40TH ANNIVERSARY OF PRIESTLY ORDINATION OF THE “CLASS OF 8”; SILVER JUBILEE OF EPISCOPAL ORDINATION OF THE MOST REV. ALFRED ADEWALE MARTINS ARCHBISHOP OF LAGOS
18TH SEPTEMBER 2023
Ten years ago, on the 18th of September 2013, this Cathedral witnessed the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the priestly ordination of our celebrants of today, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, and his seven classmates. The honour and privilege of delivering the homily at the Thanksgiving Mass fell to me. You can imagine my surprise when the Archbishop called me to ask that I be the homilist at this Mass celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the priestly ordination of the same eight classmates. I saw it as a great honour indeed, and I accepted with a high sense of humility. Thanks, Your Grace, and your classmates, for giving me the honour.The first three men of Yoruba extraction to become Catholic priests were ordained way back in 1929, almost a century ago. Their names were Stephen Adewuyi, Julius Oni and Lawrence Layode. They had undergone their seminary formation at the Grand Seminaire St. Gall in neighbouring Dahomey, present-day Republic of Benin. When the Archdiocese of Lagos was created in 1950, Frs., later Monsignori, Adewuyi, Oni and Layode were incardinated here and lived out the rest of their priestly lives and service here.After the ordination of those first three priests, no floodgate of ordinations opened for the Archdiocese of Lagos. On the contrary, priestly ordinations came in trickles, one, two, at most three in any given year, sometimes at intervals as long as ten years. One notable exception was in 1966, when the Archdiocese witnessed the ordination of four priests in one year, namely, Festus Ogunshakin, Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, Christopher Edema Boyo, and Felix Alaba Job, in that order.Along came the year 1983. Eight young men were to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Lagos. Eight priests at a time! It was unheard of. It was historic. By the standards of the Archdiocese at that time, it was a bumper harvest. Understandably, everyone was overjoyed, most of all the Archbishop of Lagos at the time, Most Rev. Anthony Olubunmi Okogie. The Archbishop was so delighted that, at the ordination Mass, he christened the group of ordinands the “CLASS OF EIGHT”. The name caught on, and the group has worn it proudly ever since. Their names were Christopher Ajala, Michael Akintolu, Edmond Akpala, Alphonsus Ania, Paschal Atomori, Alfred Martins, Jerome Oduntan, and Peter Oke.Today, the Class of Eight is marking the fortieth anniversary of their priestly ordination. And they have invited us to join them in thanking God for reaching this significant milestone in their lives and ministry as priests. In the words of the Gospel Acclamation at this Mass, they are saying to all of us, “Come and hear, all who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. Alleluia!” Your Eminences, Your Graces, Your Lordships, Monsignori, Reverend Fathers, Major Superiors and members of various religious institutes here represented, State functionaries here present, Royal Fathers, Papal Knights and Medalists, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, please join me to warmly congratulate our celebrants on this occasion. Your Grace, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, and your classmates, hearty congratulations. May God preserve you all to witness your Golden Jubilee of priestly ordination and beyond….Ten years ago, when the Class of Eight celebrated their thirtieth anniversary, all eight members of the class were here. Sadly, today, on their fortieth anniversary, two are no longer with us; namely, Monsignori Christopher Ajala and Peter Oke. Monsignor Oke left us on the 10th of July 2023, barely two months ago, so close to his fortieth anniversary. May God rest their souls in perfect peace! May light perpetual shine upon them!One of many remarkable things about the Class of Eight is that they began their first year in the major seminary together, Ss. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Bodija, Ibadan. Seven years later, all eight of them arrived together at their priestly ordination. That was quite a feat, a very rare occurrence in seminary formation: eight students from the same diocese beginning Year One, and making it to the end of Year Seven, without the loss of anyone, with no one falling by the wayside, no casualty! The eight young men successfully navigated the regimes of three Rectors: the legendary, no nonsense Fr., later Monsignor, Patrick Ugboko, the affable Fr., now Cardinal John Onaiyekan, and Fr., now Monsignor John Aniagwu. Best of all, they survived the rigorous scrutiny of their dreaded Ordinary, Archbishop, now Cardinal Anthony Okogie.
For the past forty years, members of the Class of Eight have exercised their ministry in different parts of the world: here in the Archdiocese of Lagos, in the Archdiocese of Ibadan, Diocese of Abeokuta, Diocese of Osogbo, in Scotland and in the USA. And they have done so very well. To God be the glory! God willing, those of them who are still with us will continue to serve God, the Church and humanity in the best possible ways for many years to come and for the rest of their lives…. I believe that the Class of Eight can be justifiably proud that their class produced the founding Bishop of the Diocese of Abeokuta in January 1998, and the fourth Archbishop of Lagos in August 2012, in the person of the Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins. Therefore, today’s celebration is a double-header. Not only are we celebrating the fortieth anniversary of priestly ordination of the Class of Eight, but also the Silver Jubilee of Episcopal ordination of our Archbishop.
The actual Silver Jubilee was on the 24th of January 2023. We wanted to celebrate then. But the Archbishop, typically, did not want to burden us with two big celebrations on his behalf in one year. He said that he preferred to combine the two anniversaries in one celebration with his classmates at this time. However, that should not stop us celebrating His Grace on the 25th anniversary of his Episcopal ordination. Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, brothers and sisters in Christ, please join me to congratulate our Archbishop with a round of applause…. Your Grace, hearty congratulations. Many happy returns of your Episcopal anniversary.
There is a saying that “the morning shows the day.” That saying is exactly true of Archbishop Martins. As a seminarian, he was not only exceptionally brilliant and a model seminarian, in the truest sense of those words. But he also showed unmistakable leadership qualities. That led us, the seminary formation team, to appoint him the First Prefect of the seminary, in the 1982-83 academic session. He filled that role with distinction. In fact, he did so well that barely three years after ordination, he was invited back to join us on the seminary formation team. I believe he must have been about 27 at the time. He served at the seminary for ten years, eight of which I spent with him on the formation team.
There is a social side to Archbishop Martins that most people are not aware of. I am going to reveal it today…. During his time in Ibadan as a formator, he was a member of a gang of four priests. Another member was also a formator at the seminary named Fr. Anthony ‘Dewale Ojo. The third member was one Fr. Jerome Oduntan, who was the Rector at St. Theresa’s Minor Seminary, Oke-Are, Ibadan. The fourth member was Fr. John Toyin Pinheiro, of blessed memory, who was the Parish Priest at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Yemetu, Ibadan.The group used to meet for socials at each other’s residences on rotational basis. They had a very good time. When it was the turn of the two at Bodija to host the event, sometimes I barged, uninvited, into their party. I was not sure if I was welcome. But I noticed that the moment I came in, the mood became considerably sober. So, after a drink or two, I would say “goodnight gentlemen”, and return to my quarters. As soon as I left, I could hear the tempo at the party picking up again…. As a formator, Fr. Martins was a dependable team player. He filled every role that was assigned to him admirably well, before leaving for further studies in Scotland. No one was surprised when he was summoned back from his doctoral studies in 1997 to be the pioneer Bishop of the proposed Diocese of Abeokuta. Certainly, none of us who served with him at the seminary was surprised. He was just 38.
As Bishop of Abeokuta, our celebrant did not disappoint. Together with the priests and people, he laid a rock-solid foundation for the new diocese. You have to lay a rock-solid foundation for a diocese named Abeokuta, with the famous Olumo Rock and countless other “okutas” spread all over the place. With the grace of God guiding and upholding him, and with the support and cooperation of the clergy and people, Bishop Martins laid that kind of foundation in Abeokuta: a rock-solid foundation.When the time came to appoint a new Archbishop for the Archdiocese of Lagos, in succession to the long-serving Anthony Cardinal Okogie, the Holy See did not have to look too far. A suitable and worthy candidate was just across the border, in Abeokuta Diocese. Everyone welcomed the appointment of Bishop Martins as Archbishop of Lagos. He was seen as “Omowale”. His middle name is Adewale. His appointment as Archbishop of Lagos made him “Omowale”. He was simply coming back home to the place where he was ordained a priest, to succeed the Prelate who ordained him a priest twenty-nine years earlier. His installation duly took place on the 4th of August 2012, in this very cathedral where he and his seven classmates were ordained priests. For the past eleven years, Archbishop Martins has steered the ship of this Archdiocese with gentle, sure and steady hands. (I emphasise those words: gentle, sure and steady hands.) I cannot begin to chronicle all that he has done in Lagos. The catalogue would be too long. Suffice it to say that he has hardly put any foot wrong. In discharging his responsibilities as Archbishop of Lagos, His Grace has received the maximum support and cooperation of every section of the Church: clergy, religious and lay faithful. He, in turn, has encouraged and challenged all stakeholders to come forward with ideas and suggestions for the development and growth of the Archdiocese. Archbishop Martins has a listening ear. He is never in a hurry to end his conversation with you, no matter how outlandish your ideas may sound. He will, typically, say to you: “Why don’t you put it in writing, and we shall look at it?”
Your Grace, I believe I speak the minds of all of us in the Archdiocese if I say that you can continue to count on our prayers and cooperation in the years ahead. Because your success is our success; your achievements are our achievements. We shall refrain from giving you any headache that you do not need to endure.
Once again, Your Grace, hearty congratulations! Congratulations, also, the Class of Eight!
Since we are celebrating anniversaries of priestly and Episcopal ordinations, I would like to share a word with my brother priests in particular, and the rest of us in general.
The Gospel according to Matthew, in Chapter 9, tells how Jesus once looked at the crowds that came to him, and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). I consider that to be a very apt description of the situation in our country Nigeria at this time. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria, CBCN, said exactly the same thing in their communique issued two days ago, at the end of their meeting in Abuja, although not in the exact same words: that our people, the masses of Nigeria, through no fault of their own, are harassed and dejected at this time, more so than ever before in the history of our land.
When Jesus made his observation, he followed it up with a statement and a charge to his disciples. He said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his vineyard” (Matthew 9:37). I want to believe that we priests are in the vanguard –we should be in the vanguard- of the labourers who have been sent into the vineyard. Jesus had compassion on the crowds who were harassed and helpless. Our mission, in imitation of Christ, as other Christs (alii Christi), called to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), is to show the same compassion for our people, who are harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd. That is what the Apostle Paul says in our second reading today: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
I am fully aware that our primary calling is to be ministers of the Word and Sacraments, our primary calling is to minister to the spiritual needs of our people. But that does not say that we should stand aloof while our fellow citizens groan in abject destitution and crushing poverty. We see them every day; they come to our parishes in a steady stream. Even to eat -one meal a day- is a tall order for many Nigerian families at this time. It is very depressing, frankly heartbreaking.In this matter of showing compassion to those in need, we have a few sterling examples from our Archbishop. No sooner did he become the Archbishop of Lagos than he instituted Caritas Lagos. The mission of Caritas Lagos is to offer financial assistance to needy dioceses, parishes, religious institutes, and seminaries in Nigeria and elsewhere on the African Continent. With the generous support of our people, Caritas Lagos has, over the past decade, been able to offer assistance to dozens of beneficiaries in places like the Republic of Benin, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Burundi, Tanzania, Madagascar, and South Africa, besides our own country Nigeria.
Another example of the compassion of Archbishop Martins is a foundation that he launched on the occasion of his 60th Birthday in 2019, with the aim of helping unemployed Nigerian youth embark on gainful employment.
Another example that I would like to cite is that of the entire Class of Eight. On the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of their priestly ordination in 2008, they decided to take on another name. They were to be known as the Class of Charity. With that designation, they wished to announce their Silver Jubilee gift to the Church. The gift was “to promote, encourage and support vocations to the Catholic priesthood and religious life.” To that end, each member of the class would make a monthly personal donation of not less than N5,000= “to assist poor and needy seminarians and novices in the Lagos Ecclesiastical Province”. What a wonderful gesture! I want to believe that members of the class have been faithful to their pledge. That was fifteen years ago. At N5,000= per person every month for fifteen years, the fund must have grown to a substantial amount of money by now. So, indigent seminarians and novices in Lagos, Ijebu-Ode and Abeokuta Dioceses, take note. Find out where you can send your applications to.Back to us priests. We should borrow a leaf from the examples of our Archbishop and his classmates to reach out in meaningful ways to the suffering masses of our people. Our Archbishop Emeritus, Anthony Cardinal Okogie, used to drum it into our ears, that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That message is much more urgent, much more relevant today than ever before in the history of our country.
Even in countries where those in authority are mindful enough to provide the basic needs of their people, the Catholic Church has always lent a helping hand with a plethora of welfare services. How much more here in our country, where those whose primary responsibility it is to provide for the needs of the people don’t seem to care? We priests are called upon to do all in our power to respond to the crying need of our people for the basic necessities of life. As far as lies in our power, we should never shut our eyes and ears and hearts to them.I believe that we can count on the generosity of our brothers and sisters, the lay faithful, in discharging this responsibility. Our lay faithful have always responded generously to every appeal that we make for their support in aid of our parishioners who are in need, and others besides. I add “others” because, typically, we do not discriminate. The Catholic Church does not discriminate. We do not ask where you come from, what language you speak, what religion you profess before we respond to your need. All we care about is that you are a human being, and you are in need. That is enough to elicit our compassion, and you can share in whatever benefit or service we are dispensing. How I wish that was the case in every public and private establishment in Nigeria. But it is sadly not the case in Nigeria of today, no thanks to those who have effectively succeeded in dividing us Nigerians along ethnic and religious lines, for their own selfish benefits.
In conclusion, let me, once again, congratulate our celebrants of today, His Grace, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, and his co-celebrants in the Class of Eight, the Class of Charity. Your Grace, Rev. Monsignori and Rev. Fathers, we cannot congratulate you enough. I wish you many happy returns, in lasting health of body, mind and spirit! Ad multos et salubrissimos annos!