Celebrating Cardinal Onaiyekan at 75, By Bernard Balogun

Posted by News Express | 1 February 2019 | 1,821 times

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•John Cardinal Onaiyekan

I am inclined to guess it was in 1969, around August, in the heat of the Nigerian Civil War, when John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan was ordained (a reverend father) in Kabba, by Bishop Auguste Delisle, pioneer Bishop of Lokoja Diocese. As an Altar Boy then, I was among other Altar Boys chosen by the Rev Fr Gerard Fournier, a Canadian, who was the Parish Priest of Immaculate Conception Church, Lokoja, to go and witness the ordination of a new priest in Kabba.

We, the altar boys, did not know the name of the new priest-to-be. All we knew was that he was a light-skinned, handsome man with a round-face, and very brilliant. However, my mother did not allow me to attend the ordination because I had just returned from a 10-day trip with Fr Fournier to Okene, Ogori and Kabba. On my return, mother insisted I must cover for lost house chores, during the period of absence.

Not long after his ordination, Rev Fr John Onaiyekan (as he was then known), the newly ordained priest, came to Lokoja to visit a relation at the Marine Market by IWD dockyard. So, most Catholics around there, especially those of Kabba extraction, surrounded to congratulate him. As an Altar Boy, I approached where he stood: he came over to me and tapped my forehead. Wow! I flew back to mother’s shop and recapped my encounter with the newly-ordained priest. I still THINK this must be in 1969.

In those days, there were few indigenous priests and, of course, his ordination increased the fold by one. Those before him were: Rev Fathers Alexius Makozi (as he was then known), Joseph Ohieku (who served in the Nigerian Army during the unfortunate civil war as a chaplain), Lawrence Mofolorunsho, Onotu Joachim and Joseph Sunday Ajomo, who was ordained in 1964. The other priests were mainly Canadians.

Of course, there were two other priests from Igala land then. It is important, I add that Fr Alexius Makozi was elevated to Bishop of Lokoja Diocese in 1971, to succeed Bishop Augustine Delisle (a Canadian), who was retiring, due to age. Later around 1991 or so, Bishop Makozi was posted to Port Harcourt Diocese, and Fr Ajomo, (as he was then known, was the Rector of St Augustine’s Major Seminary, Jos, before his elevation as a Bishop). Fr Ajomo, an Ogori man, later succeeded Bishop Makozi, an Ebira man, as the Diocesan Bishop of Lokoja.

By 1971, Fr John Onaiyekan, as he was then known, left Lokoja as the Rector of St Clement Seminary, Lokoja, for further studies in the Vatican. I, and few Altar Boys, had the privilege of carrying his big-box on our heads into the waiting Peugeot 403 Pick-up without a tarpaulin. At that time, St Clement Minor Seminary, Lokoja, occupied the present location of Bishop Delisle Secondary School.

However, in 1979 or so, the diocese lost Fr Joseph Mofolorunsho (a Kabba man) to death and Fr Joachim Onotu (an Ebira man) in 1986 or so.

By 1978, I had relocated to Ibadan, from Lokoja, in furtherance of my education and work. However, by divine plan, Fr Onaiyekan surfaced in Ibadan as Rector of SS Peter & Paul Major Seminary, on Secretariat Road, Bodija. This was around 1985 or so. One thing I know of the cardinal is his ability to recall events and faces so effortlessly. I was pleasantly surprised, after many years, he sharply said to me:

“Balogun, what are you doing here,” in my native Ebira language.

“I am now in Ibadan,” I replied.

It became part of me to attend Mass at Bodija, instead of St Gabriel’s Catholic Church at Liberty Junction in Oke-Ado, Ibadan, since I was resident around College Crescent area. Naturally, St Gabriel’s Catholic Church, Oke-Ado, ought to be my worshipping parish, but sentiment took control of me and so Bodija became my worshipping parish, a distance of about 15-kilometres. After Mass I always tried to pay him my respects. That was the situation until one evening when it was reported on NTA-Ibadan (View & Report Belt), that the Rector of SS Peter & Paul Major Seminary has been appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Ilorin. That was the news. But in reality, he was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Ilorin Diocese. (It is important to define the two: ‘Co-adjutor bishop and auxiliary bishop.’ A co-adjutor bishop has right to succession, while the auxiliary bishop does not have the right to succession).

Onaiyekan has remained consistent over the years, despite his current Olympian height within the fold of the universal Church. As a reverend father, he was very humble and respectful. But, do not take his simplicity for granted. He cherishes, honours and respects friends, irrespective of class. He does not allow the Olympian status of his office to overwhelm him. As a bishop, archbishop and now cardinal, he has remained same in humility, simple in his taste, unassuming and never looked down on any person, no matter the person’s status in life. A highly detribalised man, the Cardinal is a good listener, and he gives everyone the opportunity to air his or her opinion. No wonder during his tenure as National President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the association enjoyed relative peace, harmony, progress and mutual respect; not just among its fold but, indeed, among the Muslim community. He is very humorous too!

In a nutshell, John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan is, indeed, an embodiment of discipline, with sound leadership qualities: a pride to the Catholic Church.

In conclusion, Onaiyekan’s ascension as the Archbishop of Abuja, the Archdiocese has grown exponentially in parishes, and the numerical strength of the priests have also grown, and still growing.

It is necessary to quickly add that the man of the moment is a linguist: He speaks and celebrates Mass fluently, in Latin, French, Portuguese and Yoruba. His homily is uniquely different: he brings in local experience to buttress the spiritual angle, for better understanding, which makes his reflection quite profound and arresting.

Finally, just as Bishop Delisle ordained John Onaiyekan in August 1969, so also did the Cardinal ordain Rev Fathers Lawrence Balogun an Jude Ododo, both of Lokoja Diocese, in December 1990, in Okene, Kogi State.

The story of the Archdiocese of Abuja will be incomplete without mentioning the current Bishop of Sokoto Diocese – who held fort as the Bishop’s Representative on the demise of Dominic Cardinal Ekandem – Very Rev Fr Hassan Matthew Kukah (as he was then known) actually handed over the Archdiocese to Onaiyekan. That significant dimension should reflect in this narrative on an occasion such as this. It is, therefore, important to recognise and appreciate his significant contribution to the growth of the archdiocese.

As you celebrate your 75 years, Your Eminence, I join millions of Catholic faithful of Abuja Archdiocese and elsewhere to rejoice and wish you God’s continued blessings, good health and wisdom in His vineyard.

Makuu pataki adai.

Congratulations!

Balogun (BenPino) writes from Wuse District, Abuja; he could be reach on 08037872456, bernardbalogun1@yahoo.com


Source: News Express

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