HOMILY OF CARDINAL FRANCIS ARINZE
23 September 2000
1. Built on the rock that is Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is the rock foundation on which this seminary is being built. Pope John Paul II Major Seminary, Bigard, Awka Campus, Okpuno, is being founded on Jesus Christ, "the faithful witness, the First-born from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He loves us and has washed away our sins with his blood, and made us a line of kings, priests, to serve his God and Father" (Rv 1: 5-6).
St Peter says that Christ is the stone rejected by the builders which has proved to be the keystone (cf. 1 Pt 2: 7). And St Paul adds: "For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 3: 11).
On Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on human nature, the Eternal High Priest who gives to some men in the Church the ministerial priesthood, on him this new seminary is being built. We beg the Lord Jesus to build this formation institute for his sacred ministers, to make this seminary like the house built on rock which therefore resists the blows and constant batterings by the waves (cf. Mt 7: 24-25), for we are well aware that "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain the masons toil" (Ps 127: 1).
2. Named after Pope John Paul II
This seminary is being named after His Holiness, Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father has visited our country and this area two times and encouraged and inspired our seminarians and priests. In March 1998 he raised one of the best flowers of the first generation of Nigerian priests, Bl. Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, O.C.S.O., to the honours of the altar.
Pope John Paul II has given unambiguous magisterial teaching on the ministerial priesthood for two decades and more. He writes a Letter to priests on Holy Thursday each year. At his Sacerdotal Ordination Golden Jubilee in 1996 he issued his special book of reflection on the sacred priesthood: Gift and Mystery.
That this seminary is named after this extraordinary Pope is a constant reminder to both staff and seminarians of the necessity of unity with the Pope and the universal Church. It is a call to excellence and to priestly authenticity.
And now we ask ourselves: what is the reason for seminaries? What should be the response of the Church, local and universal, to the vocations boom in Nigeria? And why should we entrust this seminary to Our Blessed Mother, Mary ever Virgin?
3. Reason for seminaries
Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ called and trained his own disciples. From a wider band of 72 disciples, he chose an inner circle of 12 Apostles to whom he gave special attention. They witnessed his miracles. They listened to his public teaching. Privately, he went into greater detail in explaining to them the mysteries of the kingdom. Apart from his general sending of 72 disciples on practical evangelizing work, he gave a special mission to the Twelve after he had given them the Holy Eucharist and ordered them to do it in memory of him (cf. Lk 10: 1-20; Mt 28: 18-20; Jn 2: 21).
4. Growth of priestly vocations in Nigeria
The last 30 years have seen a phenomenal growth in the number of young men who want to be priests all over Nigeria, but especially in the Eastern part of this vast country. Some attribute this to the basic health of our family traditions, to good Christian marriages, to the good example of the first generation of Nigerian priests, to pastoral action in preaching vocations and ordaining priests in their village, or to readiness for sacrifice because of the after-effects of the Nigerian civil war and of the poor economic situation of most Nigerians. Divine Providence knows best how to explain this vocations boom. The fact is that Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, is easily the biggest seminary in the world today. The other seminaries near it, like Ikot Ekpene and Olakwo, Owerri, are also heavily populated.
Like a large family, a bundle of joy is also a bundle of responsibilities. A future priest needs individual attention in his formation if his ordination is to bring joy, not sorrow, to the People of God. The higher the numbers in the seminary, the harder it is to give individual attention to the priestly candidates in their formation. From this point of view, it is not desirable that a major seminary should have as many as 600 to 700 seminarians.
5. Responsibilities in priestly formation
The Bishops of the present Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province are therefore to be congratulated for the practical measures they are taking to build a seminary at Okpuno, Awka, and Onitsha Archdiocese is building another at Onitsha. These seminaries will help to decongest the numbers at Enugu, even though the numbers still remain higher than the ideal.
After all, a seminary is not just a university where professors and lecturers teach lessons and students take notes and learn to do research. A seminary is much more than that. It is primarily a formation house. The staff are much more than professors. They are formators. They are models whom the priests-in-training will inadvertently copy.
It is not only Bishops and seminary staff who have responsibilities in the formation of the future clergy. Parents, teachers, priests and the lay faithful and religious in general also do have a necessary part to play.
It costs money to build seminaries, to staff them and to maintain them. It is, therefore, normal that on a day like this, appeal is made to benefactors to donate generously. Parishes should also contribute. May God bless and reward all who donate money, books, equipment, land, professional expertise or in other ways so that this seminary can stand, grow and flourish.
I think that the universal Church outside this region also has some responsibilities. If God today sends many candidates to the seminaries here, indeed more than the local Church would have the staff and funds to handle, the answer should not be to reject some of these candidates. Rather the universal Church should work out some way to help the local Church to handle this bundle of blessings. Who knows how abundant priestly vocations will be in our country in another 10 or 20 years? The plentiful vocations available today are for both the local and the universal Church to nurture and share out, all to the glory of God. The local Church should also seek ways to make such action more keenly felt at the level of the universal Church.
6. With the intercession of the Seat of Wisdom
We entrust this young seminary to the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Seat of Wisdom. She welcomed the Eternal Word of God. With Christ in her womb, she visited Elizabeth and Christ sanctified John the Baptist. Mary gave Christ to the world at Bethlehem. She stood at the foot of the Cross and sacrificed her Son. She was in prayer with the Apostles and a few other disciples of Christ from Ascension to Pentecost. In many ways, Mary is a model for the priest in bringing Christ to the world.
May the Most Blessed Virgin, Mother of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, obtain for this seminary all the graces that it will need, expecially by way of spiritual, intellectual and human growth and in the sustained support by benefactors. To God be honour and glory, for ever and ever.