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from issue no. 10 - 2005

Interview with Bishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan

Seen from Africa

That is why the bishops of the poorer countries hear themselves asked an artless and embarrassing question by the faithful, whether it is the identical Eucharist celebrated in a rich country and celebrated in a country from which everything has been taken, because they see that the difference is immense

interview with Bishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan by Giovanni Cubeddu

Archbishop of Abuja (Nigeria) and president of SECAM, the symposium that brings together the Episcopal Conferences of Africa, John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan took part in the Synod as a pontifical appointee.
John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan

John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan

Your Excellence, what was your experience as a synodal father?
JOHN OLORUNFEMI-ONAIYEKAN: It was the fifth Synod in which I have taken part, and I begin to understand what one may expect and what not.
Every Synod strengthens the collegiality of the bishops, helps us feel brethren, because almost all of us work in our dioceses, but one can’t know a priori that we form a single body and single soul, particularly when the daily reality doesn’t help us in this direction.
The theme chosen was a help in that …
ONAIYEKAN: The Eucharist is not a marginal subject nor a special one either, it is the heart of the Church, and this Synod required us to answer about the meaning of everything we do, because in the Eucharist there is Jesus, there is the participation of the people around the altar, there is the Church that presents itself before her bridegroom, and there is the human family, with whom we must share the blessing of God when we take communion. The whole life of the Church enters us with the Eucharist.
Did you notice differences of approach among you synodal fathers?
ONAIYEKAN: During the first two weeks, as always, we listened to the exposition of each bishop, and almost all spoke or gave an offering in scriptis.
Then, meeting each other, we felt that, if it’s true that we share the same faith, the Eucharist is celebrated in so many diverse and sometimes complicated situations. So, in the contributions of the synodal fathers, this difference in unity was always implicitly present. There are those among us who don’t know how to get people to church, those who instead have no room to receive those who want to come in, and those who have believers left waiting for a priest… who will never arrive because there’s a shortage of vocations. At times knowing that the other bishops have the same problems, helps… And we went home from Rome heartened, after listening to intelligent, practical, pastoral ideas for overcoming the difficulties.
Your Excellence, which of the themes of the Synod would you put in first place?
ONAIYEKAN: A theoretical, dogmatic question: the presentation of the Eucharistic Mystery in a way understandable to contemporary people. We priests repeat the formulas of the tradition, but it’s not said that those who still listen to us understand us. So, what Saint Thomas did in his day – get people to understand the Eucharistic mystery – is our job today. For me, who am an African bishop in mission lands, this is a job I know, because we have had to translate the theological concepts into our local tongues.
You want to introduce the theme of inculturation…
ONAIYEKAN: The inculturation of the liturgy. The liturgy expresses the faith, but does so according to the culture of people. When we express our faith in the real presence of Jesus Christ, how to do it? For some it’s standing, for others kneeling, some prefer to be in silence, or surrounded by background music, for other it merits powerful music. Before the Most Holy, we can pray still, composed. But if my God is there in front of me, I want to be able to display my joy dancing energetically: that’s what believers do in Africa. Those who don’t understand will say: but you have no sense of the sacred…
And what do you think on the matter?
ONAIYEKAN: That trust should be placed in the Holy Spirit that guides the Church, and that, if we are steadfast in the same faith, we must also have the courage to let the Spirit inspire this same faith to be expressed in different ways.
Furthermore, we know that in celebrating the Eucharist we are together with the angels and saints, and we proclaim the praise of God before his throne, for all the world. In the Eucharistic prayer the needs of the world become ours. That is why the bishops of the poorer countries hear themselves asked an artless and embarrassing question by the faithful, whether it is the identical Eucharist celebrated in a rich country and celebrated in a country from which everything has been taken, because they see that the difference is immense. Perhaps – they wonder – those outside the Church, are right when they say that it is and always will be like that? Is this uneasiness at least noticed within the Church? The question came up in the Synod Hall,even if discreetly, and I’m sure that it will be shortly taken up again.
The Synod debates on the Eucharist that won the attention of the media were different ones, however.
ONAIYEKAN: We have become accustomed to saying that there are sinners that must not approach the Eucharist. And generally those spoken of, in the West, are remarried divorcees and, in the mission countries, polygamists. There was wonder about whether these are the only serious sins. The divorcee may not receive communion, but can the oppressor, the exploiter, the politician responsible for the suffering and death of thousands of people, who comes to church with hands joined, or maybe has a devout wife, receive Communion? Those who use public power against freedom cannot receive the Eucharist… But it’s an arduous discourse.
The question of married priests also received attention.
ONAIYEKAN: There are those who say that if young men are not coming to the seminary, then we can ordain married men as priests. But that’s not the problem: because married or not married it’s people who have the faith that are sought! It was useful listening to the explanation of the synodal fathers of Eastern rite who have experience of married priests, and it’s very interesting that they warned us not to try to resolve the problem in the West simply by ordaining married men. Because the point is that of the faith. If we must consider as an alternative the possibility of having a married clergy, that works together with the unmarried clergy, we must also take care to study all its implications, because the way in which the Church is organized also changes. And in any case I don’t believe that priestly celibacy is a theological problem.
It’s noteworthy that we never heard in the hall any talk about the ordination of women, not even from the women present, who had the possibility of expressing themselves.
This was the first Synod with Pope Benedict…
ONAIYEKAN: And I was struck by the personal style with which the Holy Father participated. The duration was reduced from four to three weeks - and that suited many synodal fathers who think four weeks too tiring – and then the hour of free discussion was very much appreciated by everybody, and the fact that he took part to speak as a bishop among bishops was very gratifying. He addressed us as a theologian, and it was a pleasure to hear him because his speech was not prepared, it was rather a talking-point to encourage dialogue. Or better, it was an attempt at clarification: normally in a debate it’s this side against the other, because each is tempted to stress one aspect forgetting the contribution of the others. Whereas he managed to bring out that all of us had some rightness on the matter…
Anything you would have liked the synodal fathers to speak more about?
ONAIYEKAN: We might perhaps have given more stress to the fact that the Eucharist will have its meaning accomplished only at the end. This world of ours is temporary. In the Eucharist we always pray for those who have preceded us, the dead departed, and for the saints, and we are waiting when we also will be with them. The Eucharist gives an early taste of the messianic banquet, when we shall eat happily together with Jesus himself.

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