A keynote speech to the graduating pioneer students of John Paul II Institute of Theology (JOPASIT), Kumba Campus at Fiango, Kumba on October 24, 2015.
Your Lordship, Bishop Immanuel Bushu, Bishop of Buea;
Reverend Fathers, Reverend Brothers, Reverend Sisters;
Civil and Religious Authorities, all protocol respected;
Brothers and sisters in the Lord:
I thank Father Herbert Niba, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Theology of the Diocese of Buea, who asked me to be the guest speaker at the graduation ceremony of the pioneer students of John Paul II Institute of Theology (JOPASIT), Kumba Campus. I was taken aback by his request and I asked to know why me? His response was that priests had been guest speakers during the past three graduation and inaugural ceremonies and so he thought a member of Christ’s lay-faithful, someone who, in his words, was “immersed in the world as Christ’s feet and hands”, should be given a chance to share his own experiences. I liked the idea of being equated to “Christ’s feet and hands,” so I quickly said, yes, I’ll be with you. And here I am. Me voici, donc à Kumba!
People like you, who have had the courage to spend four years of their lives studying under some of the best minds in theology in our local Church, or who are preparing to embark on this journey of faith, certainly do not want a man coming from Douala to give them another lecture on how to be good lay members of Christ’s Church. I should, in fact, be the one taking lessons from you in that regard since I failed in my own attempt, several years ago, to attend a school similar to yours in Douala.
I recall that when Christian Cardinal Tumi, the then Archbishop of Douala, today the Emeritus Archbishop, opened a school of theology for the laity in Douala, it was received with unbelievable enthusiasm. I was then serving as the General Manager of the Archdiocesan Media House, more widely known by its French acronym, MACACOS (Maison Catholique de la Communication Sociale). I also signed up for the course but always found an excuse not to attend the classes. I remember feeling very guilty the first weeks after signing up for the classes because I thought the formators, all priests I knew, would notice my absence. Each time I met any of them, I expected him to ask me why I was not attending the class. After all, was I not the General Manager of MACACOS?
Then, one day I decided to make time and attend one of those classes, and I was shocked by what I saw. There must have been well over 200 persons in that small hall at the orphanage of the Saint John Parish in Deido. Some people were even following the lectures from the loudspeakers that had been placed in the courtyard. I was stunned by the quality of the students. I saw men and women from all walks of life: from the law profession (magistrates, lawyers, bailiffs), from academia (university lecturers, professors), from the business world (bankers, accountants), you name them; they were all there, especially as the Cardinal was the lecturer of the day. And there I was, thinking that the world had noticed my absence! No one even noticed my presence! I left feeling profoundly humbled. But then, shame on me, I never did what you all have been so brave to do over the past four years, or are planning to do, for those of you still coming in, that is, continue my formation, which I badly needed then, and still stand in dire need of today.
I remember that when I went back home and told my family about the course and how I had not had the time to attend, my then ten-year old son laughed and said that daddy had “dribbled” his class. It was then I learnt that when someone skips classes, he or she has “dribbled” them. I had always thought that dribbling past someone was a football term. In our days we talked of ‘dodging’ classes. The ‘artful dodger’ syndrome! So you have before you this morning a class “dribbler”. What good can you expect from a class” dribbler”? Perhaps if Father Herbert had known that I had “dribbled” my own formation classes, he might have thought twice before inviting me. However, I believe it isn’t too late for me to re-enroll in the theology classes in Douala, especially after what I’m seeing here today. You are an inspiration to many. You all look beautiful in your academic garbs. Congratulations!
When Father Herbert told me I would be talking to you this day, I did what academicians recommend that we do. Even though I have been away from academics for a long time now, I still remember that when you are given an assignment, you check your sources, see what others have said about the topic, filter their thoughts and see what you can borrow from them, making sure that you acknowledge your sources so as not to fall prey to that deadly academic virus, namely, plagiarism, the inexcusable crime of using others’ thoughts as if they were yours. So I went to Church sources to see what the Church has said about my role in Church as a lay faithful of Christ, and I was amazed by what I saw.
Since Vatican II Council, Mother Church has given pride of place to the formation of the laity. However, there still remains a lack of understanding on our part as Christ’s lay faithful of our vocation and role in the Church’s mission. Many of us, who have not had the chance to receive the type of formation you have undergone, or are about to undergo, generally believe that the Church still belongs to the ordained Order (bishops, priests, religious) and we, the laity, are there merely to help around the parish and occasionally run errands for our parish priests.
But the Church expects a lot more from us. In the beautiful words of your patron saint, Saint John Paul II, “there is so much need today for mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world”. We are therefore called to evangelise the secular world. Nigeria-born Francis Cardinal Arinze, retired Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said in an interview, which seems to me to summarise beautifully our role as laity, “The essential feature of the layperson’s role is the vocation to bring the spirit of Christ into the arenas of secular life from within, i.e. into the family, work and profession, trade and commerce, politics and government, mass media, science and culture and national and international relations. The role of the clergy is different. It is to celebrate the sacred mysteries, to preach the Word of God and to gather the people of God together.”
Those of us who follow political developments in our country – and I believe we all do — have heard, on several occasions, Christian Cardinal Tumi turn down invitations to run for the highest office in this land because, as he always says, he is a priest and, as such, cannot take part in partisan politics. Even if he had wanted to, it is doubtful that the Holy See would give a head nod to such political ambitions. That space is for us, the lay people, to occupy. That is why the Church encourages us to play an active role in the political arena of our country.
So you are not leaving from here today to replace your priests but rather to cooperate with them so the Word of God can reach into the depths of our society, beginning, of course, in our individual families. I like the beautiful words of a hymn which say that if you cannot cross the oceans in search of the heathen to evangelise, do not look further than your own door. Let our evangelisation efforts start in our own families – our own “ecclesia domestica” – the domestic church! The Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family is about to round up in Rome. The family of our day is under constant attack from all angles, and the Church cannot remain indifferent. Hence, the relevance of the present Synod on the family. Many of you will, undoubtedly, be called upon to take the recommendations of this Synod into the secular world. Your formation has prepared you for this task.
You seduced me, O Lord!
Let me leave generalities aside and come back home, that is, to myself. I will briefly tell you how the Lord, in his imponderable wisdom, seduced me and I allowed myself to be seduced as his grip was too powerful for me to resist. I am a translator and a conference interpreter by training and a freelance journalist. I work for the Catholic media, at Radio Veritas in Douala, and I was once the editor-in-chief of the English version of L’Effort camerounais, which, you may, or may not know, is the oldest surviving newspaper in this country, the voice of the Catholic Church. I believe Cameroon Panorama comes next, still the voice of our Church in the media. Support the Catholic media!
I was born into a staunch Catholic family in Nkar, Kumbo Diocese. In fact, your Bishop’s village is only a few miles away from mine. He was, at one time, our parishioner before the outstation in his village ‘seceded’ to become a full-fledged parish in its own right, and we ‘lost’ him, so to speak. After primary education in Catholic schools in my village and in Nkambe, I went to the Government Bilingual Grammar School in Man O’War Bay in Victoria, today Limbe, then to CCAST Bambili for high school, before proceeding to the then lone University of Yaoundé. I later spent several years in Europe and North America in pursuit of excellence in the field of translation and conference interpretation. During those years at home and abroad, mainly in secular educational circles, the church had no place in my life. In fact, I even took pride in telling whoever wanted to listen that I had nothing to do with the church. Even though my wife remained quite steadfast in her faith during the four years she and I spent in Canada, I was not always too keen about prayers or the church, except when she became upset about my lack of interest in matters of faith, I would then, in a desire to keep matrimonial harmony, follow her to church. Even several years after our return home, I barely had anything to do with the church at all.
But then, to my greatest surprise, that changed completely. It happened quite unexpectedly and not in a dramatic or spectacular manner like Saint Paul’s on the road to Damascus. No, it all began when, as a young journalist for the secular media, I joined Christian Cardinal Tumi on what has come to be known in the Archdiocese of Douala as the ‘March for Peace’. Every first day of the year, January 1, the Archbishop leads Christians from one part of the city to the Saints Peter and Paul’s Cathedral for a Mass for peace. That tradition has continued under the present occupant of the Metropolitan See of Douala, His Grace Samuel Kleda.
The first ‘March for Peace’ was on the first of January 1993, over twenty years ago! How time flies! Those were very difficult days in this country, politically-speaking. Those were the days of the so-called “villes mortes” characterised by violence of all sorts. I was a very active member of the media, mainly the written press. I churned out article upon article for the English press and was a well-known figure in media circles.
It was my quest for hot news that led me to cover the said 1993 March for Peace that lasted over five hours in the Douala heat. That was the first time I met Cardinal Tumi face-to-face. He was, and still largely remains, a news-worthy personality. I went there expecting something dramatic to occur that day. We all thought the police would intervene as we had seen them do on several other occasions in the past. We were all eager to see what the Cardinal’s reaction would be if the police were to attempt to break up the march. I wanted to be the first journalist on the scene to record the event – a ‘scoop’, we call it in journalistic language.
But, surprisingly, and to my greatest disappointment, nothing happened; at least, not visibly. The police I had expected to come out wielding their batons were nowhere in sight. The grand declaration I had expected the Cardinal to make did not come. He simply stepped ahead of literally thousands of people who began to march behind him, praying the rosary and singing and dancing along the way. To me, that was a total disappointment, an absolute waste of my precious time – or so I thought. I hesitated between going back home and following the Cardinal a little further. There is a fork on the road in Deido, Douala, where I believe the Lord first touched me. I had the option to either turn left and go back home, or right and continue with the crowd. I hesitated for a few seconds and then decided to follow the crowd, even though I was totally lost because I couldn’t then understand a single prayer in French. Even today, whenever I reach that spot, I always feel that it was there that the Lord began to seduce me.
Along the way, as I walked with the crowd, I still hoped and prayed for something spectacular to happen so I would have something to write about. However, the unbelievable began to happen to me. I started paying attention to the prayers around me, listening carefully as people were reciting the prayers (‘Our Father’, ‘Hail Mary’, ‘Glory be to the Father’). Everyone had a rosary, except me. That was the first time I was hearing those prayers in French. They were still very unfamiliar to me and I tried to recite them in English, but, to my horror, I realised that I couldn’t remember the words in English either. I gradually began to realise that I had indeed fallen by the roadside in my faith. Before we reached the cathedral, my mind was a den of confusion, which was to be followed by several days of agony. Something strange was happening to me and I couldn’t say for sure what it was. Why the sudden worry about my faith – or the lack thereof? In the past, I would have merely shrugged my shoulders and gone on to more ‘important’ concerns, but not this time around. Something was bothering me although I couldn’t say for sure what it was.
The monastery in Mbengwi
It took weeks of worries and confusion before I finally decided to open up to a lady who worked with me, a good Catholic Christian. She listened to me with much interest and then advised me to take sometime off and go to the monastery in Mbengwi for a retreat. My first visit to that monastery had been several years before when I went with a brother of mine to buy a cake for his wedding. On that occasion, I had been stunned by the cold and impenetrable nature of that monastery and I couldn’t understand how anyone could survive there.
Several years later, there I was, heading for the same monastery, steeped in confusion, and not being sure what was really happening to me. Like Saint Paul, I was heading for my own Arabian desert. There, I spent a week in the company of a wonderful monk-priest, who is today in heaven, Father Pius Okoye – my own Ananias, who cleared my own spiritual blindness and I began to see the marvels the Lord had done for me. I will never forget that it was in that monastery that, with the help of Father Pius, the Lord finally conquered my resistance and I yielded to his irresistible grip on me. That was when I became what the inimitable Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe calls “an arrow in the bow” of our Lord. I could then understand what Saint Augustine meant when he said that our souls are restless until they rest in the Lord; and I happily joined the prophet Jeremiah to sing: “You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed” (Jer 20:7).
By the way, if you do not have a retreat on your agenda for this year, please go ahead and insert it in there. Retreats provide you with what someone has called the “deep pool of spiritual quietness”. It is in such quietness, not in storms, or earthquakes, that you feel, like Elijah, God’s voice speaking to you in the gentleness of the breeze. Saint Augustine advises us “to leave a little room for reflection, room too for silence. … Hear the word in quietness that you may understand.” For someone like me, who lives in the noisy city of Douala, a few days away from it all, where possible, under the spiritual guidance of a retreat master, are precious moments not to miss. You are lucky that you have a place like the Foyer de Charité in Bonjongo, where Father Jude Kimbi does such a wonderful job!
That is a short version of what is really a long story of conversion. Let me briefly share with you how I have been living my Christian life since my encounter with the Lord during that “March for Peace” with Cardinal Tumi. Like many of you here, except the clergy, I wear several caps at once: I am a father of three, a husband, a manager, a translator, an interpreter, a journalist, a parishioner, a member of several civil and social groups. When you come to think of it, the list can be long; but let me share with you how I handle a few of those roles. For want of time, I shall be brief.
A father of the family
As a father and a husband, I have come to value the pivotal role prayer plays in our family life. This is something I became aware of after regaining my faith. When our children were still small and with us, we always prayed with them before and after meals, before going to bed, and after waking up in the morning. Since they have now left home and are living their own lives, my wife and I have made it a daily routine to wake up each day at 5 a.m. to say the rosary. When I joined the Cardinal on his march around the city, I didn’t even have a rosary and rosary prayer was very unfamiliar to me. I always thought of it as the most boring and repetitive prayer ever. Not anymore! The graces we have obtained in the family through this prayer are too numerous to enumerate here. These days we even end our rosary by saying one “Our Father,” one “Hail Mary” and one “Glory be to God,” for peace in our country. We are trying in our own way to read the signs of the times.
Manage family finances
My wife and I run a school together. She is an excellent finance manager; quite the opposite of yours truly. Once money enters my hands, forget it, it goes with the speed of lightening, but when it is in her hands, you need a pair of pincers to pull it away. So I let her handle the home and business finances. When I worked for an oil company, I saw how easy it was for money to destroy homes. Money is one great source of marital problems. I worked in the human resources section of my company for several years. People are paid very handsome salaries in the oil industry but many oil-industry workers, by no means all, have great marital problems, mainly as a result of money. One main cause is that people hide their salary information from their spouses and families sometimes break up because of secrecy around money. After observing what was happening around me, I decided to tell my wife exactly how much was coming in and how much we were worth at any one time. She has a signatory right to my account and I have a signatory right to hers as well.
I was invited to talk to a group of workers preparing for retirement and when I told them that they would have great peace in their retirement if they were to open up to their spouses and tell them exactly how much their severance package was, one of them stood up and loudly asked me to shut up. Was I trying to send him prematurely to his grave? How could he, a man that he was, show his wife how much he was receiving as departure package? What if she disappeared with his money? He received applause from those around of like minds.
It is possible that your wife can disappear with your money but, more often than not, the opposite happens. Suspicion and accusations that usually characterise such events, cease when the spouses decide together how to manage the windfall. When that happens, money ceases to be the center of your marital life. It is still important, no doubt, but it is no longer a critical element in your family life. It ceases to be the master of your family life and becomes the servant that it has always been meant to be. Why? Because when you are open with your spouse about your finances, the Holy Spirit intervenes and the money becomes a unifying force, no longer a force of division. Once you hide it, Satan steps in and whispers words of division to the other party’s ears and soon the family is breaking up over financial secrecy. Open up to your spouse with your finances, and you will be surprised by the accompanying peace in your family.
As a parishioner
Among the responsibilities I have as an elder person in my parish, I value my role as a counselor to young couples preparing for marriage. One of Pope Francis’ concerns has been that more and more young people are afraid of marriage. Among other issues at the current Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family are the reasons for this fear of marriage among the young.
In my discussion with the young people, I talk to them about managing their finances, the source of so many marriage breakups. The expenses involved in marriage these days scare young people. There is a phenomenon of the limousine in Douala these days. Every weekend, when most marriages are celebrated, limousines line up outside the Cathedral in Douala. It seems all young people are rivalling each other to show who among them would arrive at the Cathedral in the longest limousine ever. My neighbor in the Bonamoussadi neighborhood rents out those limousines. He started off with one and now he has six of them. Business is booming for him. If a young couple is not seen alighting from one of them then they can’t be said to be married, unfortunately.
My role is to assure young people that such huge financial expenses are not necessary for marriage. A case in point, a young man who worked for us as a journalist based in Buea went to the Bishop’s House to deliver a copy of L’Effort camerounais. He was then living with a girl with whom he had a number of children but they were not married in Church. Someone must have hinted the Bishop about his status and the Bishop called him to his office and informed him that he was assigning a priest to prepare him and his wife for marriage. He gave a date for the marriage and told the young man that he (the Bishop) was going to celebrate his marriage in his chapel. The young man was taken aback but complied with the Bishop’s instructions. He was married in a small ceremony in the Bishop’s chapel. When I met him a few weeks later, he was very excited and thankful to the Bishop for it. When I asked him why, he said he had been scared of the expenses involved in marriage. All his friends, who were married, always threw huge and costly bachelor’s eve parties, hired limousines or other expensive cars to shuttle them to church and back and he didn’t have that type of money. But then the Bishop, unknowingly, came to his rescue and took that weight of guilt off his shoulders, and he and his wife are now happily back in Church as communicants.
Thank you for this opportunity you have given me to share with you how I have immersed myself in the world as “Christ’s feet and hands”. We all have our individual conversion stories to tell. Let us share them with the rest of humanity. As we journey along this path of faith, our own road to Emmaus, our hearts will continue to burn within us as we listen to Christ opening the scriptures to us.
Douala, October 22, 2015