Ozele: Why I Wept During My Ordination As A Priest

DSC_0504Rev. Fr. (Dr.) Anthony Mario Ozele of St. William’s Catholic Church, Orerokpe, Delta State, recently, celebrated his 23rd priestly ordination and 50th birthday. In this interview with Vincent Akpomefure Orido, he went down memory lane to the genesis of it all and how he has been able to overcome challenges in the course of his spiritual sojourn among other sundry issues.
Can Nigerians have a glimpse of your background?
I graduated from the Seminary of Saints Peter and Paul, Ibadan, and was ordained a Catholic Priest in December 12, 1992. My first priestly assignment was at Saints Peter and Paul, Ughelli, from 1993 to 1994. In May 1994, I took over the pastorate of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Aragba-Orogun, where I served until 2000, when I was transferred to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, Warri. In 2002, I proceeded to the USA for studies and obtained a doctorate degree in Pastoral Ministry and Church Leadership in 2006. I taught in the USA until 2012, when I returned home, and have since been Parish priest of St. William’s, Orerokpe.
I grew up in a religious environment and got introduced to the Anglican faith as a child. While in secondary school, I became a Catholic and really found God’s love. The love of God that I felt from my Catholic community of students and teachers was overwhelming, and it was further substantiated in the parish. The priests were very caring and hardworking, the examples of great catechists, lay leaders and youth executives were all an elixir of inspiration that challenged not just me but, my generation of young people in church. Quite a number of us would eventually embrace the call of God’s love to the priesthood and religious life.
I embraced the idea of training for the Catholic priesthood as a response to the overwhelming love of God that I experienced as a Catholic Christian, and I just longed to give all of me to Him in response. But the pathway to the priesthood was littered with much pain and suffering. Without support from family, hardly any money in my pocket for toiletries and books, and not many places I could go spend holidays, I embraced my cross with strong hope. But thanks to my mentors: Rev. Fr. Stephen Ekakabor, Rev. Msgr. Dr. John K. Aniagwu, Rev. Fr. Dr. Benedict Etafo, and Rev. Fr. Dr. Anthony Ewherido, the hard times were cushioned.
As the time of my ordination drew near, I began to have terrible doubts as to whether I was ready to be a priest. I had become deeply repelled by any hint of priestly superiority. I dreaded the hypocrisy of it, because I knew that I was no better than anyone else. I almost asked the bishop for more time to think this over but for the wise counsel of my cousin, Rev. Fr. Dr. Anthony Ewherido, to whom I owe so much gratitude. And so, at my ordination, I just kept crying like a baby, out of joy. I could identify with Saint Augustine who wept when he was ordained a priest. Some persons thought I was weeping because my dad didn’t attend the ordination, but it was because I couldn’t believe I had become a priest of the Roman rite.
I distinctly remember my mother screaming in my ear, asking why I was crying, but I was simply swept up in the emotions of the moment. I never knew that day would come, so when it did, my heart just exploded with joy, and my eyes responded with tears.
What do you intend to achieve with this celebration?
In the difficult days of my Seminary formation, God blessed me with the support of some very generous persons of lowly estate. The Society of St. Anne’s in Sapele often paid my fares back to school, and some parishioners also pitched in from the little they had. In the early days of my ministry, some friends from DSC, Ovwian, and Warri stood solidly behind me. I cherish their prayerful support and will never be able to thank them enough in a lifetime. So, through these celebrations, I want to honour God in the lives of the poor and the needy by celebrating His love with them. I hope to encourage those that are going through trying times that, no matter how difficult things might get now, it is not impossible for God to raise them up and plant them on higher grounds. With these celebrations, we also intend to reach out to prisoners, and empower the less privileged.
Looking back over the years, is there anything you would have done differently?
O yes, there are lots of things I would have done different. First, I would have devoted myself to more prayer and study because I think God is constantly calling us to reach up higher; to cast our net into the deep, to be more with Him and for Him. Second, I would have been more compassionate towards our people. There were times I felt overwhelmed with the pressure of work and expectations, and at such times, I had been testy and brief with people. In my decade of sojourn in the USA, I had time to reflect on this and, since then have promised myself to be more accommodating and patient with our people, who have so much trust and confidence in their priests. Third, I would have invested myself more in writing.
God has blessed me with a vast Audio-Visual ministry, which has been a source of inspiration to many in Europe, USA, the Caribbean and Africa. But because of my perfectionist tendencies, I am slow in writing. I should have done more of that. These are some of the things I am presently working on, trying to do better, so I can be everything that God created me to be.
What are the major challenges you have faced in your 23 years of priesthood? How were you able to surmount them?
There have been series of challenges along the way but thanks be to God, Who gives us the victory through Christ Jesus. I would classify these challenges as: personal, ministerial and socio-economic challenges. But I think two of these would suffice. On the personal front, when I left for the Seminary, my father was very unhappy because as the eldest son, he was looking forward to my success in a professional career. In his disappointment and anger, I was barred from the family, and my siblings were forbidden from attending the Catholic Church. For nine years I never visited my family. My father didn’t speak to me for 13 years. As a priest, I felt pained that while ministering to others, my own family was estranged from my faith. But thanks be to God, all of that is now in the past. My family is re-united; we can now worship together in the same church and my parents are now fully active in the church.
When I started active ministry, I embraced a Charismatic spirituality, with much emphasis on the Sacred Scripture, the Holy Eucharist, and the manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That was when the Charismatic Renewal was relatively new to the Catholic Church in the Niger Delta, even though the movement was already flourishing in the East and West. And being a young man, I was very much misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned, and often misquoted.
When I floated a TV programme, Streams Of Love in 2000, many considered it as un-Catholic. It’s funny now, when I think of this because Catholics all over the world are very proud of EWTN. Yet, some were quick to insinuate I was being Pentecostal. Some others thought I was on my way out of the Catholic Church. But, the grace of God has kept me strong and focused. A few of my senior colleagues in ministry were very supportive and they often prayed with me.
I love being a Catholic priest. I love breaking the bread of the Word and the Eucharist and I believe in the reality of the gifts and workings of the Holy Spirit. Today, there are so many young priests who are embracing the Charismatic spirituality, and responding pro-actively to the growing problems the flock is facing.
Your sermons have been known to produce spectacular changes in people’s lives. When did you notice this gift of preaching?
I always feel very humbled, when I meet people, including priests, religious, laypersons, pastors and preachers of other denominations who tell me how much my sermons have impacted positively on their lives. But, let me be quick to say that I owe that to lots of Scripture scholars, theologians and preachers on whose works I rely for research and study. My Scripture professors in the Seminary noticed my avid interest in the Scriptures and they encouraged me to pursue it. They ensure I never relented or become complacent. I’m most grateful to them because it opened me up to a whole new world of appreciating God’s love. While working as a deacon in Sapele, my Parish priest picked up on it and gave me adequate encouragement. And so, by the time of ordination, the gift was ready for the harvest, as it were.
Is it true that your transfer from Aragba-Orogun in 2000 was responsible for some hierarchical discomfort in the church?
DSC_0587Let me say there was nothing discomforting about my transfer in 2000. No doubt, there were lots of sentiments and emotions because we had such a bond of love in our faith community. But as a Catholic priest, one gets used to moving around, depending on the pastoral needs of the diocese, as the bishop sees fit. Transfers are not unusual. I ministered in Aragba-Orogun for almost six years and all those years, we had First Friday vigils of prayer, before I got transferred. Many transfers take place after three or four years. So, I was actually overdue for one.
In those six years, I rode motorcycles to some of the outstations, planted three churches, and travelled roads that were washed off during the rainy season. As much as I loved the parish, change was a welcome development. And the transfer to the Cathedral in Warri afforded me the opportunity of starting the weekly TV programme, Streams Of Love. So, one might actually say with Paul in Romans 8:28 that, God worked everything for good.
My sojourn in the USA was primarily for further studies, which I rounded off in 2006. As a priest, I had to also go about my pastoral work on a daily basis. I started off in a Brooklyn parish that was totally Caucasian. I was the only non-white person. The cultural challenges, language and accent differences were among the immediate hurdles I had to face. My pastor, late Fr. Jack Cullinane, a holy man and fantastic pastor, introduced me to a prayer group that met at a monastery. Thereafter, we started holding Healing Masses in our little church, which was always packed on such nights, and God brought into my life and ministry such wonderful persons as Rev. Fr. Andrew Varano, Dr. Steve and Linda Ayanruoh, Betty Fitzgerald (my Oyibo mother), Rev. Fr. Peter Kaczmarek, Marie Aikman, Melissa Palmaccio, Marge and Paul Weinrich among others, who became my partners and support group.
God’s favour was so much with me that news of the Masses went out very fast, and I started receiving invitations from various parishes for retreats, healing services and Conferences. A few years later, I got an invitation to the National Charismatic Conference in Trinidad & Tobago, which I anchored for three consecutive years. After that, I preached all over the United States, the Caribbean Islands including Jamaica, Grenada, Guyana, Antigua, Dominican Republic and some parts of Europe. It was a very engaging time of my life and it grew my faith and commitment in leaps and bounds. I even got to do some work with a group commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), at the height of the priests’ sexual abuse scandals. Teaching at St. Francis College in Brooklyn was another platform for my ministry, which I truly cherished.
Despite your fame, you have never been involved in any controversy…
I don’t think Jesus set out to make headlines, even though he was extremely controversial for His generation. Any authentic preacher of the gospel is bound to be controversial. But whether he makes the headlines is totally different. Most big headlines are based in conflict and controversy. When a religious report makes news, for instance, it’s typically over clash of faith and culture — a church-affiliated person or group takes a harsh cultural stand under a supposed flag of faith or a church-affiliated person or group embraces culture in a way that flies in the face of orthodoxy. Neither of these types of controversy is helpful; each is an extreme that misses the mark.
Jesus’ life on earth was full of controversy. As a result, controversy should mark every Christian’s life as well. When we look at Christ, we find there was plenty of debate and drama trailing Him. Today, following Christ could mean embracing similar sorts of conflict: speaking out against the sins of our society, spending time with non-religious “sinners” and ignoring rules that aren’t rooted in biblical principles, for instance. Still, we should be careful not to glorify controversies themselves, because in doing so we mischaracterise Who Christ is and what He does.
In Christ, we have the perfect example of a faith-and-culture collision. Here is the God-man, perfectly interacting with real sin and a real world. Sure, people got their cloaks in a twist over certain things He did and said. But any controversy surrounding Christ was simply a byproduct of something greater. The greater thing happening was, “I am…the truth.” Everything true had taken the form of a body, and He was walking around, clear and accessible as flesh.
Christ wasn’t controversial for the sake of controversy. He was controversial by His very nature. He was truth encountering error, light invading darkness. In that sense, He was in direct opposition to the world around Him. This forced heated moments of truth. In places where the world around Him aligned with what is true, Christ declared it. Where the world around Him was skewed from centre, He denounced it.
Here is the really interesting part: when truth comes in, no group of people at any time is left unscathed. As others have observed, since the redemption of Christ, is a story for all cultures and all times, then no one culture at any point will encounter the Bible’s message without being challenged by it. If any group of people matched Scripture’s teaching perfectly, their culture wouldn’t need it. In other words, if Christian faith doesn’t produce awkward cultural moments, beware.
We are called to reflect Christ within the world around us. Sometimes holding on to what is true will result in controversy. The controversies themselves hold no merit — if we celebrate them, we lose sight of the truth, and we become the spiritual equivalent of a cheap tabloid headline. Seeing this, our world will not take us seriously. They will not have reason to; they will discern our small-mindedness and recognise that we are only making spectacles of ourselves.
What can you say to aspiring young priests?
There are a great many misconceptions, fallacies and outright lies about the Catholic Church and it’s a wonder anyone remains Catholic, except Christ promised His Church would prevail through all times to the end. A proper understanding of what Christ taught and what the word Catholic means should put an end to all the quarrelling. One of the most common misconceptions of a young man thinking about the Catholic priesthood is that he will be preparing for a life of loneliness and unhappiness. This misconception is not only shared by friends, but also family members and most especially parents. Some other people think that there is vocation boom in this part of the world because of poverty and frustrations of life. These misconceptions, coupled with frequent judgments of others as to what actions they think the priest should be doing; what they think the vows are and how they think the priest should be living them, together with unrealistic expectations of people, can sometimes be overwhelming.
However, these should not serve as deterrent to those desiring a vocation in the Catholic priesthood. There is no greater joy on earth than to be a priest, a vessel in the Hands of the Most High God. When Jesus was baptised, a voice was heard from heaven saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). At the heart of the life of the Holy Trinity is God’s sheer delight and joy in the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus the High Priest embraces us within that delight. Priests are taken up into the Father’s own pleasure in the Son. The holiness of God radiates this joy that God has in all that exists. When Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, it was not a duty. It was utter delight in their company, in their very being. When Jesus touched the untouchable, it was not a clinical gesture, but the hug of joy.
So, it belongs to the priesthood to rejoice in the very existence of people, with all their fumbling attempts to live and love, whether they are married, divorced or single; whether their lives are lived in accordance with church teachings or not. Priesthood not only makes us close to people who have failed, it also pushes us close to people on the margins. The holiness of the priesthood is radiant with this joy.
St. John Vianney spoke of how, if someone knew the greatness of the priesthood, he would die, not of fear, but of love. The church should be a community where people discover God’s delight in them. This is the ministry of priests. This is my life, which is why I’m so very glad all these years, when later God brought me beyond my fears to accept ordination so that this joy could be my joy as well.
The holiness of the priesthood does not mean that priests are necessarily morally superior to anyone else. It is the opposite of elitist. It expresses the scandalous outreach of God to those who are on the edge. This implies a certain social dislocation for the ordained priest. We do not have a clear place in the social hierarchy. We are slippery figures, who should be equally at home with the rich and the poor, young and old. We are to embody an inclusiveness that cannot be fully comprehensible to our present society and to summon it beyond all its inclusions and exclusions.
If you are thinking of being a Catholic priest, I would suggest you take it very seriously. It would be best to leave the worldly life alone. Yes, priests can have certain material benefits, but that should be the least important in your decision. There is a lot of assistance offered to young men who feel in the discernment process. Prayer, counseling and education among others are all a part of the process.
What are your daily spiritual exercises?
My life as a Diocesan priest, and pastor of my parish, is probably one of the most interesting and diverse of all ministerial commitments. Aside from ministry responsibilities and obligations, there is a daily need for me as a Christian and a priest to get renewed, strengthened and revitalised in my love of God, vocation and love for the Church.
Let me quickly point out that the priesthood is not as much about what a priest does but what a priest is. Still, there are many aspects of a priest’s ministry that are common to the priesthood. The priest is ordained to proclaim the Word of God. He will do this in a variety of ways. First, the priest proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Mass. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith and the daily celebration of the Eucharist is central to the life of the priest and his ministry. The priest will also spend time preparing for and celebrating the sacraments of Reconciliation, Baptism, Anointing of the Sick and Marriage.
The priest may have his day planned, but he will be ready to meet special needs of the people, when such arise in their lives. To enhance my priesthood then, I begin my days often very early with Adoration Prayers between the hours of 4 to 5am. Then, I celebrate Christ in the Holy Eucharist, pray the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, and spend time in meditation. Every day, I devote substantial amount of time to bible studies, and spiritual reading, especially of Church Apologetics and spirituality. These are the cores of my spiritual exercises. But, I do fall short every now and then because of human weaknesses and some undue distractions. Honestly, I am always wishing I could spend more time with the Lord, knowing that I can only be much for Him, if I am much with Him.
What can you ascribe to the low participation of youths in the sacraments?
This question borders also on why youths leave the Church. Eighty per cent of Catholics are no longer Catholic by the time they turn 23. This is an American statistics. I don’t know what the numbers look like in Europe. I cannot imagine that they are any better. There are no reliable stats in Nigeria either. But there’s no denying the fact that Nigerian youths are leaving the Catholic Church, and the number of those who actively participate in the sacraments on a regular basis is quite low, when compared to the overall number of Catholics in Nigeria. One can also confidently assert that, at least 20 per cent of Nigerian Pentecostals are ex-Catholics.
The reasons for low levels of participation in the sacraments are various and many of them are familiar: the perceived irrelevance of the Church to contemporary life, the felt misuse of power and authority in the Church, problems with the parish priest, and the feeling that being a committed Catholic no longer requires attending Mass as frequently, or even at all. Family or household-related issues also figure in this dearth of attendance, including overriding priorities on weekends and the reluctance of other family members to attend weekly liturgy.
Apart from these explicit reasons for non-attendance, the challenge of post-modernity has also greatly altered the situation of faith today and further complicated the religious, sociological and psychological barriers that mark our time. A feature of this postmodern milieu is the reactionary abandonment of grand narratives. No common matrix or overarching story is seen to encompass all human experience or is accepted as the measure of life’s meaning or meaninglessness. In this cultural mindset, no single truth separates virtue from vice, distinguishes possibility from diminishment, and no way of life can claim to offer ultimate freedom over enslavement or isolation. This raises individual opinion to the status of objective truth, and subtly rejects moral authority. Close attentiveness to most contemporary audio-visual artistes, as well as Pentecostal pastors will reveal this trend, which suits the youths well because “nobody has to tell me how to live”.
The loss of religious imagination also figures with ‘presence’ confined to the physical or psychological. In this demise, much of the disruptive and restorative power of symbols (and sacraments as symbols of life) has been lost. Openness to the company of the transcendent has been diminished; fragmentation, rationalism and acquisitiveness dominate instead. Ultimately, these phenomena have underpinned an aggressive individualism, which is mistrustful of history and tradition, dismissive of abiding norms, and resistant to any demand that comes from outside the privatized-self. Religion and spirituality is thus restricted to the physical, mundane and sensual, which is actually a form of entertainment. Hence, it is not uncommon today for some church groups to insert comedy and dance into their services.
Also, religious imagination has, in fact, lost its sense of the eschatological in faith and practice, its sensitivity to the future consummation, which the sacraments anticipate. One suspects that the sacraments are more commonly thought of in episodic, instantaneous terms rather than in terms of lifelong development and growth, let alone with a view to an ultimate eschatological horizon. Many youths are quick to say: “Well, I didn’t gain anything from attending Mass.” They expect instantaneous experiential effects of the sacraments. They do not seem to realise that, just as the effects of food and nourishment are only evident in our lives over a period of time, so too are the effects of the sacraments cumulative.
Compare this to the experience of the early Christian communities in their memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper. The sacred meal was understood not only as creating the identity of the group over time, but also as the locus of belief in the Resurrection. In communities such as that at Corinth, believers gathered to share the Eucharistic meal ‘until He comes’, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine allowing the community to see the new covenant afresh and to live out of this hope as a sanctified people (1 Cor. 17-34). Additionally, it was precisely at the Eucharistic table that the community’s sense of social equality and justice was tested. It was here that believers of disparate walks of life gathered in common remembrance of the One that saved us. It is doubtful whether many confessed Catholics conceive of, or encounter the Eucharistic liturgy with such bold openness to a new creation, a new form of sociality, and a future consummation.
Clearly, a declining level of participation challenges the Church to make adaptations in its approach to the re-evangelisation of its members. As a Church, we must move from a preaching stance to one that embraces and engages the demands and promise of listening to the alienated, lapsed and even the seemingly impassive. In a time of darkness, religion must shift its emphasis.
What is your relationship with the Very Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka?
Loving, supportive and mutually encouraging relationships among priests are essential to the physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of priests and to their ministry, which is becoming increasingly demanding. St. Augustine’s words to his priests about the importance of priestly friendships are relevant today: “Preserve, my sons, that friendship which you have begun with your brethren, for nothing in the world is more beautiful than that. It is a comfort to have a faithful man by your side.”
Understanding the dynamics and importance of loving priestly friendships is essential. In Fr. Ejike Mbaka, I have a brother, friend and contemporary. Our relationship goes way back to 1997. After I ministered at the CCRN National Conference tagged FESTAC ‘97, my beloved Fr. Ejike traced me to Aragba-Orogun in a green Toyota Camry, if I remember clearly. My heart was inflamed with love that a young priest would drive all the way from Enugu just because he heard another young priest preach at a Conference. We immediately struck a friendship, and I became a frequent guest of his at the weekly adoration programmes at the GTC grounds in Enugu. We have grown in our friendship since then. He’s a priest brother I respect a lot. I admire his courage, and I honour God for his life and ministry.
Now that you’ve returned from your studies and sojourn abroad, are you going to revive the programme you used to host some years back?
Pope Paul VI, writing in Evangelii Nuntiandi no. 14 states: “Evangelising is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelise….” Our Lord Jesus said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). To propagate this mission of the Church, I have set myself to: a) Advocacy of evangelisation through my preaching, teaching, healing and deliverance services among others.
b) Development, co-ordination, facilitation, and evaluation of evangelisation initiatives; c) Encouraging, inspiring and instigating a sense of maintaining an evangelising focus in all that we do.
This has led to the establishment of Catholic World Evangelical Outreach, which aims to support parishes with lingering challenges on evangelisation. And, yes, there are plans to revive our now defunct TV programme, Streams Of Love, but the challenges are enormous. I am praying and hoping we can gather a group of individual or corporate sponsors so that the programme is aired on both satellite and cable TV.
It is our prayer that very soon we should start building our own Television network. Sounds ambitious? Of course it is, but it is realistic. And I am very committed to it. I totally embrace the words of Pope Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi no. 5: “…The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. … It is able to stir up by itself faith – faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life.”
In keeping with the New Evangelisation, our objectives are to assist in the proclamation of the gospel to all people and to build up the Church. Not only are the benefits of evangelising incalculable, but we also find that the very act of evangelising increases our own faith as well. And, as an added bonus, there are subsequent rises in the number of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.

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