and how young priests
should behave towards older priests. It recommends that priests
should consider the priesthood as a spiritual fraternity, “an
intimate sacramental brotherhood” (n8) with each priest “united in
special bonds of apostolic charity, ministry, and brotherhood with
the other members of this priesthood” (n8)The language of
intimacy is very important here because it lies at the heart of how
we are configured to Jesus Christ in whose one, supreme, and
eternal priesthood we share.
The section of Presbyterorum Ordinis that I really want to point out
is the part that talks about our priestly fraternity. It says, “In a
fraternal spirit, priests should extend hospitality, cultivate
kindliness and share their goods in common” (n8). This section
deals with how priests should share their life in common and be
eager to help and assist one another, especially those working in
difficult places and ministries. As priests, each one of us can go
down memory lane to picture what life was like for us when we
were going into the seminary. More or less, we had classmates
from the same diocese with us. We enjoyed life together, played,
prayed, studied, travelled, ate, and did a lot together. After
ordination, this sort of friendship sometimes dies. We are posted
to work in different and sometimes far-flung places; we rarely
meet and gradually our fraternal spirit wears off. Sometimes
misunderstandings, envy, jealousy, and unnecessary unhealthy
competition creep in and beautiful friendships are ruined.
Sometimes, we hear things said to us about our fellow priests and
instead of talking to them we spread the news around and end up
hurting one another.
Presbyterorum Ordinis envisages these human problems and
recommends that we “should always treat with fraternal charity
and magnanimity those who have failed in some matters, offer
urgent prayers to God for them, and continually show themselves
as true brothers and friends” (n8). All of these conciliar
exhortations arise within the context of human society. The priest
lives within a society and he is sometimes susceptible to the
problems many other people face, especially in how to cultivate
and build good human relationships and friendships. As is the case
with human beings, the priest is not immune from the problems I
have highlighted above. But generally, people expect their priests
to rise above petty human issues. In other words, they expect to
see in us models of real brotherhood. This matters a lot.
There are many ways we could be kind and supportive to one
another. It all begins from placing premium on the brotherhood we
share. We must learn to keep the fire burning, kindling it with love
and care. I recall that during our annual diocesan reunion when we
were still in the seminary, our Archbishop always reminded us that,
“We can choose our friends but we cannot choose our brothers.
Our brothers are given to us by God.” That is what the priesthood
should be. We don’t have to wait until a priest dies before we pour
out our sentiments of loss on Whatsapp groups and Facebook
pages. We should learn to truly love and appreciate one another for
as long as we live.
These thoughts are a bit general in focus but I am sure that every
priest who reads it will understand what I am saying. But I am also
sure it speaks to many others who are not priests. Life is so short
and we don’t have the luxury of making enemies but friends. Let us
be kind to one another, gentle, considerate, patient, and caring. We
live in a world where so often we hear of scandals and bad
examples within the priesthood. In reality, these priests constitute
but a small percentage of the priesthood. Rarely do we hear about
one of God’s faithful servants who (like the large majority of
priests) day in and day out fulfils his ministry in quiet fidelity and
love. It is like the analogy of the trees that falls down which makes
a loud noise or the airplane that crashes which dominates the
news. And yet, there are thousands of trees standing that do not
make as much sound and thousands of airplanes that fly daily
without crashing. These hardly make the news.
This analogy tells us simply that there are thousands upon
thousands of priests who do great work for humanity. We should
never allow the few misdemeanours of some priests to obscure
the nobility of the service they render to humanity daily. As Father
Wolfgang Seitz notes, “There are so many priests—young, old,
inexperienced, wise, weak, struggling, suffering, burden-bearers—
all of them need our prayers. Often we perceive their weaknesses,
faults and even sins, because in their human weakness they have
to struggle with the effects of Original Sin like anyone else.
Nevertheless, we must always remember that they are the primary
targets of the Evil One. For Satan knows that when a good priest
falls, he takes a thousand souls with him.”
Let me conclude this piece with a personal reminiscence. When Fr.
Willy Ojukwu, the first incardinated priest of our Archdiocese of
Abuja died in October 2016, his funeral ceremony was planned and
fixed within one week of his death. This short time put a lot of
strain on many priests who were part of the burial planning team.
Fr. Ojukwu was a priest who was loved and respected by many.
More so, he was one of the Episcopal Vicars of our Archdiocese
and had laboured strenuously for the growth of the Church in
Abuja. At a time he was even the FCT Chairman of CAN. And so we
knew that we had to give his burial ceremony our best shot. We
had to endure sleepless nights to ensure that everything went well.
I was charged with preparing the funeral programme and I had
barely three full days to get it sorted out. I swung into action
immediately.
While researching for a quotation that would aptly speak to the
occasion, which was inscribed boldly on the back page of the
funeral brochure, I came across this very profound thought from a
funeral homily delivered by a parish priest at the death of his
assistant priest. I use it to conclude this piece because, once
again, it speaks to the need for us priests to love, cherish, and care
for one another, just as we ask couples to do during the inquiry at
marriage ceremonies: “The death of a priest is unlike the death of
any other: we feel it differently, deeply. We sense that in losing
him, we have lost not only the man but also his unique way of
manifesting God. The voice that spoke of God has been silenced;
hands that once blessed are impotent. Since a priest is one who
takes on the person of Christ, his leave of us is somewhat of a loss
in our very communication with the Lord. No one will ever again
exemplify Christ for us in the singular way that this particular priest
has done.

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