Nigerian bishop offers his priests to universal Church

  • September 2, 2010
Bishop John OkoyeTORONTO - There is a seminary with 1,100 men studying for the priesthood. Each year that one seminary turns out a graduating class of hundreds ready for ordination. Since it began with just six students in 1924, this seminary has produced more than 4,000 priests.

Though it may sound like fantasy to any North American Catholic who has visited the echoing halls of their own somewhat less populated seminaries, Bigard Memorial Seminary is a real place. And one of its former rectors believes it should be a resource for the entire Catholic Church, not only for the Metropolitan See of Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria.

Bishop John Okoye spent 11 years at Bigard until he was made bishop of the new diocese of Awgu in 2005. These days he’s sending his own abundant crop of vocations to Bigard for training.

Okoye recognizes that compared to North America and Western Europe he is a bishop in an extraordinary position. He has 42 priests serving in his own diocese and another 12 assigned to parishes outside his diocese. Another graduating class is on its way.

Rather than hoarding priests in his rural diocese of about 360,000 Catholics, Okoye believes his young priests should be at the service of the whole Church.

“It’s the same Catholic Church that is universal,” Okoye told The Catholic Register during a visit to Toronto in late August. “If we really understand the Catholic Church, we know it is one body.”

Okoye wants to help North American bishops avoid parish closings and amalgamations. If North Americans can keep those parishes going, there’s a chance vocations will return, he said.

“The Eucharist is tied to the Catholic priesthood. The celebration of the Eucharist always enhances vocations. Where you have the Eucharist and have Christian life in families — Eucharist, family life, family spirituality — then children learn about God in their families. They learn about the Eucharist. They learn about the priesthood. And they will have in them the idea of becoming priests,” said Okoye.

While Okoye’s offer is on the table, it’s up to individual bishops and dioceses to decide what’s best for their situation and then carefully follow a complex body of Church law that governs such arrangements between dioceses, the bishop said.

At Bigard Memorial Seminary young priests are formed with Pope John Paul II’s concept of the “new evangelization” as a central part of their identity, said Okoye. A missionary spirit gives meaning to priesthood, he said.

“Our formation practice when I was there, and with my own seminarians, is that these are people for the Catholic priesthood, and the Catholic Church is universal,” said Okoye.

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