A transcribed version of the speech of Very Rev. Fr. Prof. Peter-Demian Akpunonu

Very Rev. Fr. Rector,

My Brother Priests, the Formators,

And My Dear Students,

I want to let you know that I am very happy and privileged to be with you this evening. Many thoughts well up in my heart as I stand here before you. I indicated to the Rector that I will like to come here and see the seminary for myself and I would like to interact with the staff and may be to have a chart or two with the students in passing. I did not realize that this type of reception was being prepared for me. I don’t deserve it but none the less, I thank you very sincerely.

Bigard began to create her own chives when I was here. But I never had the privilege of being made one. And this night I can say that I am a chief. And I promise you that I will wear my chieftaincy regalia very often and very proudly. Each time I come to Bigard, if it is not for a religious function, you can be sure I will wear my regalia.

When I was appointed a staff here in 1971, I got back to Nigeria on 31st of December, 1971. And on the 5th of January 1972, I was already in the classroom teaching. When I was in Rome as a seminarian, the formators there were simply unique. We had very good professors in the university. And back to the college the Rector and the Vice Rector were really exceptional. They led us by the hand, such that without tension we ascended the altar, supported by the Rector, the staff and the student body.

When I was appointed Rector here, I felt the same mission; that I was to help the seminarians to move joyfully to the altar. And I remember in the first conference, I told the seminarians that the happiest years of my life were the four years of theology in Rome. And I had only one ambition; to make you experience what I have experienced. For that reason, I got the student council functioning very well. The very first thing addressed was the food committee. It was there before, but it was not functioning that well. I made sure it functioned well. This is because hunger is a very evil councilor. And I told the seminarians “I will make sure that you eat very well, so that you will have no excuse not to pray well or study well or involve actively in athletics for your holistic formation.”

I thank the Rector for inviting me and making me feel at home. When you are in a place and you leave, coming back to that place often might create the impression that you have come to see how they are doing, to come and criticize and point accusing fingers. But from what I saw this evening and from the Rector’s speech, I do realize that the more often I come, the more welcome I will be. And with God’s grace I will be coming. And if you have any major event, if you let me know in time, so that I put it down in my diary, I will honor all your invitations.

Bigard means so much to me. I was only 29 years old when I began here in 1972. And those who knew me in my very first years will let you know that I was full of youthful exuberance. I was all over the compound. And I had only one ambition; to make sure that things were not only done but that they were well done. May be in my youthful exuberance I overstepped a bit; I don’t rule out that possibility. I felt that only the best was good enough for Bigard. When I drove into the compound this evening I was really amazed, for it has been a while since I last came here.

My driver said: “Hei! Ebe a amaka. O dizi k’ Obodo oyibo. (Indeed! This place is nice. It looks like white man’s land.)“. I simply drove round to a few places. The planning, the cleanliness, how things were in place and nothing out of place, were impressive. That is not easy with a large number here. The impression I got and any person would get coming here is: here is a place where things are well done. And that everybody here; staff and students mean business. Those of you, who knew me, know that I don’t flatter. I don’t say anything which I do not mean. So, I only wish and pray that this external decorum becomes only an index of the authentic and holistic formation that you are receiving.

My dear friends, it is a special privilege to be called to be a priest. If God makes you a priest, that is the greatest proof of His love. Each time I think that I am a priest, I feel like walking on my head. Sometimes people ask me: if you had another life would you like to be a priest? And my answer is; if I had a million lives, I would always want to be a priest, because, there is nothing more that God would have done for me than making me a priest. I am 48 years a priest. By the way when my jubilee comes I will invite you. Any way that is on a lighter note.

Tell me what God could have done for you than making you a priest. That is why you should take your formation very seriously. There is a difference between a two legged creature wearing a cassock and a priest. A two legged creature wearing a cassock is not the same thing as being a priest. What we mean by saying I am a priest is; are you looking for Jesus Christ? (Pointing at himself) Here is Jesus Christ. You should be able to incarnate Jesus Christ in time and space.

And therefore, my dear seminarians please, do not allow worldly things to distract you. Anything that you will not be proud of on your death-bed doesn’t belong to you. Anything, for which you could be embarrassed if anybody found out, doesn’t belong to you. The only joy in being a priest is to conscientiously every day, try to be a very good and a very holy priest. When you begin to compromise, when you begin to cut corners that is when there is a problem.

I have noticed since I came back that in Nigeria, there is so much talk about money. Many priests have got themselves involved in that many people have decided to go into prayer and meeting ministry and many of them go about telling lies. There was somebody who in one of their prayer meetings lit fire and smoke was going up. He then told the people if you look closely in that smoke going up you will see the image of our lord, or the image of our lady or the image of a saint. And once you see any image, go and write down your name in a register and indicate the image you saw. What was the outcome? Everybody wrote something down. Are visions that cheap?

Today there is a lot of launching in our churches. There are some priests who have got the charism of making money. Some people answer Ogwu Ego. Is that why he is a priest? Why doesn’t he say; “I win souls for Jesus Christ (Ogwu mkpurobi)”. I have not come here to criticize anybody but am letting you know that this is the world into which you will be going.

Some of you may begin to say as many seminarians say “seminary is one thing, ministry is another. Am just killing time so that I will be ordained, and when I am ordained I know what to do“. Is that the way Jesus Christ came and saved us? All that money, all those titles, whether you like it or not, you will not enjoy them more than eighty (80) years. And you know the more you have money the more parasites you invite into your life. And many of them can be a very great threat to your priestly virtues.

So I am pleading with you, listen attentively to your formators. Listen to what they tell you. They are here because they love you. Teaching in the seminary is not the most comfortable ministry. Many seminarians could only remember the day you got angry with them but they forget many other things you did for them. When a priest is celebrating his jubilee, there is a very big reception for those in the parish. But those in the seminary just get an envelope of about $200. The temptation is very strong.

Even oversea, some people stay in the seminary for some times and go to the parish where there is more authority and more money. If you turn away your gaze from Our Lord that is what is going to happen. Remember when Our Lord was walking on the lake; the disciples saw him and were terrified. And Our Lord assured them: “it is I do not be afraid”. Peter said “Lord if it is you ask me to come walking on the water too”. And Our Lord told him “come”. So Peter was walking on the water and peter was enjoying it.

Then the wind blew and Peter removed his gaze from Our Lord. He was no longer focused on Our Lord. He began to think about the wind, he began to think about himself. From that moment Peter began to sink. But all the time he had his eyes focused on the Lord he was walking on the water and nothing happened to him. The same happens to us my brothers, seminarians and priests. If you keep your eyes focused on the Lord, you will be very happy; you will be a very successful priest. But when you allow other things to distract you like Peter, you will begin to sink. And you will do a lot of harm to the church and yourself.

I wish to thank you all. This is not meant to be a homily; rather, I am just sharing some of my deepest experiences. And I want to let you know my dear seminarians; the moment you are here is the cairos for you. If you are in the first year of theology you are dangerously close to the priesthood. Time flies. If the devil cannot get you to do something wrong, he makes you postpone the good you would have otherwise done. And the reason is that the good is no longer valuable.

So father Rector, I wish to thank you very sincerely for the opportunity you gave me to visit my alma mater, which means so much for me. When I left Bigard to go to Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), I left my heart here. For many years I was never able to talk about Portharcourt. I was always talking about Bigard or Enugu, even after three years that I have left Bigard. So people were asking me “You don’t seem to realize that you have left Bigard”.

And I told them yes, that that was the very first fruit of my manhood. I thank the staff for the good work they are doing. Bigard has a tradition and if you look at other major seminaries in the province, I don’t see any of them that is as beautifully well structured, so well maintained and has got the standard of cleanliness and planning that Bigard has. That is a baton that has been passed onto you; pass it on to future generations. God bless us all and long live Bigard.

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