By Fr Sylvester Chukwumalume
When upon life`s billows you are tempest tossed
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost
Count your many blessings name them one by one
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done
Count your blessings name them one by one
Count your blessings see what God has done
Count your blessings, name them one by one
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
We are gathered here today to rejoice with Fr Matthew Chekwube Udobi as he recounts the blessings of God on his life and his ministry, particularly, that he has spent the last 3,653 days of his life as a priest of the Most High God.
Fr Matthew was born in the South East Region of Nigeria. He had his Minor Seminary training in the Catholic Diocese of Awka, Nigeria. His Major Seminary formation took place in the prestigious Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Nigeria. He came out in flying colours.
Fr Matthew was one of the less than twenty percent of his classmates who began the journey that eventually became priests. Permit me to recall that in his second year in the minor seminary, Fr Matthew fell into an abandoned deep dry well of about 30 feet, which could have truncated his life aspirations. God was there to assure him “I am here to save you my son”. From all of these challenges and temptations associated with seminary training, Fr Matthew survived them all.
Since after his ordination on August 20, 2011, Fr Matthew has served as associate pastor in three different parishes before coming over to The US to pursue his Master`s programme from St John`s University, NY in 2017. In the last two years he has been serving as a certified chaplain in John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, Port Jefferson, NY. For all of these that God has used Fr Matthew to accomplish, we are here to say to God Thank You !
We are also here today to help Fr Matthew assess his sojourn in the priesthood in the last ten years. We are here to help him answer once more that famous question ” Why did you choose to become a priest?”
The usual answer almost all of us here from Nigeria gave to that question during our interview was: to save my soul and that of others. And so, on a day like this, we ask Fr Matthew, how many souls have you actually saved? On the flip side, how many souls have you led away from Christ?
One of the spiritual directors I had in my theology days in Tansi Seminary Onitsha, Nigeria by name Fr Anselm Oruche, while cautioning us against the trending rush to celebrate either 1st, 5th, 10th,25th priestly anniversary celebrations told us that what many priests were actually celebrating were actually years of annoying the people of God.
Today`s celebration is a time for Fr Matthew to say mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for those occasions and situations you did not live up to your priestly calling.
As we share in you joy today, we remind you that in Is 61:1 ”The spirit of the Lord is upon you; because the Lord has anointed you” Yes. through the imposition of hands on that day and the long prayer of consecration by the bishop, you automatically underwent an ontological transfiguration thus becoming an alte christus-another Christ. What a privilege! What an honour God has bestowed on mere mortals to become another Christ.
The question now is-how active is that spirit you received on the ordination day? Any erosion of the spirit? Just as St Paul would remind Timothy in 2Tim 1:6 ”…fan into flame the gift of God that you possess through the laying on of my hands”. We are here to remind you to keep faithful to that spirit you received.
When John Mary Vianney, the patron of priests was sent to the obscure little village of Ars, France, the Vicar General of the Diocese said to him “There is not much love of God in that parish, you will enkindle it”.
As you begin the second decade of your priestly ministry, Fr Matthew , God is saying to you, go into the world to rekindle the broken hearted, the lonely, the sick, the depressed. Do not forget to bring hope , not despair to the hopeless.
May we remind you today, the exalted and dignified position you occupy as a priest, which by the way calls for introspection and humility. Lev,21: 10-13:
The priest who is pre-eminent over his brothers, on whose head
the anointing oil has been poured, and who, robed in the sacred
vestments, has received investiture, will not disorder his hair
or tear his clothes…He will not leave the holy place in such
a way as to profane the sanctuary of his God, for he bears
the consecration of the anointing of his God. I am Yahweh.
Furthermore, remember on the day of your ordination that you received from the hand of the ordaining prelate, a paten containing bread and chalice with the following words:
Accept from the holy people of the gifts to be offered to Him: Know what you are doing; imitate the mystery you celebrate, model your life on the mystery of the Lord`s cross. The key words here are: know, imitate, model. Think about it.
Successes and accomplishments mean different thing for different priests. For some, a successful priest is someone who has gotten many landed properties, own houses, fleet of cars, Phd`s, politically connected with the movers of the society. And who says that these things are not good to have them? I don`t know what you think. But permit me to share this story with you.
A group of people were assessing the successes they recorded in the just concluded year. Some said they made enormous gains in their businesses, some completed their house projects, some bought new cars, some got married. But one man stood up and announced what he considered as his greatest achievement in the past year-that he was faithful to his new year resolution of saying his rosary every day for the last 365 days.
And the man was just an ordinary Christian. Therefore, I make bold to say that a more successful priest is the prayerful priest. We remind Fr Matthew and indeed all the priests that prayer remains the engine house of our ministry. A prayerless priest is a weak, dysfunctional priest.
That is what the Church tells her priests when she sings: Priestly people, Kingly people, Holy people, God`s chosen people, sing praise to the Lord. Yes! The Church cannot demand less of holy, compassionate, prayerful priests. When a priest loses this, he has lost it all.” Separated from me, you can do nothing-“Jn15:5. Be holy, for I am holy-1 Pt1:15-16.
Just as Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the service of the gospel that God promised…(Rom.1:1) so are we all brother priests set apart from the world though not insulated from it, may you look at where you are going , or go where you are looking at. The book of Apocalypse tells us that when you are neither hot or cold, I will vomit you from my mouth because ” No one who puts his hand on the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God -Lk,9:62.
It is on this count that I request the laity to please pray for Fr Matthew and all the priests because their vocation is like a ship that is going against the current in the big ocean (the world). Understand your priests when they err because they are; encourage your priests when they are struggling, pray for your priests to remain close to the heart of Jesus that called them because the priesthood is like a labyrinth-the more you look , the less you see.
Finally, we say a big congratulations to Fr Matthew as he attained ten uninterrupted years in the Catholic priesthood. We look forward to your Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee celebration by August 20, 2036. Before then, please rise and join me sing for him:
Tu es sacerdos, in aeternum, secundum ordinis(2x), Melchizedek.
Ad multos annos!
Fr Sylvester Chukwumalume is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Awka working in West Islip, NY