To our God who can do infinitely more than we ask or imagine (cf. Eph 3:20), we commit our first plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria for 2018 into His hands.

To those of you invited who have sacrificed so much time to grace us with your presence, I say a very hearty welcome and thank you.

Our regular gathering as Bishops is a visible expression of our pastoral  solidarity and fraternal communion during which we reflect, share and propose ideas or actions that will  reinvigorate our Church and propel us to greater spiritual heights. At our gatherings we also pray fervently for our leaders and our nation and offer our humble suggestions towards its positive transformation. We love our country and wish her well. When our country functions well, peace prevails, social  development is witnessed and even our work of evangelization flourishes and becomes easier; souls are saved, good morals are fostered, private and public behavior become consistent with our religious profession, while mutual distrust, disharmony, division, revenge, etc give way to a loving, forgiving and patriotic culture. We  are able to see God in others and even consider others first rather than the narcissistic tendencies we often exhibit.

For many years now we have been saying the prayers composed by the Nigerian Catholic Bishops: “Prayer for  Nigeria in Distress” and “Prayer against Bribery and Corruption in Nigeria” in Churches and homes throughout the nook and crannies of  our nation. In addition, we have organized series of national prayer sessions such as the National Rosary Prayer Pilgrimage held at the National Christian Centre, Abuja, Nov. 13, 2014 and the ones to mark the “Year of Faith”, the “Jubilee Year of Mercy” and  the National Marian Congress in October 2017, held in Benin City, during which we rededicated our beloved country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

As a Church, we continue to render social services through the hundreds of schools and hospitals/clinics we run. Our  Justice, Peace and Development Commissions together with the Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria function well to ensure justice, peace and social progress in the land. Our  peace and inter religious initiatives are unceasing; women and youth empowerment programs are a priority to us as well as  issues such as the welfare of prisoners. At parish, diocesan, provincial and national levels, we remain sensitive to the plight of the poor and the socially deprived. This we do quietly and in accordance with the gospel standards that we should not blow trumpets while doing good and so we try to avoid publicity in the media except when very necessary. The good works we do is not to woo members to our Church and we not emphasize miracles or engage in prosperity preaching to attract people to ourselves. Ours is a commitment to the selfless service of humanity;  hence, the Catholic clergymen and Religious offer up the joy and comfort of marriage and family life in order to be more available to touch lives. We offer social services to millions of people throughout the nation based on our gospel conviction that it is better to light a candle rather than cursing the darkness. What the Catholic Church requests from government is the reciprocal gesture of supporting genuine faith-based initiatives to improve people’s standard of life. From our experience, social security programmes or services meant for children, the youth, the sick, the internally displaced people, etc – citizens of this country hosted and cared for by the Church are given only half-hearted consideration simply because faith-based organizations which are “non-governmental” are involved.  Sometimes instead of collaborating with us through grants or assistance to supplement the Church’s humble efforts to give the youth or the less privileged hope of a bright future, taxes of all kinds are imposed arbitrarily on our institutions and this diminishes our capacity to offer subsidized services to the neediest of our society with whom we are constantly in touch.

We urge those in authority to do more in the provision of social amenities and infrastructure and the employment of the teeming population of idle youths. These will no doubt lower the tension in the land and help us to regain the lost fame of being the happiest nation with which we were once were known.

The panacea to our multidimensional social problems is when government takes proactive and serious measures in respect of our young people, the poor helpless ones and minority groups. The result will be a drastic reduction in the “social high blood pressure” which is responsible for our crises and conflicts.

The Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his message on occasion of the First World Day of the Poor, on November, 19th, based on the words of 1 Jn 3:18: “Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth”, among many other things said:

“We are called, then, to draw near to the poor, to encounter them, to meet their gaze, to embrace them and to let them feel the warmth of love that breaks through their solitude.  Their outstretched hand is also an invitation to step out of our certainties and comforts, and to acknowledge the value of poverty in itself.”

Those entrusted with managing  our resources should  live modestly and simply so that what they would normally spend in ostentatious living will be available so that those who are socially deprived can live with dignity and respect. As the Holy Father says in  his 2018 Lenten message, the flame of charity should not die in our hearts.

On this note, I wish to happily inform that I have come to the end of my second tenure (having served a total of six years) as the CBCN president. I look back with gratitude to my brother Bishops for the confidence reposed in me even though I knew I did not deserve the position. I equally knew upon election that it would be hard for me to meet all their expectations. It was indeed a surprise to me when I was elected CBCN president. As a child, my only ambition was to become an altar boy in my parish. Divine providence however made me a priest, then a bishop and now I have had the privilege of serving as the President of the conference of Catholic Bishops in Nigeria! Never in my wildest dream did I think it would happen. I am happy that I had that  rare privilege in addition to serving for many years as chairman of the Catholic Biblical Apostolate and of the Episcopal Commission for Mission. To God be glory, honour and adoration and thank you all for being very kind, trusting and accommodating in spite of my short comings. Thank you from the depth of my heart.  Forgive my shortcomings please.

Dear venerable brother Bishops, the Catholic Church must continue to maintain the characteristic unity for which we have been  known over the centuries. There will certainly be sometimes, hitches or misunderstanding which are bound to be in every family. We may sometimes face challenges or difficult pastoral situations, but have always remained committed, at peace with one another, live in love and unity and as Nigerian Catholics never ever tried to question the decision or authority of the Successor of St. Peter, the Pope.

We are happy that with the arrival of our Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Guido Filipazzi in August 2017, so much has already been achieved.  With his presentation of his letter of credence to His Excellency President Muhammadu Buhari, I believe God will use him to contribute to greater diplomatic relations between Nigeria and the Vatican as well as help to foster further  growth and development of the Church in Nigeria. Our thanks and appreciation go to the staff of the Nunciature for their relentless service. We acknowledge with gratitude Msgr. Javier Fernandez, who dutifully and  selflessly discharged his duties as Counselor in the Nunciature but has now been transferred to India. We  wish him well at his new assignment as we look forward to his replacement very soon. Our gratitude also goes to Fr. Raymond Hickey, OSA,  who has retired after many years of fruitful service in the Nunciature. He has now retired to his Augustinian community in Jos.

I wish to congratulate Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo and his people of what was Bomadi Vicariate but now raised to the status of a Diocese. We congratulate too the Diocese of Maiduguri for clocking 50 years towards the end of last year and for the wonderful celebration to mark the event in Maiduguri.

Please permit me also to express profound gratitude to our staff in the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria headed by Fr. Raph Madu,  for their contributions in making the “engine room” of the Bishops’ conference work non-stop. The  new gigantic edifices we see on the premises of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria in Abuja are evidence of the commitment of the indefatigable Secretary General through whose initiative together with his team of CSN directors, secretaries and others made this a reality. We thank our benefactors for their generosity. We equally thank those on the boards of our agencies and institutions: Catholic Secretariat Investment Concept Ltd, Veritas University,  Veritas Travels Agency, Opus Securitatis Insurance scheme for priests, Salus Trust Health Insurance,   Catholic Institute of West Africa, etc for offering professional advice and services. We appreciate those who have contributed to our Veritas University project. The Knights of St.  Mulumba, Knights of St. John international, the Archdiocese of Abuja, the Federal government through the Ministry of Environment, for helping with ecological funds to remedy the ecological problems of where Veritas University is situated in Bwari. Individuals such as Fr. Emmanuel Edeh apart from continuing  to uplift the spiritual life of millions of Catholics in Elele pilgrimage Centre (through Marian and Eucharistic adoration) has also graciously built a 1,000 capacity auditorium for Veritas Catholic University. We hope many more gifted individuals will do same.

I am happy to inform you that the Catholic Television of Nigeria, (CTV) based in Abuja, has begun its daily 24-hour transmission. Its test-transmissions started already in November 2017. Today, they are having their first live broadcasts to coincide with the Opening of this Plenary, in honour of the CBCN. We thank Fr. Patrick Alumuku for his unwavering effort towards the realization of this project meant for evangelization in our country and beyond. CTV satellite signals reach all of West and Central African regions.

My speech sounds like a vote of thanks and a valedictory speech because  my successor as CBCN president will emerge through election by Tuesday and will be inaugurated at our closing Mass on Thursday. Elections conducted to choose our president and principal officers are always free, fair and transparent, with the Holy Spirit taking the lead. I assure you that electoral fraud does not happen. I therefore encourage my brother Bishops to kindly give those to be elected even greater support than my team and  I enjoyed  so that they can take the conference and indeed the Nigerian Church to greater heights. May I also  urge our Catholics who are in senior government positions or in private businesses to always identify with the aspirations of our Church. With the calibre of Nigerian Catholics with whom God has blessed us, our institutions such as the Veritas University should not be struggling for breathe. We urge our prominent Catholics to try to be physically present at Catholic parish or diocesan or provincial or national events and to share ideas with fellow Catholics even in the midst of their demanding and tight schedules, as time spent with and for God’s purpose is not time wasted.

The main theme of our conference this year is,“Entrepreneurship Awareness: The Role of the Church”. This is in consonance with the initiative of the Dicastery for  Promoting Integral Human Development in the Vatican City. Four of us Bishops from Nigeria just returned from a RECOWA workshop in Cape Verde, sponsored by CRS on Social impact investment, which stresses  that investments should not only be purely for profit but should also have positive social impact on the poor and vulnerable groups. Sir Joseph N. Ari, KSM,  the director of Industrial Training Fund with headquarters in Jos with his team, will facilitate an input on our theme for the conference. This theme was chosen as an expression of our desire for an improvement in social services to ameliorate the life of our people.

In our visit to President Buhari on the 8th of February, we raised a number of concerns on insecurity, poverty, youth unemployment/restiveness, herdsmen/farmers antagonism, kidnapping, etc which government must confront with courage and selflessness. We again reiterate our commitment to collaborate with the government without selfish interests, narrow religious or ethnic sentiments to protect our country from self destruction. Help us O God!

In the name of the Blessed Trinity and in honour of our Blessed Mother the Virgin Mary, I hereby declare our first plenary for 2018 officially open.

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