Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto is unarguably the conscience of the Nigerian society. He has spoken on the challenges facing the Nigerian people in all sectors, principally on insecurity in the entire landscape, killing and all forms of violent criminality on a scale that has never been witnessed in Nigeria since independence.
Bishop Kukah has also in clear terms criticized the nepotistic stance of the current Nigerian government of President Muhammadu Buhari. For the first time in Nigeria’s history, northern Nigeria muslims have been appointed into most key positions in the administration, including the heads of all the country’s security apparatuses.
For the truth he espouses, apologists of the government have unsuccessfully tried all the time to smear the irrepressible Catholic Bishop as he has been found incorruptible.
The following is the text of his sermon at the ordination of five deacons as priests of the Diocese of Sokoto. It makes interesting reading.
1: Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah sets the pace for the very essence of our pastoral life as priests. Today, we as Priests and you who are soon to be ordained can also dare to say: The spirit of God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted, to bind up the broken hearted and to proclaim liberty to captives (Is. 61: 2). The freshness of this text and its direct reference and relevance to our current tragedy in Nigeria is one of the greatest assurances that we have, that the word of the Lord is; a treasure house that contains treasures both old and new (Mt. 13:52), a guarantee that; Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13: 8). An entire country today is afflicted, conflicted and threatened to its very foundations. Everywhere we turn, the bodies and the emotions of men and women are irretrievably broken. Our people, fleeing their homes after over ten years have now turned Refugee camps into their habitats. Our identity as citizens is being traded for the status of migrants and refugees. The civic space is slowly closing as citizens are losing ordinary freedoms to the crippling hands of totalitarianism.
2: There are many reasons for us as Priests to live in trepidation over the mission that Jesus entrusted to us. Every day, we have to reflect on the meaning of the Priesthood, a life changing and an almost eternal Sacrament that Jesus instituted on the eve of his passion and crucifixion. We who are called, mere mortals, unworthy in all ramifications are gratuitously entrusted with bringing God to earth daily on the altar so as to feed His people. Do this, He said to the newly ordained Priests on the night before His passion, in memory of me (Lk. 22:19). From there, the Eucharist would become the centre of the teaching of the risen Christ, the foretaste of our life to come and our means of spiritual nourishment as God’s people till He comes again to take us to the eternal banquet. So decisive is the Eucharist that when Judas stepped out from the table, the Bible says, darkness fell. Thus, by virtue of our ordination to the Priesthood, we join the line of priests, freely chosen and made so in the order of Melchizedek. By being priests according to the order of Melchizedek, a seal of eternity is placed on our vocation and ministry as we join the eternal High priest Himself, Jesus Christ. We shall see in the course of the ceremony that the Deacons will be anointed with Chrism, they will hold the Chalice and Ciborium as a sign of what they will offer to God, they will hold the Book of Scripture, all symbols of the mission entrusted to them.
3: Change is happening around the world at a dizzying pace and the challenge is what we make of that change, how we keep a confused world focused. Here, the spirit of discernment becomes very important. Unless moved by the spirit, we cannot call Jesus Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). Our world is in the grip of insecurity which breeds fear. The boat of life is in turbulent seas and today, many Christians are convinced that God must be either too busy or asleep. The effects of a corrosive political culture are upon us.
4: In our fear, some of us are finding new gods; sorcery, voodooism, shamanism, false prophesy are all on the rise and even decent Christians are in total confusion. As the boat tutters on the high seas, we are tempted to believe that the Lord is sleeping and to ask why He does not care that we are sinking (Mk. 4:38). Even though many prophets are being exposed by the day, many young Priests are tempted to anchor their priesthood on the vain altar of healing, miracles, multiplication of fortunes often for criminals and so on. I saw a poster of a rich man who went to consult a magician seeking protection from kidnappers. On arrival, when he told the sorcerer’s apprentice that he had come to see his master, the apprentice said: Sorry, Sir, my oga was kidnapped yesterday! The priest and the prophets must seek to offer a clearer path, ensuring that even when the Lord sleeps, He is awake and that the boat will not sink. We only need to banish our fears and trust in Him.
5: Let us reaffirm our commitment to the fact that, as the holy book says, There is a time for everything under the sun. A time for corona and a time for ending corona. A time for kidnapping and a time for stopping kidnapping. A time for living and a time for dying. It is for a time like this that the priesthood was instituted. Times like these compel us to rethink why the Lord instituted the priesthood. We then pause and thank Him for this wonderful gift. We must encourage our people to return to the silent sacredness of the Blessed Sacrament and avoid the betnaija mentality that believes that everything simply depends on magic and luck. Faith is not based on luck. It is, as the Catechism says, “a gift of God which enables us to believe”.
6: In his book, A Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser tells the story of a community that lived at the bend of a river. One day, the children went to play in the river and saw some dead bodies floating. They ran home in fear and reported to the elders. The elders in the village came and removed the dead bodies and buried them. Next day and the day after, other dead bodies floated and the elders came and took them for burial. After some time, it became routine to pick up dead bodies from the river for burial. A strange thing is that no one asked whose bodies these were nor did anyone ask where they were being killed. Let’s stop there! The problem is that, today in Nigeria, we have become so traumatised and sedated by horrible news that have gripped our nation that we are comfortable in this swamp of evil. No number of horrific deaths, murders, sexual violence and kidnapping of children or adults can make us stop our life of debauchery. Life goes in Nigeria! We become experts at burying the dead, but refuse to ask why the killings continue.
7: Nigeria is a broken country. It is decomposing from within. Our heart is broken and lives are hemoraging by the day. Morally, we cannot tell what time it is. We cannot overstate the reality. It is clear that neither politics nor economic models can fix the country. The political class is in the state of inebriation with the drug of power and loot. We neither know what is wrong nor who is wrong. We are hiding under the belief that the proponents or the apostles of this culture of death that has turned our country into an inferno have neither name or address. The federal government has told us it is not ready to publicise the names of those funding Boko Haram. We cannot go on like this. Interrogating, questioning these existential threats to our common humanity is the apostolate that we Priests are called to. We know that this road is dangerous, it is rocky, it is treacherous, it takes lives, but it is all too familiar. We Christians know its name: it is metaphorically called Golgotha. If Golgotha was a footpath, the resurrection blasted a high way to redemption on it.
8: It is the duty of a prophet to hold those entrusted with the welfare of the people to render account. The prophet himself is not free from this duty and responsibilityof rendering of account. We are mistaken if we think that only politicians and public officers can be held accountable. Indeed, an unaccountable political class draws its oxygen and inspiration from an unaccountable society led by unaccountable Imams, Bishops or Priests. After all they are under our care. Our society has often created the impression that certain people because of their offices are answerable only to God. They believe those who are below them are there to serve them only. Jesus warned us Christians that: You know the rulers of the world lord it over their people. But it should not be so among you. Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant (Mt. 20:25ff).
9: The priest is not a social commentator as in one who simply speaks about the issues of the day and wants a new society based on changes in the social fabric of society. His concerns are not on which party wins elections or which individuals are in power. His duty is to help design a template against which the building of a good society can be measured. The Four Way Test of the Rotarian questions is a model: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all? Will it build goodwill? Will it benefit everyone? The political Party in power will always call you a political priest and they will warn you to drop your cassock and join politics while the opposition hails you as a voice of the voiceless, a hero, a revolutionary. Hold your head high because when today’s winners loose elections and yesterday’s losers win elections, the rigmarole, the name calling will change. Only a deep conversion of heart, a turning to the ways of God by us all, leaders and led can change our country. While politicians play their games, the Priest must maintain a moral distance enough to remain well above the fray of partisanship.We can only be partisan on the side of truth. We have already been warned that we have been sent out as; lambs among wolves (Lk. 10:3). The future depends on upholding these values and teachings.
10: My dear brethren, the Psalmist tells us today in the Responsorial Psalm that: The Lord will send from Zion the scepter of power to rule in the midst of your foes. How, we might ask, can one rule in the midst of one’s foes? In our daily lives, we know what to do with our foes. In our country where victory in politics offers the winners licenses to share the booty as they wish with their cousins, nephews and inner family circles and their supporters or friends, the winners go with everything while the losers lose everything and often, their lives too. The business of the loser is to sulk while that of the enemy is to plot. Yet, we are told to rule in the midst of our foes. By asking us to both forgive and also pray for our enemies (Mt. 5:4), asking us to let a thief go with our garment if he steals it (Mt. 5:40), to walk extra miles at the command of our enemies (Mt. 5:41), to turn the other cheek if we are slapped on one is the most outrageous view anyone can express (Lk. 6:29). Jesus set up standards that are totally at variance with human reasoning. St Paul would also say: If your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty, give him water. By doing so, you will be heaping hot coal on his head ( Rom. 12:20). It is little wonder that even His followers would later call His teaching intolerable language (Jn. 6:60). Yet, my dear brethren, strange as these teachings are, they have stood Christianity for over two thousand years. We must help our fellow Christians rediscover these truths. Outside these values, we are merely a windbag, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal ( 1 Cor.13: 1).
11: In all of this, Prayer remains the key to the survival of the Priest. Without prayer, we cannot be intermediaries, we are powerless. We are to plead constantly before God’s throne of grace on behalf of his people. Our duty is to carry their dreams, hopes, fears, and anxieties to the throne of God. In return, we bring back God’s promise of consolation and succour. While his people lift up their eyes to the hills wondering and asking where their salvation will come from, it is his duty to assure them that;our salvation and help shall come from the Lord (Ps. 121: 1). Prayer is the source of our salvation, it is the spring from where we must draw our strength.
12: We cannot lead others to Jesus if we are weighed down by worldly attachments. When Jesus called Peter, Matthew and other disciples, we often heard the expression, they left everything and followed him (Lk. 5:11, Lk. 5:28). The calls of Matthew or Zacchaeus were most dramatic because of their stupendous wealth. At the words, Follow me or Come down, for example, Matthew got up and left everything, no hand over notes to the authorities while Zacchaeus made commitments of reparations without assessing his financial status. Our priorities must be Jesus Christ, for the Lord has already warned us: You cannot serve two masters, for you will love one and hate the other. You cannot serve God and money (Mt. 6:4). St Paul warned Timothy over the love of money and how because of it, some have wandered away and broken their hearts with many sorrows (1 Tim. 6:10).
13: To follow Jesus is not merely a matter of taking physical steps which is what most of us beginning with myself tend to fall for. The real battle is for us to seek to become by virtue of our ordination, alter Christus, that is other Christs. The ordinations today bear heavy spiritual and moral weight and meaning. However, ordination is not the priesthood. Ordination is sacred ritual but it is still a ceremony. The real task is living out all the promises we have made before God and His people. We have problems among us as Priests. Today, most of us Priests know our brothers who have not heeded the warning of St. Paul to Timothy and have; wandered away and pierced themselves with sorrows. They are not living in obedience to the Church or those in authority over them. Some have left the Lord they promised to serve, others are living their own personal lives and not in solidarity with the Church, some are in the vineyard but harvesting into their own personal barns. We keep praying for ourselves. Every ordination is a call to sobriety, a time for those of us who are already ordained to look back. It is not enough to celebrate our endless anniversaries. Those celebrations should be a rear mirror for us to look back.
14: Finally,as I end, let me thank the parents of our Deacons, our Priests and Religious, those holy men and women who, by love and devotion have encouraged these young men. We thank their teachers and formators and ask God to bless them. To the members of our Vocation Committee, Fr. Cornelius Tagwai and his team, all those who have contributed to bringing this day about, thank you.
My dear brothers in the priesthood, St. Paul reminds us in the second reading today that Grace is given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The admonitions in the Gospel today are the hallmark of Christianity. They speak to us as Priests and the good people of God. Jesus tells us that: You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. We are a city set on a hill, cannot be hidden. Our light must therefore shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven(Mt. 5: 13ff). This is our mission as priests. May God give us the grace to uphold His light and vision against the hastening clouds of darkness that threaten us. Please, my dear people, pray for us your Priests that God will help us to serve you better and to make you holier vessels. Amen.