As we approach the climax of the month-long celebration of the Silver Jubilee of the Inauguration of Owerri Catholic Ecclesiastical Province and Installation of Archbishop Anthony J.V. Obinna, which began on Friday 9th August to climax on Saturday 7th September 2019, The Leader brings you special Editions, beginning from this week, of our exclusive interview with the prelate himself.
The Editorial team of The Leader comprising: Rev. Fr. Peter Ndukuba, EmekaAni, John Agbakwuru and GozieUkasoanya were at the Villa Assumpta, Saturday August 17.
During the one and a half hours chart, the Archbishop spoke on how it has been these past 25 years, his challenges as a bishop, brushes with military and civilian administrations in Imo State and the nation.
He also spoke on the long awaited appointment of an Auxiliary or Co-Adjutor bishop for Owerri Archdiocese and substantive bishops for Ahiara and Aba Dioceses, as well as the recent war he has waged against Osu/Diala segregation and the impact of the Odenigbo Lecture Series which was founded by him.
How did you receive the news of your appointment as Bishop and later Archbishop?
When I entered the seminary, all I was interested in was to become a priest because I had become associated with many Irish priests from my childhood. What I looked forward to was being ordained a Catholic priest and nothing more. God’s mysterious kind of providence kept moving around. While I was in the United States on sabbatical leave as a lecturer at the AlvanIkoku College of Education Owerri (now AlvanIkoku Federal College of Education), I received a call sometime in July 1993 that I have been appointed the bishop of Owerri Diocese. I was actually having a lovely siesta that day when the news came.
I literally went on my knees as I was listening to the news. I was shocked because there were many good and qualified priests, some senior to me, some my colleagues, contemporaries and all that. I said well, since the Lord has already allowed this to happen, I can only give Him the glory. Then I prayed for the grace to be able to serve especially, while I thought of the two giants in the field of missionary work and educational service too: Bishop Joseph Brendan Whelan, the pioneer bishop of Owerri and Bishop Mark Unegbu, my immediate predecessor.
While Bishop Whelan confirmed me, it was Bishop Unegbu who ordained me priest. So both bishops have something to do with me and I revered them and saw them with a sense of awe, given their great missionary service to the land.
Then, when I was appointed Archbishop, the appointment came again like a bolt from the blues. I had hardly settled down as a bishop when within six months of my ordination as a bishop I received a telephone call from the then Nuncio, Carlo Maria Vigano.
It was on March 26, 1994, that the Nuncio informed me that Owerri has been raised to an Archdiocese. I asked him what does that mean; he said “it means that you have been appointed an Archbishop”. With shock and surprises, I said this is all beyond my capacity and understanding. And again the timing was even more surprising that I haven’t worked for one year before this was happening. So, that’s why reflecting on my appointment as an archbishop and the fact that archbishops are addressed as ‘His Grace’ or ‘Your Grace’, I decided to translate the nomenclatures into Igbo – ‘Amarachi’.
This was in order to make me more fully aware that it is “Site naAmarachi” (By God’s Grace) and not by my capacity or energy that I am holding this service position as the Metropolitan of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province. So, it is the Lord’s doing and surprising and amazing, here I am.
Your Grace, How has it been these 25 years?
Well, again what can I say, God has blessed my service as an Archbishop with the co-operation of the bishops of the province, especially when I remember that by the time I was appointed Archbishop, I was the youngest from the point of view of ordination as bishop.
All the other bishops were older, including Bishop Lucius Ugorji who is younger from the point of view of priesthood. Yes, he was ordained bishop before me. Bishops Mark Unegbu, Anthony GogoNwedo (The Great Emeriti), Anthony Ilonu, Victor Chikwe, Vincent Ezeonyia and Gregory Ochiagha, all of them were my senior. So I felt humbled, especially for the fact that I was appointed to be coordinator among these chief servants. I thank God for their understanding. And for Bishops Unegbu, Nwedo, Ilonu, Chikwe and Ezeonyia, I can only say may God grant them eternal rest for the labours they carried on vigorously among us.
For the priests, they have also been co-operative as well as the religious and laity. I have received their general support and co-operation. These have been exciting moments except for the few periods of turbulence which you all know.
That time was when the responsibility of the Archbishop of Owerri Metropolitan Province became very challenging as a result of the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke for Ahiara Diocese. The issue became so challenging to me as the head of the province that I was caught between the feelings of the priests in the province and the appointment by the Holy Father. So, I tried to wrestle with the situation which was quite a challenging one. I thank God that the tension of that period has been brought to the level of relative peace with the appointment of Bishop Lucius Ugorji as Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese. But while the matter lasted, there was a lot of bad blood, resistance and opposition from priests in Owerri Archdiocese and the Province itself.
Then outside of the Church, the experience has also to do with the wider society specifically the government.
Well, in that regard, there has been good understanding and also tough moments. Given that I am at the head of the Church within the state and the province, this has brought about some confrontations with the people in government. To this end there have also been quite some prolonged tensions between the government and the Church and sometimes people say it was between the governor and the Archbishop.
Whichever way, I see it all as within the line of service and given the prominent position one occupies, I’m bound to speak out on issues, irrespective of the challenges. That’s why too, we had to confront Nigerian leaders both at the federal and state levels, particularly Late General SaniAbacha, Col. TankoZubairo and Navy Capt. James Aneke.
On the other hand the position has also given me the privilege and opportunity to serve at the state level as the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and also at some point to co-ordinate the Christian Church body in the state, as well as representing the state at some point within the national level.
Within the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, I served as Chairman in the Pastoral/Liturgical Department, Chairman of the Education Committee, and until recently, as the Pro-chancellor of the VeritasUniversity of Nigeria (VUNA). This was an institution I helped to start off given my background in education from infancy to doctoral level which are Catholic institutions all through.
Again, when it comes to issues of culture I used my privileged position to look into aspects of Igbo culture, wrestling with some of it and at the same time introducing modifications, especially in the face of residual and resilient idolatrous reflex behaviors. So the theatre of action has been very wide.
The normal pastoral visits are also there with its increasing number of parishes in the Archdiocese since I came on board.
It’s also interesting to note that nobody can do all the work alone just by himself. This is the more reason for the Vicar General, Episcopal Vicars, Consultors, Presbyteral and Pastoral Councils. All these have been on hand to help me do the work which I cannot do all by myself.
We’ve had the privilege of celebrating some historical highpoints in the Church. The centenary of the arrival of the Catholic Church in our province came up in 2012, seven years ago, and here we are today marking another landmark event: the 25th Anniversary of the creation of Owerri Archdiocese, the Owerri Province and my appointment as Archbishop.
People are wondering why Owerri has not got Auxiliary Bishop?
Oh just pray, because I have done everything I should do to get an auxiliary. I’m expecting as you are expecting. So the matter is no longer in my hands. The best thing is to ask the Nuncio, who has asked me to be patient. Having said that, I must also inform you that it’s roughly three to four years since the process got into gear. So I don’t know. It’s not within my powers. Not that I don’t want an auxiliary, I even want two. But it looks like my time is running out as I officially have two more years to serve as the Archbishop of Owerri. It may be that I might be given a co-adjutor somebody who will succeed me directly and no longer an auxiliary. So it’s not within my powers as I’m only a servant. Just put it in prayers, I don’t know what else to do.
You’ve had brushes with the military and also civilian administrations in the state, what were the contentions?
Well, the position of the Church with regard to politics first surfaced with the military. The military intervention into democratic politics was an aberration. It was not the right of the military to rule or govern. This is because the military were not voted to do so. So, right from the word go, the Church saw the military intervention as an aberration that had to go.
Even though they might have done some apparent good by providing security or seeing that the civil service was operating, the fact that they were dictators and people who stole the people’s mandate through a coup d’etat demanded that we speak up on behalf of the people. This we did by challenging them to relinquish the authority which legitimately belongs to the civilians. That’s why again we continued to push and push and even went personally, seven of us, to General SaniAbacha (the then military Head of State), September 26, 1994 to bring this message across, that it is not the duty of the military to rule.
Whatever may have been their intention in intervening initially may have seemed to bring some relief, but in the long run, the excesses we saw needed to be confronted.
From the side of the civilians, the problem again was almost as a hangover of the military dictatorship. Governors were beginning to see themselves as dictators and operating in highhanded ways. Like the military, who used the funds of the nation arbitrarily, the same was also showing up among the civilian governors.
You remember that at some stage, salaries were not being paid, or more recently pensions were not being paid. These issues require that the church speaks up. Because if the Church does not speak on these things, the Church will be accused of colluding or casting a blind eye to issues.
In the face of our position that the common good of the people should be the criterion of governance, and in the face of corrupt elections (remember that during the military period, because of the distress we were going through under the military) we had to compose a Prayer for Nigeria in Distress.
When the civilians came we remembered that bribery and corruption had been the bane of Nigeria, so we initiated the Prayer Against Bribery and Corruption because of elections and many other things and the manner with which they awarded contracts and appointments, a lot of them carry the baggage of bribery and corruption. These dispositions couldn’t make for a sane and equitable society.
So as the voice of the Church in this case, I had to deal with these issues. Remember, I also in 2006 composed a Prayer for Upright Voting, Accurate Counting and Impartial Announcement of Election Results. These are all part of the attempt to confront the ugly situation on ground.
Roughly, a year and six months ago, we had almost the worst confrontation that nearly came up, after the government people that had helped to nearly rubbish the gubernatorial debate we had scheduled for here (at ObiriOdenigbo). That event was scuttled by government forces. Yet the worst that happened was the attempt to remove the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to replace the Maria Assumpta Avenue with the name of MuhammaduBuhari by the Imo State government. That’s the highpoint of irreverence and abuse by a sitting governor, who was alleged to be a Catholic.
So that was for me the height of abuse from the state government and such requires a direct confrontation. Luckily, the bishops of the province, who joined hands in fighting the matter, wrote a joint letter which every one of them (the Bishops) signed, demanding the restoration of the Avenue to its rightful name. Four days after the matter went public and opposition to the matter went viral in the social media, the governor had to step back and the sculptor concerned with the matter had to restore the rightful name of Assumpta Avenue.
Well, this is the kernel of the matter, that dictatorship whether under the military or civilian government was not acceptable to the Church, to humanity and the people at large.
Your admirers see you as a prophet and an outspoken chief shepherd, whereas others see you as a politician, how do you react to that?
It was Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher who said “Man by nature is a political animal.” To be a bishop does not stop one from being a political animal. But it depends on the type of politics that one is involved in.
Politics is about administering good to the people. Usually it is transferred more into the secular sphere. But even in the Church, there are political dimensions that come up whereby people also struggle for offices, for positions for one thing or the other.
This may be called pastoral politics or pastoral administration whereby cases that come up had to be adjudicated as magistrates would in the law (civil) court. But here the difference is that I do not charge fees for making peace for people. Otherwise the three to five hours I spent yesterday (Friday August 16) trying to adjudicate in a parish within our Archdiocese would have attracted some good fee.The Leader News Online
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