The Petrine and Pauline Elements in Christian Cardinal Tumi

(First published in the July-September 2021 edition of Summit Magazine)

In one of his edifying videos, Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Diocese of Winona-Rochester in the United States, says that there is a petrine and a pauline element in every Catholic priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal, or pope.  The petrine element emerges when the priest, like Saint Peter, governs, directs and establishes order in the church, and guides his flock to recognise Christ as the “Son of the living God,” (Mt 16: 16). The pauline element emerges when the priest, like Saint Paul, boldly and daringly evangelises, often leaving the comfort of his presbytery for what Pope Francis calls ‘the peripheries’ where the poor people live.  There, like Saint Paul, he preaches the Gospel from the rooftops in total defiance of whatever obstacles may stand on his way. These two elements are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they exist in every priest, although one may, depending on the circumstances, hold sway over the other.

I saw these two elements embrace and perfectly blend in Christian Wiyghan-nsai Cardinal Tumi, the recently deceased Emeritus Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Douala in Cameroon. When he took over possession of the Metropolitan See of Douala in 1991, that Archdiocese was in a sorry state — financially and structurally. Its coffers were practically empty and the list of debtors knocking at the church’s door and asking to be paid overdue loans, stretched for miles. The Cathedral, and just about all the parishes, were nearly in ruins. The situation was made worse by the amorphous nature of the Archdiocese itself. It covered such a large surface area that it literally sat astride two administrative entities: the Littoral and the Center Provinces.  Like Saint Peter, Cardinal Tumi set out to bring order into the diocesan structures, especially its finances.  He undertook lengthy negotiations with diocesan creditors (banks and other financial institutions) for them to re-schedule the reimbursement of the diocesan loans.  Luckily for him, and for the Archdiocese, his long-established reputation for uprightness, integrity and bravery had preceded him and was already making headlines in the media, and it was clear that many of his creditors were sensitive to the media depiction of him, and when he approached them for more lenient repayment terms, they quickly agreed.

With the archdiocesan credibility once more re-established in the eyes of the financial sector, Cardinal Tumi picked up his command baton – his crosier and his mitre – and went out in search of his flock. He went from parish to parish throughout the then vast territory of the Archdiocese of Douala. He visited parishes that had even long forgotten that there was a bishop in the diocese.  In his ears, he must have heard the warning God gave to the shepherds of Israel, through the prophet Jeremiah, because they had “scattered my flock [and] driven them away and have not visited them” (Jer 23:2).

After those extensive parish-to-parish contacts, Cardinal Tumi became convinced that, for easy administration, he had to dismember his Archdiocese as a matter of urgency. Such a breakup would also bring the pastors closer to their sheep. As Pope Francis says, a good shepherd must have the smell of his sheep on him. The smell of the sheep clings to pastors who dare venture into the peripheries from where they can be in close proximity with their sheep, not those who bury themselves only in clerical duties, useful though such duties may be.

Segmenting the Archdiocese

With the head-nod from the Vatican, Cardinal Tumi undertook the delicate task of breaking up his previously single Archdiocese into three separate dioceses, namely, the Archdiocese of Douala under his care, the Diocese of Edea with Bishop Jean-Bosco Ntep at its head, and the Diocese of Eseka, the chief shepherd being Bishop Dieudonné Bogmis, now of blessed memory.  Having surrendered a huge chunk of his Archdiocese, he then embarked on the reconstruction of a territory covering only the entire city of Douala and the immediate peripheries, including Manoka, one of the small islands in the Wouri creeks.

He then initiated extensive material and structural reforms, an act that brought to the fore the Petrine elements of good governance, order and direction. He revolutionised his administration by encouraging his parish priests to involve Christ’s lay faithful at the parochial level in the management of parish resources, especially its finances. He set the tone by seeking assistance, at the diocesan level, from Catholic men and women of the banking sector, the legal profession, academicians, and technicians from all fields.  Many of those invited willingly stepped in to help their bishop navigate some thorny areas that he would otherwise have found quite challenging. For example, when he set out to recover all diocesan land that had long been usurped mainly, but not exclusively, by priests, religious and other diocesan officials, he met with understandable resistance.  Had it not been for the gracious assistance of Catholic lay experts in legal and real estate matters, he would not have been able to recover what had been wrongly and illegally snatched from the Archdiocese.

Cardinal Tumi, the builder

Being the great builder and administrator that he was, Cardinal Tumi undertook an extensive renovation of parishes throughout the Archdiocese, beginning with the Cathedral parish itself. He tore down the old Bishop’s House, replacing it with a much more modern structure with many rooms that now house many visitors (bishops, priests, religious and laity, for example). He carried out extensive work inside the Cathedral, painting the walls and providing new pews and ceiling fans. Outside, he paved the Cathedral courtyard where previously there was just sand that became a massive sludge whenever it rained. With the paved surface area, church-goers could happily linger around a bit longer after Mass to socialise before going back home. He undertook the building of new hospitals, schools, colleges, and a university, Saint Jerome University, while renovating and upgrading existing structures. He set up a printing press called “Maison Catholique de la Communication Sociale” (MACACOS) [Catholic Media House] which, at its peak, churned out almost three-quarters of the newspapers then sold in Cameroon. He was the first bishop in Cameroon to set up a diocesan radio station, Radio Veritas, a powerful tool of evangelisation that was met by general applause from Catholics and non-Catholics alike living in the city of Douala.

Cardinal Tumi, the evangeliser, was constantly on the move, visiting parishes every weekend when he was in town, baptising and confirming those new to the faith.  He promoted priestly and religious vocations that greatly boomed on his watch.  He did not only form priests locally, he also sent some of them to seminaries and universities all over the world, particularly Europe and North America, and those priests came back to evangelise by proclaiming the Gospel that is “new in ardor, new in methods and new in expression,” to borrow the felicitous words of Saint John Paul II.

Like Saint Paul, Cardinal Tumi also preached often through his writings. When he was still the Rector of the Major Seminary of Bambui, he had already made a name for himself through his interventions in the Cameroon Panorama, the monthly magazine published by the Diocese of Buea. One of his interventions, which became famous, was his reaction to an article that Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, may he rest in peace, had published in the said monthly magazine to congratulate the bishops of Buea, Monsignor Pius Suh Awa, and of Bamenda, Monsignor Paul Mbiybe Verdzekov, for creating the Major Seminary of Bambui, which had been entrusted to him. The exchanges between the two men were well received by the readership, and animated discussions for several months in the English-speaking intellectual milieu of the time.  One day I reminded him of those exchanges and he merely smiled.

His homilies were always well structured, often handwritten.  His pastoral letters were also straight to the point. He even wrote a letter to the highwaymen at a time when our country was facing serious political and social upheavals, urging them to stop their harassment of peaceful citizens. He often liked to say that even if the children of the elementary school invited him to talk to them, he always made sure he wrote down on a piece of paper what he was going to say to them so as not to bore them with useless words. That was why he was not always happy with his priests who did not take the time to prepare their homilies. He often said that he was not asking them to write down homilies and read them slavishly in front of their flock, but to always have a guide in hand so as not to tell the flock just anything that came to their minds.

It was in the 1990s, at the time of great political unrest that preceded the advent of multiparty politics in Cameroon, that he wrote his first book entitled The Two Political Regimes of Ahmadou Ahidjo, Paul Biya and Christian Cardinal Tumi, Priest.[1] Some people, especially in the country’s ruling circles, had accused him of being the hidden face of the opposition to the ruling power, which he always denied until he took his last breath. Another book, entitled Ma foi: un Cameroun à remettre à neuf,[2] followed soon after. In both books, it is still the priest who pleads for peace and social justice in his country, a country he loved so much, and for which he suffered so much, especially during the last months of his life on earth.  A few months before his death on April 2, 2021, Cardinal Tumi wrote My Night in Captivity,[3] a memoir of his one-night ordeal in the hands of separatist forces in the restive northwestern region of English-speaking Cameroon. His pauline side always led him to write down the teachings he gave to his faithful and to all men and women of good will.

In Christian Wiyghan-nsai Cardinal Tumi, the petrine elements of leadership, order, and direction, blended harmoniously with the Pauline elements of evangeliser, theologian, assembler of the sheep, to give the Archdiocese of Douala a unique and enviable spot in the modern history of Catholicism in Cameroon. Whenever, and wherever, his name came up, it sparked a reaction, either of praise, or of anger, depending on who the interlocutors were. Those from the ruling circles often accused him of abandoning the sacristy to meddle in politics – an accusation he always refuted to his last day.

Had Cardinal Tumi not insisted, as powerfully as he often did, on order and discipline tempered by compassion – his petrine side – God’s flock could easily have dispersed and the local church could have degenerated into chaos. Like Saint Peter, he put his soul and heart into building the church in the Archdiocese of Douala, never letting the forces of evil from without and, more insidiously, from within the church itself – numerous and vicious though such internal forces were – to prevail over Christ’s Church. Like Saint Paul, he preached the Gospel with boldness, with vigour and with creative energy, caring less what anyone – in political circles or within the church itself – thought of him.  Like his Master Jesus Christ, he spread the word of God, in season and out of season, whether anyone cared to listen to him or not – and many did listen, and were converted.

Christian Wiyghan-nsai Cardinal Tumi has answered present to the Lord’s call and gone forward to receive his eternal reward.  “Good and faithful servant,” I can imagine the Good Lord telling him, “you have been faithful in little things, come into the eternity of your Master’s glory.”  Amen.

[1] Douala, Imprimerie MACACOS 2006

[2] Douala, Editions Veritas

[3] Spears Media, 2020

 

 

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