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Homily Delivered By Msgr Hypolite Adigwe At The Burial Ceremony Of Late Very Rev. Fr. Matthew Ositadimma Udegbunam
Author: Msgr. Hypolite Adigwe
Published on: Friday, September 13, 2013

1.      The death of a priest

Did you ever ask yourself why the death of a priest is a phenomenon that carries along with it an aura of invitation to meditate? The death of our beloved Fr. Matthew Osita Udegbunam does exactly that. From the biological point of view, there is no difference between the death of a priest and that of any other human being. But somehow, the death of a priest quickly raises the issue of the mystery of religion, pointing to the supernatural. It is not just a man who died. This man who died has something to do with religion, with the Church, with the people of God, with God. This man who died is a priest. He baptized people. He forgave the sins of thousands of people who came to him for confession, thereby reconciling them with God and the community. He has hoi8ned couples in marriage and visited homes of believers to console and to anoint the sick, asking God to restore them to health, but more importantly to strengthen them on their journey to the heavenly Jerusalem whe4nver he decides to call them. Sometimes this apostolate may have sent him to the hospitals or war fronts where ever people are dying. Above all, he used to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, making bread and wine chance into the Body and Blood of Christ, reenacting that unique sacrifice on Calvary. Sometimes this Eucharistic reality is expressed in the sophisticated philosophical word called “transubstantiation”. We  cannot but associate him with the other worldly. He was in this world, but not of this world. That is why his death invites us to meditate.

2.      The priest is a human being

But we also know that he is a man. Even a child who saw the priest in no other attire except in soutane made this discovery one day when the priest whom the child and all the members of the family knew very well came to visit them in their home wearing not the soutane, but civilian dress. On seeing the priest in civilian dress, the child quickly ran to his mother in excitement and exclaimed: “Mama come and see. Rev. Fr. James is a human being!” Yes, we priests are human beings. We share in the many good things God has prepared for us all. We participate in a special way in dispensing the divine mysteries with which God has blessed the human race. But we also share in the most formidable thing that has ever happened to the human race  the original sin. With all the lofty ideas that we legitimately have about priests, we tend to forget this side of reality  that this man, this priest shares his own dose of original sin. Like every other human being, he has the ability, or shall I say, he suffers the disability that

predisposes him to add his own personal sins to this original sin. And sadly even we as priests do often add to it.

3.      Priests say “mea culpa”

About three years ago, in February 2010, during the Year for Priests, representatives of priests and Religious in Nigeria met for a few days reflection on the Priesthood the theme we chose for this reflection was: precious Gifts in Earthenware Vessels. The first part of the reflection was titled mea culpa. We said “we want to storm heaven with our tears for the sins we have committed against this Sacred institution”, the Priesthood. We navigated through various aspects of priestly life and ministry. We identified common defective performances and let our tears flow as we asked for God's mercy. The mea culpa was loud and clear.

4.      I marvel at the priest

But we also sang the Deo gratias for the litany of wonders which God has worked through us. We ended with a reflection from one of us which said:

          “When I look back on the crowds who priest, my contemplation sometimes goes anthropomorphic and I get enraptured in my imagination about what the situation would be when I die. I think of myself being relieved of all encumbrances and worries of this world. The stains of my own sins have been washed away by the saving work of Jesus Christ, through the instrumentality of his priest. I am allows to go to heaven. As I make my way into the most holy of holies, I am met by a crowd of immense magnitude shouting my name. They are saying welcome to me. They are welcoming the man through whose instrumentality God washed them clean.

Hold on…Me…?

I though to myself: That's not really me,

That is Jesus Christ

He worked that miracle in me

I marvel at the priest…

I marvel at the wonder..

I marvel at me…”

When the Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna, Most Rev. Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso read these reflections, he wrote that it is

“ a very refreshing thought to reflect on this mystery during this special year dedicated to priests. These reflections call to mind both the weakness and the strength of those who have been called to this lofty mystery. God is called upon to heal the weakness and he is praised for the strength given to mere human beings.”

5.      The vocation boom in Nigeria

Looking at the vocation to the priesthood all over the world, Nigeria is among the countries where one can speak of “vocation boom”. Nearly 25 percent of the world's parishes don't have a resident priest, according to Vatican statistics. While the number of Catholics in the world grew by 68 percent between 1975 and 2010, the number of priests grew by just 1.8 percent.

While the number of Catholics in the world grew by 68 percent between 1975 and 2010, the number of priests grew by just 1.8 percent.

Here in Nigeria we are not lacking young men who sincerely want to become priests. Our seminaries are overflowing with candidates. If that is the case in Nigeria as a whole, our province and indeed the dioceses in Igbo land get a lion share of it. This is a singular grace for which we shall continue to thank God. We do not merit this grace. It is not our making. However, we can rightly say that God's grace does not fall in a vacuum. Can we then presume that our Christian community is like the rich soil on which the seed of the sower fell, as Jesus decried in the Gospel of St. Mark, and “grew tall and strong, and produced a good crop; the yield was thirty, sixty, even a hundredfold”? (Mk. 8,9) Even if that is the case, were we the ones who made the soil rich?

6.      Need for soul searching

Surely we as a people have contributed a lot in nurturing vocations. We must however continually purity our motives and watch the handwriting on the wall. Internationally, people of good will have expressed concern about the motive behind the huge number of vocations we have, as well as the appropriateness of the method of the training of such a large group of young people they may be exaggerating in their fears, but that does not excuse us from the necessary soul searching. Recently when Pope Francis was addressing seminarians, he did not mince words. He specifically warned about big cars for priests. Already in his earlier sermon he said:

“When  we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly… we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord.”

That was not all. Addressing even the young people in Brazil last month he said:

“It is true that nowadays, to some extent, everyone, including our young people, feels attracted by the many idols which take the place of God and appear to offer hope: money, success, power, pleasure… Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.”

7.      Let us pray for the priests

If we can lay any claim in contributing to the success story of vocation boom in our local Church, the call becomes even greater that we assist in making sure that these earthenware vessels called priests to which these lofty gifts have been entrusted be not broken by worldliness. What this says is that tour support as lay people must go beyond material support to the priests and include the much needed spiritual support. Yes. Lay people are to pray for the priests. Religious Brothers and Sisters know that and are happily doing that as pat of their apostolate. Some few lay people have started that too. I mention in particular the new group called Solders of the Cross led by Mr. Philip Olebunne. May it never e said that these priests are not disciples of the Lord! Our weaknesses may be much, but the words of Blessed John Paul II are also true: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

disciples of the Lord! Our weaknesses may be much, but the words of Blessed John Paul II are also true: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father's love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son Jesus.”

8.      We all, old and young must prepare for death

We have come to bury our priest, Fr. Matthew Ositadimma Udegbunam. It is not long since we gathered in this diocese to celebrate the golden jubilee of his priestly ordination. Indeed the prestigious poster announcing this celebration is still on display at the entrance of the presbytery of St. John of the Cross parish, Nnewi where he lived.

          Nnewi is a young diocese. At its creation eleven years ago, we inherited very young priests from our mother Archdiocese  Archdiocese of Onitsha. Elderly priests were very few. By year of ordination, Fr. Matthew Udegbunam was the oldest among us. The next tow after him were ordained, one, three years, and the other four yeas later. Incidentally when, in 2003, death began to find its way into the presbyterium of the diocese, it began from among the youngest priests. Since then we have lost six young priests, including a deacon who died shortly before his sacerdotal ordination. At a time, it appeared that only young priests die in our diocese. But the death of Fr. Alfred Edekobi, less than two year ago, rang a bell for the elderly priests to remember that they too should be prepared to die. May the souls of all our departed priests and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

          We do not know God's plan about the circumstances of our death. But we know, and we have been now reminded that both, old and young, die. We are all called to get prepared. Some, God grants man signs before their de3ath, others less; but all of us have sufficient opportunity to prepare for a glorious transition from this life to the next.

9.      We thank God for Fr. Matthew Udegbunam

Immediately after his priestly ordination in 1962, Fr. Matthew Udegbam went for studies in Ireland before taking up pastoral assignments in the Archdiocese of Onitsha. He spent his fifty-one years as a priest working mostly in parish and  teaching apostolate. He worked in such parishes as Utuh, Fegge Onitsha, Abatete, Umuoji, Akpu, and Nkpor. As an educationist, he taught at Christ the King College, Onitsha, All Hallows Seminary Onitsha, Umuoba Anam Secondary School, St. Joseph's Secondary School Aguleri, Girl's High School Umuleri and Metropolitan Secondary School Onitsha. From the year 2000, he was the chaplain of St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Chaplaincy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital/CHS, Nnewi as the last port of call on his journey to eternity.

Joseph's Secondary School Aguleri, Girl's High School Umuleri and Metropolitan Secondary School Onitsha. From the year 2000, he was the chaplain of St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Chaplaincy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital/CHS, Nnewi as the last port of call on his journey to eternity.

          We will thank God on behalf of Fr. Matthew Udegbunam that God gave him many signs, and reasonable time to prepare for his death. For over two years he saw a downward trend in his heath. Those who were near him took quick notice of it and discussed that with him. Despite this gradual decline, his pastoral solicitude for his flock id not flicker. Nor did his care and concern for his brother priests who require medical advice wane. I recall, for example when I needed an urgent medical attention and some arrangement was made for me to go to hospital in the hope that the relevant medical personnel would be around. I walk3d across to him and informed him of that. He did not appear to be comfortable with the arrangement and expressed fear that the relevant doctor may not be on duty. We agreed that in any case it was better I go to the hospital immediately. Not satisfied yet, he made arrangement by phone, on his sick bed, with a doctor whom he persuaded to abandon a social function he was attending and rush to his clinic to attend to me. He had to send his aids to call me back for the new arrangement. That is typical of Fr. Udegbunam as many priests who called on him would testify.

          He did not ignore his own health and was not careless about it. He made sure he did all in his power to keep himself neat and in good shape. Often those who visited him would even forget that he was sick because the environment round him did not look like a sick man's room. In any case he would talk less, if at all about his own sickness. When God decided to call him, the church was very much around to accompany him on his journey to eternity with the help of all the sacraments with which Christ has equipped his church for such circumstances.

10.    Conclusion

As Fr. Matthew Udegbunam leaves us for eternity, our gratitude to God on his behalf will be accompanied by our continued prayers for the peaceful repose of his soul that is the debt we owe him now. May his soul, the souls of the Nnewi diocesan priests and all the priests who have left this world, and the souls of  all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

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