By Val Obienyem
I wrote this article on the 13th of February, but unlike me I noticed the reluctance to publish it. I have the feeling that it might be misunderstood. What do I do? I am increasingly persuaded that I have a message to pass and therefore have decided to go on.
Please, may readers treat the article and myself with understanding leniency. However, let me forewarn readers not to listen to mischief makers that will do away with the message of the article by misleading the public to believe it to be an audacious attack on the clergy, which is farthest from the spirit of this piece. They will, in conclusion, describe the article as at best a brave stupidity.
Now, here we go
When you compare what life was many years ago to what it is today, the truth in Heraclitus philosophy is made manifest. In his apogee, he said: panta rei [all things change].
However, time changes, there are certain norms and values that are expected to remain immutable like the laws of the Medes and Persians. This should be so for the moral and spiritual well-being of our society. Alas, in our contemporary society everything seems to have been subjected to the omnipotence of change. This is exactly the "relativity of morals", which St. Pope John Paul II wrote against.
Priests, for instance, are expected to cherish and live lives of voluntary poverty. Rather than implying starvation, it means they should not give primacy to the things of the world, which pass away [sic transit Gloria Mundi). But not anymore among some of them, negligible though! Today, amidst many clergy dutifully following the ethics of Christ, attracting our attention due to their spiritual magnetism and all the positive attributes one can think of, some of them scramble with the laity for the good things of life – the good not understood in the sense of objective reality. I would not say more for the fear of being accused of tossing my ink carelessly against His anointed – brave stupidity!
Gone are the days priests happily drove their ‘Beetles’ [Volkswagen cars]. This is not saying they should, to demonstrate that poverty, start riding camels, but somehow, we embarrassingly notice that some (many are still immune from this worldly disposition) of them compete with one another on whose car should be more exotic as if they no longer appreciate their priestly calls. Whenever people like me see priests given to such inclinations, it reduces their worth in our estimation
I have visited the homes of some of the Catholic and Anglican Bishops in Anambra State. Amongst them, those of Bishops Paulinus Ezeokafor of Awka (Catholic), Hilary Okeke of Nnewi, who lives in a community building (Catholic), Bishop Ikeakor of Amichi (the Anglican bishop that is more concerned with evangelism than other pursuits) and that of Bishop Ekwe of Niger West (Anglican, perhaps used to military asceticism) represent the simplicity of a priest.
These highly-placed clergy men may not know how lovingly we look to them for inspiration. It is not good when some of them by their acts and omission fed scorpions to those who come to them for bread. You cannot imagine how I feel each time I visit the Anglican Bishop of Mbamili, Dr. Henry Okeke. Amidst the backwardness of his Diocese and living in rural Umuikwu Anam (inaccessible in rainy season), he happily and dutifully does the work of God, always seeking ways to ameliorate the suffering of his people.
On the contrary, others’ residences seem to reflect a rat-race against worldly potentates and Princes for more imposing and lavishly-furnished edifices.
Indeed, by their feeding habits, some clergymen convey the despairing impression that they expect to die tomorrow even as their palatial homes is indicative of their desire to live forever. Should I say that they eat luccllarily and what do I mean by that?
Cicero tried once to find out how Lucullus ate when alone. He asked Lucullus to invite him and some friends to dinner that evening, with the plea that he should not send warning to his servants. Lucullus agreed, merely stipulating that he be allowed to notify his staff that he would eat in the “Apollo Room” that evening. When Cicero and the rest came, they found a lavish repast. Lucullus had several dining rooms in his city palace, each selected according to the splendour of the feast. Apollo Room was reserved for meals costing over the equivalent of our three hundred thousand Naira. By a strange verbal odyssey that characterize philology, to feed one “lucullarily” entered our vocabulary. It is now out of use.
The sobering reality is that with the kind of job they do and their vows, especially those of Catholic priests, opulence places of residence should be furthest in their thoughts and should, in fact, not be to their tastes.
I have not included the Pentecostals in this piece, because I am yet to fathom what they serve -- God or Mammon. Founding Churches with reckless abandon can never be counted as apostolic triumph or God at work. Even as some people will caution me against judging others as the Holy Writ tells us, it is one of the most misunderstood passages of the Bible. The spirit of that chapter merely cautions us against rash judgements. A little exegesis will aid our understanding of this. Even at this stage, people like me still believe that essential truths are contained in the "extra Ecclesia...." doctrine.
Having mingled extensively with priests across Anambra State, I appreciate the efforts of the Catholic Bishop of Awka, Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor, he has been identifying the ills in our society and attacking them head-on. A close observation throws him up as a man of polished manners, comprehensiveness of understanding, independence of principle, that would have stamped him a gentleman in any profession. His new crusade - apostolate directed against extravagance funerals – is geared towards restoring our humanity.
A few years ago, our people started re-defining the meaning of burials and mourning even when their names have already defined their very essence. Today, burials in Igboland rival such elaborate festivals as Ofala in opulence; always characterized by Epicurean indulgence. Our people have taken such events as showcases for their material prosperity thereby laying obligations that are numerous and burdensome on the people. Even the culture of ashibi has been elevated through burials; through it the seepage of that Yoruba custom into our clime is real and complete. It has become part of burial ceremonies to see many dance groups begging money under the guise of escorting those they see as VIPs.
The other day – 11th of February, 2017 -- we buried our Uncle, Mr. Albert Obienyem. I had requested a Revd. Fr. with Fides Press, Awka, to print the Order of Mass and posters for us, without any tribute or pictures of him even as a toddler. The production of 100 copies cost us less than N5,000. We declined printing invitation cards, but opted to write to individuals & organizations that required official notification, including my uncle’s colleagues and employer. When I went to collect the printed work, the Revd. Fr. commended our simplicity. I was glad; having adopted the same approach for my late father in 2008. Our discussions pointed to the steadily growing impact of Bishop Ezeokafor's new crusade on the need to reduce the cost of burials. In fact, the Revd. Fr. also informed me that the Bishop had already banned Awka Diocesan clergy from eating whenever they attend burials. Such was my excitement that I urged him to encourage his colleagues of like mind to propose to the Bishop to mobilize Traditional rulers and Presidents-General of town unions to reduce burials to one-day programme and discourage the cooking of food at such events. Funerals must be returned to their primary character of mourning & sober reflections; and not platforms to inflict unnecessary costs on the bereaved.
Have you felt embarrassed watching people struggling over food and drinks at the burials of people who died in the amplitude of their lives? If we must eat, why don't we leave it to people that died at very old ages – in the popular style of ‘Celebration of Life’?
There are many other practices in funerals that defy logic and should be discouraged. What is the rationale for giving out souvenirs during funerals? There is also the vexing issue of expensive freighting of the remains of those that die abroad as if their interment in their hometowns would make any real difference. No be the same ground? as we would say in local parlance. We must review the cost of burials in Igboland and save our people the embarrassment of indebtedness or disposing of their assets for what is mischievously tagged ‘befitting burial."
I still recall the 50th episcopal anniversary of Francis Cardinal Arinze. Who is who in Nigeria fell on one another crafting florid congratulatory messages. In spite being an event that called for celebration, the old and alert Cardinal only had a small order of mass containing just one congratulatory letter - that of the Pope. His Eminence, by that action, passed ennobling message to the people.
Oh yes, we buried Uncle Albert successfully. Many of my friends were neither informed nor invited simply because it was not a celebration and there were enough persons around to undertake the burial.
Bishop Ezeokafor always admonishes us that the money we spend during burials should have been expended on the deceased when they were alive; or invested in the living for the greater benefit of society. The typical amount the rich spend on burials can renovate several primary schools, which are enduring legacies.
Our people must learn to set the right priorities for themselves. I recall that when I wedded in 2006, I was already in government but I opted for what our people call ‘Morning Mass Wedding’. I did not print invitation cards or reception programmes. I took care of the return fares of my mother and mother-in-law, and informed the rest of my family that anyone who could pay their way was welcome.
I did not have a ‘Best Man’ on my wedding day. There was no convoy as I simply moved from my residence to the road, and took a taxi to the Church. My dear wife and I returned to our home the same route. Even when the ‘scandalized’ officiating priest inquired about arrangements for the Choir, I told him that the available guests (congregation) could sing. One of the things that gladdened my heart was the series of text messages I received from many young men, commending me for showing them ‘the way’ – that it was possible to have a wedding with a small budget.
In 2008, I was away in Lagos when I was informed my father had died. Knowing our disposition to such, the people at home took the remains to the mortuary before informing my elder brother and I. I returned to our village the next day and after discussions with my elder brother, we went to the mortuary the same day to get the remains for burial; preparatory to the relevant rites. My father died peacefully in his home, and we did not see any point in keeping his remains in the mortuary. That could be for those whose corpses are in transit.
We must stop unleashing hardship on ourselves because we want to do what others do, without a moment’s reflection on their appropriateness or otherwise.
We need to support the present crusade of the Bishop of Awka. Indeed, we urge him to take the issue to the Catholic Bishops Conference so that our religious leaders should adopt a common front on a sobering event that has been turned into an unwholesome waste and abuse.