Permit me to begin my presentation with an expression of thanks and appreciation to those who, in one way or another, were responsible for inviting me to this historic event -- the Okigwe Diocesan Priests' Summit -- the first of its kind in the life of the present diocesan administration. Worthy of note here is our bishop, Most Rev. Solomon Amamchukwu Amatu, the Vicar General, Very Rev. Msgr. Patrick Uchendu, the Chancellor and Secretary of the Diocese, Very Rev. Fr. Simon Anyanwu and, of course, the members of the Summit's Organizing Committee. I would be surprised if one or two words of support for my invitation were not given by our bishop-emeritus. Most Rev. Anthony Ilonu, whose record as the pioneer bishop of our diocese cannot be wished away; and so, to him too I express my thanks and appreciation.
One of the recent developments in some dioceses in North America is the spate of incardination into these dioceses by a number of Nigerian priests abroad. And so, talking about incardination, I should say at the outset that I am still a Dominican, and not incardinated into Okigwe diocese. But, one may ask, why am I here for a summit mean* for priests incardinated into Okigwe diocese? And, why am 1 given the platform to possibly disturb' your conscience as I surely intend to do in the course of rm presentation? My answer is simple: I may be an outsider, since I am not incardinated into Okigwe diocese, but I am a special "outsider." I make this claim because I am a bona fide Nwa Afo Okigwe diocese who, like you, is and should be concerned about the welfare of our dear diocese. For, as the saying goes, Anya bewe imi nwa-nne ya ebewe. I would go further to claim that I have an advantage many of you don't have: I stand at the vantage position whereby a very significant number of Ndi Fada Okigwe share with me concerns about the diocese that they would ordinarily not share with you, their colleagues in the diocese. My guess is that these priests have come to trust me enough to know that I have no vested interest or part to play in any power-game, if any, in the diocese, and therefore believe me to be more objectively detached to treat their confidentialities confidential.
My mandate is basically on "Ministry in the Diaspora" as it relates to Okigwe diocese. By this "ministry," I believe the Summit's Organizing Committee means Priestly ministry outside our diocese and abroad. Specifically, I am supposed to focus on North America about which I am more familiar and where many of our priests, like their counterparts in the secular world, are more attracted to go. The thesis for my presentation and the argument behind it favour this ministry. But there is a caveat: ministry abroad, as is currently practiced, calls for a better organization and coordination for it to yield a mutual benefit for both the priests and their home dioceses, in our case, Okigwe diocese.
In this day and age of globalization whereby the world is becoming one big globa- village, a situation has arisen whereby the Western World has the economic resources but not the vocation and Okigwe diocese has the vocation but not the economic means to address its needs, it is in the interest of the diocese to use what it has to get what it wants specifically, to use more creatively the abundance of its priestly personnel to enter into collaborative ministry with needy dioceses abroad towards acquiring the necessary economic resources to build and sustain the development of the diocese. It is my belief that a well organized and coordinated pursuit for ministry in the Diaspora is more economically beneficial and ethically exemplary than the current practice of trying to dine and wine with members of the Nigerian political class for their "blood money" to help the diocese finance its projects. In addition, the ministry could help the dioceses depart from its on-going un-holy over-taxing of our poor and rural population to the poin1 of financial abuse and exploitation of their religious piety. If my presentation chances to step on anybody's toes or disturb your conscience. I ask we do not take it personal as it ;s not intentional or out of malice; if anything, it is done in love and compliance with the Word of God that calls us to a commitment to the truth, and nothing but the truth, that will set us free (Jn. 8:31-32).
The pedigree of Okigwe Diocese
I was barely two years a priest when the Diocese of Okigwe was created, having been carved out of the Diocese of Umuahia in 1980. I was present at the two-fold occasion of the Episcopal ordination of the first Bishop and his formal installation as the chief Shepherd of the diocese. I will never forget the excitement, the fanfare and the great expectations that greeted the new diocese. I particularly recall when the priests of the diocese filled up in line to pay their obeisance to the pioneer Bishop. I took particular note of this for the following reason.
The then Bishop of our mother-diocese, Umuahia, Most Rev. Anthony Gogo Nwedo, to his credit, believed that between human and infrastructural development such as building a cathedral, the former hold the priority and pride of place before the latter And even whatever infrastructural development he undertook at the time had to be related to and in the service of human development. In this regard, he built schools, sent his priests overseas for higher studies. Most of the priests who benefitted from this priority hailed from what later became Okigwe diocese, leading it to have had the largest number of priests with post-graduate studies, when compared to the surrounding dioceses at that time. With this pedigree, it was only fair to say that the diocese started on a solid foundation of highly and well trained human resources, leading many to believe that the sky was the limit for the newly created diocese, its all-rural character notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, ever since the creation of the diocese, no year has passed without generous harvesting, so to speak, of an abundance of priestly vocations. For reason outside the mandate of this paper to explore, the diocese's abundance of priests appear not to have been harnessed to the maximum to serve the common good of all and sundry in the diocese, the clergy and laity alike. How this harnessing could be done, especially the context of the needs and challenges before the diocese is the mandate for this paper.
Past and current attempts to harness the priestly resources in the diocese:
Four discernable attempts are worth noting, namely:
(1) Priests of the diocese were sent on mission to needy dioceses in the country:
(2) There was the creation of "atomized" parishes (the so-called "parishes in building") many of whose pastors lack the necessary experience in pastoral ministry before they assumed such an office;
(3) Establishment of secondary schools many of whose priest-principals, in the mold of the "atomized parishes," lack the necessary experience for such position; and
(4) The apparent tacit or subtle encouragement of priests to take up pastoral or non- pastoral ministry outside of the country, especially in North America.
It is not my intention to discuss the merits or demerits of these attempts. Suffice it to say this much, the past and current attempts, at best, collectively address the symptom and not the real problem, namely: how best do we harness the abundance of highly talented and resourceful priestly personnel in our diocese. The attempts, among other things, have not yielded the necessary economic benefits to either develop or sustain Okigwe diocese. If anything, in their current forms and shapes, the attempts have given birth to what I call a "motor-park-tout" or "agbata ekee" mentality and approach to priestly ministry in the diocese and beyond. The veracity of this assertion will be teased out in what follows.
Ministry in the Diaspora: its past and current form and image
It is generally believed that the majority of foreign priests in Europe and North America are "free-lancing." By "free lance" I mean the idea of "a worker who sells his labour or his product on a piece-work basis" or the idea of "one who speaks or acts solely on his own authority." If the truth must be told, at least speaking from the North American context with which I am quite familiar, the highest number of these "freelancing" priests, especially in the USA, are Nigerians; and a significant majority of these are from Okigwe diocese. A growing number of the free-lancing priests are often engaged in jobs that, to say the least, are debasing of the priesthood, jobs which they would be ashamed to do in their home countries. Worth noting here, for instance, are priests who are engaged in real estate business (buying and selling of homes), in car/vehicle dealerships, in driving Taxis and even Trucks (Trailers in Nigeria). Add to this scenario priests who, for all practical purposes, have abandoned their celibate calling to live with women who are better described as their concubines. Meanwhile, these priests, I am reliably told, return to their home dioceses to still carry on as priests for the duration of their home visit. And collectively, with their monetary acquisition, they build themselves and/or for their families homes that compete in style and size with their "419" counterparts, to use the Nigerian parlance. I leave you to choose whether this is the image you want to be associated with, especially in this day and age in our country when religion or, better, priest-craft has become a major avenue for quick and unethical acquisition of wealth.
For avoidance of doubts, I am not saying that all priests abroad fall into the kind of free-lancing ministry just noted. Far from it! If anything, most of the priests are engaged in ministries that are becoming of the priesthood. It is the few bad eggs, so to speak, that give others bad name and image, thus reminding one of the saying: Ndi Mechanic ekweghi anyi mara ndi wu ndi ara.
This clarification notwithstanding, the fact still remains - and I stand to be corrected-free-lancing priests in the Diaspora, the good and bad alike, essentially and primarily work overseas largely on the basis of their private arrangement with the overseas dioceses or bishops. But one may counter: the priests have their home bishop's letter of reference and permission to show before they are employed by the overseas dioceses. True! But, I am reliably told that many priests either know some of their colleagues who have the ear of their bishops or have so mastered the psychology of their bishops that they know how and when best to secure from them the needed permission and reference letters. Some priests, I am also reliably told, trick their bishops into granting them permission for an overseas vacation only, on reaching there, to turn the vacation into wanting a permanent stay or simply refusing to come back. I would like to believe that these pieces of information are not true. Be that as it may, however, the fact of the matter is this: it is doubtful if a significant majority of the priests abroad, both in the past and the present, ministered with any contractual relationship between their home dioceses and the dioceses in the Diaspora, or between the priests' home bishops and the bishops abroad.
Implications and consequences of non-coordinated/organized ministry abroad
These are better imagined than experienced. One such implication and consequence is the fact that majority of our priests are treated as objects whose usefulness is terminated at the least provocation. What is more, a priest in this kind of relationship has little or no rights so much so that even when he is abused or victimized by those for and with whom he works, he is not in the position to successfully demand his rights Worst, even if all is well between the priest and the diocese abroad, there is little or no economic benefit that accrues to the home diocese: at best whatever economic benefit that comes to the diocese is more or less left to the whims and caprices or, better, to the determination and good will of the priest. If you ask me, this has the potential to breed and encourage favoritism, nepotism, greed, selfishness, individualism and, what is more irresponsible manner of ecclesiastical governance.
The preceding state of affairs is not different from what obtains at the home front It seems the creative acumen of our priests is at its best when it about how to squeeze out money from our people. A case in point is the bastardization and commercialization into which we have turned the "ezinne" celebration - an otherwise meaningful and wise pastoral idea. Recall the agbata ekee or the motor-park-tout mentality I had mentioned earlier. I recall our JDPC observation in Okigwe diocese during the country's 2003 General Elections; how some priests had no qualms and shame in descending so low as to become errand boys for the members of the political class. Worth noting were three priests of Okigwe diocese who, at the time, came to a gathering of priests of the diocese with Ghana-Must-Go-Bags of money from certain politicians and were distributing same to some equally shameless, willing and receptive priests of the diocese! Is it true that the same thing happened during the 2007 General Elections and that plans to continue the same in the 2011 Elections are already on a high gear? Add to this state of affairs its inherent poverty of priestly spirituality; one then begins to see the urgency for a corrective measure for the image and common good of both the clergy and diocese.
What must we do brothers? (Acts 2:37)
Without pretending to be exhaustive on a number of measures the diocese can take, I suggest the following theoretical, practical, mandatory and harnessing actions.
(1). There is need for a solid spirituality of who we are as priests and it- corresponding pastoral expectations. Here, the following words of wisdom of the Saint from Hippo, St. Augustine, while commenting on Jesus' question to Peter, "Do you love me" are worth our notification:
The shepherds of Christ's flock must never indulge in self-love; if they do they will be tending the sheep not as Christ's but as their own. And of all vices this is the one that the shepherds must guard against most earnestly: seeking their own purposes instead of Christ's, furthering their own desires by means of those persons for whom Christ shed his blood.1
The love for money and the creativity and zeal with which many of us extort it from our people in the name of pastoral ministry makes one wonder where our first love is: in our people's material and spiritual welfare or, as Augustine would say, in furthering our own desire? Now, listen to what the Sovereign Lord is saying to such priests and, indeed, to all of us: "You are doomed, you shepherds of Israel! You take care of yourselves, but never tend the sheep" (Ez 34:1-4).
(2). There is need for a genuine commitment to the diocese. More often than not we all are quick--am not sure of proud--to claim to be priests incardinated into Okigwe diocese. However, the genuineness of this claim and our commitment to it must be evidenced and seen in action, especially in our preparedness and willingness to endure deprivations, yes, to sacrifice our comfort zone if only for the common good of all and sundry in the diocese, clergy and laity alike. Our Bishop is no exception.
(3). We need to have a clear knowledge of who are the priests of the diocese The rationale here is that we cannot do a meaningful harnessing if and when we do not have the correct census of the priests of the diocese. As things stands right now, and I stand to be collected, we have men who may have been ordained for Okigwe diocese but for reasons best known to them have either chosen not to be so identified or have actually taken to a totally different way of life that is far from being that of the priesthood. To this effect, a circular need to be passed requesting everyone who calls himself a priest of Okigwe diocese outside to register his name, contact address, what (with concrete proof) he is presently doing, his plans for the fixture both for himself and for the development of the diocese. To put it bluntly, the diocese or, better, the Bishop should have an up- to-date data of and on the priests of the diocese.
(4) There is need for an administrative division of the missions abroad Flowing out of the preceding suggestion is the need to divide the missions abroad into regions for administrative convenience. This should be backed up with periodic zonal or regional visits to the priests abroad, either by the bishop or his delegate. For avoidance of doubts, such visits are NOT for monetary collection from the priests. Far from it! Rather the visits are essentially and primarily pastoral and fraternal. They signify a sense of care on the part of the bishop towards his priests and thus foster solidarity between him and the priests. In addition, the visits will also give the bishop or through his delegate the needed opportunity to know first-hand the concerns (if any) of the priests and thus meet the leadership of the diocese in the diaspora on those concerns, if necessary. Needless to say, such visits and meetings will register to the leadership of the diocese where our priests are working the high regards Okigwe diocese places on its priests as well as surely rub off on how the dioceses treat our priests, knowing that they have the ecclesiastical weight of their home diocese behind them. As our people would say: Ugwu Nwanyi nwere ebe ndi Di ya bu Umunne ya
(5). There is need for utmost transparency and accountability in governance. To begin with, every member of the clergy is accountable to some higher authority. With reference to diocesan priests, it is their diocese, given that no priest, diocesan and religious alike, was financially responsible for his seminary formation. Such a responsibility, in the case of the diocesan priest, rested with the diocese. As such, the diocese-note, I did not say the bishop-has the right over the priest's earnings in the course of his pastoral ministry. Be he in a parish or in a non-church-related position, both at home and abroad, he must, as a matter of responsibility, justice and clear conscience, make certain financial returns to the diocese! So too is transparency and accountability expected and indeed required of the diocesan leadership, given that leadership by example attracts emulation, implying that the leadership of the diocese would set the tone, so to speak, for the priests of the diocese to follow. As the saying goes: O&vu ejh i Nnabe gwoo aghaghi ishi aghugho aghugho, implying that - mafacta ma nna anyi ufovu bishop — must be transparent, united, above board and with no hidden agenda, in our decisions and actions. Here, the priests of the diocese doff their hat to our bishop for doing what was never done before him: he has been giving an annual financial account and demands parishes to open accounts for the parish and rectory which he reviews on his canonical parish visitation. Bishop, I also doff my hat! Please keep it up!!
(6) There is an urgent need for a contractual relationship.
Here I mean having a contract with dioceses, both at home (Nigeria) and abroad, where priests of Okigwe diocese are currently or will later be working. This same contractual relationship should be applicable to those priests of Okigwe diocese who are engaged in non-church-related ministries and jobs either in overseas or even here at home. The bishop or his vicars must be ready to travel in order to enter into such contractual relationship with the bishops and institutions abroad. The relationship must be entered into on the basis of a collaborative spirit towards addressing mutual needs and benefits - a kind of you-help-us-and-we-help-you understanding. It is up to the diocese to determine what and what, in its own interest, goes into the contract. But I would imagine that it could include monetary remuneration to Okigwe diocese or remuneration in the form of the receiving dioceses sponsoring the further studies of our priests after a certain number of years of ministry in the diocese abroad. As for the priests in non-church/diocese- related ministries or job, both at home and abroad, a certain percentage of their earnings, determined by a non-partisan committee of trusted and respected financial experts and without prejudice to possible canonical requirements, must come to the diocese.
A contractual relation has a lot of benefits. First, it engenders trust, concord and respect for the rule of law. When everyone knows what he is supposed to do and goes about doing it, it makes for peace and good will. Second, for those priests on mission, either in the country or overseas, a contractual relationship guarantees them a large measure of respect and dignity in the diocese where they are working. I know from experience that priests whose ministry is on the basis of a contractual relationship between their home diocese and the receiving diocese usually are protected by the might of their home dioceses; they are on a firmer ground to demand and receive their rights: they are treated far better by the receiving dioceses than would be their free-lancing counterparts who are often perceived as if they are a liability in and from their home dioceses.
(7) Okigwe diocese and its bishop have the responsibility to send and cater for the educational furtherance of their priests. With reference to Okigwe diocesan priests who are studying abroad, there are some of them who have no-study-scholarships. Sometimes, some of these priests cannot single-handedly secure the necessary- sponsorship to finance their studies. In such difficult and upheaval situations, they are compelled to borrow some money to self-sponsor their studies. An end-result is that such priests will spend more years overseas, as they are obliged to work hard and earn some money, to pay off their loans, leading some falling into the temptation of becoming individualistic, selfish and quite unprepared to have their gifts and talents harnessed for the common weal.
(8). There is need for job creation or openings for the returning priests.
It is an obvious sign of maladministration for an institution - be it secular or ecclesiastical - not to know how to use its human resources for maximum productivity and efficiency. Okigwe diocese is no exception to this use. In this regard, a situation where a priest returns from studies or mission abroad and has no placement in the diocese or has his expertise underutilized tends to keep some priests from returning. Corollary to this, a priest who calls himself an expert, say, by way of academic acquisition, should be able to know and to suggest in writing how best his expertise can be put into use by the diocese Thus, in this regard, a situation where a priests goes for or is allowed to acquire an academic degree just for the sake of the title is a waste of time, money and a poverty of human resource management.
(9). The need for a non-discriminatory welfare policy for the clergy of the diocese. I must be cautious here, recognizing that I am a Religious speaking to Diocesan priests. Be that as it may, however, we need to lean one or two things from business management. My friends in Corporate business tell me a major hallmark for its success is to have an attractive welfare policy package for the workers. Treat them well, they give their utmost loyalty. Deny them such treatment, an enabling environment is created for them to steal, do unethical things and soon run down the business.
Brought to bear on our topic, I recall a number of our priests tell me that in the past, the diocese seem to have been run as a clan, town, family and private property (in that order). Faced with this situation, one priest told me, "I kind of ran into the bush to hide for safety." He welcomed the appointment of our present bishop with the following remark: "I will give him the benefit of the doubt and gradually come out of my hiding; however, if he carries on like his predecessor, I will return to my hiding place and even run deeper into the bush." As one can imagine, the talents of this priest, and many others like him in the diocese, can only be harnessed if the enabling environment that is all inclusive, non-discriminatory, and exercised on a level-playing ground is created, especially with regards to the welfare of the clergy of the diocese.
On the preceding note one calls attention to the practice across the country of bishops building retirement homes for themselves with little or no such provision for their priests. This sort of practice militates against a successful harnessing of human resources in any diocese, Okigwe diocese inclusive. I have heard a number of our priests say that the need for a retirement home for priests in Okigwe diocese is long overdue. They may or may not be right. But it would appear that these priests strongly place such a provision as a priority over a zealousness in either starting to build or finishing the building of a new Cathedral. On my part, I am inclined to believe that the provision of a just welfare for the clergy -- bishop and priests alike -- would go a long way to curb the practice of our priests investing their energy and/or resources that should have ordinarily come to the diocese into their private and family benefits that often, on their death, becomes a major source of division in their family.
It's time to conclude, beginning with the following two lived- experiences/accounts. In one Canadian diocese that I used to know, there are a number of Ghanian diocesan priests one of whom is a lawyer by profession. On being called by his bishop to proceed on mission to Canada, he expressed his openness to the assignment if that will benefit his diocese, and if there is a contract between his diocese and the Canadian diocese. With a copy of the contract in his hand, he came to Canada. Today, he believes that whatever difficulties he is currently experiencing in Canada -- one of which is the severe Canadian winter and its attendant frigid cold -- he is enduring them for and on behalf of the common good of his home diocese. While this priest is working in the parish, two of his brother-priests of his diocese are doing their post-graduate studies for which the Canadian diocese is financially responsible. The lawyer-priest is happy that his service in Canada is making it possible for the Canadian diocese to sponsor two brother- priests for his home diocese.
Compare the preceding lived experience with that of another diocesan priest -- from a diocese in Nigeria. According to his story, he was simply asked by his Bishop to go to Canada (the same Canadian diocese) on mission. After three-year ministry in the diocese, he got admission for post-graduate studies. On his approaching the Canadian diocese for financial sponsorship, believing that the diocese will extend to him the same treatment as was given to his Ghanian counterparts, his request was simply refused. He was told that the understanding between the Canadian diocese and his bishop - an understanding which the Canadian diocese claims to have been faithfully honouring - neither specifies nor include sponsorship for his further studies. On reaching his home bishop to share his experience he was scolded, according to him, by his bishop and reminded that he should be grateful to have been sent on an overseas mission. Presently this priest is literarily living from hand-to-mouth as he tries to sponsor himself while at the same time trying to satisfy his home bishop's commitment to the Canadian diocese. Needless to say, he is bitter, not with the Canadian diocese or its bishop but with his own bishop. Only God knows what he will do after his studies; and should he decide to return home, I say, Good Luck to his bishop!!
The preceding note brings me to my concluding remarks. Yes, while it is wise to engage in ministry abroad, it calls for a well organized, coordinated programme of harnessing our human resources both abroad and at home. To be more specific: whether it is with the dioceses abroad or with priests engaged in non-church-related ministry or jobs both at home and abroad, one fact is loud and clear: there is the urgent need to have some kind of contractual relationship that ultimately should serve the interest of Okigwe diocese. The current situation whereby priests enter into a privately arranged working relationship between them and dioceses abroad is not only administratively irresponsible but also counterproductive to the economic benefits of the diocese. And what is worse: it is detrimental to the spiritual well-being of our priests; this is because, among other vices, it encourages individualism -- the most dangerous cankerworm to holiness -- and therefore widens the road to Hell. It is our mutual responsibility not encourage spiritual suicide, but rather create the enabling environment for all of our people, priests and bishops included, to go to Heaven. For as the Bible warns us: what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul! (Matt. 16:24-26).
In other words, for the program of harnessing our human resources to succeed, for it not to be "the more you look, the less you see" -- you remember the game of "copy- copy" we used to play as children? -- there is need on the part of all of us, bishop and priests alike, for an unequivocal commitment rooted in attentiveness to discipline, honesty, transparency and accountability. Recall my earlier proverb: Ogwu ejiri Nnabe shie aghaghi ishi aghugho aghugho. And so, if we really love our diocese, if we really want it to overcome its long drawn underdevelopment, then there should be no beating about the bush, no playing to the gallery! The lack of discipline, the abuse of office/privilege that has lingered on for so many years among us in the diocese both at home and abroad, ma fada ma bishop, is a very SERIOUS sickness that demands urgent and serious attention! Igbo n 'ekwu si: Anu gbaa ajo oso, agbiriya ajo egbe. And as one friend of mine, a layman, used to say to me: "Fada, serious sickness demands and only understands serious injection." For us and for Okigwe diocese, the time for this serious injection, so to speak, is NOW!! Umu nnem, ekwuchalam, eserelem onu-m. Atuora omara, ya mara, atuora ofeke yafere fefuo. Udo diri unu, dikwara diocese Okigwe! Mma mmanu!!