“We ought to celebrate their courage, for in life and in death, they followed the footsteps of their divine master.”
With these words, Bishop Wilfred C. Anagbe, CMF, of the Diocese of Makurdi, Nigeria, consoled and encouraged his flock following an April 24 terrorist attack that shattered a morning Mass. Lost in the bloodshed that day were 15 lay people alongside two priests: Fr. Felix Tayolaha and Fr. Joseph Gor.
Thousands of miles away in Mesa, Arizona, Fr. James Aboyi, parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish, felt the loss keenly. That’s because one of the martyred, Fr. Tayolaha, was from his same congregation, the Via Christi Society. “He was a young priest, very spiritual. He was a wonderful priest.”
And yet, as we discussed the attack, the soft-spoken Fr. Aboyi gave no sign of the shock or outrage I imagine most of us would feel in similar circumstances.
“We are used to it — it’s not something new,” he said. “It’s part of the history of the Church to have persecution and martyrs.” Two years ago, the vicar general of Fr. Aboyi’s home diocese was also martyred.
“This is something that we know from the beginning of our formation. We prepare ourselves for those kind of possibilities.”
Here in the Diocese of Phoenix, being martyred for our faith in Christ is something most of us grasp only intellectually. In theory, we know Christians around the globe are killed for their faith in Christ, but in our day-to-day lives, we’re caught up in other concerns. The rare coverage of persecution is drowned out by other news.
And yet, as Fr. Aboyi pointed out, not all persecution is waged with physical violence. In our country, it’s a matter of intimidation, of silencing those who would speak Christian truth. Any Catholic who has ever tried to defend the Church’s teaching on marriage, the sanctity of life and human sexuality can attest to that. To be ridiculed for these beliefs, scorned and shunned and yet hold fast to eternal truths — that takes courage deeply rooted in faith.
I think of our priests who have led by example in this regard, fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel. They’ve given their entire adult lives to serving the Church. Baptizing our babies, hearing our confessions, showing up in the middle of the night to anoint the dying, encouraging us when the storms of life dash our hopes; these men have trod the narrow path and guided us along the way. They may not be called upon to die for the Gospel, but in remaining faithful to it and living it so completely, they pour out their lives in love.
Nigerian bishop: ‘There has never been a peaceful moment’
As I read the pastoral message of the Nigerian bishop, one of the lines that jumped out told of a retirement home for priests that will soon be dedicated on the same site where Fr. Felix Tayolaha and Fr. Joseph Gor died. I’d just finished a series of interviews about a proposed retirement home for priests in our diocese. Fr. Richard Felt told me of a seminary classmate who spent his final years in an ordinary nursing home.
“No one called him ‘Father,’” Fr. Felt said. “He was so disappointed that he couldn’t be in a Catholic place with Mass and common prayer and the liturgical life going on” (see P. 9).
No one called him “Father.” After several interviews on the topic of retired priests, those were the words that echoed in my mind. We may not be able to go to Nigeria or Iraq or China to stop the killing of our priests, but we can certainly make sure that no priest dies alone in our midst, as sometimes happens; that no priest bears the sorrow of having no one to call him “Father.” Somehow I can’t imagine that happening in Nigeria, where vocations to the priesthood and religious life abound and where the blood of martyrs frequently flows.
Fr. Aboyi asks that we pray for the protection of Christians in his homeland. Let us add to that plea a prayer for all of our priests. May each of us call them “Father” and lovingly support them until they are called home to the Eternal Father.