Homily at the 80th Birthday of Very Rev. Msgr. Bernard Ayodele Okodua
At St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Surulere, Lagos
Saturday 28th October, 2023
By Very Rev. Fr. Michael Nsikak Umoh
Thanksgiving as a mark of Faith
- I will enter His gates with thanksgiving in my heart, I will enter his courts with praise, I will say this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice for he has made me glad. He has made me glad, I am so glad, I will rejoice for he has made me glad (2X).
- Our amiable Archbishop, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, Your Excellencies, Rt. & Very Rev. Monsignori and Fathers, our dear male and female religious, distinguished men and women of the Church and society, members of Okodua family, the good parishioners of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Gbaja, our celebrant for the day, I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! That beautiful song we just sang is derived from the short psalm 100, a psalm of thanksgiving which further says:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
- Inspired by this psalm, our dear Msgr. Bernard Ayodele Okodua invites us to join him at this Eucharistic celebration, the highest form of worship and thanksgiving for us Catholics, to thank God as he turns 80 years on earth. On his 80th birthday, Msgr. is thanking God for the gift of long life, and the many blessings He has put into those years. He particularly thanks God for his mercy, which endures forever.
- The scripture is replete with cases of people giving thanks or showing gratitude to God. We recall the example of Abel’s generous thanksgiving sacrifice in Gen. 4:4ff; the hymn of thanksgiving of our Mother Mary in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); and the classic story of the 10 lepers in the bible who received healing, while only one returned to give thanks to Jesus (Luke 17:11-19).
- A common element in all these examples reveals that thanksgiving is always a consequence of faith. No one can thank God unless he believes in God as the source of his being and the source of all the blessings in his life.
- Hebrew 11:4 says “By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God gave approval to his gifts. And by faith he still speaks even though he is dead.”
- Similarly, Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving, the Magnificat, is a beautiful expression of her faith and trust in God. She proclaims, ‘the almighty has done marvels for me, holy is His name.” It is a declaration of God’s greatness and mercy, and it reveals Mary’s deep understanding of God’s plan for salvation. In the Magnificat, Mary rejoices in God as her Savior and acknowledges that she has been blessed by God.
- In the case of the 10 lepers, they called on Jesus, from a distance, for mercy in their misery. That was indeed what Jesus granted them; MERCY. It is very significant that we note this, MERCY, because according to St. Augustine, Mercy is when love is poured on misery. All God’s blessings to humanity are instances of God looking with love on our nothingness from the point of mercy. That is what was given by Jesus to the lepers.
- Unfortunately, most times, people fail to thank God because of lack of faith or distorted faith. Ten were healed, only one returned to give thanks. Why?
- To understand why we often fail to thank God, let us look at why, according to Charles Brown, the nine did not return to give thanks?
- One waited to see if the cure was real
- One waited to see if it would last
- One said he would see Jesus later
- One decided that he never had leprosy
- One said he would have gotten well anyway
- One gave the glory to the priests
- One said, “O well, Jesus didn’t really do anything.”
- One said, “Any rabbi could have done it.”
- One said, “I was already much improved.”
These are models of the reasons we do not thank God. Though all of them received God’s mercy only one acknowledged and returned to give thanks to the giver.
- If thanksgiving is a consequence of faith, the examples above reveal that lack of thankfulness is indicative of the absence of faith. The reasons for failing to give God thanks can be strangely logical.
- Unlike the 9 lepers who had their fantastic excuses, with our mother, Mary, today, Msgr. Okodua proclaims: My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
- “Were not 10 made clean. The other nine, where are they?” was not a value-neutral expression, but a sentiment of pain and disappointment because, much as our thanksgiving does not add to God’s greatness as noted in the Eucharistic prayer IV, they definitely do please God and dispose us for greater blessings. Therefore, we thank God because He desires that we do so. Thanksgiving is a virtue.
- A Yoruba proverb nails it: Eni ase l’ore ti ko dupe, bi olosa t’onko koni leru lo ni” meaning he who fails to show gratitude for a favor received is like a thief who has robbed one of his goods.
- Like the one leper, Msgr. Okodua returns to God’s altar to especially give thanks because God has shown so much mercy on this gentle son of a simple carpenter. Typically, like for most of us, in Msgr Okodua, God qualified whom it pleased him to choose; to the amazement of those the world considers as qualified. Our Mother Mary says, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
- We all join Msgr. in thanking God for the gift of the sacred priesthood and for the grace he has granted him to submit totally to his will all these years as a faithful, loving, simple, committed, obedient and prayerful priest; a quintessential Catholic priest. We thank God for the many lives He has used Msgr. to touch and for many hopes he has re-enkindled.
- We thank God for His protection over Msgr. all these years he had to travel on our dangerous road, without an accident; particularly while he worked at the Catholic Secretariat as the National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
- Obviously, Msgr. has enjoyed the grace of good health from God, as one of those specially created strong like a German. Msgr. still spends hours in office today, attending to people, and enjoys attending meetings.
- However, when I knew things were changing for Msgr. was when I witnessed him taking tea without sugar. Kilode??? At over 70years, Msgr. was still fond of garnishing his tea with heaps of sugar; but no more now. Msgr. has surely been blessed, because at 80, apart from his hair which he has been losing very slowly and systematically for decades, his teeth are still largely intact, his eyes and ears functional, he still walks majestically like a Roman soldier, and above all, his mind is still sound. May God’s name be praised. IT IS GRACE!
- Nevertheless, no matter how strong Msgr. still feels, the fact we must come to terms with is that things are no longer the same. This is a reality we must accept and he must embrace with grace and gratitude. Aging is inevitable and reserved only for the lucky ones.
- We must not be afraid of old age because, according to psalm 71:9, it is a blessing and a reward for godliness. Maggie Kuhn says that “Old age is not a disease – it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.”
- Proverbs 20:29 says: The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair; their wisdom. ‘Wisdom of the old and the strength of the young” suggests that older people have valuable knowledge and experience that can be passed down to younger generations, while younger people have the energy and vitality to make a difference in the world.
- Our celebrant definitely understands this very much. In this parish, we can attest that for the years Msgr. has been the Parish Priest here, his associates have been given very wide room to administer the parish, while he supervises, providing mentorship. His associates do the dancing, he does the drumming from the back stage. That is indicative of how simple Msgr. is, and how simple he approaches life.
- A personal experience with Msgr. was when I had the rare honor of taking over from him as the Cathedral Administrator. Bubbling with the strength of my youth and limited level of my understanding, I tried to put somethings I believe were necessary in place, Msgr. met me one day and told me how people had reported me to him, likely with sinister motives, and he had to tell them, ki okurin ri ejo, ki obirin pa, ki ejo ti ku ni. That ended the matter that would have sowed unnecessary cross-generational discord. Thank you, Msgr. for being a true elder. Eku agba! Agba yin a kale! E o ni d’agbaya!
- Dear friends, I crave your indulgence to round off this reflection with a thought on how we may manage priests at old age or retirement.
- Thoughts on this matter has now become imperative as our Church in Nigeria is growing, and our Archdiocese is really growing. The number of priests has grown astronomically over the years, thus as expected, the number of elderly priests is on the increase as more of our priests are clocking the retirement age. What happens when we priests grow old or attain retirement age?
- In his Encyclical about caring for creation, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis warned us against the throwaway consumerist culture that, he affirmed, is damaging our planet and also infecting the way we treat each other. He observed that for older people this is especially dangerous because our relationship to the aged has significantly and negatively changed over the last century or so and as we come more and more to value people by what they can produce in economic terms, we value less and less both their innate worthiness as children of God, but also we come not to see them as whole human beings, but rather broken down, useless parts which are no longer needed in the capitalist mill.
This description properly fits the ugly scenario of our secular society in Nigeria where many of our elderly ones suffer and die of hunger and pains after retirement because few individuals embezzle money due to them and those in government care less about what happens to them. It is said that the true value of a society lies in the way the vulnerable are treated; the elderly and the retired ones included. The Church must show the way.
- The Church reminds us that it is not just care and respect that older people need, but that their autonomy, gifts, self-determination and participation in society should not be taken away simply because of age.
- In his 1984 Address to Older People, Pope John Paul II said, ‘you are not and must not consider yourselves to be on the margins of the life of the Church, passive elements in a world in excessive motion, but active subjects of a period in human existence which is rich in spirituality and humanity. You still have a mission to fulfil and a contribution to make.’
- Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI referred to the growing population of elderly in the world as “a blessing for society.” He said that their care should be more a “repayment of a debt of gratitude” than a mere “act of generosity.”
- The above quotations should serve as foundations for determining how best to manage the life of an old or retiring priest.
- It is on this note the one must therefore salute the utmost respect, wisdom and humaneness of our Archbishop, Most Rev. Alfred Adewale Martins, in his approach so far towards our elderly priests. Hoping that I am not acting out of order, I testify that the Archbishop had many years ago placed the concern for making provisions for retired priests in the front burner at the meetings of consultors and members of the Archdiocesan curia.
- As part of the fruit of this effort, one must not fail to thank our Archbishop for his commitment and ingenuity evident in the on-going building of a priests house within Agnes, Maryland parish compound. Ingenuity because, with a vibrant parish community, presence of the Marian Shrine, the hospital, schools and a convent, Maryland compound, in my humble opinion is a naturally suitable place for priests at retirement. It is the African model, because we do not push our elders away from the family, instead we keep them with us, in appreciation of their work when they were young and we were feeble, and in order to keep tapping from their wealth of experience and wisdom, which is their prerogative from God.
- However, besides the possibility of a priest choosing to live in a dedicated house in such a parish community like the Maryland, I don’t think it is out of place to allow a retired priest the choice of living in any parish house in the Archdiocese, with any priest he feels most comfortable with, with a possibility of moving whenever he desires and it is possible. The Fr. Adebayo/Msgr. Adeniyi model is still fresh in our memories. May God rest their loving souls. Amen.
- Archbishop Martins has already shown and taught us a cultural approach to retirement of priests by his policy and actions; that we all must be patient and loving to our priests in their old age and not chase them away. If in our experience, when the lay people retire, they rely on the parish community for strength and meaning, why do we now think a retired priest should be comfortable outside the parish community, away from the people he has always lived with and worked for? The time is ripe for us to put policies and structures in place so that priests will not begin to panic at old age about their welfare. As individuals and organisations in the Church, now is the time to support the Archdiocese in providing suitable facilities for our priests so that they can live within parish communities in their retirement.
- It is in this way that we can help our priests fulfil one strong desire they always express with the psalmist: “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
- Once again, our dear Baba, Msgr. Bernard Ayodele Okodua, on behalf of all of us here and many more not here, I say congratulations to you as you attain this significant milestone in your life. Thank you for all your dedicated services in the people of God and the Church, for your unwavering faith and commitment, and for the inspiration you have been to different people. I join others to pray that God will continue to grant you sound health of mind and body as you continue steadily to grow gracefully. May your night be better than your day.
- Just before the concluding statement, thank you dear Msgr. for giving me the honour of preaching on this special occasion.
- Let us conclude with the words of St. Paul in Romans 11:36: “Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise! Amen and Amen.
- Ope loye o, Baba oloore, iyin loye o, Olorun Oba, Hosanna ye o, ose o Baba