-By Terence Vembe.
On Saturday, 20th day of June, 2020 His Lordship Bishop William Avenya ordained 7 (Seven) Priests for the Catholic Diocese of Gboko in what is usually a solemn but grand ceremony even in the wake of the deadly Novel Corona Virus that has bedeviled the Human race.
Ordinarily ordination of priests is a joyous occasion for the diocese, the ordained, their family and friends and the lay faithful who all look forward to it annually.
However, the occasion elicited mixed feelings for many because even as we rejoiced with the Bishop, Priests, Religious and lay faithful of the Catholic Diocese of Gboko and the ordained and their family and friends the stupendous crowd attracted by the John Baptist Cathedral, venue of the ordination immediately reminded us of the dangers inherent in such gatherings in this perilous times.
It beats the imagination of all and sundry that his Lordship Bishop William Avenya will imperil the lives of priests and the lay faithful by holding such a ceremony in the manner he did amidst this deadly pandemic that has brought the world to its kneels.
This occasion is arguably the biggest ceremony that has been held by any one in Nigeria since March this year when the Country began to lockdown. For those who may not understand the size of the occasion lets provide a little insight: It takes a minimum of 10 (Ten) years to qualify for ordination as a catholic priest.
An aspirant to the catholic priesthood is admitted into what is known as the novitiate or spiritual year after a vigorous screening process including the requirement of at least 5 (Five) credits in relevant subjects in the Secondary School Certificate (WAEC or NECO). After the candidate has undergone the one-year novitiate or spiritual year programe successfully he is then admitted into the Seminary for a 4 (four) year degree programe in Philosophy. After the philosophy studies the candidate is posted to a parish for another one year to carry out practical training known as apostolic work.
From there he returns to the seminary to study for another degree programe in Theology for 3 (Three) years. After successfully completing his philosophy studies he then graduates from the seminary and if not found wanting in character and learning and spiritually he is ordained a deacon and again posted to a parish for another year.
During his diaconate, banns are published and announced in all places he has lived and trained for any one who has any reason why he should not be ordained a catholic priest to notify the church.
I tell you many failed to be ordained after all these long years of training for good reasons or no reason at all. Some after being denied ordination for a number of years are lucky to be ordained in subsequent years after the complaints against them are reviewed by subsequent authorities of the church.
With all the foregoing it is understandable and most expected that the occasion of ordination of just one priest in the catholic church is a huge celebration that attracts a large crowd of people to felicitate with the ordained and the church. Of course it is not a mean fit to be called by God to serve in his vine yard! So when 7 (Seven) priests are ordained in one ceremony your guess as to the crowd in attendance is as good as mine.
Each one of these newly ordained priests on their own conservatively attracted 1, 000 (One Thousand) felicitators! Each of these newly ordained priests as usual originates or hail from a home parish which as is the norm heavily mobilized its parishioners to attend the ordination of their son with fanfare even as the 7 (seven) parishes were in competition to out shine each other. The hundreds of priests of the diocese of Gboko attended the ordination as a matter of rule and their numerous brother priests from all over the country beat interstate travel ban to felicitate with their brother priests.
Friends of the diocese and the ordained came from all over the country to attend the occasion. The families and friends of the families of the newly ordained came in their thousands to celebrate with their sons. So effectively My Lord Bishop William Avenya gathered 10 (Ten) to 15 (Fifteen) thousand people at the St. John Baptist Cathedral Gboko on Saturday 20th day of June, 2020!
Covid-19 cases have been on astronomical rise in Benue State in the last three weeks. From about 13 cases the state suddenly moved out of the relegation zone on the Covid-19 league table (as lovers of football will say) to 47 cases! This led the Chairman of the Benue State Covid-19 Committee and Deputy Governor of Benue State Engr. Benson Abounu to threaten that the state may have to go on a full lockdown if cases continue to rise.
The actions of His Lordship Bishop Avenya, namely fixing and carrying out the ordination in the way and manner it was conducted is to say the least reckless, irresponsible and unbecoming of office of His Lordship.
The Novel Corona Virus protocols, regulations and advisories were disregarded, fragrantly flouted and abused by the Catholic Diocese of Gboko at that occasion. None of the hundreds of priests or thousands of other attendees wore a face mask at the event! No water and soap for washing of hands or hand sanitizer was provided at that ceremony.
Of course its not feasible to provided same to such a mammoth crowd. Social and Physical distancing was not practicable at that ceremony as worshipers were crammed on pews and the cathedral filled to capacity and every inch of space occupied even outside the cathedral!
This scenario becomes even distressing considering the fact that the Catholic Diocese of Gboko spans through 7 Local Government Areas of Benue State, namely, Gboko, Tarka, Buruku, Ushongo, Konshisha, Vandeikya and kwande.
My Lord seems to have a penchant for violating and disregarding Covid-19 regulations, protocols and advisories. During the recent holy week and Easter ceremonies the Catholic Diocese of Gboko continued with masses and ceremonies of the holy week in all parishes up to Holy Thursday even as religious gatherings were suspended across the country to contain spread of the Novel Corona Virus! It took the disruption of Holy Thursday ceremonies by security operatives in some parishes of the diocese in Gboko town including the cathedral for the Diocese to issue a desultory directive without pastoral guidelines for parishes to close.
This was even as ROME WAS CLOSED and even his Holiness Pope Francis celebrated the Holy Week ceremonies in an empty St. Peters Basilica because, just like Nigeria civil authorities had issued directives prohibiting large gathering of people including churches, no thanks to the Novel Corona Virus!
The actions of the Pope apart from being in obedience to civil authorities was also in tandem with the Liturgical Decree issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship on Holy Week liturgies (The Congregation for Eastern Churches issued a similar decree).
The decree inter alia directed parishes and dioceses to inform Catholics of times of Easter Sunday Mass and other Holy Week liturgies, so that “they can prayerfully unite themselves in their homes” via live broadcast or streaming, if possible.”
On its part the Congregation for Eastern Churches in their decree issued on March 25, directed heads of all Eastern Catholic Churches to issue norms sui iuris in accordance with the measures established by civil authorities for containment of the contagion. So the mother Church at the highest level of the Papacy has consistently spoken with one voice on restrictions on public worship during the pandemic.
Even as Italy began to ease the lockdown and permitted worship with strict guidelines the Holy Father called for obedience on mass restrictions in the following words:
“In this time in which dispositions are beginning to be made for exiting from the quarantine, let’s pray to the Lord that he gives his people, all of us, the grace of prudence and obedience to those dispositions, so the pandemic does not return,”
Till date like elsewhere, those going to church in Italy must comply with social distancing regulations. Gloves and face masks must be worn at all times.
Priests cannot shake hands as a sign of peace and must wear gloves when distributing the sacramental bread.
The gloves can’t be thrown in the bin and must be cleaned instead, for they touch a sacred object.
Among other measures, choirs remain banned, the holy water container must stay empty, and the church must be sanitized at the end of every ceremony.
That is the reality the world is confronted with in these perilous times.
If the Covid-19 metrics particularly its volatile nature and deep tendency for exponential multiplication is anything go by we have to be on our kneels forthwith and pray for the miracle that has not happened in Rome to happen in Gboko! Imagine what will happen if one, just one person among the numerous persons that attended that ceremony was a Covid-19 carrier, probably asymptomatic and infected one or two persons at the event! Gboko Diocese is a largely rural diocese so imagine that the one or two persons infected at the ceremony are from Abande or Anyiin or Tse-Mker or Tse-Agberagba or any other such rural parishes or rectories or missions and returned to their parish or rectory or mission and continued to worship there without any form of precaution as is being done in Gboko Diocese now, can Benue State contain the resultant outbreak of Covid-19? Indeed, Gboko and most likely the entire Benue State is a time bomb waiting to explode.
We must not forget that the church in Italy was careless albeit innocently so at the onset of the Novel Corona Virus Pandemic but paid dearly for it.
Till date over two hundred Catholic Priests have died from Covid-19 in Italy alone. In one case an entire seminary was infected and in another a whole convent was infected. The Holy Father himself escaped the pandemic by the whiskers as some infected cardinals were part of a group of visitors he received. Our Lord is on the throne, His Holiness tested negative but we must not tempt God!
Very sadly, His Lordship Bishop William Avenya has fixed another ordination of 10 (Ten) Catholic priests on the 4th day of July, 2020 at St. Gerald’s Cathedral, Katsina Ala, Catholic Diocese of Katsina Ala in Benue State, a diocese he oversees since the demise of the substantive bishop, His Lordship Bishop Adobo of blessed memory! That ordination ceremony must not be allowed to hold in the way and manner or form reminiscent of the heresy that took place in Gboko on the 20th day of June, 2020 as it is being planned. No doubt invitations have already been sent out by the Diocese of Katsina Ala and the Deacons due to be ordained. No problems whatsoever, the ordination does not have to be postponed. It can hold but not in the way and manner or form being planned.
His Lordship can select a few priests and immediate family members of the candidates to join him at the cathedral and every other person and millions of lay faithful around the world can follow the ceremonies via live broadcast on the internet, radio and television. That way more people can even attend the ceremonies and every one will be happy for it. Parties and big ceremonies are being held on zoom and other similar media now, that is the reality of our situation.
There are chances that the ordination in Gboko was conducted with the express or tacit approval of the Benue State Covid-19 Committee and the impending one may also have their similar approval. We say so because there is no way such a huge event can hold in any part of the State without the approval of the Committee or it at least being aware of the said event. We call on the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 to prevail on the Governor of Benue State Dr. Samuel Ortom to direct the Catholic Bishop of Gboko Diocese overseeing Kastina Ala Diocese, His Lordship Bishop William Avenya to refrain from holding the ordination of ten priests as currently being planed but hold same in line with strict observance of Covi-19 protocols, regulations and advisories with possible online streaming. Certainly Benue State and indeed Nigeria can not afford the imminent repercussions of such indiscretion orchestrated by His Lordship Bishop William Avenya. The Kano experience is yet fresh in our minds and we must not forget same too quickly!