A VALEDICTORY SPEECH PRESENTED BY
ANTHONY EZEOKEKE (BIGARD VALEDICTORIAN, CLASS OF 2013)
AT THE 43RD CONVOCATION CEREMONY OF BIGARD MEMORIAL SEMINARY, ENUGU,
ON THIS DAY 19TH OF MARCH, 2014.
Your Excellency, Most Rev. Augustine T. Ukwuoma, the Bishop of Orlu Diocese,
The Rector, Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Ukoro Theophilus Igwe
Revered Professors and Members of the Academic Staff,
Reverend Fathers and Deacons,
Religious Men and Women,
Beloved Theologians, Promising and Vibrant Philosophers,
Highly Esteemed Fellow Graduands,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I humbly stand before this revered assembly on this day with gratitude to God in whom we live, move and have our being. I also stand here on behalf of my fellow graduands to express our heart-felt appreciation to our lecturers who have labored in different ways, co-operating with God to make us what we are today..
I consider it a rare privilege especially to stand before my revered formators and lecturers whose immeasurable contributions have helped in no smaller measure to shape our thoughts and personalities. I pray that my life and those of my co-graduands, be a hymn of thanksgiving to God and to the Church for this great favour granted us. I am ever indebted to the Bishops of this Province, the owners of this seminary, and particularly to my Local Ordinary, Most Rev. P. C. Ezeokafor. I also appreciate the large heart of Most Rev. Augustine Ukwuoma who presides over this ceremony. Many thanks also to all my formators and professors whom I met on the rung of my seminary formation.
There is no gainsaying that my standing here and whatever am about to present here are the fruits of the labour of my revered formators, both those present and all I met in my journey to the priesthood. For this, I remain indebted to you. However, I take responsibility of whatever flaws or errors that may be found herein, since am but a young tendril in Divinity studies.
May I now invite everyone to reflect with me on RETHINKING THE AFRICAN FAMILY VALUES .As The Universal Church Reflects On The Pastoral Challenges To The Family In The Context Of New Evangelization.
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS: REASON FOR THIS TOPIC
The nature of our society, laden with so many events, challenges and issues, all seeking for recognition and attention almost at the same time, literally poses a sort of confusion in making the choice of topic for this brief reflection. We are conversant with so many issues that seem thematic and current and which have been topical in present times. For instance, the seemingly incessant killing of innocent citizens and wanton destruction of properties by Boko Haram insurgents calls for urgent concern. The spate of politics in Nigeria and the implication of the 1914 amalgamation for Nigeria have already dominated the front pages of our national dailies as Nigeria marks the centenary of its creation. The ongoing conference of the component nations of Nigeria is also an issue. The papacy of Pope Francis requires our attention with a view to putting the Holy Father’s ministry into proper perspectives, especially in the light of his Letters and his current Apostolic Exhortation – Evangelii Gaudium. The proposed canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II is also a nagging issue, especially when many Africans are registering their dissatisfaction, covertly or overtly, with the criteria for and method of canonization.1 This makes such Africans raise questions as to why few Africans are canonized. The list seems endless, and each point seems as important as the other. Therefore, there was the initial dilemma on what to reflect on.
However, light eventually came when it was considered not only worthwhile but also expedient to reason along the same line with the Church, especially now that the Church is preparing for the 2014/2015 Synod of Bishops on the PASTORAL CHALLENGES TO THE FAMILY IN THE CONTEXT OF EVANGELIZATION. Not that the Church has no stake in the above issues that prevail themselves on us, but I deem it fit to reflect on the family because it is the cell of the society. Once we get it wrong, the society suffers, but if we are able to get the family fixed, this will translate into good life for the society. Besides, the family of today has many moral, social, political, spiritual, and cultural challenges that cannot simply be ignored.
Africa is going to be represented in that synod. As a matter of fact, Africa should have a very prominent and conspicuous stake in that synod. Why? The answer now becomes our thesis in this project: On the one hand, from the point of view of the traditional African heritage, Africa has a lot to offer to the universal Church on the basics and values of family that will help to engender and drive evangelization and faith development; on the other hand, this is also an opportunity for Africa to rethink her fast eroding family values with a view to making for a stable Christian family style. With this explanation, our mission here is now clearer and more streamlined.
THE FAMILY: ITS NECESSITY AND SIGNIFICANCE
The Preparatory Document for the 2014/2015 synod of Bishops on the family describes the family as “the vital building-block of the society and the ecclesial community”2. This is another way of saying that the family is the basic unit of both the society and the church. It is the cradle and the cell that both reproduces and refreshes the society, the Church being an integral part of the society. Pope Benedict XVI captures this very aptly when he notes:
The family is the “sanctuary of life” and a vital cell of society and of the church. It is here that “the features of a people take shape; it is here that its members acquire basic teachings. They learn to love inasmuch as they are unconditionally loved, they learn respect for others inasmuch as they are respected; they learn to know the face of God inasmuch as they receive a first revelation of it from a father and a mother full of attention in their regard. Whenever these fundamental experiences are lacking, society as a whole suffers violence and becomes in turn the progenitor of more violence.3
The family, therefore, is the primordial community. As the birthplace of new human life, it is the normal and best locus for bodily and spiritual development of the human person. The moral and religious life of the human person and his or her capability to love are first awakened here by parental love.4
At each period of development and civilization, family and issues surrounding it have always been a major concern. The reason is simple: whatever affects the family, affects also the society in all its dimensions. That means “the well being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of. family life”.5 Therefore, the consequence of the position of the family as the basic cell of the society is that all true moral, social, economic, and religious reforms must begin with the family. It is on this basis that the Church thinks it wise to address the pastoral challenges to the family with a view to affecting the life of the larger society with her evangelizing mission. The Church knows that her mission unto the nations can only be effective if approached through the family. This is also why the importance and significance of the family have always dominated the Church’s discussion through history.
THE CHURCH’S TEACHING ON THE FAMILY
The Church draws the wealth of her teachings on the family from the divine injunctions that are contained in the Holy Scripture. Marriage itself is the gateway to family life. Moreover, the sublime nature of Christian marriage is one that delineates the family as a community of love, of sharing, and of acceptance that exists among parents and children. This would then mean that any opinion contrary to the divine institution of marriage, its goals, its properties, and its responsibilities serves to destabilize the very foundation of the family. This is why the Church has always worked to protect the interest of marriage and by extension of the family.
The beauty of the biblical message on the family has its roots in the creation of man and woman, in the image and likeness of God.6 Bound together by an indissoluble sacramental bond, “those who are married experience the beauty of love, fatherhood, motherhood, and the supreme dignity of participating in this way in the creative work of God”.7 Then in the gift of the fruit of their union, they assume the responsibility of raising and educating other persons for the future of humankind. It is only through procreation that man and woman can fulfill in faith the vocation of being God’s collaborators in the protection of creation and the growth of the human family.
However, this plan of God the creator was disrupted by Original Sin.8 But the Son of God, the Word made flesh, restored the beauty of matrimony, proposing once again the one plan of God which was abandoned because of the hardness of the human heart.9 The preparatory document explains that. Jesus taught the unity and faithfulness of the husband and wife, refuting the practice of repudiation and adultery. Precisely through the extraordinary beauty of human love already celebrated in a heightened manner inspired by the Song of Songs, and the bond of marriage called for and defended by the prophets like Hosea (cf Hosea 1:2, 3:3) and Malachi (cf Mal 2:13-16), Jesus affirmed the original dignity of the married love of man and woman.10
For the early Christians, the family stood simply as the “domestic church”, where the family served as the place of a profound solidarity between husbands and wives, between parents and children, and between the wealthy and the poor.11 The present Church has not lost the trend either. She continues to teach and develop her doctrine on the family. The documents of the Second Vatican Council manifest the prominence and dignity the Church attaches to the family. Describing the significance of marriage and family for the constitution of the society, for instance, the Fathers of the Council in Gaudium et Spes say; “the family, in which the various generations come together and help one another grow wiser and harmonize personal rights with the other requirements of social life, is the very foundation of society.”12 In Lumen Gentium we read that Christian married couples help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing of their children. From the marriage of Christians there comes the family in which new citizens of human society are born, and the parents by word and example are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children.13
The Catechism of the Catholic Church significantly affirms that “in our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith.”14 It is in the family “that the father, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity’.”15 Therefore, “the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment’.”16 The Code of Canon Law is replete with laws and guidelines that aim at safeguarding the values of the family17, saying that “pastors of souls are obliged to ensure that their own church community provides for Christ’s faithful the assistance by which the married state is preserved in its Christian character and develops in perfection”.18
Successors of St. Peter enriched this teaching on marriage and the family, especially through their exhortations, encyclicals, and letters. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae offers specific principles and guidelines for marriage and family life. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II insists on proposing the divine plan in the basic truths of married love and the family. This, of course, is because “the church’s pastoral ministry finds inspiration in the truth of marriage viewed as part of the plan of God who created man and woman and, in the fullness of time, revealed in Jesus the completeness of spousal love elevated to the level of sacrament.”19 Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, speaks of the family in the context of a reflection on how faith reveals how firm the bonds between people can be when God is present in their midst.20
It follows, therefore, that Christian home is the place where people receive the first proclamation of the faith, a school of human virtues and social interaction. Children begin their experience of the world, learning the meaning and value of things, what is good and what is bad, the acceptable norm and values of the society and the ecclesial community in the family. By this, the family has become the nursery of the society and Christianity, with the parents as the primary and principal formators of the children. Now, what is the family situation in our dear continent, Africa?
THE FAMILY IN AFRICA
It is a common knowledge that African family system is very diverse and shows a healthy richness in its configurations. But the very penetrating change brought about by Westernization and colonization has changed the face of the African family, and these changes are still ongoing. However, tracing the nature of African family, references must be made to the aboriginal African family system. Either for fear of childlessness or for some other economic reasons, the family system in Africa was polygamous. Monogamous family was merely considered as family in a family. And this would mean that nearly all families were polygamous families.21 The aboriginal Africa was also an era of human sacrifice, slavery, killing of twins, and other practices that many would say marked the dark ages in the African history. This continued even well into the dawning years of Christianity and western civilization. Morally and religiously speaking, Africans were typically religious and would not ordinarily defy that which they held to be normative and were of the gods. It was in the light of this that they offered economic, social, and religious reasons to back up those practices which are today referred to as profane, inhuman, and socially unacceptable. Life was sacred and welcomed as the gift of God, adultery was not treated mildly, promiscuity was detested, induced abortion was never an option, homosexuality was not thought of, bestiality, incest, and other sexual misconducts were almost nonexistent. The elderly and sick ones were taken good care of. Solidarity, hospitality, hard work, social acceptance were the hallmarks of family life. This is why it could be said that Africa was originally disposed to Christianity, for all these are also Christian principles.
However, the advent of the Europeans in Africa brought with it many far-reaching changes that have almost marred the face of the African family. Africa’s traditional family became a victim of the western colonial cultural bias. Consequently, family has become a flexible term that admits of conceptions and definitions based on people’s whims and caprices. Scholars now differentiate three types of families in Africa today: Firstly, families living the old traditional family system, whether monogamous or polygamous (and there are no longer many of such families); secondly, families that are no longer traditional and not yet western – these we may call transitional families. Such families are in the process of crossing from traditional to western culture and may temporarily turn back, particularly in times of crises. Most African families are stuck in this group; thirdly, we have the western families – those that have adapted wholly to the western categories of interpreting family life. The percentage of this group is very low in Africa.22
Crises of faith and of values are thus experienced in Africa because of the transitional state of the majority of African families. Such families have uprooted themselves from the aboriginal African way of life but have not ‘successfully’ planted themselves in the culture of the West, which is mostly that of individualism and relativism. As a result of increasing general acceptance of the idea of family as something in the purview of the individual in the West, Europeans are accepting a conception of the family as a household comprising of any group of individuals living together under a roof, and who have certain affinity through sexual orientation and self-help. In other words, a family now is a term used to describe persons living together, sharing emotional, financial and physical bonds. This idea of family does not necessarily involve marriage, rather, it is a habitation arrangement which is somewhat recognized by society.23 Africans are gradually buying into this idea of family and life; this explains the widespread practice of cohabitation which does not lead to marriage, and sometimes even excludes the idea of it, the debate for same-sex unions between persons who are not infrequently permitted to adopt children, abortion, use of contraceptives and so on. These are not true to Africa’s blood.
Notwithstanding the situation, Africans still have some regards for the family. The influence of the Western culture has not totally extinguished the values and way of life of Africa. And these values like fraternity,24 fidelity to marriage, communalism, care of the sick and the elderly,25 life as God’s gift, care for the dignity of the human person are what Africa should project to the universal Church through this synod. Yes, Africa should adopt the positive values of modernity but must preserve its own essential values. Hence, John Paul II advises that the Christian family, as a “domestic church” built on the solid cultural pillars and noble values of the African tradition of the family, is called upon to be a powerful nucleus of Christian witness in a society undergoing rapid and profound changes,26 especially now that some of these changes pose themselves as challenges.
SOME PASTORAL CHALLENGES TO THE AFRICAN FAMILY
Cynics will say that in our fast-paced society the Christian demand of family life is becoming obsolete and burdensome, and that those demands are getting lost in a busy world of ‘enlightened’ people.27 This mindset is already a huge challenge of pastoral concern to the family. Concerns which were also unheard of until recent years have arisen today as a result of different situations and conceptions that play themselves out in our continent. These sum up to make the indigenization of the gospel message in African family very difficult.
Gay Marriage: African culture generally understands marriage as a union between man and woman and not people of the same sex, or between a human being and a beast. Therefore, the recent clamour from some quarters in Africa for the legislation of homosexual marriage is very absurd and disheartening. Not only that this runs counter to common sense and negates Africa’s attitude to marriage, it also obviates God’s original plan for the institution of marriage. The West has enthroned it and is bent on fostering it in Africa. This has become a huge challenge because it has no place for God and serves to destroy the Christian virtues that Africans are still struggling to imbibe. Institutionalizing homosexual relationship is also a real attack on humanity, for it is a subtle plan to delete humanity from existence.
Widowhood: Oppressive widowhood practices have also become issues of urgent concern in Africa. Many women are really very afraid of what becomes of them should their husbands pass on before them. In some places, in the event of the death of their husbands, they are denied of every family inheritance. In other places they are meant to drink the water with which the remains of their husbands is washed as proof of their innocence of their husbands’ death, and yet in some cultures they are prevented from seeing the remains of their beloved late husbands or even from performing the dust-to-dust rite. Some of these practices are premised on the belief that the gods demand such. Yet, many of these are Christians. Western influence may not be directly implicated here, but systems of operation in our society have made it so.
Cohabitation: Cohabitation and living in concubinage are gradually becoming institutionalized in our continent. This is not original to African culture. Rather, people have lost sense of both personal dignity and worth, shame, and the demands of gospel values as regards marriage. So many girls today live with their fiancés and sometimes beget children even before the bride price is paid. Many married persons also defy the sixth commandment with impunity, destroying their marriages and the lives of their collaborators. Even in our tertiary institutions, young people have developed their own theory of school marriage. Such persons do not care about the sacraments and what the Catholic faith holds. They deceive themselves with the delusive slogan ‘everybody is doing it’ and ‘it does not matter, provided we love each other’.
Stigmatization: Stigmatization of young women of marriageable age who are yet unmarried is also an issue here. Some parents will squeeze life out of their daughters and speak to them as though they have no social worth just because they are not (yet) married. For most of those girls, life has no meaning again, and such would not find delight with a God who supposedly could not assuage their plight. Some of them now move from one prayer house to another, and even to some unthinkable places, just to see if their situation can be changed.
Neo-slavery and child abuse: These have become serious challenges to our family ideals. Many of our young people are given to forced labour and vagaries of our hash weather condition just because they have either lost their parents, have no one to care for them, or are experiencing abject poverty. Opportunists now exploit them to maximize profit. Some of them are trafficked, while others are turned into baby-making machines. This also accounts for the emergence of baby factories especially in Igbo land where babies are literally produced and sold. This is a direct attack on the Maker and Giver of life. Marriage is not an issue here. Instead, promiscuity, harlotry and surrogacy have destroyed marital connections, and invariably the family.
Civil wars, Terrorism, and Displacement of families: The wanton destruction of lives and properties in Africa also calls for serious attention. From Central African Republic to Sudan, from Northern Nigeria to Sierra Leone, and from Somalia to Egypt the story is the same. Unfortunately, most of these killings are done in the name of ‘God’. Africa has wasted enough blood and could not afford to continue like that. Life is precious and can only be taken by God.
Other challenges abound: the use of contraceptives, abortion, African patrilineal culture, female circumcision, and the likes. These are the major areas of concern which could count as a highlighting point as the African bishops attend this synod. Already some of them have raised urgent questions about them and have called for public participation, in their local churches, in discussions that seek solutions to these problems. Most Rev. P. C. Ezeokafor, for instance, dedicated the entire chapter five of his 2014 Lenten pastoral letter to some of these issues, saying that “the challenge, however, is that the family is being transformed by other socio-economic and cultural forces..[and]the direction of change being impressed on the family is what gives concern and calls for concerted effort by all”28 Most Rev. Augustine Ukwuoma’s Lenten pastoral letter to the good people of Orlu Diocese titled ‘The Corporal Works of Mercy as the Cornerstone of the Christian Life’ is also replete with virtues that knit brothers and sisters together.
Our Christian faith obliges us, not only to respect, but also to recognize and tackle all threats to human life and the dignity of the family. The Second Vatican Council already spoke on this saying that “all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, . and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offenses against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, . slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where human beings are treated as mere tools for profit rather than responsible persons: all these and the likes are criminal: they poison civilization; and they debase the perpetrators more than the victims and militate against the honour of the creator”29.
We must, therefore, be particularly sensitive to those things that threaten the peaceful and joyful existence in our families, whether those threats come from the outside world or from within our own homes, our hearts and our histories. We must be wary of impostors who have priorities and values that are different from our own and can tremendously affect how we think, feel and behave.
Bombardments from a massive and slick media can undermine morals and values in even the strongest of families if purposeful care is not taken to control and counter those messages. Television, music and movies manufacture heroes and icons with an utter disregard for what is being glamorized.
We should also not threaten our own families from within due to our own lack of adjustment, misinformed priorities and absence of will power to effect positive changes. Everyone is involved in this move; hence it is a massive project that should occupy everyone’s attention. We encourage our bishops as they strategize and think out more proactive ways of tackling this menace. This synod is indeed an opportunity of grace for the whole human family and an invitation to all of us to allow the change we desire to begin from us.
Once more, I thank you my Lord, my formators, my beloved parents, my brothers and sisters, the wonderful members of our chaplaincy pastoral team and our parishioners, my fellow graduands, my dear Bigardians, my friends and well wishers, and indeed all of you gathered in this auditorium. Thank you for being a wonderful audience!
- This is the issue that has dominated our Sunday evening catechesis. The laity would always want to know why Africans hardly make it to canonization nowadays. It is a pertinent issue.
- “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelisation; A Preparatory Document for the 2014/2015 Synod of bishops”, I. Henceforth Lineamenta
- Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus,(19 November, 2011),42.
- K. H. Peschke, Christian Ethics: Moral Theology in the Light of Vatican 11, vol. 2, (Bangalore: Theological Publications, 1996), p.581.
- Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 47. Henceforth Gaudium et Spes.
- See Genesis 1:24-32; 2:4-25.
- Lineamenta, II.
- See Genesis 3:1-24.
- See Matthew 5: 31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18.
- Lineamenta, II.
- Cf Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1Timothy 2:8-15.
- Gaudium et Spes, 52.
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, 11.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1656.
- Ibid. 1657.
- See The Code of Canon Law, nn. 1055-1165.
- Ibid., 1063.
- Lineamenta, II.
- Francis, Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei, (29 June, 2013), 50.
- M. Igwilo, “African Family System and European Family System: A Cross Cultural Study” in M. O. Izunwa & R. D. Izunwa (ed.), Family, Church & Society (Nimo: Rex Charles & Patrick Ltd, 2013), p. 266.
- J. Ezeokana, “On the Igbo Family as Such” in M. O. Izunwa & R. D. Izunwa (ed.), Family, Church & Society (Nimo: Rex Charles & Patrick Ltd, 2013), p. 213.
- M. Igwilo, Op. Cit., pp. 270-271.
- His Holiness, Pope Francis, gave a very lucid breakdown of the value of fraternity in his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2014, titled: Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace.
- See Benedict XVI, Op. Cit., nn. 47-50.
- John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Africa, (14 September, 1995), 92.
- P. McGraw, Family First, ( New York: Free Press, 2004), p. xiv.
- P. C. Ezeokafor, “This is the Sort of Fast that Pleases Me.” (Isaiah 58:6): Commitment to the Common Good”, Lenten Pastoral Letter to the Faithful of Awka Diocese and to All People of Goodwill, March 2014.
- Gaudium et Spes, 27.