(Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, Nigeria)
Priest, Pastor and Professor: The Story of a Shepherd
"Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin." - Hebrew 5:1.
"The heart is commonly reached not through theory but through the imagination, by means of direct impression, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us." - Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.
If the nineteenth-century English Cardinal and former Fellow of Oriel and Trinity colleges at Oxford University is right, then we might gain quite a lot from the story of The Right Rev. Dr Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, former Vice-Rector of the Pontifical Urbaniana University (Universitas Urbaniana), Rome, and professor of philosophy (1992-date) at that iconic ecclesiastical institute of higher studies who, by today's liturgical ceremonies, succeeds to the See of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, following the effective retirement of its pioneer Bishop, the Most Rev. Dr Francis Emmanuel Ogbonnaya Okobo, on April 13, 2013. Indeed, it is an edifying story that begs to be told; and, in its being told, it is difficult to be modest without lapsing into blatant falsehoods and deliberate understatements.
Godfrey or rather 'Father Goddi' (to family members and to most of the common folk) or 'Pastor' (to school and classmates) was born on 18 August 1956 into the devout but humble Catholic family of Mr. Gabriel and Mrs. Susanna Onah of Imilike-Ani in the Udenu Local Government Area of the Enugu State of Nigeria. He is the second of eight siblings: five males and three females. His Dad is a retired teacher and community leader whose revered status as the oldest man (at 98 years of age) in the entire Imilike community is evident in his honorific of "Enyi Nna-Ogene" (which translates roughly to the Elephant of Imilike). Mama Susanna is a homemaking Mum, an inspiring and energetic women's leader. She and her husband of 60 years are doting grandparents to 17 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.
Early Life and Education
Our new Bishop had humble beginnings. He vividly recalls the experiences of his early years of education in the elementary school through the 1960s when he took some of his classes sitting blissfully with his peers under a mango tree or a cashew tree or, sometimes, an udara tree. Unperturbed and little hampered by such hardships, he coursed through primary school with relative ease, graduating with Distinction in the First School Certificate Examinations in 1970. Today, the Local Authority (L.A) School, Imilike-Ani (now Community Primary School) - where he started, only to be interrupted by the Nigerian civil war (1967-1970), - and St Paul's School Mbanator (now Udunedem Community Primary School) - where he finished up and took his final exams - can both proudly assert a formative role in the life of their famous alumnus.
Vocation, Preparations and Priestly Ordination
The Rt. Rev. Onah does not lay claims to encountering God in the burning bush as Moses did. He certainly was not a tax collector like the apostle Matthew; neither has he recounted an epiphany akin to that of St. Paul. Rather, in the usual working of Providence through the nudging of some inward voice, like the biblical Samuel, he did at some point as a young boy respond to this voice with, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3: 9). In hearkening to this prompting, he enrolled at St. John Cross Seminary, Nsukka on 14 January 1971 fresh from elementary school.
He would go on to complete his junior seminary formation in 1975, obtaining brilliant grades in the West African General Certificate of Education examinations which earned him a one-year apostolate of pupil teaching in his Alma Mater. He taught courses on the History of West Africa and Biology while also coordinating the seminarians' participations in liturgical exercises and co-managing the school's soccer team. He would later qualify as Grade II Referee with the Nigerian Referees' Association.
He studied philosophy at the Philosophy Campus of Bigard Memorial Seminary, Ikot Ekpene (now St Joseph Major Seminary) from 1976 to 1980 and theology at the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, both in Southeastern Nigeria. He obtained the bachelor's degree in both disciplines and in both instances graduated in First Class honours (Summa cum laude probatus). He served as editor-in-chief of The Fountain (1978/79) and The Torch (1982/83) magazines - the signature students' publications of both Major Seminaries respectively. His major pastimes during his years in the Seminary were singing, drama and football refereeing. Godfrey was ordained to the priesthood on 28 July 1984 by the late Bishop Michael U. Eneja at the Holy Ghost Cathedral Enugu, Nigeria. Upon the creation of the Diocese of Nsukka out of Enugu in November 1990, he was incardinated into the new diocese.
Advanced Studies and Specialization. In 1988, Fr. Godfrey enrolled at the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, for postgraduate studies in philosophy. Majoring in philosophical anthropology, he explored the relationship between meaning and healing in Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy for his licentiate which he completed yet again in Summa Cum Laude in 1990. He would explore the complex nature of the human spirit through his doctoral thesis titled, "Self-Transcendence and Human History in Wolfhart Pannenberg". In 1992, he was awarded a PhD in Philosophy, incredibly yet again at the Summa Cum Laude grade, of this university. The nature and the importance of the individual human being were at the core of both investigations. But, these two brilliant works by no means constitute the benchmark for the compelling centrality of the human person, every human person, in the priestly ministry of this scholar clergy.
The human person was similarly central in his academic researches for his honours theses in both philosophy and theology. It is probable that this intellectual fascination with the ideal of personhood was first nurtured in his childhood, shaped principally by family, teachers, mentors and other affirming role models. But, irrespective of origins, an inescapable inference is that by making the study of human nature a lifelong pursuit, Bishop Onah has ingeniously devised a self-sustaining mechanism for the honing of his perspectives on the human person in order to better understand God's relationship with humans. Such an understanding would, without doubt, be an asset in his priestly ministry as it would guide his convictions about the human being's natural openness to God and how this openness influences not only the human response to God's love but also all other forms of human activity and interpersonal relations.
In the course of a nigh 30-year stewardship in the Lord's vineyard in the two continents of Africa and Europe, the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Onah, fluent in several languages, including Igbo, English, French, Italian and German, has performed diverse pastoral duties in rural and urban parishes; Minor and Major Seminaries; universities and the chaplaincies of institutions and of lay apostolate organizations. He has also served on several Church panels. The highlights of his assignments as a priest include:
. Second Vice Rector and Teacher, St. John Cross Seminary, Nsukka, Nigeria, 1984 to 1985;
. Assistant Parish Priest, St. Mary's Catholic Mission, Nimbo, Nigeria, 1985 to 1987;
. Enugu Diocesan Chaplain, Catholic Young Men Organization, Nigeria, 1985 to 1987;
. Philosophy Teacher and Administrative Dean, Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri, Nigeria, 1987 to 1988;
. Pastoral Collaborator, St. Pius X Parish, Rome, Italy, 1993 to 1994;
. Acting Parish Priest and Parish Administrator, St. Anthony of Padua, S. Palomba (Rome), Italy, 1994 to 1997;
. Member, Missionary Team, Center for Missionary Apostolate, Diocese of Albano (Rome), Italy, 1997 to 2000;
. Chaplain, Association of Catholic Professionals, 'MEIC', Diocese of Albano (Rome), Italy, 2000 to 2005;
. Director, Institute for Research on Non-Belief and Cultures, Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, Italy, 2001 to 2007;
. Member, Board of Governors, "Nostra Aetate" Foundation, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City 2002 to 2013;
. Prefect of Studies, Pontifical Urban College ("Collegio Urbano de Propaganda Fide"), Rome, Italy (the prestigious 386-year old Seminary from which the Urbaniana University started), 2003 to 2009;
. Vice Rector, Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, 2008 to 2013 (two terms);
. Consultor, General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City, 2009 to 2013.
Father Godfrey was honoured with the rank of a Chaplain of His Holiness (Monsignor) on 9 May 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. He has participated in four Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops as an 'expert' (peritus). The Synod is an Assembly of Catholic Bishops invited from all over the world to reflect with the Pope and to advise him on important issues related to his teaching and governance of the Universal Church. The experts, through their scholarly researches and reflections, collaborate with the Bishops in this delicate aspect of the Church's work of evangelization. Of note, our Bishop was one of the first seven Consultors (drawn from among the experts) ever to be appointed to the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops on 22 December 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.
University Teacher and Administrator
Quick on the heels of the completion of his doctoral studies in 1992, Father Godfrey joined the faculty of his Alma Mater, the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome, as lecturer in the Faculty of Philosophy. For the past 21 years, he has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophical anthropology, African philosophy, philosophy of religion, history of contemporary philosophy, scientific methodology, history and culture of Medieval Europe, etc, rising gradually to the rank of a full professor. He has also been supervising honours and graduate research thesis at this university. In addition to his teaching and research responsibilities, he has also over the years assumed progressively responsible managerial positions in the university.
These roles have included Director, Institute for Research on Non-belief and Cultures, 2001 to 2007.
He was appointed Vice Rector of this university in 2008, a position he held until his severance from the university in order to assume the leadership of Nsukka Diocese. In addition to the Pontifical Urbaniana University, he has taught in other Catholic Universities and Higher Institutes in Italy. These include the Ateneo Regina Apostolorum, Rome; Pontificia Facoltà di Scienze dell'Educazione, "Auxilium," Rome; and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. He has also taught African Philosophy at the John Carroll University at Vatican City Programme since its inception in the Fall of 2005.
Rev. Professor Onah, an established authority in philosophical anthropology, has explored several dimensions of this discipline as well as its interface with the Gospel message in his many peer-reviewed published works in reputable international journals and other media. He has also discussed these themes to critical acclaim at several international symposia and conferences of learned societies. He has, in fact, attended conferences as an invited speaker in all the continents of the world, including Oceania. His seminal works include:
. Self-Transcendence and Human History in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Lanham (1999);
. Logotherapy and the Philosophy of Man, Vatican City (2000);
. Odoziobodo: Ochichi Maka Ezi Oganihu Ndi Igbo [Good Governance and Development among the Igbo], Owerri, (2003);
. African Philosophy and the Hermeneutics of Culture (edited with Obi J. Oguejiofor), Münster (2005);
. Intellectualism and the Development of a People, Nsukka (2011); as well as chapters in over a score of books.
Ministry's Guiding Principles
Bishop Onah's teaching and research apostolate, characterized as indicated above by the centrality of the human person and man's natural openness to God, has been driven, on the one hand, by the keen desire to put philosophy at the service of the truth of the Gospel of Christ and, on the other, by the desire to remain relevant to his people and Church at home, even while serving the Universal Church in Rome. His teachings, sermons, publications and the consistent conduct of his academic and pastoral assignments bear eloquent testimony to the first desire. Thanks to the repertoire of his published academic and spiritual materials in the public domain, this priest's life, his convictions, his beliefs and methods of engagement are now an open book.
For the second driver of his ministry, the Bishop has made critical reflection on Igbo traditional values and systems part of his academic engagement all these years. In addition, he has also assiduously leveraged the considerable goodwill that he has amassed over the years to impact positively on the lives of the less fortunate members of society irrespective of their creed. The agency of this goodwill is to be thanked for the sinking of a massive borehole which now provides potable water to Imilike-Ani. For the celebration of his priestly Silver Jubilee in 2009, he did not want any personal gifts, but rather asked friends and well-wishers to help him set up a small deposit from which help is offered to struggling families in order to provide some education to their children. It is fair to assume that this modest man - who lived with his students in their hostels - empathizes fully with the yearnings and aspirations of the clergy and faithful now placed in his charge.
The Centrality of the Man.
Much as we are justly proud of the many accomplishments of Bishop Godfrey Onah in the academy and in sundry international fora, it is the man, the living man of flesh and blood that fascinates and warms our hearts: his gait, his smiles, his voice, his jokes, his stories, his comportment, his winsomeness, his empathy, his carriage; his uncommon ability to make common cause with all classes and stations of people, his dislike for pomp and circumstance; and his complete lack of pomposity which is the natural accompaniment of a seasoned and well-cultivated mind that is at home in its own skin; nay - all that go to make him the unique man he is! As a young priest, he was in hot demand across the dioceses of Southeastern Nigeria to preach retreats and on the solemn occasions of the First Masses of newly ordained priests; a repository and raconteur of Igbo folklores and tales which he deftly weaves into his sermons and lectures to illustrate his points.
As gifted orator whose skills and facility with the spoken word is a continual delight to his hearers, he can hold any audience spellbound and riveted by the sheer magic of his words and the beauty of his delivery. As a talented singer, he can sing virtually any piece of music, in any tongue, to the listening delight of all! His penmanship is legendry as friends and correspondents preserve his letters not only for the elegance and grace of their compositions but also for the sheer visual pleasure of his calligraphy.
A teacher's son from rural Nigeria, who survived a brutal war, overcame seeming insurmountable odds to benefit from the best type of faith-imbued education possible and who has engaged the best minds at the highest possible levels globally, has literally seen it all and is certainly unique. Our Bishop's uncommonly broadened world view - gained from a lifetime of daily interactions with all strata of society - places him in excellent stead to shepherd the flock masterfully. The prognosis of a reserved place at the table for every faithful - ranging from the sophisticated intellectual to the simple minded; from the rich to the poor; and from the very powerful to the downtrodden - would be apt. Bishop Onah, class- and needs-blind in matters of faith, is as comfortable ministering to the prince as he is tending to the disenfranchised. Diplomatic, discrete, tactful, compassionate and experienced, he can engage in high minded and intricately nuanced philosophical and theological discourses as easily as he would explain the tenets of our faith to the young catechumen.
Nsukka Diocese mirrors the essence of our world that is rapidly evolving - both for the good and for the less salutary - and therefore certainly needs a pastor that is committed to faithfully furthering the teachings of Holy Mother the Church. A resilient man who abhors half measures, the Bishop's over 40-year membership of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (whose members pledge to abstain totally and for life from all alcoholic drinks) is emblematic not only of moderation in words, thoughts and deeds but, more importantly, of the intrinsic attributes of staying the course and of living the faith.
When, a few days following his appointment as Bishop, a confidant shared with him his fears that he might reject such an appointment if it was made, he easily dismissed his fears in these words: "Although the Holy Father asked my consent before the appointment could be announced, I never considered refusal an option for at least two reasons. First, as an assistant parish priest, I never refused any assignments from my parish priest; when I was teaching in the Seminary, I never rejected any assignments given to me by the Rector; I have never disobeyed my Bishop nor turned down any of his assignments. I wasn't going to start now by saying 'no' to the successor of Peter - the Pope. Secondly, if as a Christian and as a priest I did not believe that God speaks to me through my ecclesiastical superiors, then I would have serious difficulties in discerning the will of God for me."
Considering the foregoing snippets of the profile of this highly accomplished pastor, teacher and leader, it is fair to surmise that the clergy, religious and the laity of Nsukka Diocese understandably may expect an engaging ministry. They can expect - as they richly deserve - in their new Bishop a leader for whom no minutia of a faithful's spiritual needs would be alien. Here then is the new Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, Nigeria: a real Nigerian with nationalist credentials, a global citizen with global affiliations, affections and associations, yet with an authentic and well-honed African ancestry: Godfrey Igwebuike Onah. As he begins his episcopal ministry today, he may make the following words of the iconic Nelson Mandela his own as he seeks to rally his flock:
You are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. It is not just some of us; it's everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Let us rise, as a people, to follow this humble labourer in the Lord's vineyard as he leads us to a refreshing journey of faith. We wish our new Bishop many years of success and abiding joy in his new apostolate.
(Thanks to the united efforts of Fr. Augustine Chikezie Asogwa, Fr. Emeka Ngwoke and Dr. Chikelu Mba)
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