By Bernard Balogun
I am incline to guess, it was in 1969 around August, in the heat of the Nigerian civil war when John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan was ordained in Kabba by Bishop Auguste Delisle, C.s.sSp pioneer Bishop of Lokoja Diocese. As an altar boy then I was among the other altar boys chosen by the late Revd. Fr. Gerard Fournier, a Canadian priest, who was the parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Church, Lokoja then, to go and witness the ordination of a new priest in Kabba.
I, and the other altar boys did not know his name, the new priest to be. All we knew of him was that he was a light-skinned, handsome man with a round-face and very brilliant. Did I attend the ordination? No. Mother did not allow me to go because I had just returned from a 10-day trip with Fr Gerard Fournier to Okene, Ogori and Kabba. During that period of absence, mother insisted I must cover for lost house chores.
Not long after his ordination, Rev. Fr John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan (as he was then known) the newly ordained priest came to Lokoja and visited Marine market by IWD dockyard, to visit a relation, so I think, and 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 recap 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 Frs, Alexius Makozi (as he was then known), Joseph Ohieku (who served in the Nigerian Army during the unfortunate civil war as a Chaplin), Lawrence Mofolorunsho, Onotu Joachim, Joseph Sunday Ajomo, who was ordained in 1964. The rest priests were largely of Canadian extraction at that time.
Of course, there were two other priests from Igalaland 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, I think, due to age. Later around 1991 or so, Bishop Makozi was posted to Portharcourt diocese and Fr Joseph Sunday Ajomo, (as he was then known, was the Rector of St Augustine Major Seminary, Jos before his elevation as a Bishop). Fr Joseph Ajomo, an Ogori man, later succeeded Bishop Makozi, an Ebira-man, as the Diocesan Bishop of Lokoja.
By 1971 Fr John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, as he was then known, left Lokoja as the Rector of St Clement Seminary, Lokoja for further studies in the Vatican and I and few altar boys, had the privilege to carry his big box on our heads into his waiting Peugeot 403 pickup without a tarpaulin. At that time, St Clement Minor Seminary Lokoja occupied the present location of Bishop Delisle Secondary School in Lokoja.
However, in 1979 or so, the Diocese lost Fr Joseph Mofolorunsho (a Kabba man) to death and Fr. Jachim 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. John Onaiyekan surfaced in Ibadan as Rector of St Peters & Paul Major Seminary, along 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”. He said 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 Catholic Church at Liberty junction in Oke Ado, Ibadan, since I was resident around College Crescent area. Naturally, St Gabriel 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 it was reported on NTA-Ibadan (View & Report-belt) that the Rector of St Peters & Paul Major Seminary has been appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Ilorin. That was the news but in truth, he was appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Ilorin Diocese.
At this juncture, it is important to define the two – Co-Adjutor Bishop and Auxiliary Bishop. A Co-Adjutor Bishop has right to succession while the Auxilliary Bishop does not have the right to succession.
John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan has remained consistent over the years despite his current Olympian height within the fold of the Universal Church. As a Fr, he was very humble and respectful but do not take his simplicity for granted. He cherishes, honours and respects friends irrespective of their class. He does not allow the Olympian status of his office to overwhelm him. As a Bishop, Archbishop and now Cardinal he has remain same in humility, simple in his taste, unassuming and never looked down on any person, no matter the persons status in life. A highly detribalized man, a good listener and he gives everyone the opportunity to air his or her opinion. No wonder, as National President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), at a time, CAN enjoyed relative peace, harmony, progress and mutual respect not just among its fold but indeed among the Muslim community. Oh yes, he is very humorous too.
In a nutshell John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan is indeed an embodiment of discipline with sound leadership quality and a pride to the Universal Church.
In conclusion of this narrative, since John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan’s ascension as the Archbishop of Abuja, the Archdiocese of Abuja 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 linguistic person. He speaks and celebrates Mass, fluently, in Latin, French, Portuguese and at Nigerian level, he celebrates and speaks Ebira (my late mother will say – “fine, fine”), in Yoruba as well. 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 Auguste Delisle ordained John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan in August 1969, so also did the Cardinal ordained my younger brothers, Rev. Frs Lawrence Balogun & Jude Ododo both of Lokoja Diocese, in December 1990 in Okene, Kogi State.
The story of the Archdiocese of Abuja will be incomplete without the mention of our distinguished Bishop, 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 John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan. That significant dimension should reflect in this narrative, on an occasion such as this. It is therefore important to recognize and appreciate his significant contribution to the growth of the Archdiocese.
As you celebrate your 75years, Your Eminence, I join millions of the Catholic faithfuls of Abuja Archdiocese and elsewhere to rejoice and wish you God’s continued blessings, good health and wisdom of God in His vineyard.
Makuu Pataki Adai. Congratulations.
Balogun (BenPino) writes from Wuse District, Abuja and can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, 0803.787.2456.