We took a nostalgic stroll down the corridors of recollection at SMA House, Abuja on Saturday morning last, the Feast of the Assumption, when we celebrated the Departure / Commissioning ceremony for five recently-ordained SMA priests from Nigeria. The occasion evoked some memories for me (even though Departure Ceremonies were no longer in vogue when I was ordained in 1976) of departure ceremonies which for years were held annually at St. Joseph’s SMA Church, Blackrock Road, Cork. The Ceremony in those days coincided with the last night of the popular SMA National Novena to St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Patroness of the Missions. The Novena was first authorised in 1929 by Bishop Daniel Cohalan of the Diocese of Cork (1916-1952) and the final night provided an opportunity for the congregation to gather and say ‘farewell’ to the newly-ordained SMA missionaries just before they left to take up their first appointments in West Africa.
The St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus Novena had been organised “to honour the Patroness of our Missions, to associate our benefactors with that honour, and to implore God’s blessing through the Saint’s intercession on the departing Missionaries and on their work”. Similar sentiments were expressed last Saturday here in Abuja when our benefactors from all over Nigeria, (including those present from Holy Family parish, Life Camp and Our Lady Queen of Nigeria parish, Garki), were remembered and thanked during the Mass for their continued prayerful and financial support. Their intentions were included during the Mass and prayers offered that they might receive many graces and favours through the intercession of Our Lady.
During the Ceremony last Saturday we re-enacted the commissioning of the first Apostles before Jesus ascended into Heaven – “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Go, therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Each departing missionary was presented with (1) Mustard seed (a symbol of our humble missionary activities in helping to transform the lives of those to whom we are sent); (2) A Cross (the symbol of our faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose to save all people); (3) A Bible (a reminder that we are called to spread the message of Christ and allow it to make its home in us wherever we go) and (4) A Candle (reminding us that throughout
our lives we are called to let the light of Christ shine before others so that seeing our good works they will give the glory to God, our heavenly Father).
Our picture above shows Fr Onwuzurike giving the Bible to Fr Agbovi while the picture on right is the SMA Regional Superior giving the Mustard seed to Fathers Ayodeji and Ayeku.
It was emphasised by the Chief Celebrant, Fr. Augustine Onwuzurike, SMA, SMA Regional Superior, during his Sermon that the five young priests – Frs. Anthony Samuel Agbovi, Anthony Ayodele Ayeku, Damian Tongshinen Goteng, Chukwubuikem Ikemefuna Nwoha and Christopher Ayodeji Oshalaiye – were not going out as private individuals but as representatives of the Church in Nigeria which through them was fulfilling Christ’s mandate to his first Apostles.
A feature of the Departure Ceremony in those days, though not re-enacted on this occasion, was the Kissing of the Feet, the moment when SMA Superiors, Priests, Brothers and Students passed before the departing priests, knelt to kiss their feet and bid them ‘farewell’. During this farewell the words of the well-known hymn “Go forth, farewell for life, O dearest
brothers….” resounded. For the overflowing congregations at St. Joseph’s, Blackrock Road in those days the Kissing of the Feet was, understandably, the most emotional part of the Departure Ceremony and found its inspiration in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings Good News….” (Is. 52:7). Some people may find it difficult to identify with such gestures in these supposedly more sanitised politically correct times but it is important to appreciate that at the time the emotion was very much associated with the realisation that the assembled families and friends weren’t always sure that they would see their sons again, mindful as they were that the mortality rate in Africa at that time was very high, due to the severity of the climate and the prevalence of a variety of deadly tropical diseases (malaria and yellow fever being the most common). In many cases those reservations were confirmed with the premature deaths of many young missionaries, including those of the Founder, Msgr. Marion de Brésillac and his five companions who died a few weeks after disembarking in Freetown, Sierra Leone in June, 1859.
The Commissioning Ceremony concluded with the congregation praying: ‘As you go in the name of the Lord, on our behalf, we promise you our support and our prayers’ and the five young missionaries imparting a final blessing.
The young priests and the people then had an opportunity to mingle and chat during the leisurely breakfast which followed the Mass.
Edited from an article written by Fr Peter McCawille SMA, Deputy Regional Superior