Chat with Rev. Fr. Augustine Okochi, the newly appointed Education Secretary at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja

By Uchechukwu Enem

Celebration of life, health and success is always something to give thanks to God. Our Diocesan Priest, Rev. Fr. Augustine Okochi, who recently celebrated his silver priestly anniversary, was appointed the Educational Secretary at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja. One would say it was a silver jubilee gift and God’s blessings to him. He was born 51 years ago into the family of Mr. Felix and Mrs Janet Okochi of Uruokpalabani Village, Nimo. He is the first of eight children.

Recently, he spent some time with our Reporter, Uchechukwu Enem. Excerpts:

His Education: Fr. Okochi’s formal education began in 1972 at Pioneers Primary School, Onitsha, went briefly to Ezira Primary School, Nimo, before completing his primary education at Queen of the Niger Primary School (now Maria Assumpta Primary School) Onitsha. It was while schooling at Queen of the Niger Primary School, located very close to Holy Trinity Cathedral (Now Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity), Onitsha that he became interested in the goings on around the Cathedral. Immediately after his first Holy Communion, he became a mass server under the supervision of Monsignor Emmanuel Otteh, who both inspired and nurtured his desire to become a Catholic Priest.

Seminary Journey: Following the completion of his primary school in June 1978, Fr Okochi was admitted into St. Paul’s Seminary, Ukpor where he studied for one year before being promoted to All Hallows’ Seminary Onitsha where he completed his Secondary Education in June 1983. At All Hallows’ Seminary, Onitsha, Augustine Okochi had the opportunity to develop his musical talents with the aid of mentors like the then Mr. Dennis Isizoh (now Bishop Isizoh). After completing his studies in All Hallows’ Seminary, he was sent to St. John Bosco Seminary, Isuaniocha on one year apostolic work as a teacher of Economics. In September 1984, he enrolled for a four year Bachelor of Philosophy programme at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Ikot- Ekpene (now St. Joseph’s Major Seminary Ikot- Ekpene) and graduated in 1988. Fr. Okochi was thereafter sent on another one year apostolic work to St. Dominic Savio Seminary, Akpu in Orumba South Local Government Area of Anambra State. He functioned as the Academic Master, Choir Master and Organist. On completing these assignments, Fr Okochi was promoted to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu for a four year Bachelor of Theology programme. During the course of his studies at Bigard, he was made a Lector in 1990, an Acolyte in 1991 and a deacon in December 1992. In all, he worked as a Formator in Akpu Seminary from 1993- 1998 (five years) and also taught Music at Madonna Girls’ Secondary School, Umunze

Ordination and Assignments: On August 15th 1993, Augustine Okochi was ordained a Catholic priest by His Lordship, Most. Rev. Simon Okafor, at the Church of Assumption Nimo and immediately posted to St. Dominic Savio Seminary, Akpu as a Formator and Music Teacher. In October 1998, Fr Okochi went to work as the Parish Priest of St. Gabriel’s Parish Okpuno; he was moved to St. Clement’s Parish Umuogem Ufuma as the Parish Priest in October 1999. In Ocober 2000, Fr Okochi moved to the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium where he obtained the degrees of Master of Religious Studies in 2001 and Master of Theology in 2002. In late 2002, he moved to the United States of America where he engaged in various pastoral assignments in Blessed Sacrament Parish, Valley Stream; Our Lady of Peace Parish, Lynbrook and Franklin Hospital, Valley Stream, all in Long Island, New York. In 2008, Fr. Okochi obtained a PhD in Educational Administration, Supervision and Policy from Fordham University, New York. In 2010, Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor asked Fr. Okochi to return to Nigeria and assigned him to St. John Bosco Seminary Isuaniocha as Rector, a position he occupied till his new appointment as Education Secretary at Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja.

On how he got this job?
Like every other priest in the diocese, I got a text message in November from the Office of the Bishop concerning some vacant positions at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. Among them was the Education Secretary at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. Being the Rector of the Seminary, I wrote to the Bishop seeking for his permission to apply for the position which he granted. All the applicants from all over the country were invited for interview on 5th December, 2018. So, we were called in one after the other for the interview. In the interview panel were some Bishops. The interview lasted from about 3pm to about 10pm. After the interview, we were asked to wait for the result. Eventually I was told by the Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Rev. Fr. Ralph Madu, to wait for my letter of appointment the following day. When I was given the appointment letter the following day, I called my Bishop and report the good news. That’s it.

Approximately, how many people applied for the position?
I don’t really know the exact number because there were a number of positions and we were all seated in the same place; so I wouldn’t really know who came for what position. There were many Rev. Frs from different Dioceses, from Congregations and even Rev. Sisters from different Congregations

How does your being a Rector for years and a Priest for 25 years prepare you for this task?
First of all, being a rector has helped me a lot because it placed me in the school system. Apart from the fact that I have a doctoral degree in Educational Administration and have practically been into education. I have also been in the seminary system for a long time. When I came back from studies, the Bishop appointed me as the Chairman of Awka Diocesan Education Commission. I am also a member of the Anambra State Catholic Education Commission. So, these are very vibrant bodies in educational fields. The practical experiences I gained in these bodies obviously helped to prepare me. My interaction with the government as a member of Anambra State Catholic Education Commission, trying to promote the interest of the Catholic Church in Education, like the issue of the handover of schools to the Church is an exposure to me too. My role as the Chairman of the Awka Diocesan Education Commission, afforded me the opportunity of closely working with the former Diocesan Education Secretary, Fr. Sabastine Onuorah, in tackling many issues and challenges relating to Catholic Schools in the Diocese. I am convinced that practical and strategic experiences gathered from these bodies and appointments will help me better in my new assignment. Even when I went for the interview, I was actually asked about the experiences I have gained in Education and I narrated some of them.

Were you the only priest from this diocese that applied for the position of Education Secretary?
Yes. For this position, I was the only person that applied.

What is your job description and duties as stated in your appointment letter?
It only stated that the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria has appointed me to be the Secretary of the Education Unit of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria. So there are no job descriptions in the letter.

If given the opportunity to become a Rector again, are there some things you wouldn’t want to do that you did before?
I really enjoyed being a Rector. Initially it wasn’t easy but we all grow in the job because nobody is born a Rector. When you get the appointment, you make mistakes and learn from them. Also, you gather experiences, make adjustments and forge ahead. For me, the strongest source of strength is God and then the Diocesan Bishop who has been very supportive to me. Being a former rector himself, he encouraged me and gave me moral support to tackle most of the challenges and he never interfered in the administration of the seminary during my tenure as the rector.

When I came back from America, I carried some America’s ideas that I thought were good for the whole world. For example, allowing students to correct themselves but then I discovered quickly that the psychology of an American child and a Nigerian child is totally different. I discovered that I was more effective if I supervise my students more closely because in the West, there is this tendency to leave the children to do whatever they like and that hasn’t been working well to my own assessment. Parents and teachers complain that they are disempowered because they don’t have the authority to really discipline their kids; because the government is trying to avoid abuse. In the bid to protect children, they took powers away from parents and teachers. So, I wanted to use that method here but I discovered that I needed to be more practical by watching them more closely. That doesn’t still mean you don’t give them space. I usually tell people that nothing can function well here if there is no supervision. Our people need to be really guided very closely.

What are the things you gathered from experience that you would keep dong if appointed as a Rector again?
One thing I would like to keep doing if appointed as Rector again is to listen to students. To take their views into considerations when making decisions and to work with parents in the training of students especially those who have problems with parent-children relationship. The school has to work very closely with the parents in guiding the kids because sometimes the students maintain dual personalities. They are one person here in the seminary, they are another person at home. Another thing is that I would like to maintain the tradition of equality. Here, as a team in the school, we tried to maintain that. Every student is given the impression that he is equal to the other student. There is no special student or preferential treatment unless when the person is sick. Nobody has this impression that because of his background or whatever, he has advantage over the other. That’s not the seminary tradition in Awka Diocese. If I come back as rector, I would like to maintain that tradition to be equally fair to all.

If I am chanced to become a rector again, I would like to promote academic excellence, moral rectitude, and balanced formation, not only for people coming into the seminary to become priests which is primary. The seminarians will go through the seminary and the seminary goes through them too. Also, to build people who are called to become priests and those who may become polished gentlemen and productive members of the society.

You celebrated 25 years as a priest few months ago, what are your fulfilling moments as a Priest so far?
First of all, I always remember the moment I was ordained. Also, I have been into formation of priests for a very long time and it gives me joy when I see a lot of students who have passed through my hands becoming very happy priests. I receive a lot of satisfaction and joy from that especially when I remember those who didn’t become priests becoming responsible members of the society. The two times I worked in the parish, the fraternity and love we shared are fulfilling too. Also, loving people and being loved back is very fulfilling. The efforts made with my team (formators) in the seminary are also fulfilling. I find joy whenever our students do well in their internal and external examinations and even when they get awards and achieve academic excellence. I feel proud and I am happy being a priest. In my next life, I would also like to be a priest. I love my priesthood, I love God and I love the church and I wish everybody do same.

So, what are your challenging moments so far?
There are moments when you are misunderstood or your intentions are deliberately misinterpreted or when your actions are given the wrong interpretations. It can be very hurtful. Sometimes, when you do the right thing and people push you or say you should have done it the other way. This happens often when students commit offences. This is very hurtful too but I got used to that. In life people can misunderstand you but when people deliberately misinterpret your intentions, it becomes very hurtful. I don’t think I have major disappointments along the way in my career

You have worked successfully in the Education Department of the Catholic Diocese of Awka, what new things would you hopefully bring to the Education Unit of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria?
The truth is that I don’t know much of my new department now, till I get there. I will have to know the organogram, the nature of the unit and how the different units function. When I went for the interview, I was asked what I will offer if I was hired. No matter what you do, it should be remembered at the back of your mind, the duties of the Education Secretary of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria which is to help promote the implementation of catholic policy on education; and to interact with the government to protect the interest of the catholic church in Government Educational Ppolicies; and to report to the bishops where such interest of the Catholic Church is threatened. For example, when government wants to change the curriculum that will exclude Religious Education or formulate policy that threatens our own faith, it is my job to get the bishops aware of such moves.

What are your expectations?
My expectations are that different religious and diocesan education secretaries would work very closely and work much closely to implement the Catholic education policies at all levels, because I am more like a coordinator on top and I hope to work very well with them happily and collaboratively. I also expect that I will work well with my other colleagues and that my little efforts will be appreciated.

You have lived in the East for some good period of time, and you are moving to the North to take up this mantle of leadership; so how do you think you would adapt to changes?
It is only natural that I have this little anxiety for some time especially during the process of change. It is natural to be anxious especially when there is a change from the known to the unknown. I hope to adjust very quickly. I already have some friends and school mates at the seminary who are already working at the Catholic Secretariat. They are all expecting my coming and gradually, I will adjust. My appointment is really going to expose me to some new friends, contacts and people I will have to work with. Also, I have some friends and relatives in Abuja. It’s going to be a little tough but I hope to settle down quickly.

What are your hobbies?
My number one hobby is music. I produce music privately, I sing, I dance too and I play the keyboard. I learnt the playing of instrument in the seminary but I learnt music production in America, as a hobby, when I went to study. I also like reading and writing a lot. I deliver papers both at seminars, and conferences. I used to be a columnist in Fides Newspaper.

Will your new job give you some time to play and enjoy music?
Yes it will. I have already seen the schedule of work. For example, working four days in a week from 9am- 5pm and having one day off unless I have some seminars and conferences that will take me off but that doesn’t really come often. It is like a civil servant job.

As a priest for 25 years, what is your advice to younger priests?
We’ve all gone through the process of formation and I advise that they should take their vocation very seriously. They should remember who they are and their purpose on earth. It is very important. Once we are conscious of whom we are and what we are, it will guide our thoughts and actions. It will make us do our job much better. I also advise that they take courage because being priests could be very challenging. The world is becoming much more sophisticated, but I thank God that many of them are very brilliant, intelligent and much gifted. So I am telling them to take courage. This is what God has been telling his people. With God we shall conquer. So let’s ride on! And keep the flag flying

So what’s your watchword and principle?
I believe in giving everybody his / her dues. I believe in fairness a lot.

If given the opportunity to study another course, what would you have studied?
I would have studied Music.

I asked about what you would have studied, because you said you love fairness, so I had thought you would have said law.
Well, I wouldn’t want to become a lawyer because I am not practically attracted to that field. But I love and respect them for what they do. I would love to study Literature or Computer Engineering. I am so much into it even though I don’t have a degree in Computer engineering. I love it so much and I know the technical (hardware and software) of the course well. Maybe I could go for that too

What are your favorite colours?
Blue, Green and White

What are your favorite meals?
I love rice. Rice of all kinds or all shades of rice.

Thank you so much Fr. for this interview. It was really nice speaking with you. Thanks for your time. Congratulations once more.
You’re welcome. God bless you.