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Nigerian priests on a mission

TWO Nigerian priests’ great desire to help out part of the “universal Church in need” has led them to south-east Queensland.

But, for Frs Francis Onwunali and Gabriel Kalu, the past 10 months have been anything but plain sailing as they’ve settled into the seaside parishes of Redcliffe and Maroochydore, north of Brisbane.

Both men have been working hard to adapt to a totally different culture, and they’re doing so in a way that has attracted the admiration of many, including archdiocesan Moderator Fr Peter Meneely.

In a recent frank conversation with The Catholic Leader, the priests spoke of homesickness and a struggle to at times understand and be understood.

Both agreed though that they had benefited as priests by having their cultural horizons widened. In turn they had also stimulated many local parishioners to take an interest in the Nigerian culture.

Fr Onwunali said he was hoping to bring some of the lively aspects of Nigerian liturgy and worship to flavour the Australian way of worship.

“Part of the sharing of my culture comes through when I deliver the Sunday homily,” he said.

“I’m delighted when people say ‘That was a good homily’, even if they often can’t pinpoint what was good about it.

“It certainly gives me encouragement – and parish priest Fr Peter (Gillam) says he has observed that many of the Redcliffe parishioners are becoming very open and interested in the Nigerian culture.”

Fr Kalu said having to adjust to differing social interactions in the two cultures had been a particular challenge.

“It’s much more formal here in Australia,” he said.

“In Nigeria you can just turn up at the door of family and friends without any prior announcement.

“We both miss this sort of freedom because it’s something we have been used to from birth.

“It also feels somewhat restricted from a pastoral point of view – even hospital visits usually require notification.

“In our home country, the sick are always happy to see a priest as much as possible whenever they can drop in.”

The Nigerian priests’ journey to their ministry in the archdiocese of Brisbane started when Fr Meneely and Holy Spirit Seminary rector Fr Michael McCarthy visited Umuahia diocese in February, 2006.

They had gone on a fact-finding mission at the request of Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane.

The Brisbane priests discovered a thriving Church with the Owerri province, to which Umuahia diocese belongs, having three seminaries with more than 2500 seminarians attending.

Frs Owunali and Kalu were products of this vigorous faith community. Both had studied at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Umuahia.

Fr Owunali, ordained in July, 1998, had gone on to work in five parishes and at one stage had been the principal of a Catholic high school with 265 boys.

Fr Kalu, ordained in July, 1994, had taught in one of the seminaries where he was also vice-rector.

On July 4, 2006, an agreement was signed in Brisbane between Archbishop Bathersby and Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia diocese.

The Nigerian bishop offered the archdiocese four seminarians and two priests for the next three years to assist with evangelisation and vocations promotion.

Fr Meneely said he had been impressed by how well the priests had adjusted since their arrival last October.

“Both Francis and Gabriel have shown extraordinary maturity at times of great personal challenge,” he said.

“Their ability to articulate their concerns with myself and Fr Michael has been impressive.

“It’s impossible to overestimate this achievement.

“They’ve come from a tribal and deeply religious culture into a very secularised society which places a much higher value on the individual than the family unit.”

Both Nigerian priests had arrived with many valuable qualities, he said.

“To start with they’ve brought a great understanding of the mission of the Church.

“They also bring their rich faith tradition and experience of African spirituality with them.

“Their presence has been of great benefit to myself, Fr Michael and other priests in this community – we’ve all gained a greater appreciation for the vitality of the Church in Africa and of the maturity of what is a relatively young Church there.

“I and my fellow priests have been very humbled by the generosity of these men who’ve never left Africa before but are still willing to come to a very unfamiliar land to give their time and skills to the Brisbane archdiocese.”

Fr Meneely said he had returned from Nigeria with Fr McCarthy in recent weeks after having spent more than a month “reconnecting with Umuahia diocese”.

“During this time we visited Bishop Ugorji and interviewed priests and seminarians under consideration for ministry in the Brisbane archdiocese,” he said.

Talking to the Nigerian priests, a final impression is the great support they have been to each other in a testing time.

They usually meet each month and spend a few days together talking through and making sense of their experiences. They also phone each other regularly.

In this way they pass news from home on family and friends.

Fr Kalu admitted they still miss home “quite a lot”.

Fr Owunali said: “That doesn’t mean we are desperate though.”

“But it doesn’t mean we’re not homesick either,” Fr Kalu added.

One thing both agree on is what led them to Australia.

“What got us here was the urge to come and help out a Church we saw as in need,” Fr Kalu said.

“The Church is universal – any part of the world should be able to step in and help another part in need to ensure the Church continues its mission.”

“What he has just said I agree with one-hundred per cent,” Fr Owunali added.

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