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..The story of a Catholic Priest with one hand.

I am the fi rst person in the Nigerian Church to be ordained a Catholic priest with one hand – Rev. Fr. Benedict Sunday Chukwudi Okolo.

The Accident
Tough times they say don’t last, but tough people do. This testimony of a Catholic Priest, Rev. Fr. Benedict Chukwudi Okolo, illustrates this well. The Anambra-born priest dreamt as a young boy to become an ordained priest. But fate dealt him a blow.He was involved in an auto crash and his left hand was amputated.

But he did not give up. In a feat or rare courage backed by determination and improvisation, Benedict dared the odds to realise his dream to serve in the Lord’s vineyard as a Priest. It was not easy but he made it. He speaks. “I am Rev. Fr. Benedict Sunday-ChukwudiOkolo, a Vincentian Priest.

I come from a village called Umuilem in Ufuma, Awka Diocese, Anambra State. That is also where I grew up. My father is a catechist and also a teacher. I am the fifth child out of the eight children of my parents. When I was growing up, I used to go to church with him and from there I started having the inspiration of becoming a Catholic priest. I joined the altar servers at a very tender age.

My desire to become a Catholic priest started when I was still a child. I remember vividly that after a morning mass on one of those days, the Parish Priest asked if there were any of us among the altar servers who would want to participate in the common entrance to the Seminary.

I could not join the seminary that year because I was not successful at the interview. After my senior secondary education, I started applying again to join the seminary. Eventually, the Vincentians invited me in 1999 and I started at Enugu.”

The auto crash that led to the amputation of his left happened in his third year at Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu, few weeks to his vow to become a priest. He had gone for holiday after Theology 111 for the work to do at home.

The apostolic work over, he was sent to his home Diocese and the vocation director posted him to a Parish in the diocese to work at Immaculate Heart Parish, Uga for six weeks. A day before the closing date of his Parish work, he took his father’s car to collect his belongings from the Parish house.

Morning of the closing date, he decided to drop off my other colleagues in their homes before coming back to carry his personal property. It was getting late. He was stressed up and did not eat throughout the day. That made him loses strength and concentration.

He started to doze on the steering. “I noticed I was dozing while driving. In an effort to remain alert, I engaged the car music system, raised the volume, lowered the car windows and increased the motion so I could get home faster and sleep. I hadn’t experienced this before. The music was to distract the sleep. Rather than distract the sleep all those efforts aggravated the dozing and I slept off.”

“The next thing I saw was the car running into a gutter. I tried matching the break, but instead I matched the accelerator and the car hit a culvert and somersaulted. While the car was somersaulting, I tried to defend myself and my left hand went outside so the car fell on my hand. With the movement my hand was crushed.” That was how young Benedict lost his left hand.

He explains the tragedy. “I went on a little trance, came back and saw people all over the place. I begged them to take me to the hospital. Luckily, a passerby named Abbey Oko drove me from Umuchu in Aguata, where the accident occurred, to Boromeo Hospital Onitsha.

He thought I was a priest because I was wearing my cassock. On the way to the hospital, I managed to bring out my phone and informed my sisters that I was involved in an accident and was on my way to the hospital.

When the accident occurred, I saw blood pumping out of the crushed hand with just a tiny flesh holding the lower part of the hand.

Becoming afraid that the car could go on flame I quickly put off the ignition, and came out on my own through the car window.

When I climbed out of the crashed car and noticed that it was only a tiny flesh holding the lower part of the hand I slumped.” By the time Benedict got to the hospital, he had bled a lot and was very weak. He drifted from consciousness and unconsciousness just as the doctors and nurses contemplated whether to amputate the hand or not.

He told them, “If loosing this hand would help me to survive please cut it off. I want to live. I don’t think I have accomplished what God has sent me to do.” At this point he slept off. He woke up much later in the night to notice that some priests had come to the hospital and decided the hand should be amputated.

Recovery
He left hospital in September same year. The struggle and adapt to his new physical condition started. That period came with plenty of consolation and prayers from Priests, prayer groups, family members, friends and relations.

To overcome the trauma, Bendict made an early decision: Say no to self pity and regret. He needed to be in the right frame of mind to overcome the challenge.

Challenges
Many thoughts raged through his mind about his past life and he saw the accident as a consequence of his past wrongs. A priest had told him years back that Priesthood would be a difficult work for him. He wondered if it was a curse and probably the accident would indeed make the work difficult.

His family members were confused. Something is wrong somewhere. Someone did this, they concluded. This was thick because Benedict’s father suffered a car crash few days before his own with same car. His father feared he would not become a Priest after all.

How can a Priest function with one hand? Something they saw a blessing for the family was eluding them. His family was shattered.

He explains: Our Provincial precisely, Rev Fr Michael Ngaoka, was our Philosophy Director, before he was made the Provincial, he knew me. He did not want to act without verifying and checking very well. He had to write to Rome and called all the Canonists he knew to make enquiries concerning my situation.

He told me one day at the hospital not to be afraid, that the Pope had instructed that I would be ordained only on some conditions after my discharge from the hospital and that he did not see the conditions as those that would fail.”

He was happy to be alive and basked in the love and support class mates and family members. Pain was a challenge but it reduced with time.

After his discharge from the hospital, he was told the Vatican said he should undergo psychotherapy after which he should confirm if he actually wants to be ordained a priest.

“I did the psychotherapy for three months. After I was certifi ed mentally suitable, they started working on my ordination. When I was called upon to confi rm that I still wanted to be ordained a priest, I actually contemplated on it and saw it as something that was still possible.

“Despite the amputation of my left hand, my right hand was still normal to bless people and while in the hospital I had started contemplating on how I would do many things like swinging the incense, how to dress myself with one hand and things like that.

People also started giving me the idea of artificial hand but I did not want to anchor my mind on that. So I put it into writing that I was going to continue with the priesthood and continued with the vow.

Faith in God

Benedict’s experience made him see God as a good provider despite the situation – “A God who does not abandon us despite our situation of weakness.

I started having abilities instead of disability to do things that ordinarily the normal person could not imagine I could do.”

Looking back at his travail, Benedict says: We are what God says we should be. What we become is what God wants us to be.

He concludes: “I have told God that since he allowed me to become a Priest; the testimony is that I am the first person in the Nigerian Church to be ordained a Catholic Priest with one hand. Pope Benedict XVI did that great mercy for me, when he gave me the opportunity to decide to be ordained a priest.


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