Homily at the Ordination of Bishop Yohanna of Kontagora
On Thursday, 3 May 2012, the Vicariate Apostolic of Kontagora welcomed its new Pastor as Monsignor Bulus Dauwa Yohanna was ordained to the Episcopacy. Bishop Yohanna succeeds Bishop Tim Carroll SMA, who served for nearly forty years in the area, as priest and bishop.
In his homily at the Ordination Mass, Bishop Matthew Kukah began by giving thanks to God for this special day, made by the Lord: “We give thanks and praise to God the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for His love for us is without end. …
‘Tell our country it is daybreak’
1: We give thanks and praise to God the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for His love for us is without end. We are gathered here to mark a historic event in the life of one of our brother, Msgr. Bulus Yohanna, soon to be ordained the new Bishop of the Diocese of Kontagora. Today is a special day for him as a priest of God, his immediate family, his community, the entire people of the Apostolic Vicariate of Kontagora and the Catholic Church in Nigeria. Like all other days, but in a particular way today, this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118: 24).
2: When Msgr. Bulus approached me during one of the break periods at the last Bishops’ Conference in Lugbe and asked if I could deliver this sermon, I was a bit taken aback because I had only just formally met him. I noticed however that he had been speaking to His Grace Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso, our Metropolitan. I am not sure whether the decision to request me to preach was the fruit of their conspiracy or something he himself had thought of. I wondered whether he had approached our Metropolitan for clearance or that he had asked the Archbishop to preach and he decided to delegate the job to a suffragan with little choice in the matter. Either way, I think that by asking me to preach, Msgr. Yohanna chose the line of least resistance. First, I am his immediate neighbour in Sokoto. Since his Emirs come from Sokoto, he probably is warming his way for my support when the next vacancy occurs. I want to assure him that he can definitely count on my support. Secondly, he will soon be walking beside me in the Episcopal processions and will require all the support he can get.
3: This historic day is being celebrated well beyond those of us who are present here. There are celebrants in heaven, namely, those gallant Irish missionaries of the Society of African Missions, SMA, who labored here and have gone before us marked with the sign of peace. Secondly, there are celebrations across the seas by those many missionaries who labored here and are now unable to be with us here physically. Today is a befitting day for us to pay tribute to the SMA Fathers, and to other men like the Archbishop of Abuja, His Grace, Archbishop John Onaiyekan, and the late Bishop Christopher Abba (Minna and Yola) of blessed memory who contributed immensely to the realization of the vision we are celebrating today. May the Lord of the harvest bless those still in the vineyard and grant peace to those who have gone before us.
4: But for those great SMA Fathers of the Irish Province, and their collaborators, the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, who are still doing good work here, people like myself would not be standing or sitting here today. I stand as a proud testimony of gratitude and acknowledgement of a sacrificial life of selflessness that is both a lesson and also a source of inspiration to us today. I know that the fate of the Minority ethnic groups that make up Kontagora Diocese are tied to those of millions of other Minority ethnic groups in other parts of the Middle Belt and the entire North of Nigeria. It is therefore fitting to remind ourselves that what we are celebrating today is a coming to being, a coming to fruition of the dreams and the vision of men and women who truly answered the call of Jesus Christ and committed their lives to serving others.
5: This is neither the time nor the place for us to go into details about the great work of the Missionaries such as the SMA and OLA. However, one has to pause and think, making a mental trip and also trying hard to place oneself in the shoes of those young men and women who set out to lands that were unknown, lands that were unmarked, lands that spelt death. What is it that drove young men and women, mainly in their mid-twenties, to embark on a journey from which there was no certainty of return? What made these young men and women set out on a journey to a people they did not know, a people who had been enslaved by Arabs and Europeans, people who had been designated the wretched of the earth, people allegedly without souls, people said to be without a history or a culture, people who were thought to be cannibals and subhuman? What inspired these young people to come to a land that had been marked the white man’s grave, a continent that had been consigned the Dark Continent, the heart of darkness, a continent whose only attraction to some of their kith and kin had been the riches in its womb?
6: I often recall many days of celebrating Masses at the SMA House on 28 Lyonsdown Road, my first and only home in the United Kingdom since 1979. I recall those moments in the middle of our celebrations of the Mass when my good friend Msgr. Mike McPartland would pause and reel out all the names of those SMAs who had died on that particular date. Msgr. Mike gave me the impression that this was a sacred ritual which uninitiated SMAs could not be allowed the privilege to perform during the Mass. I was always struck by the contrast in ages of those young priests and the countries they came from. Many of those of the 19th and early 20th centuries died in their 20s and 30s while those who came later enjoyed greater longevity and understandably so. They were urged on by the love of God (2 Cor 5:14).
7: Today, this great work is being continued and that is what we are celebrating here. We are celebrating a transition, a change of baton, a coming to fruition, the growth of a seamless faith that has been handed over to us. The challenge now is for us to continue the good work that has been entrusted to us. Here, we have to pause to pay tribute to our friend and brother, Bishop Timothy Carroll, the first Apostolic Administrator along with Fr Dan McCauley and those others who have held this fort all these years. Bishop Tim,May the good Lord grant you a peaceful retirement.
8: In many ways, these times are the best of times for us as a new world lies before us, opportunities which those who went before us would never have dreamt were possible. We think of how many weeks or days it must have taken Fr and later Bishop McCarthy to ride a bicycle from Kaduna to Argungu. We think of the opportunities we have now, the highways, the aeroplane, the exotic cars, the internet, the telephone, the human and material resources and other forms of communication which should make the work of the Gospel much easier and a happy engagement for us.
9: From the Second Vatican Council, the universal Church has, through Synods, taken up this challenge of mission quite seriously, focusing on Africa and asking us to cast our net into the deep (Lk 5: 4). We have had two synods committed to the challenges of mission in Africa. Indeed, as we closed the millennium, the call for a new evangelisation was the preoccupation of the late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.
The fruit of his focus on Africa is clearly demonstrated in the physical expansion of ecclesiastical jurisdictions here in Nigeria (in the ten years I was in the Secretariat, we went from 3 Provinces to 9, from 38 Dioceses to 42 and so on). The birth, growth and spread in Male and Female Religious Congregations across the country is further testimony of the dynamism of the Church in Nigeria in particular and in general. Our main challenge today is how to deepen the faith in the lives of our people, how to ensure that fraudsters, sorcerers and occultism do not prey on the fears of our people by turning Christianity into a dubious solution providing, problem solving, enemy crushing enterprise as we are seeing in our days.
10: Our Nigerian Congregations and those Nigerian religious in international Congregations deserve commendation and appreciation both as citizens of our country and of the kingdom. For a country so vilified for different and sometimes conflicting reasons by friends and foes alike, our brothers and sisters in these Congregations as well as many serving as Fidei donum priests across the world deserve commendation for the sheer sacrifice, zeal and commitment with which they are serving both as Ambassadors for. In this century, it is hard to find any country that can outclass Nigeria in the sheer quantum of agents of evangelisation. We have our own problems of quality, coordination and control, but not withstanding all these, Nigerians deserve to commend themselves. Let me put things in perspective and I believe that even Nigerians themselves will be surprised by the figures that are available to us.
11: Today, Nigerians are working as missionaries in 35 countries in Africa, 15 countries in Europe, 9 countries in Central and South Africa, in the Middle East, 4 Asian countries and 2 countries in Oceania, Canada and the United States of America. If we break it down to figures, they translate into 460 Nigerians in North America, 360 in Africa, 321 in Europe, 30 in Central and South America, 10 in Asia, 8 in Oceania and 1 in Lebanon. The total is 1,195 missionaries working in 62 countries. We must say with the Igbos that the lizard who has fallen from the iroko tree unscathed should be ready to praise itself if no one will do so.
His Eminence, Dominic Cardinal Ekandem of blessed memory, one of the great men of the last· century in my view and a son that Africa should be proud of, must be smiling in Heaven.’ It is easy for us to appreciate the success of the National Missionary Society of St. Paul now as a project. Now they have three members of the Bishops’ Conference. However, I think we must not forget the commitment which led Cardinal Ekandem to mobilize his fellow Bishops to accomplish this dream. He saw a vision that very many people did not see. I thank God I was part of that mission.
12: I am not implying that this is a time for us to relax or to feel triumphalistic. Indeed, more than ever, the challenges before us are even more enormous. We must however remain relentless because, as St, Paul said, we must preach this gospel in season and out of season, welcome or unwelcome (2 Tim 4:2). We must say with Paul that to live is Christ (Phil 1:21). There are many reasons why we must approach evangelization with ever renewed and greater commitment. I list only seven.
- The Message, though always the same, has to be subjected to constant renewal so as to ensure that we keep pace with the times.
- There is a very strong return to neo-paganism.
- Christianity is being threatened externally by the challenges of secularism
- Religious fundamentalism and extremism is on the rise
- Atheism now wants to assert itself as a belief system
- Our people need to be rescued from the dictatorship of relativism.
- Although almost half the population professes Christianity in Nigeria today, adherence to the Gospel is difficult to perceive in our approach to democracy and to political and social justice and right.
The Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod on New Evangelisation makes this point when it states eloquently that: The new evangelization is not a matter of redoing something which has been inadequately done or has not achieved its purpose, as if the new activity were an implicit judgment on the failure of the first evangelization. Nor is the new evangelization taking up the first evangelization again, or simply repeating the past. Instead, it is the courage to forge new paths in responding to the changing circumstances and conditions facing the Church in her call to proclaim and live the Gospel today.
13: How can this new evangelisation be faced in Kontagora? To answer this question is to appreciate the historic role that the Catholic Church has played in rescuing millions of marginalized peoples around the world in keeping with the spirit of the missionaries who brought the Good News to us. The driving force of the Church has been education as a tool for ending injustice and creating a platform for the common good. Thus, even before our nations became independent from colonial rule, before States, Local Government Councils, feudal institutions and so on, the Church has always been the centre of the life of our people.
In our various communities, this light, in many instances stood on the village hill where the Church was built or where the Parish house was. In most of our communities especially around these areas, it was the Church or the Father’s house that was the beginning of modernity and civilization. As such, we all remember how the Parish priest was all at once the local doctor, the architect, the construction manager, the engineer, the teacher, the priest, and so on. Happily, it is in pursuit of the mission to become all things to all people that Msgr. Bulus has chosen to re-echo these words of St Paul as we have heard in the readings today. Make this challenge the centre of your apostolate to your people who have been marginalized for long.
14: l am far too young to welcome you into the episcopacy. I am far too inexperienced to tell you anything about what to do as a bishop because I am still finding my way. Your apostolate has both a dilemma and a promise. The dilemma is that you are a local boy and this is your territory. That comes with a lot of challenges of managing expectations arising from familiarity. I believe that your primary apostolate is to heed the words of the man who was cured by Jesus and told to go back to his people to tell them what the Lord has done for him (Lk. 8; 39). Your life should be marked by the humility of your own background. See your new apostolate as a chance to light a candle and to help to cast away the darkness that you are so familiar with yourself.
15: Who are your people?
Today, the African continent remains in the throes of war and conflict because of the corrosive forces of ethnicity. Politicians and bureaucrats continue to use ethnicity as a major category in the discharge of their duties. Ethnic rivalries have rendered the victims even more vulnerable to exploitation by outsiders who often seek domination and oppression. The challenges of Christian love offer us the best opportunity to overcome these divisions. You must be an apostle of that love in honesty.
16: Your challenge is how to manage these diversities by focusing on the things that unite especially in an environment where state failure has forced our people to retreat to the womb of ethnic, regional and religious rivalries. The things that unite do not lie in blaming others. They lie in your conscious and deliberate appreciation of the fact that God has His own ways. They rely on our understanding that His ways are not our ways (Is 55:8), that His foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor 1: 25) that He brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly (Lk 1: 52)arid that in the end, God has no favourites (Acts 10:34). I therefore appeal to the priests of the Diocese of Kontagora to unite firmly with your brother so as to set your people free from oppression and become truly the family of God on mission. I have some scant understanding of the trials of our people here.
17: History has demonstrated clearly to us that freedom has always come at the end of pain and suffering. The late Pope John Paul of blessed memory demonstrated this quite eloquently in the background of some of the children of Africa that he honoured in his pontificate. My favourite story is that of Bakhita. As we know, Bakhita was kidnapped and sold as a slave two years after her sister had suffered a similar fate at the age of 12. She was forced to trek 960 klms between her home in the Darfur area of Sudan and EI Obeid, the slave capital. She was sold about five times and the trauma of the experience made her forget her own name. Her name Bakhita simply means Lucky in Arabic. She had 114 cuts on her body as a result of scarifications by various Arab merchants who owned her at different phases of her life. Pope John Paul took up her case almost immediately in 1978, declaring her Venerable on December 1, 1978, Blessed on May 17th, 1992 and a Saint Josephine Bakhita on October 1st, 2000. She is today the Patron saint of Sudan, and a model for slaves and all oppressed people of the world!
18: This country is on the throes of pain and suffering. The cloud of Boko Haram represents the cumulative impact of many years of living with sin. For many years, the Nigerian state has been run almost as a criminal enterprise where mindless looting of the state commonwealth was the highest expression of state capture. For years, we have been prisoners in our own land. For years, the 925,000 square kilometers of land that make up Nigeria have been a prison of suffering, injustice and pain. Years of sowing injustice have now caught up with us. The children produced by the injustice of yesterday have come back to haunt us. Our youth have turned into purveyors of violence since our nation returned to civil rule. We must reclaim our country and create a new vision based on Justice.
In the encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, the Holy Father states that: Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now.
19: When the late Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his historic I have a Dream Speech, On August 28th, 1963, he built his idealism on the promises of the American Constitution and its vision of the good life as the essence of government. He considered that America’s mortal sin lay in the fact that the greed of the tiny majority had created the illusion that perhaps there was not enough for God’s children. But, in the speech, he attacked the system by outright rejection of the condition of the black children of slavery. He said: We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. You have come from that tradition and we must tell those in power that there is injustice in the land. Mobilize our people to fight for their freedom.
20: The Church must tell our country that it is daybreak. People like you and I have nothing to be afraid of. Before us lie vast territories to be converted to truth, but with us, are tested men and women who have shown the way. You are young and fresh, be ready to learn. You have in this Conference, fathers, uncles, brothers and friends who love you. I know they will support you. You are in a family that cares. Again, congratulations to you and the good people of Kontagora, the home of hospitality. The future is now in your hands. Do not ever be afraid. The Lord is with you. Nigeria, say with St. Paul, the night is nearly over, the day is almost here, so let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light (Rom 13: 12).
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah
Bishop of Sokoto, Nigeria