At the last meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, the Bishops took the theme: Good Families Make Good Nations for their reflections. At the end of the Conference on February 26th, they observed in their Communiqué that: The family, is the vital cell of society is where leaders are born and nurtured. Hence, both the effectiveness of such institutions and emergence of good leaders in the nation largely depend on the family. The family as a community of persons gives birth to and nourishes the nation and every institution critical to the life of the nation. Nations are built on the secured values, and the family is the first place of the acquisition of values. That is why the state of a nation is a reflection of the state of families.
When we talk of the Family, what comes to our mind immediately is a man, his wife/wives, and children. We also speak of the extended family which is another unit that we all take quite seriously too especially here in Africa. Family life is tied to obligation that falls on all members. Family cohesion and integrity is something we all take very seriously and cherish. We often hear people speak of the need to protect the good family name or children are warned against spoiling the family name. This is why even in marriage, most parents are keen to find out the kind of family their prospective sons or daughters in law come from or are going into. My immediate concern is with the idea of the family as part of God’s divine plan.
In the beginning, we see that the creation of man and woman requires a special place in the mind and plans of God. Whereas God created almost every creature by word, when it came to man, he said: Let us make man in the image and likeness of ourselves. After he did, He said that He discovered that it was not good for man to be alone and hence, he created woman. The gift of woman was eagerly accepted by man who says this at last is bone of my bones (Gen 2:23).
Many commentators have often wondered why God took woman from the rib of man and not man’s head, heart or feet. St. Augustine has adequately responded to this. I will paraphrase him. He said that: God did not create woman from the head of man because if he had done so, she would be very proud and want to lord it over the man. God did not create the woman from the feet of man because had he done so, man would have walked over and oppressive her. Rather, he created her from his rib, his side because the rib is close to and protects the heart, the seat of love. Therefore, God did this so that woman should be loved in a special way.
The future of society depends on the family. Yet, today, the family is in very serious crisis. The crisis is felt even more in the Christian community. Our values are severely under threat by forces of secularism. For us as Catholics, it is even more serious. The Sacraments, the centre of our lives, are gradually becoming secondary in the lives of many of our Catholics. For example, what does Marriage mean to many young couples today? Increasingly, we are seeing many young persons getting married with very little serious preparations. Often, attention is focused on the wedding apparels, the rings, the food, and all the social apparatus. With wedding planners, most parents tend to outsource the responsibility and they see the wedding as a social event empty of its spiritual values.
Career, economic considerations, modernization are all having their influence on the family and the children are the first victims. More and more parents are again outsourcing motherhood. The most bizarre part of this lies in the fact that now women who do not wish to go through with what they consider to be the pressures of pregnancy can now pay someone to carry a child for them. The emergence of same sex marriages, the high rates of divorce are all some of the dangerous signals.
Today, I am turning our attention to this theme because although today is our day as priests, we all come from families. We are all affected by these dangerous threats. It is important that we share these challenges together because the Holy Father, Pope Francis appreciated the seriousness of this threat and that is why he called a special Synod on the Family between the 5-19th of October 2014. The conclusion of course is that literally everywhere we turn, the family is under siege.
For us as Christians, we have a serious challenge but even more so as Catholics. Our marriage is guided by far stricter laws than any other Church. I am not saying that we are better. But, Catholic marriage, guided by Canon Law is indissoluble, that is, it is a union that lasts forever. The Code tells us that marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life. The Code continues by stating that marriage is ordered to the well being of the spouses first of all, and then flowing from that, is procreation and the upbringing of children (Canon 1055(1).
For us as priests, while we celebrate our vocation today, we recall the sacredness of family and focus on how it affects our own lives. In 1998, the Bishops of Africa drew attention the Church of God as Family. It called on us to celebrate our common brotherhood and sisterhood. Today, whether as priests or members of a biological family, this call holds very strong and continues to challenge us.
Today calls for a sober reflection on the gift of the priesthood. It calls on us to be reminded that we have been chosen from among men to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins (Heb 5:1). We have not been chosen because we are worthy. Rather, despite our unworthiness, the Lord has chosen us to stand before Him and offer sacrifices on your behalf. Today’s celebration is as much ours as it is yours too. So, let us join together because the only reason why we are here is because you are there.
Our first reading is a reminder that the spirit of the Lord is upon us as priests, that the Lord has anointed us and sent us to bring good tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted (Ps 89:21). Bringing the good news poses even a greater challenge when we realize that Jesus further enjoins us to be in the world by not of the world (Rom 12:2). We live in a world where the values are constantly shifting, or at least so it does seem. Yesterday it was integrity and a good name. Today, it is money and status. Yesterday was peace. Today is war. Yesterday was laughter. Today we are in tears. Amidst these trials, we are called upon to remember the Lord who, consoles us in our suffering so that we may comfort others in all their affliction (2 Cor 1:4)
We thank God for our priesthood, a precious gift of God. We have received this holy gift from a God who is always faithful. We are indeed pleased that today, scripture is fulfilled in our hearing (Lk 4:21). Let us never see the priesthood as a garment of honour or some regalia of pride and fulfillment. Neither should we see it as a burden. Rather, in joy, let us cherish the special grace because, as Fr Lacordaire, the Jesuit priest famously noted, to be a priest is:
To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures
To be a member of each family yet belonging to none
To share all sufferings to penetrate all secrets
To heal all wounds
To go from men to God and offer him their prayers
To return from God to man to bring pardon and hope
To have a heart of fire for charity
And a heart of bronze for chastity
To teach and to pardon, console and bless always
My God, what a life, and it is yours o priest of Jesus Christ.