Emmanuel Ojeifo.

Thirty five years ago, a young, handsome, intellectually progressive and brilliant Nigerian Catholic priest knelt alongside thirteen other priests from ten countries of the world, to be ordained a Bishop by the saintly pontiff, Pope John Paul II at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Msgr John Onaiyekan was the man. The solemn occasion was the feast of the Epiphany, a traditional Christian celebration to mark the revelation of the new-born child Jesus as king of the world. The day was January 6, 1983.

John Paul II was accustomed to using this annual Feast to ordain select bishops-elect from different parts the world. It was usually a profound and symbolic occasion to demonstrate in a vivid and powerful way the unity of the universal Church in its cultural and geographical diversity. That year the lot fell on Father John Onaiyekan, who had been named a Bishop in November 1982. There was a second Nigerian on the list. Msgr Kevin Aje who had also been named Bishop of Sokoto. So on that memorable day, this 38-year-old priest, John Onaiyekan, marched in a solemn procession to the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica to receive the purple zuchetto from the hands of Pope John Paul II.

Six years earlier, Father Onaiyekan had walked across the great hall of the Pontifical Urban University Rome, holding in his hands the scroll of his doctorate degree in biblical studies, earned with full distinction to the admiration of his professors and colleagues. He was just 32. Two years later, at the prime age of 34, he would be heading a major educational institution of the Catholic Church in Nigeria for the training of priests in Ibadan. Nine months before his episcopal appointment, Father John Onaiyekan hosted Pope John Paul II at the major seminary in Ibadan during the pope’s first visit to Nigeria in February 1982. A cherished memorabilia of that visit is a photograph of the two Johns kneeling and praying before the Blessed Sacrament at the seminary chapel.

This meteoric rise of Father Onaiyekan on the ladder of ecclesiastical leadership could be said to have been prefaced by two significant high-profile appointments from the Vatican. In 1980, Pope John Paul II appointed the young scholar as a member of the International Theological Commission, a body of 30 theologians drawn from all over the world. Father Onaiyekan was the only African on this Vatican Commission, which was headed by the renowned German theologian and Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. The principal role of the Commission was to provide theological reflections for the Pope, and Onaiyekan served on this body for five years, with the last two years into his episcopal vocation.

The following year in 1981, Father Onaiyekan received another Vatican appointment. Pope John Paul II nominated him as a Member of the Methodist-Roman Catholic International Dialogue Commission for a period of ten years. In this Commission, Father Onaiyekan again met his theological companion and senior prelate, Cardinal Ratzinger, amongst many other leading and theologians. It was while serving his terms in these two key commissions that Father Onaiyekan was appointed a Bishop in 1982.

Thirty years later, Onaiyekan would again kneel before the great Pope Benedict XVI to exchange the purple zuchetto for the red biretta on the occasion of his creation as a Cardinal, thus becoming a member of a distinguished college of slightly over 200 influential Catholic prelates from around the world, each one a major stakeholder in the decision-making process of a massive spiritual empire that touches 1.5 billion souls.

Since then, Onaiyekan has grown through leaps and bounds to become, in the words of the international religion journalist John Allen Jr, “Africa’s superstar prelate, known around the world as the voice of his continent.” In spite of Onaiyekan’s increasing influence on the global stage, he has not ceased to respond to the need to stay decidedly local, ministering to the genuine pastoral and spiritual needs of over half a million faithful under his spiritual watch, in a rapidly growing cosmopolitan city of Abuja that seems to live life on the fast lane. Such is Onaiyekan’s giftedness, which fits him easily into Pope Francis’ pastoral profile of a bishop as “a shepherd with the smell of the sheep” and “a pastor close to the heart of his people.”

Not only has Onaiyekan passed through every genre of episcopal appointment from auxiliary bishop to residential bishop, apostolic administrator, co-adjutor bishop and archbishop, he has also occupied all the high profile positions of religious leadership at the national, regional, and continental levels. At a point in time, he was simultaneously heading the regional body of West African Catholic bishops and the continent-wide body of Catholic bishops of Africa. He has also occupied the chair of president of the Catholic bishops of Nigeria as well as president of the Christian Association of Nigeria and co-chair of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council. On the global stage, he is one of the three international moderators of World Council of Religious Leaders - Religions for Peace, which sits on the UN Plaza in New York. He is also co-chair of the African Council for Religious Leaders.

In the last three decades, Onaiyekan has toured round the world proclaiming the gospel of justice, development and peace, from global institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union and the World Economic Forum to the African Union, ECOWAS and civil society, the academia, and national governments. He is a member of key international initiatives for justice, development and peace such as KAICIID, Ethics in Action, an initiative of the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Ivy League University of Columbia and the University of Notre Dame, that brings together some of the world’s leading philosophers, scientists, religious leaders, politicians and diplomats to discuss key issues affecting global humanity. He also features prominently on the Santa Marta Group, an initiative of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster that focuses on global immigration, human trafficking and refugee issues.

As a leading voice of spiritual and moral leadership in Africa and across the globe, Onaiyekan’s name was much touted together with the Sultan of Sokoto as potential candidates for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. He shared the 2012 Leadership Man of the Year with the Sultan of Sokoto; won the Pax Christi International Peace Prize in 2012; the UN Champion for Women and Children’s Health in 2016, the Pat-Utomi Centre for Values in Leadership ‘Leader Without Title’ award in 2016 amongst other national honours from the presidents of Nigeria and Italy. He is also a distinguished recipient of two honorary doctorate degrees.

Onaiyekan has long provided the only rationale for all his phenomenal accomplishments. He says it is simply the grace of God acting on a weak and imperfect vessel. It is no surprise that his episcopal motto chosen in 1982 was a line of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done! His life and ministry have evidently been a life-long commitment to understanding and doing the will of God. So why do we have to keep talking about Onaiyekan? The reason is simple. In a society of widespread moral degeneration and corruption of spiritual and religious leadership, Onaiyekan stands out as a good benchmark of true shepherd-hood that has not lost touch with the values and ethos of the Christian Gospel. In an age of bad leadership at the political and religious levels, he offers a counter-cultural witness of the true essence of Christianity as love of God and service of neighbour.

This tribute is this a testament to the increasing recognition of Onaiyekan’s spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, humanistic, literary and academic resumé, which he has put at the service of God and humanity in these past 35 years of his episcopacy. And so today I ask you to join me in wishing him health and strength in the years of life and service that lie ahead.

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