Rt. Rev. Dr. Monsignor John Aniagwu is the Parish Priest of St. Leo’s Catholic Church, Ikeja, Lagos. He is also the Vicar General, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos Episcopal Vicar, Ikeja Region. He clocked 75 penultimate Friday, and to mark the event, a committee of friends of Father John, as he is fondly called, organised a press briefing and public lecture. Aniagwu, who spoke to journalists on his journey to priesthood, called on President MuhammaduBuhari to change the Nigerian Constitution, which he said favours the political class more than ordinary Nigerians, among other issues.
How do you feel at 75; how has the priesthood journey been so far?
I became a priest in 1971, which is over 47 years. Then, the society was more God-fearing. People still reckoned with values and principles. I’ll give you an example. There was this gentleman I knew, who was in the police. It was discovered that he took a bribe of 10 shillings. Then, the police had an arm called Esquad, set up to counter corruption within the police force. The Esquad arrested and prosecuted that man. He was jailed for six months, and was thereafter dismissed from the force. Today, we have police officers taking millions of naira and nothing happens to them. That is in terms of morals.
There was discipline then. Now, I think our problem is lawlessness. The laws are there, but they are not being obeyed. And the worst lawbreakers are those enacting the laws and those who are supposed to enforce them. When makers of the law and enforcers are breaking the law, what do you expect the ordinary citizens to do? Court issues an order, and the Executive ignores the orders. Everybody laughs off the courts as if they are irrelevant.
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In Nigeria, the way to know a big man is that the person can break the law and get away with it. This is what has caused the breakdown of law and order. There is rampant lawlessness everywhere. Wherever you turn, Nigerians are breaking the law every minute. The late Justice Anthony Aniagolu of the Supreme Court once said in order to reform Nigeria, only two institutions need to be reformed. He mentioned the police and the judiciary, and I asked why? He said a reformed police will apprehend all offenders and prosecute them, and a reformed judiciary will jail them.
Now that you’ve clocked 75, are you going to retire? What will you be
doing in retirement?
In the Catholic Church, you retire at 75 as a bishop. This means you stop being in charge of the diocese. For instance, my brother in Abuja, Cardinal Onaiyekan was 75 on January 29, 2019. The law is that once you are 75, you must tender your resignation. But that doesn’t mean they will accept it immediately. They can tell you to hold on until they find a successor. However, this applies only to Bishops. With priests, there is no such law. As long as you are still healthy mentally and physically, you can carry on with your assignment. In our church, you retire when you are no longer able to function effectively. For instance, some of our priests that are not yet 75 have retired because of ill-health.
In your days, young people were willing to join priesthood. Is that
still the case?
They are more willing. We have more people in the seminaries than we can accommodate. In fact, they are plenty.
Who influenced your going into priesthood?
As a child, I came into contact with missionary journey early in life. I went to a parish school, Holy Cross School, Lagos, and from the age of seven, I started interacting with priests. I was an altar server until I grew up. I grew up admiring what they were doing and so, it was just natural that I wanted to be like the priests; to do the kind of things they were doing, serve God and humanity. That was the reason.
So, what are the challenges you encountered on your way?
I must confess that I haven’t experienced any real challenge. I’ve had some personal tragedies in my life. I’ve lost a number of people, relations at a rather young age. For instance, I barely knew my father. I was two years old when he died. My mother died at the age of 60. My only brother was 57 when he died. Those were personal tragedies, but aside that, there are no others. Things were not always rosy. My mother had to raise my elder brother and I as a single parent. There was a time it was difficult paying school fees and eating, but my mother had to shoulder all that. And God so kind, I was doing very well in school. I was not born with a silver spoon. We struggled, but there was a lot of social support. I never had challenges with my superiors or in the ministry.
Before government took over missionary schools, fees were affordable and
ordinary Nigerians could afford to send their children to school. Today, only a
few people can send their children to missionary schools and those owned by
churches. Why is it so?
The government helped us in terms of infrastructure, when they returned our schools. We had to build our schools, which cost money. We are to meet certain standards and employ qualified teachers. If you don’t pay them adequately, they leave. For instance, we have the Augustine University. If a department is to be accredited, there must be a certain number of professors, lecturers and the library must meet certain standard. The government also tells us the kind of building we must have. All this costs money and government doesn’t give us money, so we depend on the fees.
For instance, at Augustine University, the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos had to cough out the sum of N20m every month to support the institution, as fees cannot cover everything. We can’t ask government to support private universities so we can bring down the fees, when government is not even funding public schools. Education costs money. Like someone said, ‘if you think education is expensive try ignorance.’ If we don’t have the required number of professors, they will withdraw our licence. Catholic schools, be it nursery, primary, secondary or university, charge the lowest fees among decent private schools. Augustine University charges between N500, 000 and N800, 000 per annumincluding accommodation. Some schools charge much higher.
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