At first glance, the future induction of a local Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, which is to be held on July 4, 2013, looks like yet another spectacular show. However, from the point of view of mere mortals of Nsukka, this show brings along the dead weight of Church taxation. Still, church officials, along with some fellow Nigerians, pass this event as "ordinary" or "normal", projecting it as purely celebratory.
To a thoughtful observer, however, this kind of "celebration" reminds the spirit of the medieval monarchy and the divine rights of kings. At Nsukka, grovellers rehash the praises of the new bishop. Listening to the adulation, one wonders if there are spoils to be shared or what favours are to be curried. Perhaps for a temporal King in the medieval times, this would have been appropriate since the people should after all be subject to the desires and wishes of the king. Nsukka diocese however is not installing a king; they are consecrating a bishop, a function that can be performed ordinarily without any burden on the poor.
As history has shown, many of the early missionaries who became bishops in Nigeria were ordained in mud and thatched houses, never losing sight of what it means to be a priest. The question then becomes why the Catholic Diocese of Nsukka, arguably the poorest part of Enugu State, is spending 335 million naira for the installation of a local Bishop and retirement home for the old one?
When this news first broke, the director of social communication of Nsukka diocese angrily reacted to the report by insisting that it is only 300 million and not 335 million naira: "The newspaper reporter exaggerated the figures announced at the media briefing," he said. "The figures used at the said media briefing are: 300million naira. The reporter maliciously exaggerated the figures, and lacked the integrity and kindness." He went on to claim that the sum was for a 5-year development plan of the diocese and completion of the old Cathedral.
The obvious weak defence of the priest in charge of communication merely generated a few other puzzling questions: The first is the significant difference between 335 million and 300 million. Does it really make a difference for a poor city like Nsukka where majority of the populace live on less than 70 naira a day? Second, why are these poor people being forced to pay for a 5-year development project at once? Third, why would the installation of a bishop, a deeply religious function become a commercial bazaar? Fourth, why are they building a completely new residential building for the new Bishop? What is wrong with living in the old apartment recently vacated by the old bishop? Why does the old Bishop need to retire into a palace instead of a normal parish house like other priests? Does a priest even need all these trappings of worldly royalty? And finally, what is the reason for the rush to finish a Cathedral that has been in progress for the past 20 years?
Answers to these questions merely reveal a disturbing parallel with the installation of a medieval king. The difference between 300 and 335 million is merely an "academic" difference and bereft of any persuasive logic. New palaces, new courts, new cathedrals, are all trappings of medieval royalty, conflating a spiritual and political space for domination. This should not be the case with priesthood. The rudimentary definition of a Roman Catholic Priest is alter Christus, (another Christ) - where Christ remains the ultimate high priest.
The priest is a servant of the people of God. When a priest is elevated to the rank of a Bishop, it means to acquiesce to self-martyrdom or otherwise, kenosis, self-emptying as servants of the people of God. And as we learn from Hebrews 4:14, Jesus is the Great High priest of God. So, what would Jesus as a priest do in a situation like Nsukka Diocese? Isaiah 54:4-5 gives a befitting response on the quality of Jesus' priesthood:
"Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed."
Nsukka is characteristically a subsistence farming community. Although it boasts a federal university, many of the people are extremely impoverished. Typical of Catholicism in this part of Nigeria, church duty is mandatory. It is an abusive religious obligation which demands that being a member of the Church also means the ability to pay such dues as, and when due. Failure to do so means the refusal of sacramental obligations by the Church: you may not wed, you may not get baptized; and if you die, a priest will not administer any last rites.
In some cases, you might be excommunicated through public snubbing (no priest will ever visit your home if you are poor) or other forms of religious sanction. Through this platform, the church has been able to exercise maximum control and domination over the people. Yet, we know that this is not in the spirit or teaching of Roman Catholicism, upon which reason we begin to wonder whether the corruption in the Nigerian society has rubbed off on the Church to lose her moral compass and subjectively defined mandate as the body of Christ.
The claim made by the Church authorities of Nsukka Diocese is that public donors comprising mostly of public servants, politicians and some state governors are financing half of the installation expenses. In a sane society where accountability is an immutable pre-requisite of leadership, such state governors or public servants that volunteer the resources of the state for such private functions would have been immediately sanctioned or they would have freely resigned albeit in a very disgraceful manner. Yet, typical of Nigeria, no questions are asked and the task of accountability is almost a gregarious administrative error.
Since our society is not given to probity, it appears, the funds provided by state governors are typically drawn from funds meant for public good; funds that would have been used for our perennial dilapidated roads; to pay teacher's salaries; to renovate crumbling educational infrastructures; to build hospitals; to hire workers among others. By this action, it stands to reason that the Roman Church has not only lost her authority as a moral compass of the society, she is actively complicit in these crimes against hapless Nigerians. Nigeria today has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. And according to a recent UN report, Nigeria is the worst place to be born today. It is not that Nigeria is poor; it is rather that public wealth is privatized and doled out as gifts in matters like this as benevolent acts of charity. No one will ever ask any question. In this case, the Catholic Church has given endorsement to political vested interests and willingly indulged in the ultimate betrayal of her own teaching on social justice.
The attitude of Roman Catholic Church of Nsukka seems characteristically contradictory to that of Pope Francis who refers to himself as a simple priest. Shunning all the trappings and glamour of the papacy, this new leader of the Catholic Church still lives as a guest in a hotel instead of the fancy papal apartments. But his story is not new. As a Cardinal (the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church before one is appointed a pope), he is said to have travelled using public transportation, cooked his own meals and lived in a small apartment. He understood what it means to be a priest, for which reason he chose the name Francis after his election as Pope. And in his first address to the College of Cardinals after his election, he tapped into the deep recess of his liberal theology, "remember the poor". What would it cost the new and old Bishops of Nsukka to "remember the poor" and shun the trappings of excessive luxury? Would the exaggerated expenses for the installation add any spiritual value to the position of a Bishop? If not, why punish the poorest of the poor with nonessential expenses? Why would the Church, this body of Christ, the church of the poor admit an avowal of such stench of medieval kingship and its trappings of human abuses, exploitation and oppression?
In the gospel of John 21: 15-17, Jesus asks Peter that if he loves him, he should "Feed his sheep". Observe that Jesus did not say, "Feed on my sheep". Why would the Vicar of Christ "feed on the Sheep" instead of "feeding the sheep"? Why would a priest live like a King? What is the portion of the poor in the 335 million naira? What would Jesus do? As Pope Francis has repeatedly taught, the priest is a servant of the people of God just as Jesus offered his life in service of the people of God. Not so with the current event in Nsukka Diocese where priests live like King and the poor taxed to the maximum so that these priests would live like earthly princes, drive SUVs, build expensive homes, and embark on expensive holidays - all on the back of the suffering poor. We also know that these actions contradict both the bible and the Church tradition. The exemplary life of the Church Fathers bears testimony to this. The simple and humble life of the current pontiff, Pope Francis, is a story worth being retold several times.
History is about repeating itself. The Church has always been the last bastion of hope for the oppressed. And when the Church corruptly engages with temporal power, she loses any moral right and authority as the body of Christ on earth. The new Cathedrals, these expensive cars the priests drive are certainly not by their labour; in fact, as they come and go in their expensive SUVs, we know that they are riding on the sweat and tears of the poor, who starve to death so that the Church authorities might live like princes.
Collecting money from politicians destroys the credibility of the Church because it is an action that does harm to the public good. It will reecho in the hearts and minds of many Nigerians as they die for lack of adequate health care or as they perish in the many road accidents that occur for lack of good roads or even those denied honest wages because of the same politicians who privatize public wealth as personal resources.
Not so different from the abuses of the Church of pre-reformation which Martin Luther protested. Isn't this a betrayal of the Church, a betrayal of Pope Francis' effort towards the poor? Indeed, this lifestyle has nothing "Roman Catholic" about it except power and domination by those who claim to be another Christ.
We ask the Nsukka Catholic Diocese to do the right thing and cancel all levies and follow in the footsteps of Pope Francis, the simple bishop of Rome.