On behalf of all of us in the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja I have the distinct pleasure and honour to heartily welcome you, the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria and all other invited guests, to Abuja and to this Holy Mass marking the beginning of the first plenary of CBCN in 2020,
The people of God in Abuja Archdiocese happily join the Catholic Bishops in thanksgiving to God for the gift of the Church and we are delighted to pray together for more spiritual health, further pastoral growth for the salvation of souls and for the progress of our beloved nation, Nigeria.
The first day of our plenary has coincided, by divine arrangement, with the first Sunday in Len In our first reading, the biblical writer in Genesis chapter two narrates how the heavens and the earth were created and how our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed by God at the start of human history.
The author of Genesis emphasizes two fundamental facts: 1) all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and 2) human beings are required to live in a harmonious community, respecting the order and dignity of creation as designed by God.
According to the biblical narrative, God created Adam first and when he saw that Adam needed a companion God made a suitable help mate for him by forming Eve from the ribs of Adam. They were a happy couple until the crafty serpent turned the woman and through her, the man, against God. The devil taught them to say “no” to God, i.e. to disobey God. The devil is an expert in this.
He broke the communion between our first parents and God by urging them to eat of the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden them to eat. We are not concerned here with opinions expressed by biblical commentators on the historicity or the nature of the forbidden fruit, but about the fact that an otherwise good relationship with God was ruptured or damaged by the sin of disobedience. Man abused the freedom of Paradise, thus initiating a sinful community apart from God.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve not only destroyed their good relationship with God but also wounded their relationship with each other, which explains why there is today in the world so much unbelievable and atrocious demonstration of inhumanity and a terrible deficiency of charity. Even the physical environment sadly has been affected because of man’s disobedience to God. Pope Francis worries in Laudato Si, about the degrading of the environment such as deforestation, use of chemicals harmful to the soil, pollution and ultimately the violation of human life which is sacred.
The disastrous consequences of the sin of our first parents, which has affected all human beings, according to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, has been remedied by the coming, death and resurrection of Christ whose obedience to the will of God brought us grace, life and righteousness. The good news now is that no matter how great our sin may be, grace can neutralize its effects.
We have the opportunity in this season of Lent to soberly examine our lives and to mend them by saying a categorical “yes” to God. To achieve this we must put on our spiritual armour to battle, like Jesus did in the desert, the evil one who with impunity tempts us to violate God’s orders. He poisons our cordial relationship with God; destabilizes our common humanity by creating tension and conflict and making us less sensitive to the sacredness of life and so, we are prepared to fight, kidnap, kill, and do abominable things to one another.
We must acquire the moral strength and spiritual capacity to repel the forces of the evil one and his agents through the word of God. Happily, the theme of the CBCN conference this year is “The Word of God: A Lamp to my Feet and a Light to my Path”. This is in line with Pope Francis establishing the Sunday of the Word of God, devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the Word of God.
As we embark on this Lenten spiritual journey of forty days, the desired results expected will be a growing in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ; succeeding in what St. John of the Cross refers to as progress from purgation to enlightenment and then to union with God. Another sign of success will be the practise of pure unspoiled religion which in James 1:27 is described as “coming to the help of orphans and widows … and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”
Both the first and second readings today speak of temptation. In the Gospel, Satan tempted Jesus to use his spiritual powers to meet his personal needs. In another temptation the Devil wanted Jesus to put on a sensational display of power by working a miracle and also to use political power to achieve his personal ends.
Temptations are still very much with us when preachers constitute themselves into a personality cult or some to political idolatry whereby they worship those in authority.
In contemporary Nigeria perhaps one of our biggest temptations is one of believing in our country against all odds. For quite a while now, it appears that it is our country’s destiny to always dance on the edge of the perilous precipice. Otherwise how does one explain the uninterrupted movement from one crisis to another? If it is not the murderous insurgents ravaging rural communities and lives in the North East, then it is the herdsmen laying waste towns and villages and leaving tales of death and destruction in their trail. Most recently, the wanton kidnapping of citizens for ransom has taken a brutal and deadly turn with very grave and sickening consequences. Although those in authority continue to assure the populace that they are doing everything in their power to arrest the ugly trend, permanent solutions and peace will continue to elude us if we do not repent, change our ways and turn to God for help and for healing.
In moments such as these, our leaders must strive to bring us together and use all the resources we can muster to confront our common challenges. They must avoid any impression that suggests complacency or outright lack of interest in the plight of innocent victims. The trend of resorting to self-help is indicative of the distrust of the government and its security agencies who are seemingly overwhelmed by criminals. All these call for concerted and harmonious efforts from all leaders – political, traditional, religious to work together to pull our people away from the precipice.
This is no time to play politics of division or to exaggerate fault lines of religion, ethnocentrism or region to further set one segment of the country against another. This is not the time to bicker about who could be the best president, the best minister or the best army chief. It is equally shameful to reduce our misfortunes into an argument about what faith has suffered more. Isn’t it shameful and regrettable enough that dozens die everyday, regardless of whatever faith they belong to? When we allow such rhetorics of division to dominate the socio-political space in the face of a grave danger, then the terrorists and criminals carry the day. We cannot afford to give people without conscience the honour of dividing us further or determining our daily discourse. In normal climes, terrorism and violent criminality are very hard to rout out. With disunity, distrust, fault-finding and finger-pointing, the hope for solutions is dead on arrival.
Yes we cannot pretend that all is well with Nigeria. But neither can we give up hope of overcoming our challenges and of building a united and prosperous nation. We cannot afford to give in to the culture of disillusionment and even despair, of grumbling and perpetual lamentation. By holding firmly to our faith in the Word of God and all the teachings emanating from it and by living them day by day we will not only embrace our true identity as members of Christ’s body, but also be able to evangelize our environment. For evangelization primarily calls us to be, that is, to witness with our lives, and then to speak up, to speak of our faith, of what difference the Gospel and the teachings of the Church have made in our lives, and of what differences these can also bring to the wider society through us.
It will be a pelagian heresy to think that we can achieve this by ourselves unaided by God’s graces, his healing presence and a more sincere relationship with ourselves. Like Barthemaeus, the blind man in Mark 10:46-52, we must cry out to Jesus and ask him to heal us of our spiritual, social and political blindness and to even protect us from coronavirus and inspire our leaders to do something quickly and effectively to control its spread in Nigeria. We must beg our blessed Mother Mary to ask her son as she did during the wedding in Cana, “they have no wine”. In the case of Nigeria, what we need is more peace not wine, because we witness violence on the streets, human beings being dehumanized by the ungodly acts of kidnapping and other forms of criminality. Religion is used as a weapon whether by terrorists or by others subtly to marginalize or disfavour others.
Our country seems to be like that man who fell among armed robbers. We are battling with terrorists, cultists, criminals, kidnappers, economic saboteurs, unscrupulous political leaders, religious bigots and partisan traditional rulers. It seems everyone is just passing by, including those who shape our policies and into whose hands we have entrusted the economy, the security, the unity and stability, the present and the future of our children. We need Good Samaritans (Substitute Samaritans with Nigerians)!
Our primary task as religious leaders is to steer the people to conversion and holiness of life but because of the poverty and hardship suffered by our people, preachers are forced to become miracle workers or political revolutionaries, throwing verbal bombs, missiles, grenades, poisonous gas at political authorities from the pulpit. The question is whether the authorities are listening or merely ignoring what they consider the ranting of preachers!
The Church does not only pontificate on what should be done by political leaders, she continues to do her best by extending help to the poor in towns and villages through our many hospitals, schools and other social services. We absorb many workers in our parishes and institutions but we are limited by means, hence the need for government collaboration with faith-based organizations to reduce hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease and unnecessary deaths.
The multiplicity of pious religious activities in Nigeria and the ubiquity of religious houses are not enough to make Nigeria a paradise. We must work honestly towards a change of mentality, namely, that everyone should be patriotically concerned about our nation and the common good rather than parochial ethnic, political or religious interests.
Our conviction is that just as Jesus was victorious over the devil, so shall we also be victorious through hard work and God-fearing behaviour. Peace, justice and wealth will flow in Nigeria as a river.
If, as reported by the Oxford English Dictionary, Nigeria has contributed 29 new Nigerian English words and expressions such as “mama put” joining at least 57 other words of Nigerian English origin already in the dictionary, it means that we can do more in a lot of ways. We already have very distinguished Nigerian professionals, creative business men and women making the waves in different parts of the world. Why can’t we do something better at home through well developed social infrastructure, provision of employment and good pension schemes?
I wish the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria a happy and fruitful deliberation. May the words of our mouth, the thoughts of our hearts, the reflection inspired by the Holy Spirit and the pastoral and social solutions we shall propose for the good of our Church and our beloved nation bear abundant fruits. May our prayers wipe away evil from our land, soaked by the blood of innocent citizens and melt the stony hearts of people who rejoice at the suffering of other brothers and sisters whom they keep in captivity.
May Mary our Queen Mother and Patroness continue to intercede for us and our dear country and all her leaders. Amen. Welcome to Abuja.