Bishop G. I. Onah: the global intellectual master as the Shepherd of Nsukka
As a young student, the fame of two middle-aged great intellectual giants and friends, namely Godfrey Igwebuike Onah and Josephat Obi Oguejiofor reverberated. Professor Onah was famed for his intellectual prowess and general resourcefulness as a Professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Vice-Rector) of the Pontifical Urban University, Rome and Consultor to the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Vatican City. Professor Oguejiofor, another colossus nicknamed ‘deity’ for his intellectual exploits towered at home both in Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu and Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. These great sons of Imilike Ani (Nsukka) and Awkuzu (Oyi), respectively, blazed and illuminated the intellectual firmament of our search for knowledge, meaning and mission. In time, I got to know them better and appreciate their humanity and Christianity.
The appreciation of these two students of legendary Monsignor Prof Theophilius Okere went beyond the confines of their dioceses for the immortal ideals and the noble values they represented. So, reaching out to Professor Onah for a foreword to a work I edited on the Pastoral letter of Archbishop Valerian Okeke (Education of the Youth) was not effortful. Though by the time of the request, he neither had met nor known me, he obliged. We would later meet in Rome about a year later in the company of Bishop Matthew Kukah. His positive response to the request confirmed my conviction that real great men are confident enough to celebrate their colleagues. And he did. In truth, his honour to the Archbishop, Most Rev Valerian Okeke was indirectly a contribution to my self-development. It boosted my self-confidence and reinforced the capacity to light a candle instead of lamenting about the thickness of darkness. Celebrating goodness participates in the universal reign of God and attributes worth to his gracious providence.
World-class intellectual and inspirational preacher, the intellectual feats of Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah number him among the ‘A’ list of highly sought-after resource persons across nations. It is not surprising that he serves as the Chairman of the Governing Councils and Pro-Chancellor of two Universities, namely Enugu State University of Science and Technology (ESUT), Enugu and Veritas University of Nigeria (VUNA), Abuja. By dint of hard work aided by grace, this superstar deploys his intellectual endowment, spiritual resources and material treasures for the Gospel.
Matching speculative ingenuity with pastoral compassion and practical creativity that translate to actual development, Bishop Onah speaks to the whole welfare of his people. This reality resonates with the Church beyond the Plateaus of Nsukka. It requires no prolix explanations. The results of his ministry these years connect with his faith-informed anthropological vision. He gives priority to the ecclesiological underpinning of Christian engagement more than the legal stipulation or demands of efficiency. As a result, pastoral charity wins out over legalism, placing the accent on the primacy of our equal belongingness to Christ (volumus Iesum videre). Bringing people to a new level of depth in their encounter with Christ funds his pastoral style with the aim that the Church truly becomes the light that enlightens all people, the salt that salts the earth and the yeast for the transformation of the world.
From the Vatican hill to Nsukka plateau, the Imilike Ani-born Prelate, Most Reverend Onah typifies the integration of knowledge and love as substance and style of pastoral engagement. His relational and rational approach is a tribute to his understanding that Christianity is about an encounter with a person, Christ Jesus, who gives life a profound orientation. In practical operations, since Christianity is a religion of the ‘Logos’, which is both a Person and knowledge, he insists that faith is beyond sentiment, for to live the Christian faith one has to know it. Hence, he prioritizes the teaching of the faith, believing that the proportion of man’s openness to God and his ultimate surrender to Christ measures his glory. In that case, viewing everyone as a potential recipient of the Good News and prospective partner in the ‘humanity project’ influences his approach to persons and groups. As such, employing his pastoral visits and other opportunities, he engages the local authorities, people of traditional religion and those entrusted with the promotion of the common good to let them genuinely encounter the Church.
The Shepherd of Nsukka not only embodies the qualities of his people, but he accentuates the intellectual, spiritual and anthropological foundation for the Nsukka identity. He knows his culture and loves his people, and proudly promotes their sense of community, brotherliness, transparency and hard work. His encounter with people offers him the opportunity to urge them to love and nurture their diverse gifts to enrich the human community without apologies or unnecessary self-congratulations.
Precisely because there is no culture without cultivation, he nudges them to cultivate their noble cultural values and avoid any form of the duplicity of character since they are most likely to be outsmarted in such misdemeanour. According to him, this cultivation of cultural values accentuates the treasure that is ‘Nwa Nsukka’ identity. Quite significantly, he provides an excellent context for the flourishing of the textual core of Nsukka identity. For instance, though he speaks European languages with iconic flair, his mastery of Nsukka dialect will make Latin languages (Italian, Spanish and French) jealous for his resonant melody. Similarly, he offered the Nsukka an anthem that echoes their faith in their culture, which is both an affirmation of the Catholic faith and Nsukka culture, and an auto-suggestion relative to their joint mission, namely glory of God and human flourishing. He unburdens the Christians from heavy burdens that are only tangential to the faith and its ramifications. Faith has consequences, but it should be experienced in its freshness, profundity and goodness.
Living this vision and also keeping it current, he has invested a lot both in the formation of the Pastoral agents and the youth of Nsukka. His love for his priests cannot be overstated, and his cordial relationship with them bears that out. Similarly, his love for the young people funds his drive to help them appreciate their hidden treasures and to deploy them for self-actualization, faith promotion and societal transformation. He pivots their search for meaning and levers them from mediocrity so that no one settles for less where more is possible. Likewise, he encourages the Priests of his diocese to keep learning and never to settle for the basic. The watchword is on-going formation and transformation, so that spiritual and pastoral leaders are abreast with the society to confront it from a solid ground of faith and knowledge. Consequently, PGDE by Nsukka priests has become a norm. His aversion for mediocrity spurs his equipment of the pastoral agents with sound education to drive their operations.
Apart from sending Priests and seminarians on studies in Europe and elsewhere, he erected permanent structures for the Spiritual Year Seminary for the spiritual formation of future priests. The velocity and grand style with which he is rounding off the construction of the Cathedral to the admiration of many, among other physical infrastructural developments, testifies to his extraordinary pastoral solicitude and leadership capacity. In his seven years of Episcopacy, he created seventy-seven new parishes for grass-root evangelization. He established two new hospitals in remote areas for the health needs of the poor, and he is in the process of building a Technical Institute and Social Communication Centre.
These recollections of the ministry of Bishop Godfrey Onah are only for the glory of God and as an encouragement to this great shepherd of souls. With his multitude of children, friends and admirers, I wish His Excellency a happy 64th birthday. Ad Multos Annos My Lord.
Rev. Fr George Adimike, writes from Rome
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