I thank God that another day of national spiritual celebration has brought us the Catholic laity, religious, clergy and church hierarchy in Nigeria together to pray.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria envisioned this national day of prayer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary as our own way of marking the culmination of the centenary of her apparitions to the three shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.
Our celebration began with the declaration of a year-long period of Marian prayers and devotions, culminating with the re-consecration of Nigeria here in Benin City, as a follow up to the consecration done in 1954. This in line with declaration by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, of a Jubilee Year in honour of the Centenary of the Marian apparitions in Fatima beginning from the 27th of November 2016 till the 26th of November 2017.
I am happy to see and welcome you Nigerian Catholics who have braved the odds to come to Benin City, not minding the economic recession that has diminished our financial capacity; the long, rough and bad roads and even the inconvenience of coming to spend two to three days on this pilgrimage ground without the luxury of food or accommodation.Coming together in such numbers to celebrate our Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a testimony that the Marian year has borne positive fruits in parishes across the country.
I wish to thank you all as you come from all parts of the country: from the Creek areas of the Delta to the mountains of Mambila Plateau; from the far Northern cities bothering the Sahara to the city of Lagos and others lying on the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. This demonstrates that we are one big family of God in Nigeria on mission. On behalf of the over 70 Bishops of the Nigerian Church, together with the Apostolic Nuncio to Nigeria, we welcome you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in honour of the BVM.
You will agree with me that our beloved country needs healing, just as we the citizens made of different cultures and tribes too need inner healing. Indeed, our Church also needs healing. We are convinced that anything our Blessed Mother asks of Jesus for us will be positively granted to her. We are therefore, propelled by faith and animated by the love of Mary to boldly ask God to heal Nigeria.. We are convinced beyond doubt that as Abraham pleaded with God not to destroy Sodom (cf. Gn 18), so will God not destroy our land. As Nineveh repented and was spared, so shall Nigeria be spared. We have the word of the Lord Lord Himself when He declared, if “my people who bear my name humble themselves and pray and look for me, and turn from their wicked ways then I myself will hear from heaven and forgive their sins and restore their land” (2 Chr 7:14).
We have the privilege every October 1st to celebrate the Independence Day of Nigeria and also the Solemnity of our Lady Queen and Patroness of Nigeria from whom we have so much to learn: her tender motherly care, her tranquil faith disposition, her social sensitivity, her humanitarian concern and her fervent intercession to her beloved son Jesus. She alerted Jesus about the married couple and their guests in Cana concerning their lack of wine. We too in Nigeria are lacking wine, not intoxicating wine – that we have in abundance but the wine to stimulate our social sensitivity to improve the socio-economic conditions of our people and to see the need to be our brother and sister’s keeper.
With its enormous blessings both human and natural, Nigeria should be able to change stones into bread, provide enough potable water and manna for the people as Israel enjoyed in the desert; cure people’s illnesses like Angel Raphael did instead of rushing abroad for medical treatment; give good education to youths the type Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego received (cf. Daniel 1); provide better and easier means of transportation across the length and breath of this nation; use our resources so prudently and with charitable consideration for others irrespective of tribe, religion or political leanings, in a manner that it becomes unnecessary and unpatriotic for any one or group to seek to leave the country or asking others to leave a certain part of Nigeria.
What is very necessary is the equitable distribution of wealth, political appointments, infrastructural development and the prudent use of our resources by leaders. Speaking with His Royal Majesty, the King of Wukari, in Taraba State recently, he said that there are two people who should be arrested and kept away to free Nigeria of violence and corruption. He asked if I knew who the two culprits were. After cracking my brain and could not come up with an answer, he said they are: hunger and poverty. It is common knowledge that 70% of Nigerians still live below two US Dollars daily! How do you expect us to have peace?
Pope Francis, in his New Year message, asked us to “entrust the new year to Mary, Mother of God, so that peace and mercy may grow throughout the world”. Let us all entrust Nigeria to Mary, Mother of God so that peace may flow like a river in all the nooks and crannies of our dear country.
This goes with serious obligations: pray the rosary daily, amend your life, avoid anything that can trigger crisis or conflict, avoid sins of the flesh, immodest dressing, sinful and unfaithful marriages, sexual immorality, artificial contraception, acts of abortion, etc. Pray, repent, fast, be instrument of peace and develop a Marian dimension in your expression of your Christian faith. Mary calls us to change our lives and to break completely with sin which grieves God.
This national gathering should be a providential moment of soul searching and intercession for Divine Mercy, a continuation of the moment some of us shared in Fatima, Portugal in May, with the Holy Father, Pope Francis presiding. I can still see in the eyes of my mind some pilgrims (among them Nigerians) and others crawling on their knees as a sign of penance and contrition, people trooping to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and lost in contemplative prayer and fervent intercession.
I see the endless crowds at the sanctuary, basilica, chapel of the resurrection, museum, chapel of the death of Jesus, chapel of reconciliation, all in the mood of prayer. I can see the candle house where candles are burnt by numerous faithful for diverse prayer intentions. I joined the night processions in which Chinese, Koreans, Portuguese, Italians, Spanish, Africans, old and young, men and women, enthusiastically participated. I can feel the silence and the intense sense of devotion. Let us make our experience here in Benin City our Fatima experience.
Allow me please to warn against unnecessary exaggerations in our practice of popular piety, so as not to allow it to degenerate into fanaticism. Our veneration of and devotion to Mary must be in consonance with authentic Catholic tradition, whereby faith and reason are applied. We are perhaps aware that today other denominations take from our Catholic liturgical/spiritual practices and distort them or express them in non- Catholic ways, creating confusion and doubt in the minds of Catholics. Some dress like Catholic clergy, use holy water, incense, stoles, chasubles, Bishop’s mitres or staff; they make the sign of the cross and wear rosaries and medals. We pray that copying these Catholic practices is a sign of their coming back home, and not an attempt to ridicule, distract or confuse some Catholics.
In conclusion, I wish to commend the Pastoral Affairs Department of the CBCN under the able leadership of Archbishop Valerian Okeke and the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria for working hard for us to have this befitting national celebration. I commend too Prof. Michael Ogunu, the coordinator of the Fatima Apostolate in Africa and President of the Executive Board of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa. He is one of our dynamic Marian animators who has devoted a lot of his spiritual, intellectual and material resources to promote devotion to the BVM in Nigeria and beyond. To those active collaborators at the parish, diocesan and national levels who worked hard for the success of the Marian Year, we say a very big “thank you”. We equally thank and commend Archbishop Augustine Akubeze and the good people of the Archdiocese of Benin City for their sacrifice and generosity in hosting us. God bless and reward you generously too.
As we gather here in prayer, answer us O God from heaven and grant to our country Nigeria more than whatever we request at this spiritual rendezvous..
May Our Lady Queen of Heaven, pray for us, to be filled with the joy of being loving, forgiving and helping fellow Nigerians.
Jesus our Saviour and fount of Mercy, have mercy on us. You who lives and reigns with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.