Blessed Iwene Tansi and the Nigerian Condition

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The Beatification of the Nigerian Catholic priest and monk, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was the major reason for Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Nigeria in March 1998. As it turned out, that visit was the last apostolic journey of Pope John Paul II to sub-Saharan Africa until his death in April 2005. Papal biographer George Weigel has noted that this second visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria summed up his impact on Africa in the 27-years of his papacy, during which time he visited 40 of Africa 54 nations, some of them more than once.

John Paul II was quite happy to come to Nigeria for the second time in 1998, after 16 years since his first visit to the country in February 1982. When he landed at Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport Abuja on March 21, 1998, he was welcomed by Nigeria’s Head of State, General Sani Abacha together with other leaders of government, top politicians, and senior military officers of Abacha’s government. A cross-section of the Nigerian Catholic bishops and a large gathering of Catholic lay faithful were also on hand to welcome the pope with singing and dancing. I was at the time a second-year student in secondary school and we were lined up at the airport, a few miles away from our school, with Vatican and Nigerian flags to wave to the pope as he alighted from the aircraft.

In his address on arrival at Abuja Airport, the 77-year-old pontiff praised “Divine Providence for granting me the grace of returning to you and of setting foot once more on this blessed land!” He commended himself to his host as a friend of Nigeria “one who is deeply concerned for the destiny of your country and of Africa as a whole.” He then went ahead to state the purpose of his visit: “The main purpose of my Visit,” he said, “is to celebrate with the Catholic community the Beatification of Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the first Nigerian in the Church’s history to be officially proclaimed ‘Blessed’. This Beatification in the very land where Father Tansi was born and exercised his priestly ministry honours the whole nation of Nigeria. It gives to all Nigerians an opportunity to reflect on the direction and insight which the life of Father Tansi provides for today’s society. In him, and in all who dedicate their lives completely to the service of others, is revealed the path along which Nigerians should travel towards a brighter future for their country.” In these words, Pope John Paul II put before Abacha, before the leaders of government and indeed before all Nigerians the import of Tansi’s life for the life of the nation.

Father Tansi, as he is famously known, is one of the earliest indigenous Nigerian Catholic priests. He was among the earliest converts from African Traditional Religion to Catholicism in Igboland, following the pioneering missionary activities of the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers. Once he became a Catholic he turned away from pagan worship and never looked back. He was born in 1903 in Aguleri and was trained by Irish missionaries as a catechist and schoolteacher. He worked in these capacities from 1919 to 1925 and rose to become headmaster of St Joseph Catholic School in Aguleri. His work was quite satisfying but at a point, the young Tansi felt there was something more he could do for God. He enrolled to be a priest and was admitted to the seminary where he spent twelve years from 1925 to 1937. He was ordained in December 1937 and worked in four parishes in the area that is now covered by the Catholic dioceses of Awka and Ekwulobia.

As a priest, Father Tansi was said to live a very austere life. After more than a dozen years of zealous labours as a priest, travelling over long distances by bicycle and on foot, Father Tansi felt he could do more for God. He was drawn to the monastic life and sought permission from his bishop to enter the monastery. Happy about Father Tansi’s decision, Bishop Charles Heerey, C.S.Sp. sent him to Mount St Bernard Monastery in Leicester, England, to join the Trappist monks. Tansi entered the monastery in June 1950. He had a hard time during the period of his novitiate, not least because of the harsh weather and change of diet, but he persevered and offered up these difficulties to God in prayer and mortification. In 1956 he took his vows as a monk and was eager to return to Nigeria to establish a monastery, but his frail health did not allow him. After years of enduring ill health, he died on January 20, 1964 at the Royal Infirmary in Leicester, England, after having fulfilled his deepest desire to be a monk.

The opening prayer at Mass for the feast of Blessed Tansi begins with these words: “O God, in the priest Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, you joined the apostolic zeal of a pastor to the way of life of a monk.” I have put the words ‘apostolic zeal’ in italics because it expresses something deep about the life of Tansi. He embodies what I call ‘holy restlessness,’ which is a key attitude of the Christian life. Not content with simply being converted to Catholicism, Tansi became a catechist and schoolteacher. Not content with these, he sought thereafter to be a priest. Although he had difficult moments, he was fulfilled as a priest. But he still felt there was more to the Christian life. He then sought to be a monk. This is the apostolic zeal that the opening prayer for his feast talks about. He was a man on fire for God and with the love of God and was eager to do more for the service of God and others. In this regard, his life challenges our spiritual lethargy, what Pope Francis has called “a bland and mediocre existence.”

There is no doubt that the actual push for the beatification of Father Tansi owed a lot to Tansi’s altar boy, who in the meantime had become a priest like Tansi, an archbishop and a cardinal in Rome – Cardinal Francis Arinze. Once at a lunch with some African prelates in Rome, Pope John Paul II said to his African guests, “Arinze wants me to come to Nigeria and beatify his parish priest. Why not?” Arinze was one of the fruits of the apostolic labours of Father Tansi and he took it as a divine mission to see that his saintly parish priest was raised to the honour of the altar. The fact that a Nigerian could finally be mentioned at the altar of God meant a lot to many. But no one was happier about this than Cardinal Arinze who could now call his beloved former parish priest “Blessed Tansi.”

Although Tansi hailed from Igboland, John Paul II did not give any chance for his beatification to be reduced to an ethnic agenda. At every turn he was keen to highlight the national importance of Tansi’s exemplary life, not just for Igbo Catholics and certainly not for Nigerian Catholics alone, but for the whole of Nigeria. This is how John Paul II weaved the rich tapestry of Tansi’s life in his homily at the Mass of Beatification at the dusty grounds of Oba, near Onitsha on March 22, 1998 before a crowd of nearly a million people: “Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi is a prime example of the fruits of holiness which have grown in the Church in Nigeria since the Gospel was first preached in this land. He received the gift of faith through the efforts of the missionaries, and, taking the Christian way of life as his own, he made it truly African and Nigerian.”

The following day after Tansi’s beatification, after his national Mass in Abuja, John Paul II met with Nigeria’s Muslim leaders led by the Sultan of Sokoto and brought to the fore again the import of Tansi’s life for interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding in Nigeria. He told the Muslim leaders that the reason for his rather brief visit to Nigeria was “to proclaim solemnly the holiness of a son of this country, Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. He has been declared a model of a religious man who loved others and sacrificed himself for them. The example of people who live holy lives teaches us not only to practise mutual respect and understanding, but to be ourselves models of goodness, reconciliation and collaboration, across ethnic and religious boundaries, for the good of the whole country and for the greater glory of God.”

Tansi’s altar boy, Cardinal Arinze, was present at this meeting of John Paul II with the Muslim leaders. At the end of his address to the Muslim leaders, John Paul II added extemporaneously as he introduced the Cardinal to his Muslim hosts: “Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria is a Roman Catholic Cardinal. He is a Nigerian Cardinal. And if he is promoting the dialogue with Muslims in the world, he is doing that having the experience of dialogue with the Muslims in Nigeria. So I see a great contribution by your country, by your community to the universal activity and dialogue in the Church in the world of today.”

As we celebrate the feast day of Blessed Tansi today in Nigeria, it is important to look at this pearl of noble price that the Gospel reading of today talks about, which drove Father Tansi to make huge sacrifices and to accomplish great things for God. After nearly 23 years since Tansi’s beatification, what does his life mean for Nigeria and Nigerians in the context of the present situation of our country, “weighed down not by uncertainties but also by moral, economic, and political problems,” as we say in the prayer for Nigeria in Distress? What would Blessed Tansi say to us today about the state of our nation, his nation? What would he do?

Nigeria today is a deeply divided society. In the last decade, Boko Haram has driven poisonous nails into the fabric of the Nigerian society through its extremist rhetoric and activities that have only served to alienate Christians and Muslims from one another. Christian-Muslim antagonism, suspicions, and rivalries seem to have reached fever pitch these days, dogging every effort to build a united and peaceful nation. Bad politics driven by corruption, nepotism, and greed has added to this cocktail of national woes as politicians put their own selfish personal interests over and above the common good of the nation. Today, we appear to be in a nation that is rudderless, with many non-state actors steering the ship in multiple directions into dangerous waters. Have terrorists, kidnappers, bandits, militias, armed robbers, and squads of killer mercenaries not overrun this nation? Which Nigerians go to bed these days with their two eyes closed? In the midst of these challenges that continue to hit very hard on the poor, we have a bunch of politicians with no reflex for constructive criticism and whose only preoccupation is how to silence every voice of reason.

We are the poverty capital of the world today. We are one of the most dangerous countries in the world to live in as a result of terrorism. Our global ranking on corruption continues to worsen every year despite all the fanciful government propaganda about fighting corruption. In terms of real human development, we are a failed state by accepted standards of decent human existence. We have made a nonsense of our education system. Healthcare is worse today than at any other time in the past. Look in the faces of young Nigerians today and all you see is a blight of hopelessness and helplessness. The harsh realities of Nigerian life have made it difficult for these young people to get a job, earn a decent living, and raise their families at home. As such, day after day many young skilled Nigerians are migrating to North America and Europe. In the midst of this haemorrhage, cybercriminals, con artists, and internet scammers are giving our country a very bad reputation in the comity of nations. Very few countries still take Nigeria seriously.

Looking at the magnitude of problems facing our nation, we can only ask: What future is there for Nigeria and Nigerians? In the midst of the turbulent waters in which we are plunged and being tossed about by the storm, how are we to navigate the ship of the Nigerian state to a safe harbour? I believe that we can attempt to answer these puzzling questions by turning to the addresses and homilies that Pope John Paul II delivered during his March 1998 visit to Nigeria.

As pope, John Paul II took serious interest in Nigeria. Of the thirteen apostolic journeys that he made to Africa, two were to Nigeria, first in 1982 and again in 1998. During that first apostolic journey to Nigeria, which happened to be his second journey to Africa, John Paul II spent five of the seven days of his visit in Nigeria, with the remaining two days shared between three other West African countries. While thanking President Shagari for his words of welcome on Saturday, February 12, 1982 on his arrival in Lagos, Pope John Paul II said: “I would ask you, today even more than before, to consider me one of your own, for indeed I come to this land as a friend and a brother to all its inhabitants.” His second visit to Nigeria in 1998 turned out to be his last visit to sub-Saharan Africa until his death in 2005. Between his first and second visits to Nigeria, John Paul II delivered more than twenty homilies and addresses to various segments of the church and society in Nigeria, challenging everyone to join hands together in building a great and prosperous nation.

The abuse of religion and ethnicity for destructive purposes are among our biggest problems in Nigeria today. John Paul II understood this clearly. In his address to Muslim leaders, he noted that there are many shared convictions between Christians and Muslims which can help in the process of building a reconciled and peaceful nation. “We are conscious that the exercise of power and authority is meant to be a service to the community, and that all forms of corruption and violence are a serious offence against God’s wishes for the human family. We have in common so much teaching regarding goodness, truth and virtue that a great understanding between us is possible. And indeed necessary.” Referring to his 1982 address to Muslim leaders in Kaduna, John Paul II said: “I am convinced that if we (Christians and Muslims) join hands in the name of God, we can accomplish much good. We can collaborate in the promotion of justice, peace and development. It is my earnest hope that our solidarity of brotherhood, under God, will truly enhance the future of Nigeria and all Africa.”

On respect for religious differences and the promotion of dialogue to resolve conflict, John Paul II said: “In any society, disagreements can arise. Sometimes the disputes and conflicts which ensue take on a religious character. Religion itself is sometimes used unscrupulously to cause conflict. Nigeria has known such conflicts, though it must be recognized with gratitude that in many parts of the country people of different religious traditions live side by side as good and peaceful neighbours. Ethnic and cultural differences should never be seen as justifying conflict. Rather, like the various voices in a choir, these differences can exist in harmony, provided there is a real desire to respect one another. Christians and Muslims agree that in religious matters there can be no coercion. We are committed to teaching attitudes of openness and respect towards the followers of other religions. But religion can be misused, and it is surely the duty of religious leaders to guard against this. Above all, whenever violence is done in the name of religion, we must make it clear to everyone that in such instances we are not dealing with true religion. For the Almighty cannot tolerate the destruction of his own image in his children. From this place in the heart of West Africa I appeal to all Muslims, just as I have appealed to my Brother Bishops and all Catholics: let friendship and cooperation be our inspiration! Let us work together for a new era of solidarity and joint service in facing the enormous challenge of building a better, more just and more humane world! When problems arise, whether at the local, regional or national levels, solutions must be sought through dialogue.”

John Paul II believed that the path to development and progress is justice and peace. He was therefore eager to impress this idea into the hearts of his listeners as he spoke to the leaders of Nigeria in his speech on arrival at Abuja in 1998, urging them to muster the wisdom and expertise needed “in the difficult and urgent task of building a society that respects all its members in their dignity, their rights and their freedoms. This requires an attitude of reconciliation and calls for the Government and citizens of this land to be firmly committed to giving the best of themselves for the good of all.” In this regard, John Paul II put Tansi’s life and witness as a peacemaker forward as a reminder of the Gospel precept, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9).

But Tansi was not only a man of peace. He was also a man of reconciliation. He spent his life as a priest preaching the gospel of reconciliation and reconciling people to God in the sacrament. Inspired by Tansi’s life, John Paul II said in his beatification homily at Oba: “All Nigerians must work to rid society of everything that offends the dignity of the human person or violates human rights. This means reconciling differences, overcoming ethnic rivalries, and injecting honesty, efficiency and competence into the art of governing.” He noted that “there is a need for politicians — both men and women — who profoundly love their own people and wish to serve rather than be served.” He warned that “There can be no place for intimidation and domination of the poor and the weak, for arbitrary exclusion of individuals and groups from political life, for the misuse of authority or the abuse of power.” He proposed that “the key to resolving economic, political, cultural and ideological conflicts is justice; and justice is not complete without love of neighbour, without an attitude of humble, generous service. When we see others as brothers and sisters, it is then possible to begin the process of healing the divisions within society and between ethnic groups. This is the reconciliation which is the path to true peace and authentic progress for Nigeria.” He stressed that “This reconciliation is not weakness or cowardice. On the contrary, it demands courage and sometimes even heroism: it is victory over self rather than over others.”

In further placing the heroic life of Tansi as a model for the leaders and people of Nigeria in his speech on arrival at Abuja, John Paul II stressed that Nigeria’s precarious situation “requires concerted and honest efforts to foster harmony and national unity, to guarantee respect for human life and human rights, to promote justice and development, to combat unemployment, to give hope to the poor and the suffering, to resolve conflicts through dialogue and to establish a true and lasting solidarity between all sectors of society.” How is this to be achieved? His advice was contained in his homily at the Mass in Abuja on March 23, 1998 where he said: “Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi clearly saw that nothing enduring can be achieved in the service of God and country without true holiness and true charity.” Pope John Paul II then concluded: “Make him your example. Pray to him for the needs of your families and of the entire nation.”

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