Okere: Celebrating The Philosopher–Priest At 80
As I write this tribute in honour of Monsignor Okere, my mind goes back to the lecture on Zik of Africa delivered some years ago by Professor Barth Nnaji at the Zik’s Leadership Award. Professor Nnaji spoke of the mysteries and myths his generation of young people had ascribed to Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, the famous first President of Nigeria. According to him; It was believed that Zik had the capacity to appear and disappear whenever he wished; and also held the key to the River Niger and could make it overflow its banks anytime he so desired.
Theories of mysteries and myths are usually the easiest responses and explanations of ordinary men and women to the extra-ordinary capacities and competences of their fellow mortals. The connection here is that, Monsignor Theo Okere is an enigma to my generation; to the extent that his outstanding intellectual personality, uncommon achievements had made us think that a god was sent to us in form of a human being. 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.
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.
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.”
We wondered how Father Okere, a mere mortal, had won scholarships with which three other Nigerian priests studied in Louvain.
We have heard of 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.
It was at the Seat of Wisdom that some of Msgr. Okere’s anecdotes became accessible to some of us. 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 tended 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”
As a young lad, my father, the late Geoffrey Jim-Nwoko had told me of 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. I had marvelled at the humility and gratitude of Fr Okere visiting 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. I have observed the high degree of Msgr Okere’s faithfulness to friendship and brotherhood, in good and in bad times, by the way he has related with his friend, schoolmate and brother priest, Msgr Clement Chigbu who happens to be my elder cousin and a father-figure.
The young priest left Nigeria on the 2nd of October 1962 for further studies at the University College, Dublin; where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature in 1965, and a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain 1968-1971.There are very few priests in the old Eastern region that did not pass through the academic and formative tutelage of this priest. Asked by a journalist to mention some of his big time students; Msgr Okere said: “There are many of them in big jobs now. The Archbishop of Onitsha, Most Rev. Valerian Okeke, was my student. All the bishops around, including the one at Enugu, Ogoja, Okigwe, Awka and Umuahia, were my students”
Msgr. Okere served as a Consultor to the Vatican dicastery and the pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers from 1985-1990. On leaving the Seminary system after twenty years of service; he taught as a professor of philosophy at Jesuit University in Philadelphia United States of America from 1992 to 1999. Since his return in 1999 he has been 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 C.S.S.P.
Despite the burden of administrative and pastoral duties of running and managing senior seminaries, he 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. Professor Okere was the guest lecturer- Odenigbo Lecture 1997, Ahiajoku Lecture 2007, amidst many articles in national and international journals.
Msgr is a deep thinker. Reflecting on the Nigerian situation and his regrets, he says “If you think that we had made progress, can we not see today, how much we had gone down the hill again? Not only on superstition but the things like armed robbery and kidnapping in Igboland, robbery and thieving were such a taboo in Igbo society, but today, it is the in-thing. … And since most of us here in Igboland are Catholics, most of the thieves are Catholics and you are asking me what I regret? …You can see my regret, because as I go now into the evening of my life, I begin to wonder what I achieved in the morning of my life. What has it come to? Of course, I can always console myself as I often do with Jesus. But there would be another generation of church. Let us be responsible for the time we are in. Let us do all that we can, while we are here, hoping that another generation may stand on our shoulder and stand higher and do better with the world.”
Ugo Jim-Nwoko wrote from Abuja