|Sunday, September 18, 2022|
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
t was Pope Celestine VI who said that "Every history is sacred history … Every history is a gospel … Eliminate God from history and you will not be able to understand even the history of man which is just an episode, a chapter, a reflexion of the history of God." (The Letters of Pope Celestine VI to all mankind" (English Ed., New York 1948, p. 128.)
This is very true, because, as the late Rev Fr. Dr. Celestine A. Obi, a renowned church historian, said, "The history of the Church in Eastern Nigeria can be more meaningfully understood only in the context of Divine intervention in the history of the Black peoples of the Lower Niger. Christ's becoming man has been the greatest and most significant event that changed human destiny and shaped human history. Christ came into this world to fulfil the prophecy: "All flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Isaiah 6). (C.A. Obi, "A Hundred Years of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria 1885-1985" (Onitsha 1985, p. 3).
As the saying goes, 'God works in a mysterious way', in our lives and history, as individuals and as a people. It is therefore not surprising that it was at the height of the British colonial plunder and impunity in Eastern Nigeria, that the future "Saint" that was to come from that part of West Africa, Blessed Iwene Tansi, was born.
Onwuerume's Roasted Yam and the British Royal Niger Company Depot at Aguleri
Blessed Iwene Tansi of Aguleri (Anambra State, Nigeria), was born, precisely at that time in his hometown, Aguleri history, when one middle-aged man from the town, by name Onwuerume came to the Royal Niger Company palm oil depot at the company's headquarters in Aguleri after work and mistakenly caused an oil spillage along the Anambra River bank. Onwuerume had a roasted yam, which he wanted to eat but there was no palm oil. Probably out of curiosity, he wanted to puncture one of the R.N.C. oil drums to obtain a little quantity of oil for his piece of yam. He did it but the oil spilled and even drenched him. In a deep terror, he made his escape leaving behind his hoe, piece of yam and spilling oil.
However, the company's workers easily detected him and detained him. His detention rang a bell and the Ivite Aguleri village where he hailed from, a community, which were used to protracted war, ran to his rescue and released him. In the process, some rascals looted the properties of the R.N.C. on the argument that they will never brook oppression in their own fatherland especially by strangers. The Company's chief at Aguleri raised alarm, sent for military re-enforcement from the Company's headquarters at Asaba. The Company's military forces came in full force. The soldiers marched to the Christian Village Aguleri, which was the only well organized and inhabited spot around.
At the Christian Village, the colonial soldiers arrested the famous traditional ruler and first baptized Christian of the town, Chief Onyekomeli Idigo of Aguleri. From there the soldiers went to 'war'. The whole of Aguleri-Uno was attacked. Houses were burnt and domestic animals were shot. People were beaten up, wounded, but not killed intentionally even though there were many deaths.
However, the Catholic missionaries at Aguleri were outraged that a matter that would have been settled in an hour's discussion meant that three important villages were pillaged and burnt, the inhabitants put to flight, and Chief Idigo as well as 12 of other leading chiefs, who had come to negotiate, were taken away as hostages. One of the hostages was the father of Blessed Iwene Tansi. The hostages were imprisoned at the R.N.C. headquarters at Asaba.
The profound impact of this imprisonment of prominent Aguleri men on the people of the town was tremendous. For instance, the father of Blessed Iwene Tansi, when they were eventually released from prison after almost a year in Whiteman's captivity, gave the name Iwegbunam (Iwene) to his newly born child (that is, the would be Blessed Iwene Tansi). This Igbo name, Iwegbunam, literally means, "May revenge (or anger) not consume (or rather overpower) me."
The Victim of British Colonial Brutality Turned-Saint and a Reconciler
Thus, when the young Iwene reached school age, his father took him to his uncle Orekyie who was a teacher at the Catholic mission school at Aguleri, so that boy when he eventually graduates from school would be equipped with the education to revenge what the White people had done to the father. However, things did not go as Iwene's father had wished. For while in school the young man, Iwene Tansi met his vocation to the Catholic Priesthood. This changed his life forever.
Instead of toeing the path of revenge as his father had wished for him, God had another plan for the young man, Iwene Tansi. He was to become a Catholic Priest in the order of a new reconciliation, love and forgiveness as taught and lived by the Master, Jesus Christ. Little wonder then that from the moment he was ordained a priest at Onitsha in 1937, Fr. Tansi made reconciliation the focal point of his priestly ministry and life.
In fact, in contrast to the wishes of his father, Fr. Tansi as one of the pioneer indigenous priests in Eastern Nigeria, became number one collaborator of the White missionaries. In the seminary, for instance, he studied under the supervision of the expatriate priests. There, he was entrusted with the most delicate function, the procurator, which he discharged creditably to the admiration of his superiors and fellow students.
Both in active and contemplative life, be it as a busy Parish Priest in Nigeria or a contemplative Cistercian monk in England, Fr. Tansi spent his himself entirely for God through the ministry of reconciliation in the church and society in all the places he had worked as Parish Priest. He spent hours and hours in the 'Confessional", helping the people and reconciling them. He helped many people who were experiencing difficulties in living together whether as husband and wife or as neighbours, to reconcile, first with God, with oneself, among themselves and with the created reality.
As a curate (assistant parish priest) at Nnewi, Fr. Tansi lived in the company of both African and European priests. He hadn't any problem with any of them nor did he manifest any sign of animosity against the expatriate missionaries. He mixed up very well with his fellow African priests as well as the expatriates with whom they shared the presbytery at Nnewi.
Again, in the pastoral ministry, he spent himself entirely, to helping the people in the area of penitential reconciliation in the "Confessional." Fr. Tansi is also highly remembered for having helped neighbouring towns that share the same Parish to accept a common name and center for their Parishes. This he did especially, at Dunukofia and Ufesiodo (Orumba Aguata) Parihes. The names and choice of Parish centers of these two large Parishes were as result of Fr. Tansi's effort to promote good neighbourliness and peaceful co-existence among the people of different towns and villages that make up the Parishes.
In addition, Fr. Tansi had a great sense of respect to Nigeria's diverse ethnic, cultural and religious identities. Imbued with cultural sensitivity, he never spoke ill of other people, their cultures, religions or ethnic identity. For instance, in 1946 he visited Kaduna in Northern Nigeria for holidays. During the Mass at St. Joseph's Church, when he was about to preach, knowing that the bulk of the congregation was made up of Igbos, he asked permission of the others to address his people in their own mother tongue. He told his people to respect their hosts as well as every other person, irrespective of our differences in ethnic, cultural or religious identities.
Furthermore, addressing the entire congregation in English later, he said the same thing, while charging them to respect also the White people. Jokingly, he said to the congregation, "Do not be imitating the Whites in everything, strive hard to gain the Kingdom of God. The Whites are already in heaven in this world, but you are suffering every want. Are you going to suffer also in the next world?"
Moreover, as a Cistercian monk in England, Father Tansi was at the beginning of his sojourn there, the only African amidst the large community of European monks. He never had problem of living together with the White folks at the monastery.
As a Monk, Fr Tansi chose the name 'Cyprian', in honour of the great, First Centuries'North Africa's ascetic theologian and Church Father, St. Cyprian of Carthage! The story of Blessed Tansi - circumstances surrounding his birth, the colonial plunder in his hometown Aguleri, and how he responded to all these challenges of his time, have one great lesson for us today. It teaches us how Blessed Tansi himself, has become a beacon of Christian teaching on love and reconciliation. It shows, us also, that Africa, indeed, the Africans, have chosen the path of love, kindness, and forgiveness, towards all those, who had visited them and their ancestors, with the evils of imperialism and Colonialism.
This is the African humanity and spirit, the world should try to imbibe and learn in the present dispensation, where violence and racism have continued to characterize the attitude of the outside world to the peoples of African descent and the continent. The heart of a typical African is not that of revenge but of love, blessings and forgiveness! It is only to God, revenge, if necessary, belongs.
This is the basis of the 'African resilience'. That, whatever happens, there is God, who oversees the deeds of men and women, and will judge each one accordingly. Judgement and justice, belong to God. No matter how hard men may try to suppress the history and truth, the African believes that we can never cheat God, the Creator of the Universe and Humankind! Truth must one day, make itself known.
There is time for everything under the sun, the Holy Scripture teaches. Time for falsehood, and time for truth. God, is Truth, and Truth is life - 'Ezi Okwu bu Ndu.'