It’s a new dawn. 2020 was not particularly pleasant to churches, nations and people. The COVID-19 pandemic and global oil market price crash further ravaged the world dwindling economies and livelihoods. And Nigeria got into more economic crisis that rendered many more of its people jobless and poorer amid excruciating problems that border on insecurity, ethno-religious conflicts, failing healthcare systems, decaying infrastructure and myriad of other nationhood threatening problems. Nigerians are skeptical about what 2021 would bring. Would it be better? The Acting Editor, NETA NWOSU speaks with the scholarly and dynamic Catholic Bishop of Ijebu-Ode Diocese, Most. Rev. Dr. Francis Obafemi Adesina on the year 2020 in the life of the Church and Nation, way forward for Nigeria, liturgical events on January 1, effects of Pope Francis World Day of Peace Message on addressing problems of the country and hope for Nigeria in the New Year.
How would you describe the year 2020 in the life of the Church in Nigeria and globally?
Well, in the first place, I will describe the year 2020 as a very challenging year to the Church, to government all over the world, to humanity in general, largely because of the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 pandemic that we had to face. But I will also describe it as a year of great opportunities. Great opportunities in the sense that necessity is the mother of invention. COVID-19 has challenged the fabric of the human society, perhaps it has pushed us to a limit to think outside the box in the way we relate, the way we communicate, in the way that we exist even as Church and as family. It has taught us how to respect every moment of our being, even though it tries to isolate us. But in isolating us, it has finally put us together because with our common strength, we are able to withstand the challenges of COVID-19, both in the scientific world, both in health sector, we see during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic which we are also told that is coming up again, how our health practitioners put their lives on the line and many people volunteered to save lives, to help people who are challenged. This for me are good things we need to focus on. Unfortunately, many of the reports don’t focus on this, they focus on devastation that has ravaged our world. We can’t take that away; it is true in reality, but that has also touched soft our humanity and the godliness in us in terms of generosity, in terms of coming together, in terms of coming to submerge this problem, in terms of giving love.
And for me as a Church person and as leader in the society, I see it as an opportunity because it has given opportunity to the Holy Father to address the world for the need for charity, for the need for caring in his post pandemic letter, Fratelli Tutti with another one that has emerged within this context, helping us to know that humanity, all the boundaries of government, the boundaries of nations are somehow artificial. They are meant for political organization of people, but we are all brothers and sisters of one another. This is what COVID-19 pandemic has also shown us. And recently, in his letter in declaring the Year of St. Joseph, he has premised it on the context of the world experience today, that those who are less spoken of, like St. Joseph, said no word in the whole scriptures, but yet he was powerful. He was there to protect Jesus and to protect Mary. Also, in this world, in 2020, there were some mild silent people who did so much, but they are not spoken about. So, it’s time to focus on the positive that is in the challenges we are facing. So, in my own general view, 2020 was a challenging year, but at the same time, it’s a year of great opportunity. It’s a year that define how we relate from henceforth.
I would like you to also look at our country Nigeria in 2020?
Our country Nigeria in 2020 like any country in the world felt the hardship, the devastation, the negatives that COVID-19 brought on us. And severally in 2020 for example economically, we went into depression and we are still in depression. Apart from the devastation of COVID-19, there is also the devastation of insecurity. The year 2020 in Nigeria in my own history as a living person in this country, is being unprecedented in terms of the amount of people who are pushed down the poverty level, the amount of bloodbath that occurred in this country, a lot of kidnapping that occurred. 2020, I would say in our country Nigeria has been a year that recorded a lot of negatives, both from the political sector, inability to rise up to the challenges, inability to provide for the people who lost their jobs and their livelihood, especially during the pandemic. The aftermath of COVID-19, the aftermath of #EndSARS were all negatives for our country, but in the context of all these many, many negatives we can point to, I think we still have a reason to thank God that this nation inspite of its many challenges is still together, that we still try to find solutions to our problems, that hope is not completely lost. In fact, Christmas gives us opportunity to rekindle that hope that we can rise up again as a nation, politically, sociologically, that if our politicians and we who are led, can come together to reason together, we can find many solutions to these loads, to these different negatives that have traumatized us in the year 2020, and that it will be so. So, I think most of the burden of leadership in our country is because of our elected people and all of us who are leaders in the community that we need to do our utmost best. I think we are not doing our best. There are too much of talk and we are not walking the talk, both from the political to the spiritual, and from the spiritual to the sociological setting of our country. So, generally, I would say the year 2020 in Nigeria recorded a lot of negatives, a lot of challenges. But as Christians, we must still be hopeful that in the midst of all these downturns, the Lord is lifting us up, giving us hope for a better year to come.
Your Lordship, while you were attending to the question of the life of the Church in 2020, you highlighted some challenges and some lessons. Are you satisfied with the way the Church managed these key challenges? And how do you think the lessons learnt will impact on the Church and persons positively?
Well, the Church is always and ever evolving. And the leaders of the Church from the Pope to the Cardinals and Bishops and including the laity; they are constantly praying, they are constantly thinking on how to address the situation of our world and the Church. Of course, the current Pope, Pope Francis, the one who is leading in this responses to the Church, but we are also meant to domesticate and come up with our own situations. Now for example, one of the challenges, going forward will be during the COVID-19 that is coming back, we feel, we noticed that the physical Church that was closed down, our sanctuaries that were closed down, we moved our Culture of care is the panacea to… evangelization to online and ministering to many people in different capacities through online. Wonderful. Great experience. But we do know that the sacrament of salvation cannot be received online, that people must get in touch with one another and get in touch with the grace of God. This is one of the challenges. I have had discussion with some lay faithful who say they prefer the liturgy for example on the air, siting in their room, and I said well, as a result of that, you subscribe yourself only to taking Spiritual Communion.
Yes, Spiritual Communion is very good, but it’s only very good in any place that you have no opportunity to receive physical Holy Communion; when you could not be with your community. So, you can see that we need a lot of catechetical for example, to help our people to understand that the physical Church meeting together in a place, to celebrate the Eucharist, to share the body of God, if the norm that the liturgy on air is an exemption. An exemption does not become the law and does not take precedence over the standard. Now, how has the Church responded? In many ways we have responded to the needs of our people, physical needs of our people, material needs of our people during COVID-19 pandemic. I would not say that we did the best we could or perhaps we did the most, we continue to do it.; we continue to cut board, support to the weak. Many of the people who lost their jobs are members of our churches. What are we doing to meet their needs? What are we doing to encourage them? And so on and so forth. So, there are a lot of challenges that the year 2020 has posed; not just for government, but also for church leaders. And I want to believe that we are not failing, but we need to constantly think on how to improve on what has been achieved. No member of the world and no member of the Church must be left behind, especially in the area of caring for the needy. There are some people who are so much in need in our Church, and these are the ones that we need to look out for. They may not have the courage to come up to ask. They may not come up to reveal themselves, but we must search them like Jesus Christ did searching for that one lost sheep. That’s the attitude of pastoral life that we need to involve in post-COVID Church and post- COVID society.
On January 1, the Catholic Church commemorates two key liturgical events. I will like you to tell us what these events are, and what exactly are the essences of these events, and why do Catholics celebrate them on January 1, and how do these events help shape the minds of Catholics in the New Year?
Well, January 1, for us in the Catholic Church is still a continuation of the celebration of Christmas. As I said on Christmas day to my own flock here in Ijebu-Ode Diocese, that Christmas is not a one-day celebration, and after that celebration we put it behind, we are looking towards New Year, happy New Year and so on and so forth. No, Christmas for us in the Church is celebrated for about eight days. The liturgy is the same, and different events of that liturgy focus on the mystery of incarnation. The first day of Christmas celebration is the Vigil Mass and the Morning Mass focus on the birth of Jesus Christ that are called E…Night. The second celebration of Christmas is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It still focuses on the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord and the role that the human persons create in this mystery, the person of Mary and the person of Joseph. Even the feast day of the first martyr, Stephen is part and parcel of the celebration of Christmas.
We celebrated Christmas, second day, we celebrated the feast of the first martyr, saying that Christianity always spurs us to sacrifice. Now, the first day of January is also very important. It’s the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, Cleotopas. Now, this solemnity is also part and parcel of the continuation of celebration of Christmas. We are now focusing on the Mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The one who received the grace. The one who is full of grace. The one in whom God’s word is domesticated, took flesh. So, we present Mary to the whole world as the first Christian disciple, the model of followership of Jesus and that if we begin the new year which is so important to all of us in the world with our Mother Mary, and walk with her, definitely, we are walking with Jesus, and Jesus will continue to lead us right. And so, the Church begins the year with the feast of the Solemnity of the Mother of God. And again, we celebrate the 54th World Day of Peace. Wow! The world peace. Of course, the Holy Father has issued his usual letter to us, and there cannot be anytime in the whole history of the 21st century where we need to talk about peace. Now, this double celebration, Mary, the Mother of God, this Day of World Peace find its unity in Jesus. Jesus Christ is the peace of God. In other words, the world must listen to the gospel of Christ. The world must eternalize the message of Christ.
Each person, whether you are Christian or not Christian, most of us Christians because this letter is addressed to the whole world. The first recipient of this letter are the Catholic Community, the Christian Community. Each one of us must become harbinger, must become instrument of peace. And if we do this in union with Mary, our world becomes a better place. And so, I am looking forward to the celebration of the first day of the year in my Cathedral where I am going to dwell on the message of the Holy Father and invite people with Mary to bring this peace to the world like Mary brought Christ to the world, brought peace to the world, the angels glory to God in the highest and peace to men of goodwill. And so, those of us who are in union with Mary could also bring Christ to the world, and therefore, bring peace to our society and to everything that we do.
Sometime ago, I ran into a document that has to do with the naming ceremony of Jesus Christ on January 1st. Is there anything like naming ceremony of Jesus or circumcision of Jesus on January 1?
Well, there is no official document about that. You see, sometimes our people try to conceptualise or perhaps adapt the tradition of the Jewish counting eight days. Usually, Jews will count 40 days actually from birth, the presentation. Then, the naming of a child is also done the usual way. We read about the case of John the Baptist on the eight day when he was to be named, a miracle occurred; Zachariah spoke. So, people are taking that biblical passage and giving it to Jesus. There is no historical record of the naming of Jesus because Jesus himself had a name before He was born, the name had been given. Isn’t it? And so, from the very day He was born, the mother and the father were sure. Most probably, they did the official naming rituals, but there’s no record of it. And so, the Church does not focus on the naming ceremony of Jesus on the 1st of January, we focus more on the two things I have said; the celebration of Mary as Mother of God and the World Day of Peace.
However, if anybody finds spiritual strength because of the situation maybe in any pastoral circumstances where one can project the naming ceremony of Jesus, on that day and therefore bring people together to recognize that for the good or for the salvation of souls, there’s nothing really bad in it, but as I said, there’s no evidence in scripture of this ceremony, and the Church does not emphasize on it. While highlighting the liturgical events on January 1, you talked about the 54th World Day of Peace. The Pope’s message is entitled “A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace.” We will like Your Lordship to relate this message to Nigerians in respect to curtailing issues of nepotism, Boko Haram insurgency, corruption, ethnicity and crisis of governance militating against the growth of our country Nigeria. Well, the title of the Pope’s letter, “A culture of care as a path to peace.”
This theme already occurred in his post-COVID letter, ‘life after the COVID experience’ where Pope Francis analyzed the world that is broken down by selfishness, by pride, by arrogance, by hoarding and forgetting that every resources of the world is meant by God to be justly and fairly distributed, so that nobody lacks. And it says because of the lockdown that the world faced as a result of COVID-19, it is possible that the world after COVID-19 can even become more selfish. Government may want to hoard for safety and for care of their own people and forget other nations; leaders of government would also do the same. Now, you bring back this to home in Nigeria, the culture of care is the panacea to the troubles we have in our world today, especially in our country Nigeria. If our government can be less selfish, if our government can embark on a message of care that governance essentially means service and care to the people who elected them to office as it were, and they do that faithfully, without prejudice, without any hidden agenda, they will better have fared us the people.
It would mitigate to a great extent the insecurity in our society, the kidnapping in our society because the culture of care is not just a Christian patrimony, it’s a patrimony of all human being created in the image and likeness of God. And so, God is caring, God is compassionate, God is loving and each one of us, whether Muslim or Christian imbibe this culture, a lot of evil, a lot of vices in our society toady will be taken care of. And once these vices are arrested by the culture of care, the culture of love, the culture of sharing, the culture of being our brother’s keeper, we are already in the pathway of peace, and where there’s peace, there will be justice, there will be fairness. Now there will always be evil people in the society, that’s why we talk about justice, that if anybody is caught by the arm of the law, then, they should not be protected; they should be made public, they should be tried according to the rules and regulation, according to the constitution of the nation.
At least, they need to be punished so that they may be a deterrent to other people. And that is talking about justice in the context of seeking peace. And so, I think for us in Nigeria, and I wish our government can listen to the Pope speaking to us on January 1st, especially in helping us to create the culture of care and love, and also the culture of peace in our country. Our country needs to hear this message. And I think as Catholic Church, we must endeavour, and that’s what we are trying to do, to put this on the public media; either social media or print media or electronic media, we need to speak loud about this message. We need to be able to find a way of getting this message to our own government. I am going to try on my own part to package this message and send it to the Governor of my state. I wish every bishop could do that. This is the message of the Holy Father to all of us in this country, for all of us in this nation, if all of us could do this, it would be wonderful.
Insecurity in Nigeria, especially in the North has been on the rise, and people are calling on the President to replace the Service Chiefs, others are of the contrary opinion, where do you stand?
Well, the situation is very confusing, but where do I stand here? Is that I want to believe that the President should not be obstinate. He must not pretend that he knows better than everybody in the country. And if many stake holders in this country think that the Service Chiefs have over-stayed and they are not as effective as they should, then, there must be a responsible reaction of any good government to say, ‘Ok, they have done so well, but yet, their best as the President said was not good enough.’ If their best is not good enough, why does he not have the courage, the effrontery to change them, some are led to nepotism, some are due to other reasons. Where I stand is that if the whole nation say that this is not good for us, this is not the right place, this is not the right people because they have overspent their energy. It is an act of humility, the act of responsible leadership to bow out at the right time. And I think President Buhari should listen to Nigerians. And I don’t think Buratai and his colleagues in this situation are the only persons Nigeria can produce. Am sure that if you give any other person opportunity, I think they will come up also with some helpful strategy. So, fresh ideas might come through our polity if there are fresh hands. But we all know President Buhari and some of his antecedents; he’s a man who is highly perhaps traditional, he is stuck to his own gun, and that is why we have this situation that is unchanging.
We would like to have your views on the way forward for Nigeria, amid the frightening security, political and economic challenges in 2021?
Well, the way forward in Nigeria for peace, for a more secured society, I would like to call on the government, our security personnel; we know that in a state, the governor is the leader of that team, in the federal government, we know it’s the president and all his Service Chiefs. It is my wish that we can come together and put politics aside and think about security which is the first responsibility of those elected to offices, and to take it seriously. If we need to change hands, let us change hands. If we need to provide more infrastructure, perhaps make available money for them to be able to do their work, I think we need to do it. Recently, there is a lot of call in this country that our government either state or federal, particularly the federal should not be shy to evaluate themselves and say their inability to safeguard Nigerians. And if we can reach out to other nations, nobody does security monolithically any longer. There must be cross-border. There must be partnership with other nations like our neighbours and foreigners. This is not submitting our sovereignty to them, but rather, they can partner with us to resolve the problem we have. I think it’s becoming very serious and many Nigerians are going to the year 2021 with a lot of fear, not only in the Northern part of the country, of course that is the area that is most hit, but even those of us in the South here, we can hardly travel on the road without encountering one difficulty or the other. For how long shall we continue to do this? We hear of the marauding Fulani in our streets, in our forests, even in South-west, South-east and everywhere. And government has not come out to say that it is not true, but that is the fact that people see. So, we need to come together. We need to reason together. Those in government need to take leadership proficiently, in fact, we have to take the bull by the horns. If we need help from foreign and well experienced governments who could tackle insecurity, we must be open to them. I hope that going forward to the year 2021, both government and all of us who are being led, the governed; we can take it more seriously. We can speak out louder and ask the government to protect us. Of course, God is doing his work, God is protecting us, God is giving opportunity every moment, but God is not going to come down to do what he has assigned to us to do. And so, this is where we must help ourselves, this is where God has given opportunity to defend this country, to defend the people. I pray that 2021, we will not experience a lot of killings, a lot of kidnappings, a lot of insecurity that we have experienced in the past, particularly in the year 2020 that is going to an end.
How is Ijebu-Ode Diocese doing?
(Laughs) Perhaps, my flock or my priests should be the best ones to answer this question if I am not going to be partial. Well, to the glory of God, I am fulfilled and happy as bishop, and I am happy working in Ijebu-Ode which has been entrusted to me more than one year ago now. I can see growth. Apart from growth, I can see spiritual harmony. I can see joy and happiness. I can see hope within the kindred, both in the priests and religious, in the people. I can see structures coming into place, and structure functioning well. I hear a lot of hope, and I am happy and fulfilled; am excited about it. My Emeritus Bishop Fashina, thank God is healthy in better health than he used to be, and he is part and parcel of people that are driving this new opportunity that God has given to us as Church. And to the glory of God, we are thankful for the year 2020 for many things God has achieved in us and through us. We had at the close of this year Diocesan pastoral seminar, but this time around, I expanded it beyond priest just meeting to evaluate themselves I had day with laity, I had a day with the religious during the process of the seminar, and it was very fruitful. With that, we had some clear plans about what we want to do next year. And so, I think Ijebu-Ode Diocese is growing and it’s happily taking care of its Bishop, and the Bishop is struggling and working hard to be a true shepherd to the flock of God.
We would like you to share your experiences as Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ijebu-Ode?
Well, you know I was ordained a Bishop of Ijebu-Ode 25th of April, 2019. I just moved past one year, looking into my second year in the ministry. As I said, it has been exciting. It’s been very challenging too, and it’s been very consoling. As I said before too, it’s the people who can talk more about what their shepherd is doing. But I want to let you know now that my experience working with the people has been fantastic. The Diocese of Ijebu-Ode now has in place a Diocesan Pastoral Council which has been put on hold for more than 10 years now. I have constituted a new vibrant one, and we are doing workshop for different pastoral councils in the parish; we have started already, and the year 2021 is going to be filled with a lot of formation of our laity in the grassroots, so they can understand. The Diocese of Ijebu-Ode now has what is called pastoral strategy, pastoral plan for the next five years. We have worked that out, soon to be published by the end of January, and to launch the preparation for that, I have just issued my first pastoral letter as Bishop of Ijebu-Ode and the title is “The word of God: A light in our path, beyond the golden jubilee year celebrations.” And so, these letters are made available to all our parishioners both in English and Yoruba, to share my letter and for every letter, it must be read, must be internalized, and have been telling them to respond to this letter. This pastoral letter is about the word of God because we just concluded the Year of the Word of God just shortly after our golden jubilee celebration. And I wanted to take the message of that word of God as a path, as a light that must guide our evangelistic ministry going forward. And so, incidentally, Pope Francis had announced the third Sunday of January as the Sunday of the Word of God, so, my pastoral letter came out at the right time. On that Sunday, I’m sure it’s going to be read, whether in summary or in full in parishes, and we will encourage people to take it home to pray about it, and I will be open to their responses. So, if I find a way of getting one copy to you, I will be glad to do so.
You talked about a golden jubilee, what golden jubilee is it?
We just celebrated a golden jubilee of the canonical inversion in Ijebu-Ode Diocese. We concluded it last year. It was in the context of that golden jubilee I was ordained in April, and in July, we concluded that golden jubilee celebration of the diocese. I want you to speak to Nigerians.
What New Year message do you have for Nigerians?
My New Year message for Nigerians is that we must continually be a people of hope. I know that the year 2020 has been very challenging to all of us, both to government, to teachers, students, to families. I mean in the context of the many negatives recorded in the year 2020, there is tendency towards despair. We are ending the year 2020 for example in depression, with a lot of inflation in the market, and people are worried about how to cope at the end of this year and going into the New Year, 2021. My message is like the message of Isiah. Do not give up. The Lord is in our journey with us. We must be people of faith and people of hope. Times are going to get better for people who do not lose hope. God who walks with them will change their fortunes for good. So, my message for Nigerians is that we must remain resilient, we must be hardworking, we must have faith in our self and faith in other people. We must share our resources. We must be careful. We must be charitable. We must be caring for others because givers never lack. Let’s give our time, let’s give our energy, let’s give our resources. Let’s meet the need of the needy and 2021 will definitely be a better year spiritually, materially, politically, if we take the message of caring for one another home. It is my prayer that the Lord who has brought us this far and enabled us to overcome all our challenges in 2020, the same Lord will guide us into 2021 and give us more increase and give us more joy, hope and better time and better days ahead through Christ our Lord. Amen.