IN MEMORY OF JOHN PAUL II
The Christendom is in a celebration mood for the Easter, the most important feast on its calendar, being that the Christian faith is anchored on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, without which, according to St. Paul, that religion would have been a hollow ritual. However, the celebration this year in our immediate environment and on the global scale, at least for the Catholic denomination which is the first, the biggest and the most influential, must be mooted for a variety of weighty reasons. The Church is currently beset with a humiliating crisis of confidence from the immoral acts of some members of its clergy. Worse still, the very credibility of the Church is imperilled by an allegation that the current pontiff might have been one of those bishops who had condoned and concealed the abuses of children by priests in their dioceses. These allegations have, however, been stridently denied by the Vatican.
In midst of all that, Pope Benedict XVI offered a special mass, last week, to commemorate the death of his predecessor, John Paul II, who only less than one year after his death, was befittingly placed on the path to sainthood by the Church. As we remember John Paul II with love, we should be sober that Plateau State, has became the worst advertisement for the violation of the most cardinal rubric of our religions, which is that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves. This commandment reasons that if we do not love our neighbours who we see, it is doubtful that we could love God who we do not see. Incidentally, this injunction happens to run through all the organized religions in the recorded history of humankind.
In the same way, Islam which means 'a religion of peace' equally enjoins this consideration for all neighbours, as well as peaceful co-existence with them, especially with the 'people of the book'. For the benefit of the inadequately-informed, the 'people of the book' refer to members of the other religions, who like the Muslims themselves, also received and recorded the articles of their faith as the words of the Almighty in their holy books - the Torah, the Bible, the Koran. Hence, it is only an ignorant or mischievous Muslim who would refer to a Christian or a Jew as a 'kafir' (non-believer).
Significantly, Catholicism shares an intimate relationship with Islam in that there is so much that over which they agree, so much so that it has been argued that Catholics share a closer kinship with Muslims than with the Pentecostals. It was these issues which bind that were copiously built upon by the last Catholic Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, aided by our own Cardinal Francis Arinze, in bringing the world closer in many practical ways, such that by the end of his 27 year-papacy, the lines separating the different world faiths had been considerably blurred.
That was the era when the pope entered synagogues and mosques and prayed with the adherents of those faiths. That was the period when the Church celebrated with and sent goodwill messages to other major faiths on their main feasts, in recognition that it is the love of God and man which constitute the sturdy bridges that link all humankind together as the creations of one Supreme Being.
At his death at 84, on April 2nd, 2005, all the world's faiths mourned him as their own. The world mourned the exit of that apostle of peace, so much so, that for the first time in human history, the leaders of all the major faiths and even of the Eastern Orthodox Church which does not recognize the authority of Rome, participated actively at his funeral. More significantly, one of the Bible readings at the solemn occasion was taken from the 10th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where the 34th and 35th verses declare that; '…Truly I realize that God does not show partiality , but in all nations He listens to everyone who fears God and does good…' That reading was a fitting tribute to a holy man, who for 27 years, laboured for the recognition of the universality of God's love for humankind and the fact that goodness and evil are not peculiar to any race or creed.
That arm of love and solidarity which Pope John Paul II stretched to the human kind was rewarded with the reduction of sectarian tensions all over the world as well as with great amity and less suspicion among adherents of different faiths all over the world and specifically in Nigeria. I remember that it was during that period that Archbishop John Onaiyekan journeyed to Iran to deliver a paper in tribute to Fatima and Blessed Virgin Mary, (the daughter of Prophet Mohammed and the mother of Jesus Christ), the two most revered women in Islam and Christianity. It would, however, interest Christians to appreciate the fact that Mary is even better honoured in Islam than in Christianity. For not only is Mary mentioned 35 times in the Koran while it is mentioned only nine times in the Bible, a whole chapter of the Holy Koran (the 19th chapter) is dedicated to Mary(am). Again the Muslims believe that even though Fatima is the most highly revered woman on earth, Mary(am) is better revered than her.
Here in Nigeria, there was an unprecedented outflow of love and solidarity between Christians and Muslims on the day that Cardinal Arinze came to Abuja to deliver a lecture on the Christian-Islamic relations on the 50th anniversary of the foundations of the Knights of St. Mulumba. At that occasion, chaired by Justice Uwais, the-then Chief justice of the Federation, with many Muslim scholars and dignitaries present, there were many happy stories of how much Nigerian Muslims were fervently praying and hoping that Arinze should succeeded Pope John Paul II, so that the journey towards better understanding of all the peoples of the world would be sustained. And when the last pope died, Nigerian Muslims declared days of prayers for the Church and especially for Arinze's ascendancy.
It is a great pity however that the current pope, Benedict XVI did not share in the zeal and efforts of his predecessor for the unity of all the peoples of the different religions. The major setback was his declaration, while barely one year in office, that Islam is a violent religion, quoting a medieval Christian Byzantine emperor who was engaged in the Crusades against Muslim kings. Many of us were saddened by the unfortunate and unwarranted statement, which in any case, was not borne-out by any historical and empirical facts that more violence had been done in name of Islam than Christianity. The pope and the Church were brought to our knees when the pope was compelled to offer a worldwide apology, huge harm had been done; evil people who kill and maim in name of the two religions of peace went back to their trenches. The dire situation today owes much of its essence to the reverse from that golden path which was beaten by Pope John Paul II and his able assistant, Francis Cardinal Arinze.
When Pope John II had apologised publicly in March 2000, it was for the Church's past and present acts of intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, scientists, indigenous peoples, and others. He loved our country so much that he had to make two trips to Nigeria, the first after he was shot by a young Turkish man in 1982 and the second in 1988, when he came to set the first West African, Father Michael Iwegbunem Tabansi, on the path to sainthood - a ritual he could well have performed in Rome. If he were alive today, the sectarian crises in Jos, waged in the name of the two religions he loved and respected, would have broken his heart.
So, the best way we can celebrate this holy season and honour John Paul II would be to rebuild the burnt and burning bridges of understanding, unity and peace which had existed among our different peoples. We should all resolve to expose, isolate and punish all those who instigate our people to harm each other in the name and at the instance of our two religions which preach love, peace and forgiveness with equal fervour. Significantly, we should learn to love again through forgiveness which both religions enjoin. What should matter most is not who is right, but rather, what is right.
Happy Easter to all.