A Benue triduum without a centurion declaration
The Paschal Triduum is a conglomeration of divine love, slander, anxiety, betrayal, faith, and hope. In the Holy Week, the Catholic Church worldwide blesses oils at Chrism Mass for the anointing of the sick, the catechumens, and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Orders. Priests carry these oils as tools for the Church’s sacramental healing mission.
Apart from blessing oils, priests also renew their priestly vows and promises during Chrism Mass. The context is instructive. While priests gather as a presbyterate (group or body of priests), their responses during the renewal of vows and promises reflect individual personal decisions: “I do…with the help of God.” God’s words through Isaiah reecho herein: “I have called you by name” (Isaiah 43:1).
As a body, priests ought to support one another. As individuals, each priest struggles with personal challenges, some of which are often unknown to others. While some challenges result from human weakness or poor judgment, others are often caused or aggravated by fellow priests for various reasons. The support of fellow priests in times of tribulation is gracious to behold.
In some cases, however, the soothing love and understanding of the laity nourish the priest, easing up the pains of slander and negativity around him. Such laity members exemplify Veronica’s wiping of Jesus’ face (Luke 8:43-48) and Simon of Cyrene’s carrying of the Cross, which relieved Jesus of its burden for a few minutes (Mark 15:21).
During the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, there is the washing of feet to commemorate Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper (John 13:1-17). It should be noted that it was an enslaved person’s job to wash the feet of the master and his guests. Thus, to dispel any confusion in the disciples’ minds, Jesus asked them: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” He then explained that as their teacher, he washed their feet so that they “should wash one another’s feet” (vv.14-15). This confronts the attitude of those who prefer to put dirt on others’ feet.
Good Friday recalls the supreme sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The Son of God died. In a manner surpassing the Shakespearean betrayal of the emperor Caesar by his friend, Brutus, Jesus was both betrayed and denied by his own disciples. Human beings crucified God’s Son. He cried out: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Can God forsake His own Son?
As Jesus hung on the Cross amid two criminals, one of them challenged him: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us also” (Luke 23:39). Indeed, there are people with such an attitude of mocking others to their graves. Yes, even after Jesus died, the priests disputed Pilate’s written testimony, insisting that Jesus only claimed to be a King (John 19:21). Nevertheless, a criminal saw in Jesus the killing of an innocent person and prayed to share in Christ’s kingdom. He was inspired to believe that “Truth” has an eternal kingdom beyond death.
When Jesus screamed and breathed his last, there was an earthquake, and darkness befell the world. Human beings had accomplished their highest exhibition of power and authority. At that moment, the power of God became fully manifest. Seeing what had happened, the centurion and those with him confessed, “truly this man was the son of God” (Mark 15:39). This was not necessarily an act of faith in Christ, but a recognition of God’s manifestation.
I wish to situate the foregoing reflection within the context of the events of this past year, with particular regard to the Catholic Church and politics in Benue State. Following my previous articles, I feel strongly that the current political circumstance in the state provides an opportunity for the Church to engage in a productive definition of an enduring way forward for socio-political change. We have witnessed the ecclesio-political drama, highly pitched from the moment the now Governor-elect, Father Hyacinth Alia, declared his intention to join the gubernatorial race.
As expected, we heard pronouncements, loudly proclaimed by the local Catholic Church, highlighting the Church’s canonical position regarding priests in partisan politics. We read a publicized letter about Fr. Alia’s suspension from public pastoral ministry. Beyond the canonical sanction, rumors circulated of an alleged directive to unwelcome Fr. Alia in the Church for a Mass of thanksgiving during his campaign tour, in addition to a purported “retreat for catechists,” which was later said to be an anti-Alia gathering. Moreover, certain remarks by members of the Catholic clergy against Fr. Alia overstretched the limits of ecclesial charity. Have we understood what washing one another’s feet means in these situations?
Given the deplorable socio-economic, security and political situation in which Benue State currently floats, is it “divinely” clear whether Fr. Alia’s political decision justified any malice against him? My submissions on this issue have been informed by an interest in the image of the Church within the local Benue political culture. A general concern of indigenous African theologians and scholars in the past century denounced the Church’s insensitivity toward the existential experience of the African people. Was it unsurprising that while we were busy slandering one of us, our people were celebrating him?
Indigenous African Church leaders and scholars, such as Cardinal Joseph-Albert Malula, Archbishop Peter Kwesi Sarpong, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Bénézet Bujo, Teresa Hinga, Emmanuel Orobator, Jean-Marc Ela, and Shagbaor F. Wegh, among others, have variously challenged the undermining of indigenous African local experience by foreign European missionaries. Their position hints at how the initial missionary expedition on African soil negatively impacted the needed positive and constructive engagement of the Church in the socio-political and cultural transformation of African societies.
A divided Church in a civilly sick State like Benue, on the issue of a priest-governor, paints a picture of a “Chrism” without “holy oils” for the public sacramental healing ministry. The rule of personal sentiments and a seeming double standard within the Church, in blatant disregard for the suffering of our people in Benue’s broken politics, come across as a sacred betrayal. As a “body of priests,” are we deceived into thinking that advancing a negative image of another priest elevates our image positively? That for a second time, a Benue priest has decided to become the governor should be a cause for deep “ecclesial” reflection.
Unfortunately, since the official declaration of Fr. Alia as the Governor-elect, there has been a loud silence from the auspices of the Catholic Church in Benue. In such a silence, one wonders how the Church intends to advance her prophetic mission for the people of God in Benue. From my perspective, political partisanship includes active participation and active silence. The recent pledge by the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi during their Chrism Mass to support Fr. Alia, the incoming governor, came close to breaking the silence.
At this moment, the campaigns and elections are over. Fr. Alia is now the Governor-elect, and by God’s grace, he shall be sworn into office on 29th May 2023. The two paramount rulers of the Tiv and Idoma nations have publicly proclaimed their goodwill messages. Thus, in our people’s and society’s common interest, a public congratulatory message by the Benue Catholic Church leadership to the Governor-elect would complete the Benue “triduum” that has currently remained without an ecclesial “centurion declaration.”