Stephen Ojapah MSP
Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life (Mathew 19:28-29).
Many extraordinary people who live heroic, path breaking lives remain unknown to posterity for one simple reason—no one writes their biography. How many other saints, heroes, and martyrs would be known to mankind if just one witness to their actions had put pen to paper! Just one author is needed to introduce a great man to subsequent generations. Saints everywhere may have been forgotten forever, and may have wanted to remain unknown. But some are lucky to be introduced by those who knew them closely, for example St Anthony of Egypt and Athanasius. Saint Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy at the Council of Nicea, wrote a short biography of his fellow Egyptian, The Life of Saint Anthony the Great. Saint Athanasius’ work was so widely shared, and so often translated, that it was never lost to history. It has preserved St. Anthony’s memory down to the present.
The first three centuries of the Church saw sporadic persecutions of Christianity which at times turned vicious. These spasms of violence against Christians produced a large class of martyrs, many of whose last words and sufferings were recorded in official Roman judicial documents or in the written testimonies of witnesses. As Christianity was legalized at the start of the fourth century martyrdom ceased to be the primary form of Christian witness. A new form of radical witness to Christ emerged—the witness of radical isolation, fasting, prayer, and penance of the desert fathers. These monks retreated into remote places to lead solitary lives of dedication to Christ. Foremost among these desert fathers was St. Anthony of the Desert, born around 250 A.D. He was not the first ascetic, but he was perhaps the first to take the radical decision to retreat into the desert.
St. Anthony had money and property as a young man. But upon hearing at Mass the words of Christ to the rich young man to “…go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven”, St. Anthony decided to seek not silver or bronze, but pure gold. He sold his goods, he removed himself from all temptation except those intrinsic to human nature, he battled the devil, he fasted, he prayed, and he even actively sought martyrdom. He became famous for being holy. Saint Anthony preceded St. Benedict by two hundred years. He offers us an example of being a monk outside of a community of monks in a monastery. He sought Christ alone in every sense. Alone in the desert, without family, community, or money. Alone to the world, he clinged to the only person who truly mattered—God himself. Saint Anthony’s path of holiness is both radical and refined. It is for few people to walk. But he was the first to walk it so well. He shows us that being alone, stripped of all worldly concerns, is a sort of rehearsal for death, where we will meet God alone, every last thread tying us to the world having been cut.
Over the centuries, God has used hundreds of men and women to inspire vocations and desire to serve Him in a special way in the religious life. Apostolic religious life is a form of consecrated life within the Church wherein the members profess vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience within a congregation or community approved by the Church. Shared community life is an integral part of this form of consecrated life. In professing vows and living within community, the members individually and as a whole witness to a life of communion with Christ, the Church, and one another. Many of those religious women and men, engage in mostly integral human formation and development. They contribute their services to God and humanity through education; health care services, scientific and academic research. A visit to Pax Herbal Center in Ewu Monastery will convince you a bit.
This week we have the honour of reflecting on the humble life of late Sr Francisca Ufoeze a Sister in the congregation of the Sisters of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus (EHJ). She died on the 5th of January in Illela Sokoto. Sr Francisca Ufoeze lived a humbled life of Prayer, service to humanity and fostering unity and peace amongst her immediate community. For twenty-five years Sr Francisca Ufoeze worked as a teacher, and educationist. A stern and gentle mother who instilled right conduct and values in the hearts and lives of little children. She worked in various schools across the country notably in Ogun, Lagos, Niger, and Delta States and concluded her life and times in Illela, Sokoto State. Before her death, she was the Headmistress of St Patrick’s Nursery and Primary School Illela where the population is 70% Muslim. Sr Franca obviously have more contacts with the Muslim community than her Christian base. Two weeks after her death, children were still coming to her office looking for their mama. She loved the children she worked with, and they truly love her. Having known Sr Francisca for some years now, she possessed some qualities which I find to be very apt for our national life as Nigerians.
Sr Franca was a very prayerful person. Jesus serves as the most perfect of model prayer for all Christians. In Luke 11:1-13 we hear some of Jesus’ thoughts on prayer. It is evident from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus prays often (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28). Jesus’ disciples have no doubt noticed His prayerfulness and in this passage they ask Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). But what is more about her prayer life, is its translation into living well with people in her immediate environment. All those who lived with her could testify to her ability to make peace, settle disputes and settle quarrel between husbands and wives. This she did with the Catholic women in Illela. Nigeria is a very religious country. For our Muslim brothers and sisters, they pray five times a day. For those who are Catholics, most of us begin our day with the daily Mass and the recitation of the Angelus at 6am 12pm and 6pm; most of our Pentecostal and Protestant brothers and sisters, have moments they spend in prayers in the course of the day. On Fridays and Sundays, our places of worship are always packed full. Our preachers spend hours in admonishing the faithful. But how much does this religiosity translate into living well with people through showing love, mercy, generosity, courtesy, respect for the other especially those who don’t speak our language or worship like us?
Sr Franca spoke the three major languages fluently: Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and some bit of Isoko language, certainly in addition to English language. She was very comfortable, with the Muslim community in Illela, and could interact confidently in Hausa. Language can be a big barrier in our quest for national integration. We have seen some Nigerians who have stayed in the north or east or west while coming from the other region and have refused to accept the culture and language of the people. In 1999 a man came to the church to thank God for the live he has spent in a particular state for 30 years, and was about to go back to his ‘native’ land. In his vote of thanks to the church and the community. He said my one regret as I live this land is that I have never accepted to learn the language which has deprive me of making friends and knowing more people. Sr Franca incarnated in the hearts of the Muslim and Christian community of Illela and was more than open to learn more about the Muslim and Hausa culture. Rest in Peace dear Sr Francisca Ufoeze EHJ.
Fr Stephen Ojapah is a priest of the Missionary Society of St Paul. He is equally the director for Interreligious Dialogue and Ecumenism for the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, a member of IDFP. He is also a KAICIID Fellow. ([email protected])