Visiting the hospital with Fr. Samuel James on the left and Fr. Hilary on the right, with the hospital’s head doctor.
Last month (June 20-July 1), my daughter and I accompanied Sr. John Mary Bosco Amakwe, who teaches in the Core and the Department of Communication, on a trip to her homeland, Nigeria. The occasion was the ordination of eight seminarians of the Holy Family Seminary of the Fathers and Brothers of the Youth to the priesthood. Sister Bosco's order of sisters, the Holy Family Sisters of the Needy, is linked to the order of men, as they were both founded by the same person – the Very Rev. Fr. Denis Mary Joseph Ononuju Obiaga. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience.
Fr Denis, called by all in the seminary the "Founding Father," began these religious congregations with the primary purpose of helping troubled youth of both sexes. The sisters help young woman pregnant before marriage, which in Nigeria often leads to alienation from their families. The sisters take in the young girls and help them through the pregnancy and birth, working to reconcile them to their families, once the baby is born. The men work with boys and girls, who have fallen into delinquent behaviors. They also plan to create a workshop in order to train disabled boys, so they can support themselves with dignity. All of this ministry is pursued in the spirit of Acts 4: 32-35: "Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need." The vision of community and service in the early church was central to the vision of Fr. Denis when he began the order.
Sister Bosco, Nancy (the author) and her daughter, Rebecca at the seminary with Fr. Samuel James, acting head of the seminary.
Now that he is almost 89 years old, though still very much a spiritual part of the seminary, the acting rector is Fr. Samuel James, who proved to be a gracious and wonderful host. He and another priest, Fr. Hilary, drove my daughter and me around the area, on one of the days, and we met some wonderful people, including Fr. Samuel's mother in a nearby village. We visited a hospital, where the young doctor (who attends Mass at the seminary) explained that there had not been a loss of a mother or baby for three years, with over 300 births, achieved in a country with a very high infant and maternal mortality rate. We visited a Catholic College, where we saw four young people carrying flowers and a statue of the Blessed Mother. They set the statue down outside, and, placing the flowers near the statue, prayed to Mary on the campus grounds. Religious devotion is high in this country, where there are many more billboards showing upcoming religious events than there are billboards with advertisements. Churches, both protestant and Catholic, abound, and we were graciously welcomed by Sister Bosco's relatives, who happen to be protestant. (Sister's cousin is the pastor of an evangelical church, and her mother was a convert to Catholicism.) We were struck by how warmly and lovingly the two religious groups interacted. The pastor's wife had made my daughter and me dresses in the beautiful style of prints commonly worn by women in Nigeria. She gave Sister Bosco many books from the church to help the seminarians. My daughter commented to me, "We could learn a lot from this" (referring to the interaction between protestants and Catholics) here in the US.
There were many visits, each one involving sharing of food and many expressions of welcome. A highlight for my daughter and me was a visit to a Benedictine convent for contemplative women religious. The abbess, a person who exuded warmth and a calm serenity that was palpable, came to greet the group of us visiting the convent in the early evening. She took us to the back of the community's grounds, where her sisters were gathering firewood. A timeless peace pervaded this place, and I noticed the saying "Work and prayer" over the door – "Orare et labore" – the summing up of the life of the Benedictines.
The ordination on June 29.
The culmination of our visit was the ordination of the young men held in the large church at the seminary and presided over by Bishop Hilary Dachalem. This joyous day involved a Mass over four hours long, concelebrated by so many priests they could not all fit on the altar. This event, and the celebration afterward, attracted over 8000 people. The following day we had the privilege of attending the first Mass of one of the seminarians, Fr. Francis Onyeneke. This beautiful celebration, joyously attended by people from his local community, involved a rich variety of music and joyful liturgical dance by young women.
The special joy and love in these faith communities we visited did not blind us to the very real problems faced by the church in Nigeria. Fr. Samuel and another of the priests spoke to us about killings of priests and other Christians in the North. There is also much poverty in the region, as could be seen in the dwellings along the roads as we drove from place to place. There is also pollution of some of the waters in the River State, to which we drove and visited a Catholic school. The pollution, the priests told us, has been caused by large companies dumping into the waters. Yet, despite the problems, including dangers to priests, there were over seventy young men in the seminary, and the ordination of the eight young men was celebrated with enormous joy. Unlike the situation in America and Europe, there is no lack of priests in Nigeria. I asked about Eucharistic ministers (as I am one, and did not see any present at any of the Masses we attended); I was told that there is no need for them as Nigeria has so many priests.
My daughter and I are very grateful for having had the wonderful experience of visiting Holy Family Seminary and having attended the ordination on June 29, and for this we are thankful to Sister Bosco. She has been a wonderful addition to our Core faculty, as she has been for many years as well to the Department of Communication. Sister Bosco holds a doctorate from the Gregorian in Rome, and two Master's degrees in addition. Having shared time with her religious community and having met its founder, I think we now understand even better her own charism of loving service to her students and colleagues. My hope is that this trip is the first of many visits back and forth between Holy Family and Seton Hall.