70th Birthday Celebration

Peter Varsity, One of My Greatest Achievements – Bishop Ezeokafor

The Catholic Bishop of Awka Diocese, His Lordship Most Reverend Paulinus Ezeokafor, says that establishing Peter University, Achina/Onneh, remains one of his greatest achievements as the chief shepherd of Awka Catholic Diocese, reports Mmaduabuchi Onwumelu.

Bishop Ezeokafor who stated this in an interview with newsmen at Fidesplex, Awka, Anambrà State, as part of the activities lined up for his 70th birthday celebration, spoke on a wide range of issues that included his sojourn into priesthood, appointment as an Auxiliary Bishop and eventually as the Bishop of Awka Diocese, as well as his achievements and challenges

‘I thank God for this opportunity. It is a thing of special joy that the diocese considers celebrating my 70th birthday. I see it as something worth doing; gradually one is getting closer to the other side. More so, as a Diocesan Bishop if everything goes well, in five years I should leave the scene as Bishop of Awka after clocking 75. For these reasons, I think this looks like what we should be celebrating. I am very happy about it.

‘Inasmuch as I didn’t foresee such celebration, but the fact that it is coming from the people of God in Awka; let’s go on. I’m happy.’

Here are excerpts of his interview

Are there major milestones in your life that you wish to discuss?

I started life somewhere, made a journey and when I think of what I am today, it seems good to talk about where I started. You know in this part of the world majority of those who go into the seminary started as altar servers. But, I was never one.

I was still in primary school and one day the Holy Ghost Fathers came and they were scouting for those who will enter the seminary and the spirit came up and said I should try this thing because I love priests. I took the entrance form that same day and went to my father who initially did not agree to it, as, according to him, I was his first son. He said that any other of my brothers could go but not me.

My family, my parents were good Catholics. The next day in the morning after coming back from morning Mass, my Father called me and said, ‘My son, what you want to do, carry on!’ If he had said No at that stage, I wonder what would have been the case. Eventually I took the entrance examination to the seminary at Ukpor. After the entrance and the interview examinations, the Nigerian Civil War started. And so we were on holiday for another three years, 1966 to 1969.

‘Eventually, the seminary opened at Ukpor for all the seminarians of what we now call Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, all the seminarians were there for about three months September to December. The war ended in January 1970 and we went back to All Hallows and we had all the experiences. In the Seminary I tried my best. After the minor seminary I was sent to Archdiocesan Secretariat to serve the lay apostolate and as the seminarian assigned to now Francis Cardinal Arinze.

When I finished serving for one year we had problems in the seminary with Offiah Nwali, the then Commissioner for Education. That made some of us to be requested to teach in the seminary for another one year.  Nevertheless, after all said and done, we were posted to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. Everything went fine except at a point in time I had a crisis.

Yes, crisis, because as a First Auxiliary of Bigard something happened and I was accused that the way I handled it showed that I would be very soft with issues when I became a priest. It was said that I could not report the incident that took place early enough. I underwent suspension as a Deacon for some months. I saw it as a process of life.

Eventually ordination came because it was really not my fault except that it was considered that I will be very soft. After the postponement of the first ordination, a week to the second ordination, I had appendicitis. It was really disturbing and very serious.

I went to Adazi Hospital and the doctor gave me some drugs and injection to sustain it so that after the ordination I could be operated upon. After my ordination, just after one-week’s interval, I was sent for the surgery and people were wondering what was wrong with this young and newly ordained priest. These were events in my life.

After my priestly ordination, I was posted to a parish at Neni. While at Neni, a crisis ensued; a very serious one, and in our meeting, by the grace of God, that crisis was resolved. I was approved to study in Germany and there was an issue too.

That time Enugu priests were major stakeholders in Germany. Our Bishop then, Archbishop A.K. Obiefuna, said, ‘Fr. Paulinus, I cannot leave you now to go, considering the crisis that had happened. If I leave you now I don’t know what will happen’. And so many other reasons he gave. He also wanted me to go there and open an avenue for Awka Diocese.

However, looking at myself, I am not a go-getter. At that time, I said, ‘Let those who will go and open up the place go and I will come to study’. I knew under normal circumstances I would pass my exam. That was not an issue at all. I’ve never gone for any examination wondering whether I would pass; my problem was knowing the grade I would get.

I told the Bishop that I could study anywhere since this one (that of Germany) was delaying. He looked at his table and scanned through the pieces of paper and saw a school in Italy. He told me they were very strict; the school was owned by the Opus Dei. I told him I would go and that once I saw their guidelines I would follow. I went there, studied and graduated in record time; I finished earlier than scheduled. My intention when

I finished was to come back and lecture in Bigard and I had wanted to go to America to study at Pope JohnPaul II Institute of Marriage and Family. But the Bishop refused because he wanted me to come down and work and I didn’t ask him the type of work.

He said they needed someone that would be stable to come and manage the seminary. I was sent to Akpu Seminary, St. Dominic Savio, and everything went fine. Luckily I had contacts and we were able to change the face of the seminary and after ten years there I told the Bishop that I wanted to try a parish. The next, I was posted to Isuaniocha Seminary, St. Johnbosco, and the day I went to Isuaniocha it was terrible.

There was a heavy downpour and the road was impassable. I boarded a motorcycle and we got to a point where cows blocked the entire road. I eventually entered and settled down. I least expected to be made a Bishop. My philosophy is that wherever I find myself I will give my best.

When it was announced that I had been appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Awka, I nearly fainted from my seat. I remembered how Monsignor Ezenduka held me up and I was wondering how I could manage over five hundred priests. That was my primary concern and worry.

When it was called up I didn’t believe it until it was made official. I said, ‘Lord here I am, send me. I’m here to do Your will’.  I assisted Bishop Okafor. I know I did my best. From there I was made a Diocesan Bishop and that is where we are now.

How do you describe your relationship with the clergy and laity of Awka Diocese?

Wonderful relationship. Very cordial. My motto as a bishop is, “My Love is with you all in Christ Jesus”, and that is reflected effectively. I consider the people of God in all I do, showing that love. You know as a leader you need to get the people behind you.

It is not easy to do anything unless your followers decide to follow your path. There are two ways of life; the spiritual and the physical. On the aspect of the spiritual; we ensure that we organize retreats, recollections and soul-lifting activities. Our main target is to make heaven.

We do everything humanly possible to ensure that the spiritual aspect is highlighted. On the aspect of the physical, we try so hard to float many businesses to aid what we do here in the diocese. I abolished many levies except that of Peter University. We invested in landed property, banks, schools and filling stations.

My Lord, what do you consider as your achievements during these years?

Peter University is so dear to us; it is one of my greatest achievements. We invested in education too. We believe so much in training the mind. With the return of schools to the Church by former Governor Peter Obi, we thought what to do in the education sector. We thought of College of Education, University of Education and finally arrived at Peter University.

That University is my number one. It is not easy erecting a university. Many dioceses started and backed out. We made it. Still on my achievements, one of my sons, even though he is now my father in faith, is a Cardinal and one of us is now the Bishop of Nnewi Diocese. These are achievements of which I remain ever and very grateful to God.

At 70, you still look very healthy and energetic, what are your secrets, and what is your advice to the youth, aging and aged with regards to maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

Firstly, it is God’s grace. Then, I watch what I eat and drink. You know this our work is a very tedious one; I do not eat because I see food or drink. I moderate whatever I eat. Eat to live and not live to eat! One of the greatest gifts I receive from God is my health.

I have never fallen sick to the extent that I will not carry out my duty as the Bishop. Inasmuch as it is a gift from God I have to enhance it by working out and eating right. Also, I eat local food. God made it that we should be eating them once it is its season. Finally, I do exercise. Exercise is very important.

My Lord, you have championed the course of befitting living as against extravagant burials and funerals, what informed this concern

It is about trying to change the exorbitant fees people pay just to organize a funeral. You’ll see a man who didn’t eat good food or lived in a good house, once he dies his children will begin to paint and repaint the house or even borrow to build new ones. Here is a man who died of hunger!

We are doing the wrong thing. Go to developed countries and see how burials are conducted. No fanfare or any extravagance. They do things moderately. Here, we borrow to bury the dead. Just recently during the burial of Hon Dozie Nwankwo’s father, I hammered on low-key funerals; that people are going through a lot trying to bury their dead ones. I stated it clearly that the diocese was very serious about cutting down the cost of funerals.

Even the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari, who was following the burial via Zoom, after thanking the Governor, corroborated my stance on expensive funerals. It is on record, you can play it.

What do you tell your sons, the priests, about managing life as priests?

The priests are my immediate collaborators and I know that from the word go. They are very important to what we do here. In fact, any Bishop who does not acknowledge that is really not doing what he is supposed to do as a Bishop. I have observed that the priests really function more in an atmosphere devoid of rancor. Leading over 500 priests is really not easy.

Our priests see what we do as their thing. It is however true too that you cannot satisfy everyone; once you have the majority, you move on. You cannot get 100% co-operation. Those who disagree with you will make you function better. It is when people are angry that they say their minds.

If you are sincere when you are on your own you think about those things said. I feel very comfortable leading the people of God in this diocese. As a leader you must be in the forefront. I, together with the priests, and laity, work together to develop our diocese.

My Lord, we understand that youths will be empowered as part of your birthday celebration, can you shed light on it?

We want to empower our youths; one each from every parish here in Awka Diocese. We are not talking about those already empowered; it will be totally new people. I feel happy each time I hear that someone we trained as a diocese is doing well in his chosen profession. I remember someone who studied under our scholarship in Veritas University, Abuja, and today he is a lecturer here.

We will not give cash but we will do something that will make every beneficiary self-reliant and self-sustained. Youths are the bedrock of what we do here. Anyone who has a credible successor will retire happily, knowing that he has someone who will carry on from where he stopped. Any father without a good successor will be sad. We know how important these youths are. We do not want to joke with their future.