Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

(Left to right) Fr. Jerry Riney; Akim K. Kikonda, country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Nigeria; Bishop William F. Medley; and Fr. Emmanuel Udoh at the CRS Nigeria headquarters in Abuja. COURTESY OF FR. JERRY RINEY

Nigeria: A journey of gratitude

My Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

When I came to the Diocese of Owensboro 13 years ago, I believe there were six priests serving our diocese who were not born in the United States. My predecessor, Bishop John J. McRaith, was one of the first bishops in the United States to see the opportunities that inviting priests from around the world, to come to our nation as missionaries, might provide.

Today there are 27 priests serving our diocese who were not born in the USA.  Several of them came to us as seminarians and were ordained for our diocese; several more have chosen to affiliate permanently with our diocese. Many others serve here for a limited period of time with the permission of their bishops or religious superiors.

These generous priests are pastors of 29 of the 78 parishes in the diocese – 37% of our parishes.

As bishop I have made a commitment to try and visit the homelands and meet the families of these priests. In 2018 I made a pilgrimage to Mexico to begin this multi-nation journey. In January of 2020 I visited India and Myanmar. (It was while returning home from this trip that I came face-to-face with the reality of a worldwide pandemic unfolding when we passed through Doha in Qatar, and everyone in the airport was wearing masks.)

Needless to say, the Covid pandemic brought a pause to my pastoral visits. In 2022, however, I was able to visit Guatemala. And with the success of that visit, I turned my mind to the African nations. We have priests from Nigeria, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one who has previously served us from Uganda.

In October I made a 16-day pastoral visit to Nigeria. Fr. Jerry Riney accompanied me. There we visited and met the families of Fathers Emmanuel Udoh, Uwem Enoh, Julian Ibemere, John Okoro, and Jude Okeoma. We visited the provincial house of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, home to Sisters Anthonia Asayoma and Anne Marie Joshua.  

It was my privilege, at the invitation of Bishop Camillus Raymond Umoh of the Diocese of Ikot Ekpene, to ordain three transitional deacons. This ordination was celebrated in the minor seminary where young boys ages 12-18 are aspirants to priesthood.

Meeting the families of our priests and celebrating Masses in seminaries, convents, and parish churches was for me the highlight of my journey. I defined my journey as one of gratitude but as is so often the case, when one says thank you, one sees that they have received much more than they can give.

According to worldwide statistics, Nigeria has the highest rate of regular Sunday Mass attendance of its Catholic population of any country in the world. A total of 94% of Nigerian Catholics attend Mass every Sunday.  At two small parish churches – St. Joseph (the home parish of Fr. Uwem) and St. Michael (the home parish of Fr. Emmanuel) – the churches were filled, and people stood outside of the windows looking in as scores would not fit in the church. When we departed from these churches maybe an hour after the liturgy ended, we may have been the first to leave.

These parish Masses, the ordination Mass, and Mass at a large city parish in Abuja (the capital city), all lasted about three hours! Trust me, though, if you had been with me, you would not have been looking at your watch and you would have been surprised to realize that Mass had lasted that long.

It is not uncommon in parish churches for there to be at least three collections at Mass. Collections were not made by passing the basket, but everyone – man, woman, and child – came forward to make their offering. These processions were occasions of song and dance. At Holy Trinity Church in Abuja, I was intrigued when some came forward with a poster saying, “one cow.” This signified that this person had that week contributed a cow to feed the hungry.

Perhaps in another column I can share our experience of visiting a site of a Catholic Relief Services project in Abuja, where about 60 young adults had completed a vocational training program. Catholic Relief Services is the international arm of outreach for the U.S. Catholic Church and has more than 400 employees in Nigeria assisting tens of thousands. The annual Lenten Rice Bowl initiative has been a primary source of funding for CRS for decades.

Though I will share stories of this journey for the rest of my life, one enduring reality I contemplate is that a nation such as the United States now depends upon lands that we, not so long ago, might have considered mission lands to provide priests and sisters to us. Where once European and North American Catholics trained and sent missionaries to the world, now less than half a century later these mission lands are sending the missionaries to us.

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro

Current Issue

Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Rachel Hall
Layout |  Rachel Hall
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