HIS smile says it all. Deacon John Echewodo is brimming with joy about his ordination to the priesthood set for next Wednesday (December 8).
“I believe if you serve God you serve Him with gladness,” he said.
Deacon John was the first Nigerian seminarian to arrive in Brisbane archdiocese and will be the first ordained. Upon his arrival in February 2007 he began formation living in Wavell Heights parish.
The northside address was also home to fellow seminarian Bryan Roe – the seminarian who was ordained with Deacon John to the transitional diaconate on June 17 and who will also be ordained a priest on Wednesday.
“He’s an inspiration,” Deacon John said of his ordination counterpart.
“Bryan has a very good sense of humour and he looks at the positive in life – the joy in whatever is around him. “He motivates me.”
The two will make a joy-filled combination when Archbishop John Bathersby ordains them on Wednesday’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane.
While a sense of joy has always been at the heart of Deacon John’s formation and ministry, especially serving on pastoral placements in Jubilee and Surfers Paradise parishes, his ordination is tinged with some sadness.
Both of his parents have died and none of his seven siblings are able to make it to Brisbane from Nigeria to witness the event.
“My twin sister is pregnant and she has booked me for the baptism,” he said, considering that reality with optimism.
“I’ll go home for that … they are all very happy for me. “My sister calls me ‘Ukochukwu’ – it means ‘priest of God’.”
Next instant Deacon John was retelling the story of their birth in Ariam Elu-El, Ikwuano in Abia State, south-eastern Nigeria.
“My sister’s name is Josephine Nwaobioma – Nwaobioma means ‘child with the beautiful heart’,” he said.
“Mum thought the birth was going to be very difficult because there were two of us but everything went smoothly.
“Mum said she gave birth to me by the power of God because it was easy for her.
“She gave me the second name of Ikechukwu which means ‘by the power of God’ … it’s from the Igo tribe.”
Deacon John began seminary formation after high school, aged 19, with one pastoral year in the “minor seminary”.
In Nigeria, formation for the priesthood spans 12 years – eight years involving academic studies including philosophy and theology and four undertaking pastoral roles in between.
During their second year of pastoral formation seminarians are presented a cassock as “the official wear for any activity in the church”.
Deacon John’s mother Felicia asked to see him in the cassock before she died in 2009.
“My Mum always saw me as a priest,” he said.
“She called me back to see me in the cassock and said, ‘You look good as a priest’.”
Deacon John’s father Cletus died in 2006 after suffering from the neurological condition of Parkinson’s disease.
“My father was always asking me, ‘When are you becoming a priest?’ … Even when he was sick,” the 35-year-old said.
Well on the road to priesthood in Nigeria, Deacon John obtained two philosophy degrees from Imo State University and the Seat of Wisdom “major seminary”, Owerri, an affiliate institute of the Pontifical Urban University, Rome.
He also completed his first year of studies in theology from St Joseph “major seminary” in Akwa Ibom state.
Interestingly, Deacon John began discussions about the Brisbane placement on the day his father died, something he described as “very significant” because he had taken some time away from formation at that point.
“A priest once told me your vocation can be delayed but not denied,” he said.
Moving to Australia to continue formation was “a setting free” but Deacon John constantly recalls his roots and the examples of faith witnessed.
“As a little boy growing up in the economic situation in Nigeria I grew up in the midst of poverty,” he said.
“I was inspired by the charity shown by our priests and I knew I had to share my life with people in the same way.
“Jesus was a man who shared his life for all.”
Some of the other Nigerian seminarians also in Brisbane were already well known to Deacon John and he said Holy Spirit Provincial Seminary, Banyo, provided them “a good opportunity to develop – more so than in Nigeria”.
“It has allowed me to fully develop my potential and personality.”
Part of Deacon John’s extended family are the people in his pastoral placements of Jubilee and Surfers Paradise parishes, some of whom will attend the ordination and all of whom will no doubt support him prayerfully.
And it’s no wonder busloads of coastal parishioners are set to join him this week, the jovial man of faith making an impression wherever he goes.
“Coming to Australia I have to radiate the love of God every day,” he said.
“That has to manifest itself in my speech and my daily encounters with people.
“I hand out the newsletter at the beginning of Mass and one lady came to me at the end of Mass and said, ‘You don’t know how much you make my day when you hand out the newsletter with a smile’.
“I never knew I made such an impact on peoples lives.”
Deacon John also recalled a recent hospital visit.
“A 32-week-old baby died in the womb and the parents wanted to spend some time with her,” he said.
“They asked to see a priest … the father took my hand and I felt like I couldn’t do anything.
“I made the Sign of the Cross … (and) I realised just being there was important.
“Before I left the mum got up, even though she had stiches, and gave me a hug and was grateful I came.
“Ordination makes you a servant of the Cross and a bearer of God’s mystery and people see beyond the ordinary John and see Christ.”
On that note Deacon John said “there’s nothing spectacular” about him.
“Those simple moments are very great moments for me and I think the joy of being a priest is about who you represent not who you are.”
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
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