God is always a God of surprises. Never had it remotely crossed my mind that I would one day stand before a great congregation such as this as the Archbishop of Abuja.
After his very exceptional and wonderful tenure for which we remain happy and grateful to God, I respectfully salute His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who for nearly three decades has led the Archdiocese of Abuja with Apostolic courage and zeal as he retires after clocking the 75 years as stipulated by Canon Law. I wish him a very tranquil and restful retirement.
My own little page has now opened in the history of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja. My unexpected and unmerited journey to become a member of Abuja Archdiocese began on the 11th of March 2019, when the Holy Father, Pope Francis, kindly appointed me as Coadjutor Archbishop of Abuja Archdiocese. Not too familiar with the term “Co-adjutor”, some people address me as “co-adjucator”, “coadjutant” while some call it, “co-conjugator”.
The Apostolic Nuncio in Nigeria, His Excellency, Antonio Guido Filipazzi, informed me of my appointment by Pope Francis at 9.45am in the Nunciature on 15.2.2019. Noticing my apprehension and agitation while breaking the news to me, the Nuncio used the examples of Abraham and the Blessed Virgin Mary to reassure me that all would be well. Asked, as usual, if I would accept the assignment by the Holy Father, I could not give him any definite answer as I felt slightly disoriented.
With trembling and trepidation, I travelled back to Jos, my mind wandering like a wild cat. Arriving my house in Jos and kneeling in thanksgiving for a safe journey before the Blessed Sacrament, the thought of leaving Jos suddenly dawned on me and I felt like a stranger in my house!
After troubled reflections on the implications of my appointment, but knowing that it is neither an office one campaigned for nor influenced by powerful god fathers, but a doing of the Lord, I called the Apostolic Nuncio on Sunday 17.2.2019 to pledge my obedience and humble acceptance of the appointment by the Holy Father. I wish to thank the Holy Father for the confidence reposed in me by entrusting the pastoral leadership of the Archdiocese of Abuja to me and I hereby renew my pledge of loyalty and filial devotedness. To His Excellency the Apostolic Nuncio, I express my gratitude for your generous words of encouragement and support as I count on your fraternal collaboration as well as the support of my brother Bishops in the Abuja Ecclesiastical Province and indeed all members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN).
Life is said to be a series of beginnings. This is another new beginning for me. God knows better why he asked the Pope to look in my direction. When I was appointed the Archbishop of Jos some nineteen and a half years ago, after only a little over five years as the pioneer Bishop of Jalingo Diocese, someone in a goodwill message sympathetically and I would say, skeptically said that I would not have the physical and spiritual energy of my predecessor in Jos. By this present appointment, the temptation to feel grossly inadequate returned forcefully to me, but I convinced myself that I was being appointed to Abuja to humbly serve even despite my shortcomings and limitations. I trust and depend on the grace of God which will support me day by day, because God is our hope and our help.
My predicament is that I have always been given heavy assignments, namely, to succeed people who are many times more experienced and more gifted than I am. My predecessor in Jos, the Servant of God, Archbishop Gabriel Gonsum Ganaka, was a person I referred to as an “Ecclesiastical guru”; as CBCN president, I succeeded Archbishop Felix Alaba Job, a veteran in pastoral affairs whom I call a “mobile archive” (he does not easily forget pastoral or statistical information) and my immediate predecessor here, Cardinal Onaiyekan, an intellectual colossus. I lack their outstanding credentials (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16). However, I have the conviction that the Lord uses leaders to build, not by human wisdom and power but by His grace. I may not be exceptional but I assure you that we shall continue to pray and work together for social cohesion, spiritual and pastoral progress.
My earnest prayer is that the Lord will take control and guide the course of events in Abuja Archdiocese during my tenure. May He guide and bind in redeeming love the priests, the religious and the wonderful lay faithful of Abuja Archdiocese, moulding us more into a strongly united and indivisible family in His service, so that at the end, we shall receive the crown of glory and hear the words of Mt. 25:34, “Come and enter the kingdom of my Father”. I pray and hope that we will be able to trust one another, be friends and colleagues and be a happy family together.
With the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of Abuja, we need to make more conscious effort to promote dialogue, harmonious coexistence, reconciliation and peace both ad intra and ad extra, through constant meetings, interactions, fervent prayers, which I believe are the antidote to disunity, polarization and fragmentation.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja in the Federal Capital should be a home to all and should belong to all and not be seen as a colony of a specific group or region. We must always champion the common good rather than sectional interests. Everyone living or working in Abuja Archdiocese should find a home in our Church. Whether you are the majority or minority, whether you are many, few or alone, please, feel at home in our Church, family of God.
God has given us multiple gifts and talents, which everyone should use effectively and selflessly for the benefit of our Archdiocesan family and humanity. You have always supported the physical growth, development and expansion of parishes, schools and other socio-pastoral projects. Please, do not be tired. There is still work to be done. Our beautifully designed new cathedral is not yet completed. The best retirement gift we can give our highly esteemed Cardinal is to complete this project. I am confident that with the support of everyone; men and women, young and old, rich and poor, we can complete it as well as the other plans His Eminence informed me about, namely, the building of a permanent Archdiocesan Secretariat, a permanent Archbishop’s house, etc.
I know very well that before my announcement as the Coadjutor Archbishop of Abuja there were speculations, conjectures and guesses and even wishful thinking about whom to expect as the new Archbishop. Even after my appointment, some were perhaps shocked and some may still be thinking about what should have happened or worrying about what will be. These anxieties are natural, but they must now give way to our unity of purpose and mission. Let all we do be dominated by true fraternal spirit, mutual acceptance and understanding.
My thesis is that by the grace of God, we all have something to contribute in building our Archdiocese; we can add a few blocks (spiritual and physical) to the many blocks John Cardinal Onaiyekan and before him, late Dominic Cardinal Ekandem, have built together with you since the creation of this jurisdiction.
We, the priests, must be known for who and what we are. We are not big men or rich men competing with lay people or politicians. We should let the light of Christ shine in and through us. We should be the salt of the earth, bringing good taste not sour taste. This exhortation applies too to all the religious.
As priests we know that our role is to lead the People of God after the model of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. It is about servant leadership, in simplicity, humility and holiness. It means celebrating the Eucharist with reverence and not introducing unnecessary practices, visiting the sick at home and in the hospitals, those in prison, being attentive to the plight of the poor and empathizing with them, and being the voice of the voiceless without being partisan.
To my good friends, family, associates, acquaintances, I need your understanding and support. It is easy in contemporary Nigeria where some religious leaders preach prosperity and flaunt incredible wealth in the midst of biting poverty, to see my position as the Archbishop of Abuja in terms of worldly elevation or promotion and even to compare it with the position of a powerful and affluent Senator or Minister. My duty is spiritual and pastoral. I neither have a salary nor have I accumulated material things in my over thirty eight years of priesthood. I have always depended on charity and donations from benefactors which I in turn distribute to the needy or to promote the cause of the Church. I say this because when I was the CBCN president, some people thought that all the money collected in Catholic Churches across the country ended up on my table and so many requests for financial assistance kept pouring in!
The Catholic Church is always willing to contribute to the growth and development of our nation by spiritually and morally supporting our elected political leaders and public officials to focus on serving in truth and justice our nation and its about 200 million people. In exercising my prophetic duty, I will respectfully seek to dialogue with government leaders about the common good; remind our leaders to remember the poor, the youth, the widows and orphans; to remind them of the words of both our national pledge and anthem: “to serve our fatherland with love and strength and faith; with heart and might; one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.” I will pray with them and dialogue on how our youth can be better helped. I will continue to stress the need to protect the lives and property of all Nigerians and to provide jobs for our teeming youth used by ethnic, religious and political bigots for violence, cultism and other anti-social practices.
Our political leaders should be faithful to the words of their oath of office; to serve rather than be served; to be closer to their people not only during election times, but to always feel their pain and agony rather than being tucked away in air-conditioned offices or travelling in jets or helicopters to avoid the deplorable roads that are left unmaintained for years or just simply poorly built. The tendency for leaders to surround themselves with weapon-wielding security personnel or trained security dogs and becoming inaccessible and insensitive to the needs of the ordinary people must be avoided and they should ensure that the poor, the children, the teenagers, the youths, the widows, the orphans, those in the periphery are not deprived of social amenities or unjustly treated.
To my new family, please help me to be the shepherd of the flock of God that is entrusted to me, to watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it; not for sordid money as 1 Peter 5:1-4 says, but because I am eager to do it. I look forward to collaborating with you the laity, female and male religious, priests, other Christian denominations, and the Muslim community.
I will count on the Auxiliary Bishop of Abuja, Most Rev. Anselm Umorem, MSP, as a fraternal ally. He has been on ground for some years now. I will continue to draw from the wisdom and wealth of experience of His Eminence John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who even after retirement is still looking dynamic and energetic to kindly help me as I continue with the relay race. I hope that he will always help where and when his help will be needed.
I hereby reconfirm for now, the previous appointments made by His Eminence: the Vicar General, the Chancellor, the Consultors and the Deans. I request you to support my spiritual and pastoral initiatives. In the coming days I shall hold separate meetings with the clergy, female religious and leaders of laity, women, youth organizations, etc.
With the words of Philippians 2:2-4, I exhort all of us to be united in our convictions and united in our love, with a common purpose and a common mind, avoiding selfish personal interests and parochial sentiments. “There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead.” Be patient with me. I am a slow learner. It will take me time to know things, places and people.
I am very grateful for the many goodwill messages received assuring me of prayers to succeed. Special thanks to His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, who sent me a goodwill message and to the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osibanjo, who called me on phone. I thank my brother Bishops for their unending support, prayerful wishes, goodwill messages and for being physically present here or through their representatives.
The presence of dignitaries in large numbers is gratefully acknowledged and appreciated: I recognize and truly appreciate the presence of Traditional Leaders, government functionaries, Christian leaders, Muslim leaders, distinguished personalities, etc. A special welcome to His Eminence, Philippe Cardinal Ouedraogo, the President of SECAM, being represented here by Archbishop Bonaventure Kwofie of Accra, Ghana. My special regards to my two Governors, one of my State of birth, Gov. Darius Ishaku Dickson and the other of my adopted home state, Plateau and Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, Rt. Hon. Barr. Simon Lalong. They have been not only my Governors, but truly brothers. Please allow me to use Dame Pauline Tallen, Minister of Women Affairs, the legal luminary, Mr. Damian Dodo, SAN, the Walter and Winifred Akpani family, as points of contact to those other brothers and sisters who were and are strongly committed to helping me succeed in my priestly life and service. I would like to pay tribute to the wonderful people I have worked with in the Archdiocese of Jos, the priests, religious, laity and indeed the good and generous people of Plateau State. I also thank God for the Bishop, priests and people of my home diocese of Jalingo whose Bishop I was from 1995 to 2000.
Kindly allow me to be a bit partial by mentioning the Jukun Supreme leader, His Majesty, The Aku Uka of Wukari, Dr. Shekarau Angyu Masa-Ibi, Kuvyon II and the traditional ruler of Jukun Kona land, His Royal Highness, Augustine Njenmang Vengkani. I acknowledge and appreciate also my fellow members of the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace Centre, Jos, made up of Muslims, Christians, Community leaders and youths.
I thank the organizers of this event headed by Bishop Anselm Umoren for their sacrifices and selflessness. I thank Archbishop Valerian Okeke for his inspiring reflections in the homily. I am so grateful to the security agents, gentlemen of the media, Church organizations and pious movements and many people who worked and are still working behind the scene.
To all who have come, I invoke God’s powerful blessings on each of you. In Latin we say, ora pro nobis mutuo (Let us pray for one another). Peace be with you all and safe journey to your respective destinations.