MOST REV JOHN IFEANYICHUKWU OKOYE BISHOP OF AWGU
Short Biography of Rt. Rev. Msgr. John Ifeanyichukwu Okoye
BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE
Fifty-five years lie between the years 1950 and 2005; one the birth of Rev. Msgr. John Ifeanyichuwu Okoye and the other his call to the episcopacy! When he was born in his little homestead of Ezinato Quarters of Umuhu Village, Owelli-Court in the present day Mbanabo Local Government Council of Enugu State, his parents Mr. Paul and Mrs. Janet Okoye were happy like every other married couples blessed with children by God.
They nursed him, nurtures him and cared for him. Even as they looked at the nimble feet of the little Ifeanyi and his tiny eyes they wished him well from all their hearts as parents usually do. But they did not know –they couldn’t know – that they were carrying in their hands the would-be first bishop of Awgu Catholic Diocese. Every acron could become an oak but certainly not all; in fact it is even an exception rather than the rule. Every male could become a priest, just like every priest become a bishop, but only very few males become priests and still much fewer become bishops! Many are called but few are chosen!
Ifeanyi grew up under the loving and meticulous care of his parents. At the early age of five, he commenced his formal education at St. John Catholic School in his home town, a school which not only bears his name but also played significant roles in his life, playing host to major sacramental developments in his life. It was in this church that he received his baptism by the then Irish parish priest, Rev. Fr. Tim Buckley. It was in this school/church that he received his Holy Communion as a young Mass Server. It was in this church too that he received his Confirmation. Above all it was still in this church, this school cum church, that by the special grace of God and by the kindness of the then Bishop of Enugu, Most Rev. Michael Eneja that John Okoye was raised to the order of the presbyterate on the 22nd of July 1978.
JOHN AND ST JOHN CHURCH
St. John Church was such little Church, an outstation, when John was baptized as a little boy. It would seem that God chose the little boy, John to gauge the growth index of the Church in that part of the world. John was a simple little boy just as the Church was nondescript and prosaic. John grew to become a priest in the same manner that St. John Church Owelli grew to become a parish. His priestly experience spread out in many ways, likewise the Church which has grown to have many out stations and zones. Today, John becomes the Chief Shepherd of God’s flock of Awgu. Little St. John Church has also grown to become an imposing pro-cathedral, to use a nomenclature that is common with our people in describing a mighty church building. It stands in a most elegant grandeur and impressive majesty. When John was baptized, majority of the people of Owelli-Court were still busy with the religion of their ancestors. At that time too the school structure was used as a church. Today his Episcopal ordination truly depicts the right measure of how big the Community of God’s people in that town has grown. By any measure, be it structural or human the church of Owelli-Court has become an adult.
In 1965 the journey to priesthood began. He enrolled into St. Theresa College Nsukka, then a seed bed for prospective priests; a prospect which was interrupted by the Nigerian Civil War. Even in the war time he found an apostolic engagement: he served in relief hospitals and sick bays. The war was a perfect time to test the genuineness of his vocation and the veracity of his Christian credentials. He stood it all and devotion was unmistaken. In 1969 at the prospects of an ending war he was recalled to continue his seminary formation at St. Paul Church Ukpor where the seminary had in the meantime be relocated. In 1971 he successfully completed his post primary seminary formation at All Hallows Seminary which had at that time moved for the final time to Onitsha. After he had successfully taken his General Certificate of Examination at ordinary level he also took the advanced level GCE and was even more successful. At the time he had been selected and was already teaching in his alma mater, a position which confirmed his academic distinction. And he was excellent too in character, the two combinations which was his final approval by the authorities to continue his priestly formation in Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu.
In Bigard he spent eight unbroken years in intense seminary formation. He maintained a healthy balance between spirituality and learning, the two wings a priest sails through life. In academics, Bigard had an impressive record as a citadel of learning made possible by the combined efforts of indigenous and expatriate scholars. The desire to grow a viable church sired their commitment. Here, John Okoye applied himself to studies without restraint. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. So he simple read whatever came his way. The question of human happiness became of permanent interest to him. He continued his inquiry in this area which culminated in the work. “The Concept of Happiness in the Nichomechean Ethics of Aristole.” The title of the dissertation he submitted to the department of philosophy as a condition for his graduation which happened finally in 1974. It was inevitable that the inquiry would bear the insignia of happiness which has occupied his interest for a long time.
The same year John commenced studies in Sacred Theology. He was interested in history of the church in Mbanabo his home clan, although his research exposed him to the advent and the growth of Christianity in the areas that form today’s Catholic Diocese of Awgu. This led him finally to narrow his research in this direction. He wrote on Christianity in Mbanabo: Advent, Growth and Future. In this way he helped to lay a historical foundation for the activities and growth of the church in his area of birth. Without doubt it is of great advantage for him being ordained today as the Chief Shepherd of the people of God in this area. He knows where it all started and the aid of that historical compass he could navigate the Church to safe and prosperous landing. He received a degree in Sacred Theology in 1978 and the same year, precisely July 22, he was ordained a priest by the then Bishop of Enugu diocese, Most Rev. Michael Ugwu Eneja in the same school church where he was baptized twenty eight years earlier by Irish priest Fr. Timothy Buckley.
The first posting he got immediately after his ordination was the Personal Secretary to the bishop, a position which speaks volumes of his probity of character. He worked hard and in a few years he was promoted to the even more demanding task of Diocesan Secretary which he did for three years from 1980-1983. It is an enormous responsibility to be a diocesan secretary and to be given such a gargantuan responsibility after only two years of priestly ordination says everything that needs to be said about his character personality. The solid foundation laid in the seminary was firmly consolidated during these early years of intense priestly activities. Today Msgr. John Ifeanyichuwu Okoye is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Awgu. He has even built a taller reputation for hardwork and discipline. His abilities were sharpened to a pencil point enabling him to glide across difficulties with painstaking g ease and equanimity. He could be so slow and at the same time fast. He knows how to be calm and but also knows how to manage his agitation. He combined the rare ability to swing to extremes when necessary at the same time maintaining his balance. More than twenty years after he left that office the diocese is still living in the cherished memory of his competence.
Five years after his ordination to the priesthood, it was time for him to return full time his books and seek further degrees. The authorities consented to this and sent him to Rome in 1983 for further studies. He gained admission in Rome to study Holy Scriptures. It turned out to be a most challenging undertaking. First he got a Licentiate from Biblicum, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and later a Doctorate from University of St. Thomas specializing in Wisdom Literatures. He returned in 1995 triumphantly with an uncommon degree in his pocket. Of course it was not that he did the impossible but in all honesty it is difficult to study Scriptures and whoever came to this level deserve our common congratulations.
FORMATOR PER EXCELLENCE
When he came back in 1995 to Enugu diocese after his studies he returned to Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu as a formator. There he lectured ob Sacred Scriptures and related areas. At the same time he accepted to lecture on Biblical Sciences at Spiritan International School of Theology, Attakwu. In Bigard he distinguished himself in formation and was loved by both staff and students alike. Barely one year of his teaching appointment in Bigard he was made the Vice Rector I. Once again it was an opportunity to showcase his loyalty and devotion. To authorities placed above him he showed obedience and respect. To the students he was friendly but firm. He applied himself to his duties without restraint and worked tirelessly in the singular hope that good priests be formed for the Church. It happened therefore that in 2002 he was promoted with the awesome responsibility of becoming the rector of his alma mater Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu.
Fr. John Okoye lasted only three years in office as rector but his tenure has become a watershed not only in his life but also in the long history of this prestigious seminary. It is impossible to speak of the great Bigard Seminary without making reference to his achievements which are nothing short of a revolution. His tenure marked a great awakening, a renewal and renaissance. In the simplest terms, the seminary was thoroughly rebuilt and this is true not only of structures but also the system. Of course it bears no repetition that the chapel is the centre of the seminary both in significant as well as actual basis so he made every effort to let it stand. By the special assistance of God it was a land mark achievement. He did a lot in other areas, in the library, in the hostels, in environment in fact everywhere, though nothing can compare with his unique overhaul and reinforcement of the seminary chapel which now stand in epic grandeur and majesty. Nothing else can compare to it! With the chapel back in place every other rapidly took its place. The seminary had been rebuilt by all intent and purposes and it is to the glory that the seminary is enjoying a new face lift. The moral probity of his seminarians was a primary concern for him, for which he was prepared to shed his blood.
While working in the seminary Monsignor John found time too to engage in pastoral work in the diocese of Enugu. He was a member of the Diocesan Curia, the highest legislative body in the diocese, the adviser to the bishop especially on matters of evangelization and biblical apostolate while at the same time carrying out routine pastoral duties. He remained the chairman of the Enugu Diocesan Evangelization and Biblical Apostolate Commission till his appointment as the new bishop of Awgu. It was part of the mandate of the diocesan biblical commission to educate the Christians especially on the scriptures. Every week therefore Fr. John published a short reflection on the Sunday readings for the guidance and spiritual nourishment of the Christians. Not only the lay Christians but also priests and preachers benefited from his insight in the scriptures.
In the parable of the talents Jesus does not just blame the lazy servant for his unproductivity and ruinous neglect. He transfers the unused talents to the man who has so much already adjuring him to do more work. Said Jesus: to he who has, more will be given and to he who has little even that which he thinks is his own will be taken away. This is the eternal formula of Jesus, and all those who have passed through the seminary know the truism that the reward for good and hard work is more work. Both as a personal and a diocesan secretary Monsignor John was distinguished in his performance. As a student he was excellent. As a teacher in the seminary he was successful and devoted. As a rector he was consumed by the zeal for good work. Today he is ordained and installed as the new bishop of Awgu Diocese, the stake is so higher; the challenges are so frightening and the expectations so intimidating. But by the grace of God he will sail through. The greatest support we can give to him is our prayer in and out of season so that the grace of God may urge him on. Without God we cannot lift even the smallest of our fingers; without him we can do nothing! But with God everything is possible.
Long live the Church
Long live Awgu Diocese
Long live Bishop John Okoye