Tribute and account on Monsignor Theophilus Ibegbulam Okere of Nigeria 0

Cameroon Concord News Group’s Nchumbonga George Lekelefac is more than thrilled to write an account of his extensive experience with Msgr. Professor Theophilus Okere before his death on October 20, 2020 in Owerri, Nigeria. As young people, we have heard our own elders, teachers and priests say-“Okere Bu Agbara’’–(Okere is a deity) in clear deference to his prodigious attributes and awesome intellect. Nchummbonga had the privilege to interview Msgr. Okere on Saturday, October 10 at his residence in Owerri. He travelled from Cameroon to Nigeria to carry out a scientific research on Prof. Dr. Bernard Nsokika Fonlon and his first stop was in Owerri, where the classmate of Dr. Prof. Fonlon lived. He is Msgr. Alphonsus Aghiazu, and happens to be the oldest Monsignor in South-East Nigeria. After his conversation with Msgr. Alphonsus, he recommended we also get the opinion of Msgr. Okere who lived nearby from his parish of residence: St. Paul Parish, Owerri. Msgr. Alphonsus was so helpful and even sent his driver to take our Nchumbonga Lekelefac to Msgr. Okere’s house. When he arrived the house of Msgr. Okere that Saturday, October 10, 2020, Msgr. Okere was very strong and active. He was putting on a white shirt and white shorts, and he was sitting in his extremely large sitting room writing. He later said he was writing a book on Monsignor Martin Maduka. He remembered most of the Cameroon seminarians he had studied with like: Archbishop Paul Verdzekov, Bishop Pius Awa, Christian Cardinal Tumi, Fr. Clement Ndze.

Later he changed and dressed in his Monsignor Cassock and we began the three hour interview. We began by asking him what his secret was because he looked quite young and active. He smiled and said: “The grace of God is the secret, and of course, discipline in whatever goes into his stomach.  He was very excited and strong during the interview. We were able to video the entire conversation.

After the interview, he gave us a handwritten tribute he had produced on Prof. Dr. Fonlon on Saturday, October 10, 2020, barely ten days to his death.

 Msgr. Okere informed us after our conversation that he was not in the best of health. He revealed that with his age, he was on drugs.

                Biography of Msgr. Okere

Msgr. Okere was born on August 2, 1935 in the bucolic village of Nnorie, Ngor-Okpala, Imo State, he has left indelible marks on the sands of time.

As was noted by one of his students, Professor Obi Oguejiofor, a Catholic priest, and lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University (NAU), Awka, Monsignor Okere “is indeed a great theologian, in any case, one of the greatest we ever had in Nigeria. He is also one of the few Nigerian philosophers repeatedly quoted in internationally published works both in discussions and in bibliographies. There is indeed hardly any comprehensive work on African philosophy, especially from the United States, which omits a mention of his name.”

Msgr. Okere had his elementary education at St. James School, Nnorie (1942-46), St. Finbarr’s School, Okpala (1947-48) and St. Desmond, Mbutu Okohia (1949). In 1950, he enrolled at the Holy Ghost College, Owerri, for his secondary education but a year later, he proceeded to the St. Peter Claver Seminary, Okpala, as one of the pioneer students. In 1956, he proceeded to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, and was ordained a priest on August 5, 1962 by the then Bishop of Port Harcourt, G.M.P. Okoye.

                Msgr. Okere: The Philosophy Teacher and Seminary Founder

He returned to his alma mater, Bigard Enugu, in 1972 where he taught Philosophy for four years before crossing over to Bigard Memorial Seminary, IkotEkpene (now St. Joseph Major Seminary, Ikot-Ekpene), in 1976. He later became the Rector of the school in 1981, a position he held for two years when he founded the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary, Owerri, where he was between 1983 and 1992. A man adept at multi-tasking, as the Rector of Seat of Wisdom Seminary. It is his long stay in the seminary system that has made him pre-eminent as the spiritual and intellectual father of more than half of the priests serving today in Igbo land. Hundreds of these men of the cloth adoringly greet him with “OkerewuAgbara” as a tribute to what they perceive as his versatility and his encyclopedic wealth of knowledge.

                Msgr. Okere: The Editor

Msgr. Okere was also the founding editor of Journal of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria (CATHAN) and its first president.

                Msgr. Okere: The Erudite International Professor of Philosophy

On leaving the seminary system after 21 years of service, in 1992, Msgr. Okere taught Philosophy at the Jesuit University in Philadelphia, United States of America.

                Msgr. Okere: Man of Initiatives

Later, he returned to Nigeria in 1999, and was the initiator as well the first president of Whelan Research Academy for Religion, Culture and Society founded in memory of the first diocesan Bishop of Owerri, Joseph Brendan Whelan (CSSP). In addition, he was the first President of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria and has between books and articles, lecture and homilies, over 200 titles to his credit.

                Msgr. Okere: Magister Magnus to Bishops and Archbishops

A measure of his greatness as a teacher can be gleaned from the fact that out of the 16 Catholic dioceses in the old Eastern Region made up of nine states, only the Archbishop of Owerri and bishops of Nnewi and Abakaliki, did not pass through his tutelage. The other bishops, including Archbishop Valerian Okeke of Onitsha, Archbishop Joseph Ekuwem of Calabar, Bishop Callistus Onaga of Enugu, Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah of Nsukka and Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia were all his students.

                Msgr. Okere: Internationally Recognized

Prof. Oguejiofor weighs in: “Okere’s voice has been heard in many forums and in different contexts. That voice sounds louder in philosophical studies. Internationally, he owes much of his reputation to his ground-breaking thesis, ‘Can there be an African Philosophy?’ part of which was published as ‘African philosophy: A Historico-Hermeneutical Investigation into the Condition of its Possibility’. These two works belong to the most influential writings in contemporary African philosophical discussion and became the foundation of the hermeneutical current in African philosophy, where it viewed that the philosophy of a people, and a fortiori, African philosophy should emerge from the hermeneutics of their culture, to became the rallying point for such thinkers as Tsaney Serequeberhan of Eritrea, Ntumba Tsahiamalenga and NkombeOleko of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).“In his recent book, Brief History of African Philosophy, Barry Hallen gives this current and Okere himself a special place among the important philosophy movements in the African continent in our time. Hence, Okere’s prowess in philosophy has earned him a special place on the pages of the history of African Philosophy.”

                Msgr. Okere: Intellectual Giant

Recognised as an intellectual giant, Monsignor Theo Okere was an enigma to our generation; to the extent that his outstanding intellectual personality, uncommon achievements made people think that a god was sent to them in form of a human being. We have been awed by his intellectual records and breakthroughs in Nigeria and in different parts of the world particularly the noble record he left at Catholic University of Louvain. Fr Okere led the way as the first PhD holder in Philosophy from the oldest and the most celebrated Catholic University in the world; thereby blazing the way for Nigeria and Africa with his seminal thesis “Can there be an African Philosophy? A historical-hermeneutical investigation into the conditions of its possibility.” It was wondered how Father Okere, a mere mortal, had won scholarships with which three other Nigerian priests studied in Louvain. His philosophical and theological prowess in Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu, where he lectured and revolutionized philosophy from 1972 to 1976 and in Bigard Memorial Seminary Ikot-Ekpene (now St. Joseph Major Seminary) from 1976 to 1983 where he also lectured and later served as Rector before moving to establish a new Major Seminary in Ulakwo Owerri-The Seat of Wisdom Seminary as the Rector and builder from 1983 to 1992 was highly distinguished.

                Msgr. Okere: Man of Publications

Ugo Jim-Nwoko wrote from Abuja noted that despite the burden of administrative and pastoral duties of running and managing senior seminaries, Msgr. Okere found time to do some notable book publications, such as, African Philosophy: A Historico Hermeneutical Investigation, Identity and Change – Nigerian Philosophical Series; Religion and Culture; Public Lectures in Washington D.C, Rome and in his alma mater Louvain Belgium. A collection of all his writings over the years was written, sponsored and published by some of his students entitled: “Theophilus Okere in his own words.” It is a fitting tribute to a man who has lived his 80 years on earth and still counting for others. After the conference, Msgr. Okere showed me these two volumes and I was very elated to see all the wonderful and exceptional work he had done over the years.

                Msgr. Okere: The Priest, The Scholar, The Teacher

Martins UbaNwamadi notes in his Tribute to Monsignor Theophilus Okere, priest par excellence, literary icon that: “The anecdote of  ‘the Blind men and the Elephant’  keeps popping up each time one thinks of the perception of very Reverend Monsignor TheophilusIbegbulam Okere by different people. Many see him as priest. A priest! Yes, that is what he is, first and foremost, and a very good one at that. Some see him as a teacher, a teacher indeed of the scholastic tradition with pedigree linking him to St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, for others he is Rev. Fr Theophilus Okere, the accomplished literary man”.

                Msgr. Okere: A Polyglot

Msgr. Okere was fluent in his native Umuonyike, Nnorie dialect of Igbo land, English, French, German, Latin. During my interview with him, I marveled at the way he quoted sentences in Latin.

                Msgr. Okere: Perfect Gentleman

For those who have had close social contact with him, he was the fine, humble and perfect gentleman in whom all that is perfect in every culture blends. My personal experience with him testified this. Despite all he had achieved, he was very humble and outgoing with me in his house.

                Msgr. Okere: Man of Music

Msgr. Okere was considered as a distinguished singer. He could sing well. His angelic voice at mass and digital dexterity with the songs and musical instruments were the first and the only way we could make meaning of the biblical and catholic assertions of the quality of voice and of songs the Angels use daily; singing praises to God in the heavenly places.

                Msgr. Okere: Intellectual and Man of Letters

In order to capture the quintessential Theophilus, Martins UbaNwamadi notes that one sees him as encapsulating all of these in optimal proportions and blend. In the performance of any role, he brought in every attribute of every other role. At the pulpit, he made parishioners realize that he was also a literary icon, a philosopher, a teacher, a polyglot, and so on. In his conversation, it was clear that he was a priest, an Alter Christus (Another Christ).

                Msgr. Okere: Fluent in the English Language

Msgr. Okere proceeded to Ireland in 1962 where he read English Language and Literature at the University College, Dublin, for a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English at the University College, Dublin, graduating with honours in 1965. Msgr. Okere was considered as a great orator who knew how to transmit his messages across to his audience.

                Msgr. Okere: The Erudite Philosopher

Msgr. Okere studied Philosophy at the prestigious Catholic University of Louvain, obtaining a PhD in Philosophy in 1972, the first Nigerian to do so. His Doctorate  dissertation, “Can there be an African philosophy”: A Hermeneutical inquiry into the condition of its possibility” was groundbreaking, for it set the stage for later researches in African philosophy, having demonstrated definitely that philosophy, any philosophy and therefore African Philosophy, can be itself, only as a hermeneutics or interpretation of its culture. And since his own culture is Igbo, the logic of his thesis has placed him as one of the foremost Igbo thinkers.

                Msgr. Okere: Man of Culture

Msgr. Okere’s commitment to and familiarity with Igbo culture were all manifested in his conversations, writings, lectures and sermons to the extent that he was once dubbed as “an unrepentant native”.

                Msgr. Okere: The Roman Priest

Monsignor Okere served the church in various capacities including a tenure as consultor to the Vatican Dicastery at the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with non-believers.

                Msgr. Okere: Laureate of Prestigious Lectures

He is a laureate of the two prestigious lecture series in Igbo land; Odenigbo (1997) and Ahiajoku (2007) both of which he delivered in Igbo Language, which was later adapted from the “Biography of Very Rev. Monsignor Theophilus I. Okere” written by Dr Augustine Okere and Fr. George Nwachukwu.

                Msgr. Okere: Man filled with Anecdotes

It was at the Seat of Wisdom that some of Msgr. Okere’s anecdotes became accessible to many. Looking at his young and new students of philosophy at the Seminary in the late 80’s; Msgr was quoted to have told the seminarians “you have got the Seat, but yet to get the Wisdom”. And perhaps, contemplating on the challenges at the rudimentary stages of the development of the seminary and its students said: “The Wisdom is not yet seated”. As a man of quality and substance, he was inclined to promote innate grit in a human being than outward shadow, when he said: “Height was not one of the characteristics of a homo sapiens”.

                Msgr. Okere: His Faithfulness in Friendship

Late Geoffrey Jim-Nwoko narrated the wizardry of his classmate, the young Theophilus Okere at the elementary education in St. James Catholic School Nnorie, Ngor-Okpala between 1942 and 1946. He mentioned that Fr Okere visited Umuchie Eziama to see his old Catholic teacher and in-law, Michael Jim-Nwoko whom he credited with bringing football to Nnorie his community, for the first time in the 1940s.This gesture of his demonstrated his humility and gratitude. Many also observed the high degree of Msgr Okere’s faithfulness to friendship and brotherhood, in good and in bad times, by the way he related with his friend, schoolmate and brother priest, Msgr Clement Chigbu.

On Thursday November 12, 2020, Monsignor TheophilusOkere’s remains were laid to rest. He has just left to meet with his and our God. May Msgr. Okere rest in peace. Amen. James White Comb Riley said of death: “I cannot say, and I will not say that he is dead. He is just away. With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand, he has wandered into an unknown land. And let us dream how very fair, it needs must be since he lingers there… I say, he is not dead; he is just away”. Monsignor Theophilus Okere’s prints will forever remain in the sands of the history of Nigeria, Africa in particular, and the entire world in general. Please. Msgr. Okere, when you get to heaven, do not forget to extend our greetings to Professor Doctor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon. He will be very happy to continue a fruitful philosophical discourse with you, and Dr. Fonlon will be happy to thank you for the wonderful tribute you wrote on him.

For your life of selflessness, industry, simplicity, humility, total selfless service, honesty, and integrity, you – Msgr. Okere- will remain as an enduring compass and example to those who strive for moral rectitude. Adieu ‘OkerewuAgbara’.

Written by Nchumbonga George Lekelefac