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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Rev. Fr. Robert E. Mgbeahuruike: The Model Witness Of A Pioneer Nigerian Chaplain in Rome

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n February 3, 2017, the Nigerian Catholic community in Rome (Italy) and the Catholic Diocese of Orlu, Imo State – indeed, the entire Catholic Church in Nigeria, received with great shock and bewilderment the sad news of the demise, but also the call to glory of the Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Robert Emeka Mgbeahuruike. Fr. Mgbeahuruike was the first officially appointed pioneer Chaplain and Spiritual Director of the Nigerian community in Rome, by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in 1999. He was also the first officially appointed National Coordinator of All Anglophone African chaplaincies in Italy by the Italian Catholic Bishops’ Conference in 2007. In the last five years or so, he had been battling with kidney failure and heart problems, which eventually quickened his demise on February 3, 2017. He was relieved of his chaplaincy function in Rome about three years ago mainly for health reasons.

On May last year 2017, Fr. Mgbeahuruike returned to Nigeria, lived first as Priest-in-Residence in a parish at Orlu, and as result of his deteriorating health condition, posted finally to the Priests’ Retirement Home, Orlu Diocese, where he gave up the ghost on February 3, 2017. Throughout his priestly ministry, and especially, during these most critical years of his last battle with the deadly kidney failure, he felt surrounded by the love of God, and the Church, from the Vicariate of Rome (Diocese of Rome) to that of his Bishop and Diocese of Orlu, Imo State, Nigeria. His family and close friends as well as some acquaintances never abandoned him. He died a faithful servant of God, the Church and the nation.

On February 18, 2017, a Requiem Holy Mass was celebrated in Rome for his happy repose by the Nigerian community in Rome. It took place at the Nigerian Parish Church – Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio (Church of St. Ambrose) downtown, Rome. Cardinal Francis Arinze presided over the Holy Mass and gave the homily too. Many priests, religious men and women, and Nigerians, both Catholics and non-Catholics within and outside Rome came in large numbers to pay their last respect to this gallant and dedicated priest who had given the last fifteen years of his life and priestly ministry for the welfare of Nigerians of all walks of life, living in Rome and Italy. Fr. Mgbeahuruike will be buried on February 20, 2017 at the Priests’ cemetery of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Orlu, Imo State.

Fr. Robert Emeka Mgbeahuruike was born on November 27, 1947, the third of the four sons of late Mr. Peter and Mrs. Grace Ada Mgbeahuruike of Umuevu Onicha, Ezinihitte Mbaise, Imo State. He could have celebrated his 70th birthday on November this year 2017 had the death not come calling on February 3, 2017. Fr. Mgbeahuruike did his primary school education at St. Theresa’s Primary School Umuhu Onicha from 1956 – 1962. Thereafter he did his minor seminary formation and secondary school education at St. Peter Claver’s Seminary Okpala (1963 – 1971), amidst the sufferings, relocation of the seminary, and untold hardships created at the time by the Nigeria – Biafra war (1966-1970). After his minor seminary training, he taught briefly in his Alma Mater, St. Peter Claver’s Seminary Okpala when the seminary was taking refuge at Awo-Omama Holy Ghost Novitiate in 1971.

In September 1971, his Bishop sent him to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, where he successfully accomplished his studies in philosophy and theology (1971 – 1978). He was ordained a priest on July 8, 1978 at the Assumpta Cathedral, Owerri by Most Rev. Dr. Mark Unegbu (the late Bishop Emeritus of Owerri). In 1980, Orlu Diocese was created out of Old Owerri Diocese. Imbued with great missionary spirit and zeal, Fr. Mgbeahuruike opted for Orlu Diocese, in which the parish he was working then as a parish priest belonged. Even when Ahiara (Mbaise, his native home Diocese) was created some years later, Fr. Robert continued to minister to the people of God in Orlu as their priest.

In the process of his priestly formation, Fr. Mgbeahuruike obtained the following academic qualifications:

–         Bachelors’ degrees in philosophy and theology (1971 – 1978) from the Pontifical Urban University, Rome.

–         Licentiate and Doctorate degrees in moral theology from the Pontifical Accademia Alfonsiana, Rome (1984 – 1989).

As God would have it, Fr. Mgbe, barely two months after ordination was appointed the Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Parish Mgbidi in September 1978, which is very unique in the posting of newly ordained priests. In spite of everything, he embraced his work with determination and sense of purpose. His other pastoral assignments took him to the following parishes:

  1. Parish Priest, St. Joseph’s Parish, Mgbidi (1978 – 1982)
  2. Parish Priest, St. James Parish, Arondizuogu (1982 – 1984)
  3. From 1984 – 1989, study leave in Rome.
  4. Parish Priest, All Saints’ Parish, Ebenator (1990 – 1996)
  5. Parish Priest, St. Paul’s Parish, Isu (September 1996 – 2000).

In addition, Fr. Mgbeahuruike served the Church and the society in some other capacities:

  1. Chaplain, Catholic Women Organization (CWO), Orlu Diocese (1992).
  2. Chaplain, Knights of St. John, Orlu Diocese (1993)
  3. Founder, St. Joseph’s Community Secondary School (now Comprehensive Secondary School), Mgbidi (1979).
  4. Manager, St. Theresa’s Community Secondary School, Arondizuogu (1982 – 1984).
  5. Founder/Manager, Our Lady of Mercy, Community Secondary School, Isu (1996 – 2000).

In recognition of his excellent performances and exemplary leadership as a pastor in his home Diocese of Orlu, Fr. Mgbeahuruike was on May 2000, appointed Chaplain and Spiritual Director of the Nigerian Community in Rome by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN). He retired from this post in 2014. In recommending him to this post of Chaplain and Spiritual Director of the Nigerian community in Rome, his Bishop Emeritus, Most Rev. Dr. Gregory Ochiagha, has this to say: Fr. Robert “is a gentle man. He enjoys the respect and confidence of those who come into contact with him. From all accounts, Fr. Robert certainly is a man of all seasons, a man of God for others. …”

Fr. Mgbe (as he was fondly known by his contemporaries), had the joy of celebrating the Silver Jubilee of his priestly ordination in Rome and Nigeria in 2003. He shared the Rome celebration of the Priestly Ordination Silver Jubilee with his bosom friend and classmate, the late Rev. Msgr. Pius E. Okpaloka (1948 – 2006). Msgr. Okpaloka until his own death in November 2006, was the Defender of the Bond in the Tribunal of the Roman Rota (Catholic Church’s Court of Appeal, Rome). He was the first African priest to work in that office and to reach that position. Till his demise on February, 3, 2017, Fr. Mgbeahuruike had not ceased lamenting the death and loss of this best and reliable friend of his in Rome, late Msgr. Pius Okpaloka. Now, they both will meet as eternal friends in the bosom of Abraham in heaven.

Moreover, Fr. Mgbeahuruike was already looking forward to the forthcoming celebration of the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination next year 2018. He will now, in accompany of his bosom friend and classmate, Msgr. Pius Okpaloka, celebrate it forever with the Eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ, amidst the chorus of Angels and Saints around the heavenly throne of God!

Fr. Mgbeahuruike’s charisma and character could be summarized in the following words of tribute from his niece, Lilian Ibeawuchi (nee Mgbeahuruike) during the Requiem Mass in Rome on February 18, 2017:

“Many people don’t understand him very well especially when they look at his face. He was a joker, a funny man; he looks handsome when he smiles. Always devoted to his work and punctual to his duties.”

Fr. Mgbe was a holy and dedicated priest known for his exactness, moral rectitude, devotion and fidelity to his chosen vocation and pastoral ministry. He lived and discharged his duties without any trace of ethnic, religious or even racial discriminations against anybody that came his way. In fact, some even nearly hated him for this. He, however, remained undaunted in his leadership style of universal inclusion and love for all.

Through his tireless efforts and pastoral ministry in Rome, Nigerians, both Catholics and non-Catholics, began to have a center and a person of reference in Rome and indeed in Italy for most of their social as well as spiritual problems as foreigners – Black Africans living in Whiteman’s land. Again, through his efforts and personal charisma, the Vicariate of Rome assigned a very beautiful church to Nigerian community for their place of worship and Chaplaincy at the center of Rome, Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio, Largo Argentina, Rome. This Nigerian Parish Church at the center of Rome, till date serves as the mother church of all other chaplaincies of Nigerians in Rome and Italy in general. It has become a kind relaying center and point of reference for all Nigerians, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Fr. Mgbeahuruike helped many Nigerians here in Italy both Catholics and non-Catholics by writing and signing their recommendation letters for residence, passports, secure of jobs, etc. He assisted most of the so-called illegal immigrants from our country who arrive in Italy without documents to regularize their papers and begin to live a dignified life again. He was always there to assist our people in Italy who might be having some rough race and misunderstanding with the Italian law enforcement agencies, ministry of internal affairs, or any other government agencies, etc. In Nigeria, especially, in his home Diocese and town, he drilled water boreholes in different communities and helped sponsored some indigent students in the seminary, secondary school schools and tertiary institutions.

Furthermore, most of our priests and religious studying in Rome also benefited from his magnanimous heart. He helped a good number of them in securing accommodation and sponsorship for their studies from some Church based Scholarship Foundations in Europe and North America. He was like a father not only to the lay people but also, to many priests, seminarians, and religious men and women from Nigeria living in the eternal city of Rome and Italy.

At the heart of his pastoral ministry to the Nigerian community in Rome, the Italian Bishops’ Conference appointed him the National Coordinator of All Anglophone African chaplaincies in Italy. This added function meant in principle that Fr. Mgbeahuruike was to combine his traditional pastoral work to the Nigerian community in Rome with that of overseeing all chaplaincies of other Anglophone African countries operating in different parts of Italy. With determination, experience and rare maturity he carried out all his duties creditably.

Fr. Robert was a very meticulous, disciplined and principled man. He was a great disciplinarian to the core. No doubt, this might have incurred him misunderstanding from some individuals. He nonetheless, never wished anybody ill-will and would always generously sacrifice his energy and time to assist anybody that calls upon him for help without discrimination. He never bore any grudges to anybody. He lived out in words and practice his spiritual and intellectual formation in moral theology which he received from his professors at the Pontifical Accademia Alfonisana, Rome, the great sense of diligence which he might had also imbibed from his seminary days at St. Peter Claver Minor Seminary Okpala and especially, at the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu.  In all his pastoral years here in Rome, Fr. Robert did not only spend his time and energy but also scarce resources to assist all those under his charge who were in difficulties. The office of the Nigerian Chaplaincy and the Church in Rome was always open to all Nigerians irrespective of religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Fr. Mgbeahuruike was also a very diplomatic pastor. He befriended a good number of important persons and institutions (civil and ecclesiastical) in Rome and Italy he felt were better positioned to assist Nigerians in moments of difficulties. In this respect, he was a friend to all Nigerians Ambassadors to the State of Italy and the Holy See (the Vatican), past and present. Many of them visited him and the community during Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays at the Chaplaincy. During such visits of these high dignitaries to the Nigerian Parish Church in Rome, one would notice Fr. Mgbeahuruike’s high sense of tolerance and understanding. He always overlooked certain things that most of our priests may consider abnormal. Since some of these high dignitaries visiting the Chaplaincy are not Christians or even Catholics, they enter the Church with their caps on, not observing the needed reverence and respect to a holy place, especially, the Blessed Sacrament.

This happened once, however, when the then Ambassador of Nigeria to the State of Italy, a Prince from Benin City royal family – present Oba of Benin, visited the Nigerian Church in Rome during the Sunday Eucharistic celebration. When the ambassador entered the Church that Sunday morning, many Nigerian priests in attendance got annoyed not only because the ambassador could not observe reverence of removing the cap on entry into the Church where Blessed Sacrament is kept, but also because, he came almost two hours late.  The congregation had waited for him for more than an hour before starting the Mass. He entered at the most solemn part of the Mass, with his entourage, waving his chieftaincy regalia, hands, left and right inside the Church not minding the fact that the Mass was on. His entry caused a kind of uproar in the Church, especially, his lack of respect to the Holy Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Some priests mostly annoyed by this attitude of the ambassador sent words to him through his assistants to remove his cap during the Mass but to no avail.

In the midst of all this, I was watching the reaction of the Chaplain, Fr. Mgbeahuruike. He maintained his calm. However, at the end of the Mass, he calmed every nerve and warmly welcomed and assured the Ambassador that he was in safe hands. Only Fr. Mgbeahuruike knew that the Chaplaincy needed the friendship of the Ambassador for most of our Nigerians who were in Italy illegally, without passports and other relevant papers. Perhaps, many other priests didn’t know this secret. The chaplain knew his job.

Furthermore, for those of us who lived in Rome with him all these years, Fr. Mgbeahuruike inspired us greatly by his devotion to duty, punctuality, and especially, the masterly way he pastored the Nigerian chaplaincy. With regard to the later, he lived overboard ethnic bigotry that has since taken hold of the Nigerian psychic, both home and abroad. It is no longer secret that a good number of Nigerian chaplaincies overseas have not been good news at all. The problem of co-existence among Nigerians of different ethnic-nationalities is not only home-based it is worse felt in communities of Nigerians in Diasporas, including chaplaincies. One may accuse Fr. Mgbeahuruike of strictness in adhering to principles. But as regards the Nigerian factor of ethnic bigotry, discrimination or leadership of exclusion, he lived overboard. His exemplary life in this regard is a model for all Nigerians, especially at this critical moment of our country’s fragile history and perennial problem of co-existence among its people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds still struggling to live together in a heterogeneous nation-state, Nigeria.

Most Nigerians in Rome and environs always felt an inner joy attending the Holy Mass at Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio – the Nigerian Parish Church in Rome, where Fr. Mgbeahuruike was in-charge. Nigerian priests living or studying in Rome also frequent the Chaplaincy Parish Church and were welcomed always by the Chaplain, either to preside or concelebrate at the Sunday Mass or any other occasions of their choice. The chaplaincy was a home to all Nigerians because of Fr. Mgbeahuruike, the environment he created there. It has remained the same till date. It was always like a family gathering of Nigerians every Sunday and other special occasions at the Chaplaincy Church.

In the Nigerian Chaplaincy of Fr. Mgbeahuruike in Rome, in particular, everybody (parents, old, young and children) had a face and name. It was like living in the real world today, the New Testament agape community sharing. Every Sunday, after the Holy Mass, lunch was shared together and children had time to socialize in our Nigerian way and culture. Everyone felt at home. The presence of God was also felt by all in a special way during these occasions of community gathering at the Nigerian Chaplaincy in Rome. The famous Nigerian Chaplaincy Choir would always be there to accompany and entertain the people with music and suitable hymns when needed.

Naturally, during the last trial moment of his life, and ministry at the Chaplaincy, there was no doubt that some individuals, with good conscience, however, had expected Fr. Mgbeahuruike to continue to act as if to say he was still a young man. Such individuals have every reason to misunderstand or misinterpret him. At long run, however, they all appreciated the fact that he gave the prime of his life and ministry in selfless service for the welfare of all without boundary. They appreciated all he had been for them and the Nigerian community in Rome all these years. Fr. Mgbeahuruike had given his life and ministry for the good of all.

This fact was better put by his niece Lilian in her tribute in his honor, cited earlier:

“His piece of advice to me always was “Nne” (mother), whenever you are assigned to a duty or job, please be humble, punctual and endure whatever that comes out of that place and always pray. It will help your employer and co-workers to see you as a person of integrity.”

History will remember Fr. Mgbeahuruike as a true Nigerian Priest and Chaplain in Rome, who gave his best and life fully for the people. I still remember my last visit to him in St. Peter’s Hospital Rome at the height of his fight with the deadly ailment. In the midst of the pains all over his body, Fr. Mgbeahuruike was signing documents for Nigerian couples who came to see him in the hospital for the sole purpose of getting his letter of recommendation to regularize their residence permit in Italy. “A dying man, helping healthy people from his sick bed.” All these speak volumes of Fr. Robert’s magnanimous spirit and generous heart. A man for the people.

Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked that there is an amazing democracy about death. “It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men die and poor men die; old people die and young people die; death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.”

As we mourn the demise of our energetic chaplain and pastor of souls, Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Robert Emeka Mgbeahuruike, wetake consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end but a comma that punctuates life to more lofty significance. Death is an open door which leads man into life eternal. It is in this daring faith, this great invincible surmise that Fr. Mgbeahuruike believed and died. He died not in a den or dive nor was he hearing and telling filthy jokes at the time of his death. He died within the sacred walls of the church after mediating on the eternal words of love of God and neighbor.

Until his death, Fr. Mgbeahuruike remained young in heart and mind. No doubt, to such people belongs the Kingdom of God. Moreover, all these years of his long battle with the kidney failure, Fr. Robert never wavered in his faith and priestly vocation. He trusted in God and wielded the storm with faith and courage from beginning to the end. Now he is to receive the reward of his labor and firm faith in the Risen Christ, whom he had served faithfully in this mortal earth as a Christian and Priest.

Fr. Robert did his best as a Christian and Priest. He truly carried his cross and share of suffering as a true disciple of Jesus Christ. He was purified and transformed by the suffering and the crosses he endured during his earthly journey and priestly ministry.  He lived his Christian faith to the end, and certainly died in Christ. May he now receive the reward of eternal peace in our heavenly home!

“Goodnight our great chaplain and pastor of souls; may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.” Amen.

Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He can be reached by email HERE.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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