I was ordained a Catholic priest in August 1991 and posted immediately to St. Paul’s Catholic Parish Owerri. Before my arrival, Fr. Anthony Obinna then, had been a regular guest to this parish and to the parish priest, Rev. Msgr. Alphonsus I. Aghaizu. He was celebrating most of their Sunday evening masses, giving talks to the Bible Society, Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Nigeria (CCRN) and other sodalities in the parish. On Saturdays, he will casually come to the Eke Onunwa, market which was located opposite the parish with two or three of his AlvanIkoku College of Education students, for his weekly groceries. I recall the beautiful shirts he wore and at times with assorted Pants to match. He was such a handsome and elegant young man; a man to watch at every instance. But what attracted me to him most were his homilies and his numerous television and radio programs particular his arguments on a Sunday night Philosophical program on the then IBS TV called Insight. I recall his logical sequence that used to throw off one renowned Anglican pastor, Reverend Maduka off the balance. As a young priest I was often looking forward to every Sunday night for this popular Insight program.
that unforgettable year of 1993, when the then Catholic Bishop of Owerri, Most
Rev. Mark OnwuhaUnegbu reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy five and
tendered his resignation letter to the Vatican. At a point within the year, the
diocese was shrouded in a cloud of profound speculation and expectation as to
who will succeed this beacon of excellence. Ordinarily, there were many
spiritual giants in Owerripresbyterium at that period, so none of us imagined
that Fr. Anthony Obinna who was intellectually inclined and busy with his
lectures and students at AlvanIkoku College of Education could make the list.
But the thoughts and ways of the Lord are different from those of men.
The cloud of the unknown eventually receded in July 1993 when this son of a pioneer headmaster from Umuocham, OkwuEmekuku, called Michael Obinna, was named by His Holiness Pope John Paul 11 to succeed Bishop Mark Unegbu as the third bishop of the then Owerri Diocese.
what we observe in some quarters today, the choice of Anthony Obinna was
greeted with Joy and enthusiasm throughout the length and breadth of Owerri
ecclesiastical province. His welcome into Owerri from Rome on the 18th day of
August, 1993 was heartfelt. As I close my eyes in retrospect, I see the mammoth
crowd that waited at Umuapu for hours until some canon shots announced his
appearance from the Port Harcourt Airport. I could see the priests hailing him
at his arrival and some with guns shooting sporadically into the air. A young
female student of AlvanIkoku College of Education where this young Bishop was a
lecturer compared it to the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The
joyful noise was deafening and the crowd was enormous,
History has it that on the 10th of July 1993, as a holy Mass was being celebrated for the eleventh anniversary of his mother, Grace’s exit from this world, the news came that Fr. Anthony JV Obinna had been nominated Bishop elect of Owerri diocese.
As the news began circulating, some extremists wondered and concluded that Anthony Obinna looked like an unlikely choice for episcopacy. In their own thinking, the popes often show preference for pastorally-oriented priests. I was in this school of thought until I came to work directly with him as the diocesan Communications director. Right from the time of his Episcopal ordination, some of his close friends like Msgr. Kevin Akagha have continued to let the world know who this man really is. Though he was a lecturer for a good number of years in his life as a priest and loves academics, unknown to many, Fr. Anthony Obinna has remained an admirable pastor of souls. Overtime, he has been considered exemplary in his prayer life. He comes up mostly as a teacher of faith which manifests in his actions.
While he lectured at AlvanIkoku College of Education, I was a young priest in Owerri town; but now have come to believe that he did not confine himself to scholarship. I got to understand that he was popular with what one may describe as family apostolate. Most of the families who knew him then like the Ukaga family of UmuoriiUratta, the Obi family of UmunwakuOhajietc, have testified that his catechetical approach was so profound that he identified himself with these families especially in their seasons of counter-currents of life. Unlike a good number of us today, Fr. Anthony was a people’s priest par-excellence. It was on record that during one of the rounds of his family apostolate robbers drove away his parked car.
It is noteworthy that with the exception of a brief but a very close encounter with rural ministry at UmuowaOrlu where he doubled as Rector and Parish Priest, Fr. Anthony Obinna passed most of his priestly career in the elitist lecture halls. He was and has remained a very bright scholar. My close association with him painted an image of an achiever who is task-oriented. Archbishop Obinna can set up a goal and direct himself to it but can change as he sees the need. My nine years apprenticeship under him will lead me for the rest of my life.
Though he is presently in his seventies and one will naturally expect to see some traces of “PaPaNess” in his attitude but he has remained the same zealous, methodical and energetic cleric. Watch him on any pastoral visit. Archbishop Obinna will fatigue the youth as he walks miles and miles on foot. On his question and answer conference with the parishioners, he can hold the people late into the night and wakes up earlier for mass the following day and this mass and other ceremonies will take the whole day.
He has continued to be ever youthful in his thoughts, actions and reactions. Some of our priests and laity alike have often questioned the source of his extraordinary energy and agility. To get him to take a break in his jam-packed daily activities some close associates have often approached him with the usual mind troubling saying… “Your grace, you are losing much weight” and he will quickly respond sarcastically with his ever unceasing smile, “Yes, when I lose weight I gain Spirit”. When you try to encourage or eulogize him by saying, “Your Grace “ishiriike”, “you are strong”, he will cut you off by reprimanding ironically, “No EshihimikekamaEshigamonwu”, “I am not strong rather I am gasping for life”.
For his motto at the Episcopal ordination, Archbishop Obinna chose, “To serve God and His people,” a slightly different rendition of Christ’s dictum, “To serve and not to be served”. This is a motto he has chosen even as a priest many years back at his priestly ordination. This catch phrase, “To serve God and His people” represents the qualities that have marked the episcopal ministry of Archbishop Obinna till date. To further his onerous desire to serve, he has established the Eu-Care services and enlarged the CARITAS outfit of the Justice Development and Peace Commission under Fr. Gerald Njoku, an able lieutenant.
It was in
1994 that Owerri Diocese was elevated to the enviable height of an Archdiocese
and Bishop Anthony JV Obinna automatically transcended to an Archbishop. His
common saying was clearly translated in him that the reward for hard work is
But how did Archbishop Obinna become a priest in the first instance? It is all blanketed in a mystery and this mystery has trailed his journey down the road of life. According to one of his elder brothers, if becoming a priest depended on close contact with priests or by becoming an altar boy, Anthony John Valentine Obinna would have missed out completely.
The reason is simple, most of the places his family was stationed since the father was a patriarchic headmaster had no priests so to speak. Therefore no one can ascribe his desire to enter the Seminary or to become a priest to any childhood imitative instinct. Like the legendry Michael Jackson who was said to have remained Michael, lived Michael and died Michael with his peculiar dance steps and song style, Rev. Fr. Anthony JV. Obinna may be adjudged enigmatic likewise but in a different sense.
Although, when the battery of my searchlight was recharged, the light issuing from my torch pierced into the Obinna family archives from where I got a little information to hold unto as a near satisfying tale of the origin of his vocation. The story was built around a petite family pilgrimage of a sort. I was authentically informed that back in 1948 when the Irish born Rev. Fr. Joseph Whelan Brendan, C.S.SP. was appointed the Bishop of Owerri, various people were visiting to welcome him. It was at this time that the Obinna family led by the father who was an ardent Catholic trooped out to pay him a congratulatory visit.
Archbishop Obinna then was only two years old. After the ritual blessing of the family, Bishop Whelan prophetically prayed that one of the Obinna boys would become a priest. As days rolled into months and years, it was becoming increasingly clear that the blessing of this great servant of God soaked more into Anthony John Valentine than into any of the other brothers. Twelve years later, precisely in 1960, the fruit of the blessing began to sprout, the young Anthony Obinna embarked on the journey to the priesthood which has led him to where he is today.
Rev. Fr. George WC Nwachukwu
Director of Communications–RECOWA-CERAO,
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