For 10 years, he has held sway as the head of the Catholic Church in Enugu Diocese. He has stood the test of time, proven to be not just a credible leader but one with sophisticated diversity yet with a close touch with the core dictates of the church. His Lordship, Bishop Callistus Valentine Chukwuma Onaga, The Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese undoubtedly has written his name indelibly in the sands of time. For a decade now, he has taken the church to a greater height and in him its shown that the Holy Spirit could have a maximum impact in a man if only men agree to be led by the spirit. In this exclusive interview, His Lordship let it all out in his journey into Priesthood, his emergence as a Bishop as well as his success secrets in managing the expansive and sophisticated Enugu Diocese.
My Journey to Priesthood
This is a question I have answered in many ways and in many places. What led me to decide to be a Priest is the fact that I wanted to say my mind. I wanted to always say the truth. When you want to get into the seminary, they will ask you that question. This is the very thing I filled in a form. When I was doing my entrance exam at St. Mary, Udi in 1972, they asked me that question, why do you want to be a priest? I didn’t decide to be a Priest because I admire Priests, No, I just saw that Priests say their mind at the pulpit, they will just say the truth, he will say it the way he wanted it. I just wanted to be free to say my mind.
At some time I forgot that intention. My cousin, Kelvin Onaga however reminded me of that intention. Once in the class, we were all saying what we wanted to become in future, Kelvin who was in the same class with me raised his hand and said , ‘Cally’ (That’s referring to my name, Callistus) will be a Priest. The shocking thing then was that I didn’t know when I discussed that with him. I didn’t contradict him though, I left it that way. We took common entrance and when the result came out, they were all good . They were asking me which one I will be going for, I opted for the Seminary, the Junior Seminary, Nsude was just beginning. I went in as a Kid and no time did I harbor the fear of being expelled. I grew up in a very free family; our Uncle raised us up because our Parents died early. He encouraged us; I wasn’t compelled to do things.
I finished my Junior Seminary at Sacred Heart, Nsude, went to St. Johns. I was there for one year then went to Ikot Ekpene to do philosophy for four years. I came to Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu and did Theology for four years. I believe in reading, those days I read the whole series of James Hardly Chase and some others but I wasn’t doing too much sports. Even during school hours I’ll be reading.
I read a lot of esoteric books, books on Hinduism, books on a whole lot of other phenomenon. Peter Cheyney books. We used to have a competition with my siblings over how many books we have read.
That thing exposed me to the world. I wasn’t like saying I was reading only bible, No! let the world know. Late Bishop Michael Eneja will always advise us to try to read from Genesis to Revelation. I had tried to, but then, I had other series I was reading so much like William Shakespeare. I was reading almost all his books; remember I was much younger then. I could tell you a lot of things happening in the world. Reading those books really exposed me, I was not caged. I knew everything you can think of, but if you see me, I was very quiet and very lanky. I f I wanted to be bad, I would have been bad. I knew everything, scientifically, not just the religious.
The only time I had a big challenge was after my secondary school, as I finished the Junior Seminary, I was so interested in sciences. I wanted to be an Architect, I said either I be an Architect or a Medical Doctor, you know those things that was reigning then. The choice of Architect was because, there was a man in my place whom we call him John Citron. He was very popular, I think a colleague or rather, a contemporary of Late Chief Alex Ekwueme or they were working For Ekwueme. All his cars were Citron car. I had a temptation then, it was somehow a problem for me. The freedom I thought I would have to say things my way, was not that way. There where checks and balances, I was not allowed to say things anyhow. My brother who just finished his studies in Pharmacology in the US then and was teaching in the University of Ife, called me one day and asked my Plan B?’ It was the first time I heard a thing like that. I asked what he meant by Plan B. He explained to me and said, “assuming you don’t become a Priest , what do you want to be”? Then, I was finishing my philosophy, I said, I’ve never thought of this thing, but I think I will be a Priest. He insisted and I said okay, I wouldn’t like to be a pharmacist, I’ll still like to go back to do Architecture. So, after our discussion he said okay, anytime you feel like changing your mind, let us know. He was then the one taking care of school fees and other things.
I went on one year apostolic work in the present day Godfrey Okoye University ( then, it was only Institute of Ecumenical Education) During my one year apostolic work after my philosophy, I felt I should not continue . I studied philosophy well, I loved philosophy very well and those who met me will attest that I loved philosophy, it exposed me to life. I once said, I can even go to heaven without being a Priest, why should i? I asked. But, something happened, that same brother of mine asked me, why I didn’t want to go back. I told him I hate this issue of depending on people to eat. I told him its obvious priests depend on the faithful for their needs; I preferred making my own money. He told me that I had no problem if that was the only problem; he encouraged me and told me that even Government depends on taxes. So, he told me, to go for priesthood if I wanted a sacrificial job.
After my apostolic work at Thinkers Corner as a philosopher, late Fr. Stan Ani who was in charge asked when I was going back to school, I told him I didn’t know. In short, I told him I wasn’t sure I was going back. He told me that he has recommended me to. I remember the first letter I wrote to him. I told him, “my body is here but my spirit is elsewhere”, he wrote back and said “call that your spirit back to be where your body is”.
When I went back to Bigard, it was smooth. I wasn’t having problem with regulations, not at all. I was young but my mind was that developed. I was like, if I had decided to come in here, why should I break the regulation. To sum it up, I became a Priest in 1987.
From there, I was posted to St. Josephs, Emene to work with Father Cullen. I was with him from 1987-1990.
Late Bishop Eneja came to my room sometime in February of 1990 and said “you are going to Germany for studies”. To be honest with you, growing up, I had only wanted two universities in my life, University of Bourne or University of Oxford. So, when he told me it was Bourne University, I was excited, it was a very popular University then. I studied and worked there. When I came back, I worked with Msgr. Obiora Ike in The Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace (CIDJAP) for some time.
I stayed at St. Mary, Uwani, became the Parish Priest in 2003 and then the Vicar General of Enugu Diocese from 2003-2005 ending. Awgu Diocese was created and a Bishop appointed, I was the chairman of the ordination committee. Bishop Gbuji is a wonderful man and a father. Normally, I see my father in him. He is a free Bishop and made people feel free around him. But all the same, you’ll know you’re talking with a Bishop; you’ll have your distance.
Then, I was in charge of church/state relationship in Enugu state. When chimaroke was there as the Governor, we were having cases with him. But, people won’t believe that if I see Chimaroke on the road I wouldn’t know him. When eventually there was to be another election, I raised more than 1500 young people to be Election Observers in 2003. They were Monitors and Observers and I always called them, all of them from all works of life. We really wanted a change, and it was really hectic. We gave out trainings and granted interviews. That period, democracy was really suffering. Things are getting better now and that’s why these days when I grant interviews, I’ll always say we are improving, people don’t understand. Those periods, democracy was suffering, the money was not being used for the people, and it is true they are still embezzling public funds now, but you can see traces of development.
There was a time he (Chimaroke Nnamani) complained to my brothers that I was fighting him. I wasn’t fighting him. I was only trying to correct some anomalies. I preached peace, the killings in the state needed to stop, our roads were dilapidated.
How I emerged Bishop of Enugu Diocese
To be a Catholic Bishop is one thing that just comes from God, you cannot campaign for it. You won’t even get it if you campaign for it. I nearly fainted the day I was told I was going to be the Bishop of Enugu Diocese. I will never forget that evening, immediately I finished my evening mass, I got a phone call from Bishop Gbuji, who told me to come over to the Bishop’s court immediately. I was worried, because he even said come alone.
I was led to his room where I met him, he told me right there that finally, Rome has heard our prayers after over three years of looking for a Bishop. He made me promise him never to tell anybody yet, that was when he told me that I am the new Bishop elect of Enugu. We actually started in 2005 to look for someone, the list was quite long and it took a very long rigorous process.
Immediately, I was sent to Abuja with the first flight in the morning to go and meet the Papal Nuncio, he (Bishop Gbuji) also made me promise him that when I get to Abuja I shouldn’t try to decline and reminded me of how long and how difficult it was for them to get a new Bishop.
I must confess, it was a very difficult task to even keep quite over it, I had to ask Bishop Gbuji how long I needed to keep quiet, he said; “when you get to the Papal Nuncio, he will tell you when to talk”.
I left his Lordship that night confused and perplexed. When I met the Nuncio in Abuja, he gave me a sheet of paper and a pen to write whether I want this, however, before I do that, I was sent to the chapel to pray and reflect on it. I was further told by the Papal Nuncio to keep quiet for two weeks.
It is a very serious process that even haven been told of being the Bishop elect, until that moment of ordination, you are not the substantive Bishop and you can be changed at any time.
My biggest fear then was that because I’ve stayed closed to Bishop Gbuji as the Vicar General, I have come to see the dynamics in the leadership and some difficult decisions to take. However, the mystery of the whole thing is that it is centered on prayer. Assuming God doesn’t want me to do it, he would have given me a reason to reject it and the church would have been thrown back into another search.
I felt so unworthy, because the Bishop is not just a spiritual leader, he is a social, political and a cultural leader. He is the conscience of the people and that makes you very humble and calm.
Life as a Bishop
I must thank God; it is a work you cannot really and fully assess. Once you’re healthy you’ll be doing this work . You can also asses and measure that you are doing well when you continue to follow Christ. Christ is our model, that’s why they call every Priest Alter Christus , another Christ.
To be honest with you, when Bishop Gbuji handed over to me, he just took me to a chapel upstairs, he said, when it becomes hot, come in here, its only prayer. Similarly, we come across certain decisions which becomes so difficult, but grace of office is what makes the difference. That’s why I’m thanking God.
Within the period, God has helped us; the Priests have been very wonderful. Enugu has the most intelligent and most read Priests in the whole Country. There was a time every Priest was going out of the country for studies. But now, we don’t have money again and the numbers of our priests keep increasing. Since I started ordaining Priests, the least I have ordained was 10. We had ordained as many as 20-25. I have ordained within these 10 years more than 130 priests, which a whole Diocese is Europe will not get in a decade.
The priests are very cooperative. We might have one or two recalcitrant Priests giving us trouble, but they are obedient, people wouldn’t know. But on the majority, they are very cooperative. When I came in, I wanted to take the church back to the root. That’s why the first thing I wrote was, ‘back to the root’. That thing has a lot of meaning; it means we are going to do Catholicism as it is. That is why up till today, I say Latin is the language of the church, what we call the Commons will always be in Latin.
The world has become now a global village and because of it, we should be in contact with others.
Vision for the Church
My biggest emphasis now is being one family, because, i see splinters of people trying to divide us, bringing in politics from everywhere. If you want to be very honest, those who are developing Enugu Diocese are not even indigenes of the state. Without exaggeration, 75% of them are from outside Enugu and secondly given the nature of Enugu, this is the capital of Eastern region, everybody comes in. As much as possible, I want to see everybody come in, we are one family, the same baptism, let us be working together. Don’t say I’m from Udi, on from Nkanu. I’m not saying we should not recognize the fact that you’re from these areas, but other people from other places are still helping us in our development in Enugu, helping us to live together. One day you’ll die, your soul will not be identified to a particular tribe.
We’ve done some great things, spiritually to improve on the spirituality, liturgically to improve on the liturgy as well as in infrastructural development.
I like good things, the only thing is that i don’t have money, so, whenever I’m going to do anything I try as much as possible to do it well.
When I was proposing the guest house, Domus Sacti Spiritus, ‘House of the Holy Spirit’, I just told them that it has to be a world class guest house. I didn’t ask the people for one kobo in the sense of extra donations.
The main thing they give us was during Cathedraticum . That’s what we used to build the Guest House. I see this new cathedral arena as the heart of Igboland and it has to bear the symbol. We are only tasking people to give us 1000 naira yearly as a support for the cathedral arena.
Regrets as a Bishop
No! Rather, I continue to thank God. First time i got the news of my appointment as the Bishop, it was a shock, but I saw it as an opportunity to serve. I think that’s the big advantage anybody who is in leadership enjoys. There were tying moments like losing my priests very roughly. It was very hard to comprehend. I think majorly, there was never a time I would say I shouldn’t have been a Bishop, No.
My success secret and the faithful can learn from it
My secret is to be myself. There’s a book I’m working on, the title is simply, ‘The struggle to be myself as a Bishop’. People will be pushing me but being myself has helped me to this level. My old friends remain my friends, it’s not humility, and I’m just comfortable with it, just being myself without embarrassing the people. And then, I think the biggest sin I will commit in this world is to hurt a fellow human being. Whatever I can do to avoid it, I’ll try to do. That’s why, doing charity gives me joy even using my last kobo, but, at times people abuse it. The major thing is just being me, being happy with the people I’m working with, staying with them and honestly very often I forget I’m a Bishop except when it comes to being careful over issues. Going to make public statements, I should make statements that should bring peace not the one that will tear the society apart, say the truth but not hurt the people.
What more the Faithful should expect from me?
They should expect my services, I’ll do my best to serve them and I ask for their prayers. I don’t know why God chose me, and that’s why I chose as my motto; ‘Quaerens Dei Voluntatem’, ‘Seeking the will of God’. All through my life, I seek God’s will and I must tell you, he shows me his face and by doing it has led to be my successes. The world may not understand us sometimes. If for any reason the world changes and they say you can only be a Bishop for like 15 years or so, I will comfortably step down. I’ve always believed one thing, I can adapt to something. I’ll like to continue giving my best to this Diocese and humanity and i ask them to pray for me.