The Beatification of the Nigerian Catholic priest and monk, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was the major reason for Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Nigeria in March 1998. As it turned out, that visit was the last apostolic journey of Pope John Paul II to sub-Saharan Africa until his death in April 2005. Papal biographer George Weigel has noted that this second visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria summed up his impact on Africa in the 27-years of his papacy, during which time he visited 40 of Africa 54 nations, some of them more than once. John Paul II was quite happy to come to Nigeria for the second time in 1998, after 16 years since his first visit to the country in February 1982. When he landed at Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja on March 21, 1998, he was welcomed by Nigeria’s Head of State, General Sani Abacha together with other leaders of government, top politicians, and senior military officers of Abacha’s government. A cross-section of the Nigerian Catholic bishops and a large gathering of Catholic lay faithful were also on hand to welcome the pope with singing and dancing.
I was at the time a second-year student in secondary school and we were lined up at the airport, a few miles away from our school, with Vatican and Nigerian flags to wave to the pope as he alighted from the aircraft. In his address on arrival at Abuja Airport, the 77-year-old pontiff praised “Divine Providence for granting me the grace of returning to you and of setting foot once more on this blessed land!” He commended himself to his host as a friend of Nigeria “one who is deeply concerned for the destiny of your country and of Africa as a whole.” He then went ahead to state the purpose of his visit: “The main purpose of my Visit,” he said, “is to celebrate with the Catholic community the Beatification of Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the first Nigerian in the Church’s history to be officially proclaimed ‘Blessed’. This Beatification in the very land where Father Tansi was born and exercised his priestly ministry honours the whole nation of Nigeria.
It gives to all Nigerians an opportunity to reflect on the direction and insight which the life of Father Tansi provides for today’s society. In him, and in all who dedicate their lives completely to the service of others, is revealed the path along which Nigerians should travel towards a brighter future for their country.” In these words, Pope John Paul II put before Abacha, before the leaders of government and indeed before all Nigerians the import of Tansi’s life for the life of the nation. Father Tansi, as he is famously known, is one of the earliest indigenous Nigerian Catholic priests. He was among the earliest converts from African Traditional Religion to Catholicism in Igboland, following the pioneering missionary activities of the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers. Once he became a Catholic he turned away from pagan worship and never looked back. He was born in 1903 in Aguleri and was trained by Irish missionaries as a catechist and schoolteacher. He worked in these capacities from 1919 to 1925 and rose to become headmaster of St Joseph Catholic School in Aguleri.
His work was quite satisfying but at a point, the young Tansi felt there was something more he could do for God. He enrolled to be a priest and was admitted to the seminary where he spent twelve years from 1925 to 1937. He was ordained in December 1937 and worked in four parishes in the area that is now covered by the Catholic dioceses of Awka and Ekwulobia. As a priest, Father Tansi was said to live a very austere life. After more than a dozen years of zealous labours as a priest, travelling over long distances by bicycle and on foot, Father Tansi felt he could do more for God. He was drawn to the monastic life and sought permission from his bishop to enter the monastery. Happy about Father Tansi’s decision, Bishop Charles Heerey, C.S.Sp. sent him to Mount St Bernard Monastery in Leicester, England, to join the Trappist monks. Tansi entered the monastery in June 1950. He had a hard time during the period of his novitiate, not least because of the harsh weather and change of diet, but he persevered and offered up these difficulties to God in prayer and mortification. In 1956 he took his vows as a monk and was eager to return to Nigeria to establish a monastery, but his frail health did not allow him. After years of enduring ill health, he died on January 20, 1964 at the Royal Infirmary in Leicester, England, after having fulfilled his deepest desire to be a monk.
The opening prayer at Mass for the feast of Blessed Tansi begins with these words: “O God, in the priest Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, you Blessed Iwene Tansi and the Nigerian Condition joined the apostolic zeal of a pastor to the way of life of a monk.” I have put the words ‘apostolic zeal’ in italics because it expresses something deep about the life of Tansi. He embodies what I call ‘holy restlessness,’ which is a key attitude of the Christian life. Not content with simply being converted to Catholicism, Tansi became a catechist and schoolteacher. Not content with these, he sought thereafter to be a priest. Although he had difficult moments, he was fulfilled as a priest. But he still felt there was more to the Christian life. He then sought to be a monk. This is the apostolic zeal that the opening prayer for his feast talks about. He was a man on fire for God and with the love of God and was eager to do more for the service of God and others. In this regard, his life challenges our spiritual lethargy, what Pope Francis has called “a bland and mediocre existence.”
There is no doubt that the actual push for the beatification of Father Tansi owed a lot to Tansi’s altar boy, who in the meantime had become a priest like Tansi, an archbishop and a cardinal in Rome – Cardinal Francis Arinze. Once at a lunch with some African prelates in Rome, Pope John Paul II said to his African guests, “Arinze wants me to come to Nigeria and beatify his parish priest. Why not?” Arinze was one of the fruits of the apostolic labours of Father Tansi and he took it as a divine mission to see that his saintly parish priest was raised to the honour of the altar. The fact that a Nigerian could finally be mentioned at the altar of God meant a lot to many. But no one was happier about this than Cardinal Arinze who could now call his beloved former parish priest “Blessed Tansi.” Although Tansi hailed from Igboland, John Paul II did not give any chance for his beatification to be reduced to an ethnic agenda. At every turn he was keen to highlight the national importance of Tansi’s exemplary life, not just for Igbo Catholics and certainly not for Nigerian Catholics alone, but for the whole of Nigeria.
This is how John Paul II weaved the rich tapestry of Tansi’s life in his homily at the Mass of Beatification at the dusty grounds of Oba, near Onitsha on March 22, 1998 before a crowd of nearly a million people: “Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi is a prime example of the fruits of holiness which have grown in the Church in Nigeria since the Gospel was first preached in this land. He received the gift of faith through the efforts of the missionaries, and, taking the Christian way of life as his own, he made it truly African and Nigerian.” The following day after Tansi’s beatification, after his national Mass in Abuja, John Paul II met with Nigeria’s Muslim leaders led by the Sultan of Sokoto and brought to the fore again the import of Tansi’s life for interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding in Nigeria.
He told the Muslim leaders that the reason for his rather brief visit to Nigeria was “to proclaim solemnly the holiness of a son of this country, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. He has been declared a model of a religious man who loved others and sacrificed himself for them. The example of people who live holy lives teaches us not only to practise mutual respect and understanding, but to be ourselves models of goodness, reconciliation and collaboration, across ethnic and religious boundaries, for the good of the whole country and for the greater glory of God.” Tansi’s altar boy, Cardinal Arinze, was present at this meeting of John Paul II with the Muslim leaders. At the end of his address to the Muslim leaders, John Paul II added extemporaneously as he introduced the Cardinal to his Muslim hosts: “Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria is a Roman Catholic Cardinal.