It is indeed memorable encountering the very simple but great Catholic Priest and music man, who composed most of the Catholic Liturgical Hymns. Watching him discuss his early life, journey to priesthood and his numerous contributions to the church and society leaves one with no doubt that he is indeed a treasure and living legacy to both the church and society. Very Rev. Fr. Obelenwa Simon Azuka will on March 3, mark his 80th birthday and 45 years of priesthood. He also talked about recent developments in the country, including Nigeria’s future if urgent steps are not taken to restructure the country. He spoke to ROSE ORANYE and KOSISOCHUKWU ELECHI.
CAN you tell us about your life and how you got to this level?
When I was a child, I went to school. I stopped at standard four because my parents were pagans and they were poor. They then sent me out to learn a trade under somebody. I am a native of Ichida but the people I served, E.O Trading Company, are from Awka Etiti. I served them for so many years. While I was serving them, even from the first day, they knew I was thinking of being a priest because there were a lot of things their other servants did that I didn’t do, like any day the church observed a holy day of obligation and forbade work, I didn’t go to work but others did. I normally told them that the day forbade work according to my Catholic faith but my masters never liked it. They were two. Once they came back from the market, they used to flog me very well because I didn’t join others to the market. But their wives usually told them to leave me alone because, “we have seen he has something in mind. He wants to serve God. If he says he wouldn’t go to market on holy days, leave him alone.”
As time went on, because I stopped schooling at standard four, I went and prayed thus: “My God, please help me. My parents had no money but I want to be a priest. Tell me what to do Lord.” I started praying and told God I would say the rosary for one year and that “I hope that by the time I am through, you will tell me whether I would trade or become a priest.” After praying for one year, at the end, God led me to know I must be a priest. So, I told my masters that I wanted to be a priest. They were annoyed but told me to go if it was what I wanted. They sold all my things and gave the money to my brother. This happened about 1959.
I went to my brother (an Ichida indigenous priest), Rev. Fr. Orakwe at St. Mary’s (Elders Town), Enu Onitsha. The parish priest there was Rev. Monsignor Obeleagu. My brother was his vicar. So, I told them I wanted to be a priest but my mother had no money because my father was dead and that I stopped in standard 4. They took me immediately as their house boy. I was enrolled in primary school. I was at St. Mary’ Onitsha with Monsignor Obeleagu and my brother priest and they saw me through standard six and prepared me to go to seminary. I was enrolled at All Hallows Seminary Onitsha. It was the Monsignor, a native of Onitsha that trained me throughout. Ichida people didn’t spend even half a penny. He trained me and even found a benefactor for me from Onitsha. That was in 1962. I entered Junior Seminary in 1962. Chief Justice Balonwu was my benefactor. He was one of the Knights of St. Mulumba but he is late now.
So from All Hallows, I went to Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. I spent six years at All Hallows, Onitsha, from where I went to Bigard. That was how i finished all my philosophy, theology and so on.
Which year did you become a priest?
Well, after passing through my philosophical and theological studies, I was ordained priest in 1974. We were under Onitsha Archdiocese. From 1974, I worked for so many years, up to 44 years as a parish priest in different parishes, both in Onitsha Archdiocese, Nnewi Diocese and Awka Diocese. Now, I am retired. I retired in 2011 and I am here at St. Thomas Aquinas resting and the church is taking care of us.
But God gave me a special gift of music-Igbo Liturgical Music. I am a composer. At the Diocese of Awka, after the late Monsignor Ezenduka, I am the next. When you talk of music in Awka Diocese, it is the two of us. If you open any Catholic Hymn Book, you see my songs (starts singing) ‘Chineke Nna, Anyi A Bia Tata …,’ ‘Bia Onye Nwa Uwa Christi Di Mma…,’ ‘Ihe M Nwere Ka M Ga-enye Dinwenu…’ Jesu Chrsti Bia, Bata N’obi Anyi….’ Jesu Nno, Nno, Noo…, ‘Gee Nti Ndi Muo Ozi Na-ekwe…’ Enuigwe Obodo Anyi…’.’ There are so many Christian hymns.
Apart from music composition, in what other ways did you serve God and the church?
First of all, you know I was a parish priest all the time. From those parishes I served, I worked for the Diocese of Awka on pilgrimages-sending people to the holy land. I did that work for exactly seven years – taking pilgrims (Anglicans and Catholics) to Israel, Rome, London, Egypt, Fatima, France, among others. I did it for seven years. This is the most outstanding part of the work I did. Other works I did are not very outstanding.
Among all your works in the church, which one gives you the greatest joy?
The one that gives me greatest joy is music. There are situations I find myself, I just forget everything and sing away. This art of composition, God gave me that inspiration in 1972. Meanwhile all the time, I have been in different choirs both in Bigard and All Hallows. I love singing but in 1972, God gave me this gift of composition.
How did it start? How did you begin to do music composition?
Infact, what will I say? I never composed any hymn, rather, it was God. Composition is just what you call God’s inspiration. It happened that one night, I slept. When I got up, I remembered some music I heard in my sleep and I said why did this happen? How did I hear this type of music in my sleep? Then I decided that what I will do is whenever I want to go to bed, I must have a biro and paper by my side. So, from the very day I started leaving those things by me, each night in my deep sleep, between 12 am to 2 am, music just came. God infused one music or the other. Anything you must have heard me sing is what I heard when I was sleeping.
And immediately I hear the voice, I got up and put it down. God put those types of music into my head for his people, ‘Give my people those things so that they will praise me.” So, that was how I composed all my music.
I don’t just sit down or stay somewhere to think or compose but all were coming from God. God gave me hymns and then I put them down. Only that I arrange the verses and what we call harmony or something like that but the whole music is normally given by God. That was how I composed all my hymns.
So, whenever I am unhappy, I will sing away and forget the whole world. So it is the most important thing that pleases me in my life.
Another thing that gave me greatest joy as a priest is that I used to thank God every day of my life. I used to ask God, why was it that you decided that you chose me to be your priest and you gave me all these things? You see, I used to ask him all these questions. I remember when I had a terrible accident, for over four hours, I was unconscious and yet, He woke me up and I continued this work. In spite of everything, he kept me alive.
I used to discuss with God and say, “God because you have made me your priest, I will make sure I do not disgrace you but to do what exactly you told me to do. So, this is the greatest joy.
The major challenge in the ministry is that when you are doing the work in the parish, you meet challenges. Actually, there are some people who wouldn’t agree with anything you say. They question everything the church says. But I remember all the time what Christ told us, Paul, specifically said, “Speak to them in season and out of season but do your best.” What I used to do was to look for the best way to present the gospel to those who didn’t agree with me. I did my best to preach to them in one way or the other. At times, I try to find those who are in good terms with them to help me to reach them. That was what I used to do and most of the time, I succeeded. Because everybody has people they respect and if you get such people, they help you in life. That’s what I did then. Whoever is very strong headed, I look for their friends. Through the other person, I get them to submit.
As we understand, on the 3rd of March, this year, you will mark your 80th birthday and 45years of priesthood, what can you say that makes the difference in your early life as a priest and this your late life?
What gives me joy from my early life as a priest and late is when I think of my achievements and what I could do for God. When I remember those I wedded and those I baptized as children. Many of them are priests like me, some Rev. Sisters, some are doctors. They write me from time to time, they remember what I did for them. So they give me joy.
Presently, there is nothing greater than good works and good name. There is no treasure like good name where you worked in the past. From time to time, they call you and appreciate you. This type of thing gives me joy as well as any other priest. I don’t have any regrets, rather, I am joyful that for so many years I did the work, and there is not bad record to keep me unhappy in that work. I thank God for all these things.
What is your message to Christians?
The message I pass to them all the time is just like St Paul. You cannot eat your cake and have it. If you want to be a servant of God, you must serve God. Don’t leave God no matter what be the case in your life. Maybe you have any issue, don’t give up. Never give up for Gods own ways is not ours. Don’t leave God because you have difficulties in life. If you leave God, you have lost everything. God told us, “what will it benefit a man, if he gains the whole world and lose his soul.”
What can you say of Nigeria considering recent developments?
I am very happy you raised the issue of our country, Nigeria. Our country Nigeria, oh (sighs). Even my fellow priests here, we discuss Nigeria always because it’s our beloved country. We have no other nation. But our leaders (sighs), our leaders, especially the present leader, Infact, I think he is the worst. I don’t know how to put it.
We are talking about democracy. Presently, we have no democracy. We are in dictatorship because now, we have somebody who is ruling Nigeria surround himself with only his brothers, others are not important. .
We are asking God to take care of the present situation. Nigeria is in a terrible mess. We are asking God to please take care of Nigeria, especially now people are calling for restructuring. The man who is ruling us wants us to become Muslims but it’s not easy. He cannot achieve it as long as God is on the throne. He will never achieve such. So we are asking God to please help Nigeria come out from its present problems, give us a leader who will call a spade a spade, rule the people with justice, and give people what is their need so that people will be happy. When people are happy, there will be no problem. Nobody is happy presently. But I think there are signs that things may change because they have found out that it wouldn’t be possible for them to achieve their aim. That is why they are coming back now to talk about restructuring Nigeria. They have found that without it, there will be no election in 2019. They just want to deceive people .He wants to do what they did during the last election. “Change, change, change, we want to change Nigeria for better.” They have changed Nigeria for worse. Now, they are saying alright we will do this thing. Why didn’t they do those things since they started ruling Nigeria? It is only now you are waking up from sleep. You want us to vote for you again and then, you will continue doing what you are doing. We won’t allow that this time. We are only asking God to give us somebody who He thinks is the best to rule Nigeria. Let him give us such a person- Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, anybody but it should be somebody who will be just and give people what they want – democracy, of course.
Can you forecast the future of Nigeria?
It is more than clear that unless Nigeria is restructured, infact, tomorrow, there will be no more Nigeria. Unless they listen to people’s cry now for restructuring, there will be no Nigeria. You know, since Nigeria started, the Yoruba and Hausa are together but now, South West, South South, South East, Delta and even part of the North, the Middle Belt, they are not happy. Nobody is happy with the present government. Unless they do something, infact, even, Nigerian Bishops told him that he should do something before Nigeria disintegrates but he didn’t want to listen to them but I hope God will change him. I hope God gives us somebody. Unless something is done, I don’t think Nigeria will continue.
How do you see the Boko Haram issue and that of Fulani herdsmen?
Boko Haram and herdsmen is the same thing. And these people are from the north. They are Hausa’s and Fulani’s. Who gave them the cattle? Who gave them the guns? It’s the Hausas-senators, lawmakers; they own the cattle and gave them the guns they are using. That is why they have been silent all the time. It is only now that it appears the people’s power tends to silence them. That is why they are not even talking. Both Boko Haram and herdsman is the same thing. They are the same people causing trouble. They are the problem Nigeria has; they have been the problem of Nigeria.
Do you think the cattle colony would help?
No, no, nobody is talking about that. They can only have these things in the North, never in the South, if they want to have it. Even there, it will not work because where they have it, nothing works there. It will not work out.
How best do you think the problem will be solved?
It’s not colony. Whoever wants to rear cattle should follow his cattle where he wants but they must not go with gun. There is no need. Once you are with gun, you are worse than a terrorist because when you have gun, you are in charge of everybody around you. Look at what they are doing in Benue. It’s not the police that should go there but their fellow soldiers but they do not want to. That is why the police die and keep on disappearing. They are armed, they can do anything.
Are there special plans for your 80th birthday and 45 years of priesthood anniversary on March 3?
Actually, I wouldn’t like it to be something special because I am no longer in a parish. Normally, it’s your parish that do those things. They do it whatever way you want but when you retire, you are just resting. I will do it but it will not be very elaborate. We don’t have plans yet when we set the plans, I will let you know.