Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas is Very Important Celebration - Bishop Ezeokafor

Bishop Ezeokafor

By Okechukwu Onuegbu

His Lordship Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor is the bishop of Awka Catholic Diocese. He is noted for his frankness, and for being a defender of the weak and a contrastive critic of unpopular government programmes. In this exclusive interview with our reporter, Okechukwu Onuegbu, Bishop Ezeokafor bares his mind on wide range of issues. He spoke on the essence of Christmas preparation, his 2015 Christmas message, Proposed Peter University, unemployment, corruption, Pope Francis Visit to Africa and on a number of issues relating to God's plan for man's redemption
Christmas is around the corner, what is the significance of Christmas in the life of mankind?
Just like you said, we are close to Christmas. We prepare for Christmas for four weeks. Preparation is very important in every celebration. If you prepare well, you celebrate well, if you do not prepare well, the danger is that you may not be able to have the best in the celebration. So, when you talk of Christmas you should go back to the history of mankind. Because you are talking about the birth of Christ. Why should you be born again? Born in human flesh being the son of God. In the book of Genesis, we read the story of our first parents, Adam and Eve and how God placed them in the middle of a garden, of joy and happiness. He only gave them one instruction, they can partake of every thing in the garden except one tree’s fruit. And as usual, human curiosity did not start today and temptation had been there and will continue to be there, so Satan in his own subtle way came to them and eventually tempted and they fell to it and went through breaking the law of God and there was a breaking of the law between God and man. So man offended God and God in his own infinite way decided to find a way to restore man. And what was the solution is to send his only begotten son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the virgin mary. With his birth and definitely suffering on the cross, death and resurrection, we were restored. You cannot talk about any other celebration in Christianity without christmas because that is where it all started. We know God in his infinite way could have easily brought in Christ in any other way, but he chose the way of humanity. What we are celebrating today is not the physical but spiritual because we are remembering what happened over 2000 years ago. What is most significant about it is that the birth of Christ signaled the possibility that culminated in the salvation of man, mending the break between God and man. That gap that was created by the first man was corrected by the love of God through his son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we would have been in the dark till now. Paul says that if Christ had not been here to redeem us all we have been doing would have been in vain. We are very grateful in this celebration. But, like I said, the celebration now should be more spiritual.
Christ’s coming is an act of love from God and for us Christmas should signal in us that love for ourselves and for our neighbor. Love, for me, is to wish another person well. If I say I love you, it is for your own good. That is just the time to remember those who are in difficulties. Those who are blessed more would do something more. So, it is a time when you show love by words, actions, whatever. It is also a time for reconciliation. You know in the family even when there is problem and disagreements, in the coming of a new born babies there is always that change, for the sake of the newborn, truce is drawn. That is how it should be for Christians. So, I admonish all of us both Christians and non (the celebration has gone so global that even those who do not know what is being celebrated are celebrating), let it touch the lives of all, especially as exemplified by the Christians who should model the love Christmas represents. The birth of Christ should bring new life into us as Christians and members of the society. So that is my impression of what we are doing.
The birth of Christ signifies the beginning of reconciliation and so God expects us to forgive those who offend us just as he has demonstrated through his son Jesus Christ. In the Lord’s prayer, it is said, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ It is presumed that you have already forgiven your enemies. It is clear that God began the walk of love and Christ cooperated because if Jesus did not cooperate I wonder what would have been the turn of events. Man did not ask for forgiveness but went his own way. It was God in his infinite mercy who made the first move and with the cooperation of Jesus and Mary, mankind was redeemed.

During this Christmas period you notice a lot of crimes perpetrated and there are hikes in price and accidents. Are all these in the spirit of Christmas or is there anything that can be done to change the mindset of people concerning this celebration?
Well, honestly it is unfortunate that every situation is bound to be abused by some people. They use it wrongly. We are celebrating the birth of our lord Jesus Christ which should bring joy to us. It is because of the materialistic nature of man that a lot of aspirations are made like building projects and amassing properties without bearing in mind that Christ is going to come in the spirit. What is important is that every Christian be in the state of grace to be able to receive the sacrament. In catholic church, two sacraments are very vital for anyone to be called an active Christian. They are the sacrament of reconciliation – confession, and the sacrament of the eucharist. Because int his sacrament of reconciliation, you purify yourself; wash yourself of various faults and receive the holy communion, meant for nourishing the soul of the Christian on the journey of life. But unfortunately it is in an effort to emphasis the material preparation at the expense of the spiritual, that all these crimes are being committed. People want to get money so as to play the big man during Christmas. Everybody must buy car, otherwise, everything has crumbled. In all honesty, ive never seen anybody kidnapping on the 25th of December or the 26th because nobody will like to be in the forest on that day. But they might kidnap before then in order to prepare money for that day. I wish this Christmas will be extended so that nobody will have the time to engage in all these negativities. I call it misplacement of priority and not acceptable. People need to understand that this celebration should be done spiritually. Doing it spiritually means being in a state of grace. A kidnapper or an armed robber or the trader who cheats his customer is not depicting what Christ is telling us about this celebration. After all if we look at it very well, Christmas is not the highest feast of the church. The highest feast of the church is easter which is when our redemption was confirmed. Because Christ could have come and then on the garden of gethsemane decide not to go through with the suffering and death. It was when he has accepted death and then rose that we had hope we can get something. So those who indulge in those unacceptable acts are doing themselves a great disservice. The period is an opportunity to show love and cut ones coat according to one’s size. The way some people go about Christmas preparation as if it is going to be their last without realizing that after this one, life continues and there will be many more Christmases to come. You must not do anything that will negate the target which is love. If I love you, I will not kidnap you, nor steal from you nor cheat you. I will rather work for your betterment as children of God.
What is your Christmas message?
We continue to thank God for being considered to partake in the 2015 cleebration of Christmas. You know that many did it last year but may not be part of it this year. Well, my message is simple. God is love and the coming of Christ to this love was an act of love originated from the father for us. It is written, ‘no greater love than this that a man should lay down his life for his friends.’ For God to die for man is kind of dehumanizing; just as if I ask any man to die for a goat takes extra love. For one to die for his fellow man is understandable but to die for a lower being is a lot, and that was what God did for mankind. So this year is the year of mercy following the holy father. We must show that mercy. Mercy ranges around peace, justice and whatever that is positive to make life meaningful for all the members of the society. My message is therefore for we all to celebrate it with love and show love to whomsoever we can. We should also remember that after this celebration comes a new year, 2016, and we must face it also. So it is my profound wish that we exercise love flowing from the love God has shown us through his son, Jesus Christ.
Are you happy with the spiritual life of Christians?
What I can say is that there is no doubt that people are making honest efforts to be better. But the Adam in us remains. Just as St Paul said that all the good things I want to do, I find difficult doing them only to see myself doing those things I said I would not do. In the same manner within the Christian fold, we thank God that gradually the spirit of Christianity is entering into the people. But it is yet to be deep enough. Because one thing you observe in our society today is that so many people profess belief. If you call for any crusade, people in attendance will be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore. But unfortunately when you see these same people behave, you will wonder if it is still the same people shouting Jesus at Christian events. So the belief has not really permeated into the lives of the people. on the other hand you find in some country that are not so religious or externalism, people manifesting christlike attitudes to life. But you won’t compare the places where Christianity has been for thousands of years with Nigeria where it is just about 150 years old. So, one is expected to put into practice what one has learnt as Christians. And if I am a Christian and I have a wall between my life as a Christian and my life as secular person, then there is a problem. And that is what I see; religion has not permeated into our society. But we are making progress. It is said that Rome was not built in a day. We are hopeful that one day, we will have people who will be the same both in church and in the society. Some people might think that because you have been preaching and it is making little impact, there is no need. But it is not true. Faith comes by hearing. The more we preach, the higher the chances of getting heart converted. St Augustine when he went to listen to St Ambrose did not go to be converted. But when he listened to Ambrose, he felt Ambrose prepared the sermon for him and he decided to make that change. After speaking to a group of people recently, the igwe of a town came to me and said that my words which talks about humility and humanness has changed his heart from going ahead with his plans of oppressing another person. So, little by little we get to our end. Perfection is not achieved in one day.
You are promoting Peter University. What is the diocese aiming to achieve by establishing the university?
This is an area that is very dear to my heart because if it is achieved it will be the best legacy we are leaving for posterity. What do I mean? In the catholic church we have what we call catholic education. Every human is made up of matter and spirit and if you want to get an integral person, you must ground that person on those things that are good about material life as well as those things that will help him achieve eternal life. What catholic education does is to bring together these two aspects in training the child. I had what you would call catholic education myself because I did my primary school in St Anthony’s primary school, Nanka. My secondary school was at All Hallow’s seminary, Onitsha, did my philosophy at St Joseph’s Major Seminary, Ikot ekpene, my theology at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu and finally did my specialization in Moral Theology in University of the Holy Cross, Rome. All these where catholic schools and I could see how the experience groomed me in comparison with others. I believe that if my belief does not affect what I do in the society, I have not achieved anything. And then when we recall that immediately after the war, the government took over the whole schools. Until the last administration when the schools were returned by Chief Sir Peter Obi. So, we said, if we train these children in the nursery school, primary school and secondary school, after that what next? Those who want to get this integral education, the catholic education that is all embracing, should have a catholic university. The government schools are doing wonderfully well, but there are certain things you cannot give – the spiritual aspect and the moral required. So we said we have to include catholic university education. You can see what is happening in the mission schools, in all the denominations. They are doing wonderfully well. There is nothing like when somebody is working, he is doing so with the fear of God and commitment. More so, given that the universities available are not even enough to cater for the large population of people who apply every year for admission. It looks funny in Nigeria that so many people apply for university education and only a few get it, and people keep applying every year. Go to America and Europe, University education is a right. So we said, let us add our own to help with the high demand. It is taking much from us financially. Thanks to God, our people are trying and structures are being developed at the University site. Our diocese is a local one with Awka the biggest metropolis of the diocese. You cannot compare it with Onitsha or Nnewi Diocese. We have a majority of civil servants. But we are very hopeful that those Awka diocese people in diaspora will keep donating to the cause. I have been touring different cities on the same mission of canvassing for support to complete the school facilities. The university will be a boarding school so that the students can be followed up in all their daily activities. People are trying. Recently there was this Engineer Barth Nwibe who, during the mother’s funeral mass, proposed to put up a structure at the university in memory of his mother. It is a quite challenging project but we see it as an apostolate and a way of winning souls for God also. The point is to make better Christians in the society.
There is massive youth unemployment and youth restiveness in the country. How do you suggest these problems should be tackled?
There is no doubt there is serious unemployment in this country. But the truth is that unemployment is a worldwide problem. When you look at the percentage of unemployment, you become more worried. My worry is also that the facilities that will help to ameliorate this have not been put in place. I think of one thing, power. if we get power fixed in this country, I think there will be a great reduction in unemployment. Because, just last year I visited Austria in Germany and I toured some of their small factories where you find about 8 people working, manufacturing everything. There was one that manufactures hospital appliances. Such gesture can reduce unemployment. Government cannot give everybody job but government can provide the enabling environment and electricity is number one. Nothing can work without power. This is why things manufactured in this country are very expensive because when you use generator, the cost will be high. If I am made the president of the country, I will cut down other areas and fix this electricity problem first. I know that once you fix the problem of power supply, every other development will take shape. Graduates can come out and start little things by themselves. I heard the government deliberating on whether to start giving them 5000 monthly and some people were singing halleluyah. What is 5000 to a young man? How much do you spend on phone calls alone every month. In developed countries, they have what they pay people who do not work, but it is a reasonable amount though less than what someone that works earns. This is because government believes it has the responsibility to take care of the people. It is not charity. So, power supply should be paramount in order to solve unemployment problem. Retirement age should also be considered. The old ones should be retired so that the younger ones can be employed more. Old people cannot kidnap anyone or afford to stay in the forest for a long time in the name of crime but young people can do that. So, the government should buckle up. God has blessed this country with everything it needs to be great. The youths should be kept busy. Those who are agitating for Biafra should follow due process and avoid violence. Violence begets violence and does not profit anybody. Government should listen to the agitators. MASSOB and Boko Haram and so one are all signs that some people are not being treated well. Ethnicity in Nigeria is a great problem we have inherited. God knows why he has put us together. We should utilize the opportunity well and not violence.
Do you think the current war against corruption is being done the right way or is there anything that should be added or changed ?
If we really want to fight corruption, the people who should do it should not be corrupt themselves or have affinity or inclinations towards that. It is not an easy thing. Buhari may be good, but what about the people around him. What is most important is that we must continue the struggle. We need to be sincere about it too, because unless we practice what we preach, we are not going anywhere. I pity the man, Buhari, because when he did what he did in the past, he was a military president. Now, with the legal system, corrupt people are protected and getting them convicted is difficult. Look at what we are doing with our crude oil; whereby we have to export it to be refined and then import it before we can use it. that is nonsense. We should have refineries in every house, so that we refine so much and export and make our money. Corruption is too much a thing in Nigeria. With the tolerance of sacred cows, we are not going to make any head way. We wish Buhari well and pray for him.
What do you think would be the impact of Pope Francis’ visit to Africa?
He spent 6 days. We know his holiness is a man of God and man of peace. So his coming to anywhere implies God’s grace going there. He has been to Central African Republic and other countries. His coming will bring positivity. His message is peace and love for God and fellow humans. The wars in various places are regrettable but the Pope and the Church are praying for them.



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