Continued from LAST WEEK
He is a Nigerian Cardinal. And if he is promoting the dialogue with Muslims in the world, he is doing that having the experience of dialogue with the Muslims in Nigeria. So I see a great contribution by your country, by your community to the universal activity and dialogue in the Church in the world of today.” As we celebrate the feast day of Blessed Tansi today in Nigeria, it is important to look at this pearl of noble price that the Gospel reading of today talks about, which drove Father Tansi to make huge sacrifices and to accomplish great things for God. After nearly 23 years since Tansi’s beatification, what does his life mean for Nigeria and Nigerians in the context of the present situation of our country, “weighed down not by uncertainties but also by moral, economic, and political problems,” as we say in the prayer for Nigeria in Distress? What would Blessed Tansi say to us today about the state of our nation, his nation? What would he do? Nigeria today is a deeply divided society. In the last decade, Boko Haram has driven poisonous nails into the fabric of the Nigerian society through its extremist rhetoric and activities that have only served to alienate Christians and Muslims from one another.
Christian-Muslim antagonism, suspicions, and rivalries seem to have reached fever pitch these days, dogging every effort to build a united and peaceful nation. Bad politics driven by corruption, nepotism, and greed has added to this cocktail of national woes as politicians put their own selfish personal interests over and above the common good of the nation. Today, we appear to be in a nation that is rudderless, with many non-state actors steering the ship in multiple directions into dangerous waters. Have terrorists, kidnappers, bandits, militias, armed robbers, and squads of killer mercenaries not overrun this nation? Which Nigerians go to bed these days with their two eyes closed? In the midst of these challenges that continue to hit very hard on the poor, we have a bunch of politicians with no reflex for constructive criticism and whose only preoccupation is how to silence every voice of reason.
We are the poverty capital of the world today. We are one of the most dangerous countries in the world to live in as a result of terrorism. Our global ranking on corruption continues to worsen every year despite all the fanciful government propaganda about fighting corruption. In terms of real human development, we are a failed state by accepted standards of decent human existence. We have made a nonsense of our education system. Healthcare is worse today than at any other time in the past. Look in the faces of young Nigerians today and all you see is a blight of hopelessness and helplessness. The harsh realities of Nigerian life have made it difficult for these young people to get a job, earn a decent living, and raise their families at home. As such, day after day many young skilled Nigerians are migrating to North America and Europe. In the midst of this haemorrhage, cybercriminals, con artists, and internet scammers are giving our country a very bad reputation in the comity of nations.
Very few countries still take Nigeria seriously. Looking at the magnitude of problems facing our nation, we can only ask: What future is there for Nigeria and Nigerians? In the midst of the turbulent waters in which we are plunged and being tossed about by the storm, how are we to navigate the ship of the Nigerian state to a safe harbour? I believe that we can attempt to answer these puzzling questions by turning to the addresses and homilies that Pope John Paul II delivered during his March 1998 visit to Nigeria. As pope, John Paul II took serious interest in Nigeria. Of the thirteen apostolic journeys that he made to Africa, two were to Nigeria, first in 1982 and again in 1998. During that first apostolic journey to Nigeria, which happened to be his second journey to Africa, John Paul II spent five of the seven days of his visit in Nigeria, with the remaining two days shared between three other West African countries. While thanking President Shagari for his words of welcome on Saturday, February 12, 1982 on his arrival in Lagos, Pope John Paul II said: “I would ask you, today even more than before, to consider me one of your own, for indeed I come to this land as a friend and a brother to all its inhabitants.”
His second visit to Nigeria in 1998 turned out to be his last visit to sub-Saharan Africa until his death in 2005. Between his first and second visits to Nigeria, John Paul II delivered more than twenty homilies and addresses to various segments of the church and society in Nigeria, challenging everyone to join hands together in building a great and prosperous nation. The abuse of religion and ethnicity for destructive purposes are among our biggest problems in Nigeria today. John Paul II understood this clearly. In his address to Muslim leaders, he noted that there are many shared convictions between Christians and Muslims which can help in the process of building a reconciled and peaceful nation. “We are conscious that the exercise of power and authority is meant to be a service to the community, and that all forms of corruption and violence are a serious offence against God’s wishes for the human family.
We have in common so much teaching regarding goodness, truth and virtue that a great understanding between us is possible. And indeed necessary.” Referring to his 1982 address to Muslim leaders in Kaduna, John Paul II said: “I am convinced that if we (Christians and Muslims) join hands in the name of God, we can accomplish much good. We can collaborate in the promotion of justice, peace and development. It is my earnest hope that our solidarity of brotherhood, under God, will truly enhance the future of Nigeria and all Africa.” On respect for religious differences and the promotion of dialogue to resolve Blessed Iwene Tansi and the Nigerian Condition conflict, John Paul II said: “In any society, disagreements can arise. Sometimes the disputes and conflicts which ensue take on a religious character. Religion itself is sometimes used unscrupulously to cause conflict. Nigeria has known such conflicts, though it must be recognized with gratitude that in many parts of the country people of different religious traditions live side by side as good and peaceful neighbours.
Ethnic and cultural differences should never be seen as justifying conflict. Rather, like the various voices in a choir, these differences can exist in harmony, provided there is a real desire to respect one another. Christians and Muslims agree that in religious matters there can be no coercion. We are committed to teaching attitudes of openness and respect towards the followers of other religions. But religion can be misused, and it is surely the duty of religious leaders to guard against this. Above all, whenever violence is done in the name of religion, we must make it clear to everyone that in such instances we are not dealing with true religion. For the Almighty cannot tolerate the destruction of his own image in his children. From this place in the heart of West Africa I appeal to all Muslims, just as I have appealed to my Brother Bishops and all Catholics: let friendship and cooperation be our inspiration! Let us work together for a new era of solidarity and joint service in facing the enormous challenge of building a better, more just and more humane world! When problems arise, whether at the local, regional or national levels, solutions must be sought through dialogue.”
John Paul II believed that the path to development and progress is justice and peace. He was therefore eager to impress this idea into the hearts of his listeners as he spoke to the leaders of Nigeria in his speech on arrival at Abuja in 1998, urging them to muster the wisdom and expertise needed “in the difficult and urgent task of building a society that respects all its members in their dignity, their rights and their freedoms. This requires an attitude of reconciliation and calls for the Government and citizens of this land to be firmly committed to giving the best of themselves for the good of all.” In this regard, John Paul II put Tansi’s life and witness as a peacemaker forward as a reminder of the Gospel precept, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). But Tansi was not only a man of peace.
He was also a man of reconciliation. He spent his life as a priest preaching the gospel of reconciliation and reconciling people to God in the sacrament. Inspired by Tansi’s life, John Paul II said in his beatification homily at Oba: “All Nigerians must work to rid society of everything that offends the dignity of the human person or violates human rights. This means reconciling differences, overcoming ethnic rivalries, and injecting honesty, efficiency and competence into the art of governing.” He noted that “there is a need for politicians — both men and women — who profoundly love their own people and wish to serve rather than be served.” He warned that “There can be no place for intimidation and domination of the poor and the weak, for arbitrary exclusion of individuals and groups from political life, for the misuse of authority or the abuse of power.”
He proposed that “the key to resolving economic, political, cultural and ideological conflicts is justice; and justice is not complete without love of neighbour, without an attitude of humble, generous service. When we see others as brothers and sisters, it is then possible to begin the process of healing the divisions within society and between ethnic groups. This is the reconciliation which is the path to true peace and authentic progress for Nigeria.” He stressed that “This reconciliation is not weakness or cowardice. On the contrary, it demands courage and sometimes even heroism: it is victory over self rather than over others.” In further placing the heroic life of Tansi as a model for the leaders and people of Nigeria in his speech on arrival at Abuja, John Paul II stressed that Nigeria’s precarious situation “requires concerted and honest efforts to foster harmony and national unity, to guarantee respect for human life and human rights, to promote justice and development, to combat unemployment, to give hope to the poor and the suffering, to resolve conflicts through dialogue and to establish a true and lasting solidarity between all sectors of society.” How is this to be achieved? His advice was contained in his homily at the Mass in Abuja on March 23, 1998 where he said: “Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi clearly saw that nothing enduring can be achieved in the service of God and country without true holiness and true charity.” Pope John Paul II then concluded: “Make him your example. Pray to him for the needs of your families and of the entire nation.