A Jesuit Priest and his Cross in a 21st Century Parish Setting
“Not that I have become perfect yet: I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me” – Phil. 3:12.
At ordination the bishop exhorts the newly ordained priest thus: “understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” This pious exhortation sets out a challenge, a goal, and an ideal to be attained by every priest. A more familiar setting for striving towards the attainment of this ideal is the parish ministry. Despite his honest efforts, the pastoral minister is unable to fully understand what he does or well imitate what he celebrates in persona Christi because they are mysteries shrouded in ‘obscure clarity’ due to their supra temporal orientation. But the pastoral minister can often give excellent intelligible explanations of these mysteries. The most challenging ideal for the minister, however, is how to conform one’s life to the mystery of the Cross. In the complex world of the 21st century supercharged with divergent radical beliefs, counter-cultural values, and breezy lifestyles, the Cross appears much like a stubborn toothache at a Christmas banquet.
As a Jesuit priest working at St Joseph’s parish in Benin City, I feel a sense of duty to make the rugged ancient Cross of the man from Galilee relevant to the men and women from Nigeria in a 21st century Church. Doing this often requires a bit of creativity to ‘remix’ the gospel, as it were, into our time and context as well as authenticity to hold firm to the orthodox doctrine of the faith. It also demands integrity to the virtues of the Master: a readiness to be humbled, spent, emptied, or poured out in the service of love and the Cross (Phil. 2:7-11). In the words of Pope Francis in his inaugural homily as the Bishop of Rome, serving as a priest or bishop today entails a willingness to open one’s “arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important… the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.” This essay is a small reflection on some of the small ways in which my colleagues and I as pastoral ministers attempt to live out these ideals. A lot of it is based on anecdotal experiences.
My day in the parish usually begins around 4:45am. Once up from bed, I normally do some 15 to 20 minutes workout either in my room or outdoors. My outdoor exercises typically mean jogging around the main church and ending with some amateur Taekwondo drills. In a safer environ I take my jogging to the main streets or to a nearby public sports complex like the National Stadium (if I am in Surulere, Lagos). It’s always more fun outdoors. Then, following the usual toilet rituals, I say my daily morning devotion and the Breviary. At my parish we have three Masses at 6:00am, 12:15pm, and 6:00pm during the weekdays save on Thursdays (parish off-day when we have just the 6:00am Mass). On Saturdays we have two Masses at 6:30am and 5:00pm (Sunday vigil), while on Sundays we have four Masses as follows: 6:00am, 8:15am, 10:30am, and 5:00pm. At the beginning of each month our parish priest, Fr. Tom Oguagua, prepares a roster which rotates the order of presiding at the masses between the three priests on our mission. Our weekday Masses take about 45 minutes and are often followed by a silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Adoration Chapel. We also have the sacrament of Reconciliation daily right after Mass. Many Catholics from other parishes in the City take advantage of it to the effect that sometimes the confessional queue can be quite long. Inwardly, I experience greater spiritual consolations when the queues are long than when they are scanty.
The nature of our ministry and apostolic availability in the parish often tend to permit very little time for us as a pastoral team to dine together during the day. Each one generally grabs breakfast or lunch whenever he can. From time to time, some of us have had to forgo or postpone some meals for the sake of the mission. There is, however, one mealtime that Jesuits don’t trifle with, community dinner. In fact, due to our weird schedules, supper may at times be the only proper meal a companion would have in a whole day. Hence, we try to make every dinner time an opportunity to celebrate not really the food, but the gifts we received in the course of the day. If you ever wish to ambush Jesuits at their lightest moments, then you must gatecrash them at their dinner hour! I usually look forward to this time even when I lack appetite for food because I am likely to have my intellectual desires satiated from our mostly appetizing table debates and conversations. A meal would normally lose its flavor for me if neither of these appetites was met. Normally, we end our dinners with a common offering of the Vespers – the official evening prayer of the Church. Once a month we also map out some time for fraternal faith sharing and also twice in the year we do
communal retreats. Each of us also gets a chance to go for a short break in the course of the year for three to four weeks during which he normally does his personal 8-days retreat.
A typical day in the diary of a parish pastor is a medley of many planned and unplanned activities. One of the planned schedules could be a series of counseling sessions for diverse groups ranging from couples undergoing marital challenges to youths seeking for university admissions, jobs, or life partners. Another could be pastoral visitations to some homebound parishioners who due to age or ill health are no longer able to worship with us an agape community. Taking time out to visit parishioners (especially the infirm) at their homes is one of the most uplifting and appreciated aspects of the ministry of a parish pastor. Sadly, owing to many competing schedules it is often hard to find enough time to visit as many as one would love to. On our planned diary also is a weekly pastoral ministry at a leprosarium (Ossiomo) just about 50km away from the city. We also attend in various ways to a number of homes for the physically challenged and for destitute in the city.
Every Sunday, we minister to a good number of the inmates at the two federal prisons in the city. Our ministry here consists of not only the offering of Masses and hearing of confessions. We also provide counseling on request to some of the inmates and wardens as well as offer last sacraments and encouragement to those on the death row. Similarly, almost every other Thursday we celebrate vigil Masses for deceased parishioners followed by the final mass of commendation the next day. Sometimes some of the deceased are taken from the city to their villages within the state or in another state for burial. We usually accompany the hearse to the final place of interment save where the bereaved family prefers to make alternative arrangements with the local pastors in the home area of the deceased. In any case, the pain of sorrow in our parish is often much relieved by the manner in which our parishioners express our common bond of solidarity with our bereaved members, through visitations, gifts, prayers, domestic services, and other varied forms of assistance.
The mystery of death and life is foreshadowed in the sacrament of matrimony. Hardly any Saturday goes by, save during Lent, that we do not have weddings. Some couples sometimes prefer to have theirs on Fridays (usually but not always in groups of three to six different couples). Marriages at St Joseph’s parish in Benin City frequently bubble with glam and grandeur. Our newly built baroque-pillared magnificent Church is a major attraction to even non-parishioners intending to wed. One couple once told me that a wedding at St Joseph’s parish is like a wedding at St. Peter’s Basilica without the Pope. There are, however, some who also choose our parish for the unique flavor of our homilies and our general flair in our celebration of marriages. Even couples of very slender means or elderly couples having a blessing of their marriage are usually made to feel special and esteemed when we celebrate their marriage at St Joseph’s.
In addition, we offer marriage courses, retreats, and seminar talks to various groups and sodalities in our parish and beyond.
Our regents also annually convoke and facilitate remedial classes for school leavers preparing to take examinations into the tertiary institutions. But the most boring though critically important aspect of our pastoral ministry is the series of endless meetings at various levels: community, parish, deanery, archdiocesan, religious, and so on. These meetings can at times get on one’s nerves. The parish pastor is like a medical practitioner on call not only at odd hours, but almost 24 hours daily. At times
we get distress calls from concerned parishioners for us to intervene or mediate between bickering couples who are members of our parish. Sometimes, we get sudden calls to come and anoint some sick parishioners or their relatives in dire health conditions. It is always a joy to do this but often very confusing when the sick slips away just before we could manage to get there. Such moments take me to the depths of my mortality. But in the end I manage to recover and resign the situation to divine providence. No day passes in the parish that we do not get asked extempore to bless sacramentals, pregnant mothers, nursing mothers, babies, travelers, penitents, houses, shops, sites, tools, cars, and even bicycles. People just turn up and demand your blessing, period.
In my missioning letter to this parish, my major superior broadly specified my work as follows: to be the local superior of the Jesuit Community at St Joseph’s and to assist the parish priest in the parish ministry. Two simple jobs, I said to myself. But in reality, none comes to be that simple. To succeed in the parish ministry, as I see it, a pastor must be a true Scout at heart: to be ready always to do anything that will advance God’s glory and Kingdom. This could be something as simple as writing
recommendation letters for youths looking for jobs or admissions. It could just be to officiate at a child-naming ceremony or the enthronement ritual of a Sacred Heart devotee. It could really mean spending some good amount of time preparing your homilies. It could even be something as banal as shopping without grumbling for the community from the street markets or
getting a clean haircut from a roadside barber’s shop. Perhaps it could also be something as elevated as singing and praying with the Legion or Mary or the Catholic Charismatic Renewal sodalities. Parish ministry is always an open-ended mission that can never be accurately specified in a letter.
In the end, one may ask: “from whence cometh the fuel that powers these many ministries?” It comes from daily prayers. It comes from intimacy with Jesus in spirit and in the sacraments. It comes from close reading of the Bible, relevant books, and current affairs. It is aided by a regular routine of physical exercises and healthy diet. It comes from a life of humility, integrity, and true accountability to God and to the people we serve. It also critically comes from genuine friendship with fellow pastors and companions in the ministry as well as from unconditional familiarity with many parishioners. For grace to bear the cross of Christ with the right spirit and to serve God as He truly deserves, I daily burn onto the disc of my heart the words of this fervent prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola: “to give and not to count the cost; to fight and not to heed the wounds; to toil and not to seek for rest; to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that I do God’s holy will.”