Homily At The Funeral of Bishop Pius Suh Awa
HOMILY AT THE FUNERAL OF BISHOP PIUS SUH AWA, BISHOP
EMERITUS OF THE DIOCESE OF BUEA, SMALL SOPPO CATHEDRAL, BUEA, 24TH FEBRUARY, 2014.
Your Eminence Christian Cardinal Tumi,
Your Excellencies Archbishops and Bishops of Cameroon,
Your Excellencies Members of Government,
Your Excellency the Governor of the South West Region,
Rev. Fathers, Men and Women Religious,
My brothers and sisters in Christ;
Born on the 4th of May, 1930, Bishop Pius Suh Awa was born 9 years before my biological mother was born. He was ordained a priest 4 years before I was born and he was consecrated Bishop when I was in class 2 in primary school. He ordained me to the priesthood in 1992 when he was already 21 years a Bishop and he died on the 9th of February, 2014, when I was barely 5months 17 days ordained a Bishop. According to my judgment therefore, this makes me the most unqualified and inadequate person to be able to give the Homily at the funeral of such a great pillar of the Catholic Faith in Cameroon, one of the Father founders of the Church in this Ecclesiastical Province of Bamenda, the first indigenous Bishop of the Diocese of Buea, and someone who has impacted the lives of so many people in this world as Bishop for more than 4 decades. When Bishop Immanuel Bushu, Bishop of Buea, asked me to preach at this funeral, I felt humbled, yet highly favoured and privileged to be called upon to share the word of God with all who are gathered here today and to give a bit of insight to the life of Bishop Awa whose life I shared very closely for the last 20 years, a period during which as Bishop’s Secretary, I carried his bag to practically every meeting at home and abroad, prayed with him and said Mass daily with him, shared his meals, his worries, preoccupations, joys and sorrows, listened to his life history and other stories many times over, and enjoyed his, wit, intelligence, numerous jokes and sense of humour and enjoyed his dedication to the Church.
Sometime in 2009, when Bishop Awa was very sick and admitted in hospital, many people thought that he would not survive. His bosom friend and long time companion, the late Archbishop Paul Verdzekov, began to put together a few notes and gather some facts about Bishop Awa from the relatives and friends of Bishop Awa. He said at the time, “should anything happen to Pius, I will be obliged to say a few words”. According to the divine plan of God, the great Archbishop died on the 26th of January 2010 without saying the few words he was planning to say about Bishop Awa, and I must confess here that if Archbishop Verdzekov were still alive, all the many words I will say today would be nothing at all compared to the few words he was planning to say.
St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, that “the life and death of each of us has an influence on others. If we live, we live for the Lord and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead, we belong to the Lord. This explains why Christ both died and came to life, it was so that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living”(Rom14:7-9).
If we are gathered here in such great numbers, it is because the life and death of Bishop Awa had an influence on each one of us. Yes! Bishop Awa exerted a lot of influence on many people in this world, beginning from his friends with whom he began Infants one in St. Joseph’s primary school, mankon on the 16th of August 1938, his classmates in standard five and six in Njinikom in 1943 and 1944; his colleagues at the Teacher Training college in Bambui in 1948; his fellow minor seminarians in Sasse in 1952; his fellow major seminarians in Enugu Nigeria and in Rome in 1955 and 1958; his family; his priestly ministry from 1961-1971, his active Episcopal ministry from 1971-2007, his interactions with priests, religious and laity, and his ministry as Bishop Emeritus from 2007 until his death in 2014. Bishop Awa touched many people in one way or the other and his life has made such a great impact on us. “None of us lives for himself only”. Paul lays down the great fact that it is impossible in the nature of things to live an isolated life. There is no such thing in this world as a completely detached individual. No man can disentangle himself either from his fellow men or from God. Man can never isolate himself from the past, the present or the future. As a man receives life, so he hands life on. He hands on to his children a heritage of physical life and of spiritual character. He is not a self-contained unit; he is a link in the chain. This is the way Bishop Awa lived, as a link in the chain of the spiritual heritage of God’s children in the Church. He was baptized by Mon Pere Ivo Stockmann on the 22nd of May 1930, and he in turn baptized uncountable Christians as a priest and a bishop, some of whom are baptizing many more thousands of Christians, and his legacy continues. He was confirmed by Bishop Rogan in 1938, and he as a link in the chain, has confirmed thousands of Christians, some of whom will continue to confirm many more thousands of Christians and his legacy will live on. He was ordained in 1961 by Gregorio Pietro Cardinal Agagianian, and he in turn ordained many priests who are continuing to say the same Mass that he was saying, and the ones who have become bishops will continue ordaining more priests and the legacy of Bishop Awa will never die. He was consecrated Bishop on the 30th of May 1971, and other Bishops have emerged from his hands and so his Episcopal legacy will not end. This is what St. Paul meant when he said that “the life and death of each of us has its influence on others. If we live, we live for the Lord and if we die, we die for the Lord, so alive or dead we belong to the Lord”. This means that for Bishop Awa as for any Christian, life and death are two sides of the same coin, for the most important thing is that we belong to the Lord.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him. What is essentially new about Christian death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already died with Christ sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this ‘dying with Christ’ and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act.”(CCC. 1010). By our Baptism we have all died with Christ and the physical death which we undergo only helps us to have a more close unity with Jesus who himself went through death and now lives forever, seated at the right hand of the Father.
In the Office of Reading for the Dead, St. Braulio of Saragossa says that “Christ, the hope of all who have faith, calls those who leave this world, not the dead but those who are asleep. He says, ‘Lazarus, our friend is asleep’. Nor would the holy apostle have us grieve over those who are asleep. His reason is that if our faith holds that all who believe in Christ shall not die forever, as the gospel says, then we know by faith that because he is not dead so neither shall we die”. About the death of the Christian, St. Anastasius of Antioch says that “To this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But God is not God of the dead but of the living. Consequently, the dead over whom he who lives has power are no longer dead but alive. Life has power over them so that they may live without any further fear of death just as Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again.” According to this teaching we can therefore say that Bishop Pius Awa is not dead but he is asleep, and that in Christ he is not dead, he is alive. Consequently, we can join St. Paul to mock and laugh at death in the following words, “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?…So let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”(1Cor.15:55-57).
Bishop Pius Awa had unconditional love for the Church and he lived his life exclusively for the Church. He belonged to that generation of Christians who knew that the Church was a real Mother and he would feel a lot of pain if someone tried to hurt the Church. Bishop Awa loved the city of Rome and he always considered Rome for Christians as Jerusalem for the Jews, the city of the living God and the heart of the Church. He celebrated his first Mass as a priest on the 21st of December, 1961 on the Altar of Pope St. Pius X in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This left in him a strong nostalgia for Rome and the Vatican Basilica and he celebrated Mass on the same altar of Pope St. Pius X, each time he was in Rome and had the chance to do so.
Bishop Awa was a Bishop who knew he was a bishop and knew how to be a bishop; exercising without reserve the threefold Offices of Teaching, Sanctifying and Governing within his diocese. He had a grip of his diocese and was so present everywhere even when he was absent, that by the rivers of Ikassa or the forests of Nyandong, a priest would almost see a pair of invisible Bishop Awa eyes watching him if he were doing anything against the rule. This is the feeling that that gave rise to Bishop Awa being likened to the “Pantocrator”.
Permit me at this point to mention some of the great physical works that will immortalize Bishop Awa in the Diocese of Buea. Each parish has the mark of Bishop Awa in a church or presbytery that he built and each project has a history between Bishop Awa and the parishioners. Beginning from the Church and the Presbytery in Limbe, the church in Gardens- Limbe, the Church in Middle Farm – Bota Parish, the Church and the Presbytery in Mutengene, the Church and the Presbytery in Tiko, the Church in Likomba, the Churches in Molyko, Great Soppo and Bokwango, the Magnificient University Parish Church and Presbytery of the Molyko, the Presbytery in Muea, the Church in Muyuka, the church and Presbytery in Kumba Mbeng, the Presbytery in Fiango and Kumba Town, the Church in Kwakwa, the Church in Mbonge, the Church and Presbytery in Ekondo Titi, the Church in Mundemba, the Church and Presbytery in Nyandong, the Church in Baseng, the extension of the Church in Tombel, the Carmelite Monastery in Sasse, the chapels of Sasse collge and Bishop Rogan Collge, the Pilgrimage centre and Foyer de Charite in Bonjongo, to name but a few. The prayers said in all these Churches in Buea Diocese will enable Bishop Awa’s soul to go to his eternal reward in the kingdom of heaven where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father and ready to say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant;…. Come and join in your master’s happiness”Mtt.25:21). He was so selfless that he built all these Churches and presbyteries and never built himself a retirement house. It was only after his retirement that we renovated one of the old houses in Buea town Parish for him to stay in.
Bishop Pius Awa can be referred to as the St. Jerome of our days with his pidgin translations and publications. He took so many years locked in his study, besides his pastoral and administrative works, to translate the entire Sunday Lectionary into Pidgin English. He also translated into Pidgin English the Lectionary of the Weekdays of the various seasons of the Church and the Pidgin English Prayer Book. He did not forget the young ones, as he also published the Handbook of the Cadets of Mary, not forgetting the Cameroon Hymnal. In this way, Bishop Awa lived to the full the motto he chose for his Episcopal ordination, “Ut Cognoscant Te” – (That they may know you). By those translations, he brought the Good News of the Kingdom of God down to the level of the ordinary people, that they may know the One true God. When ever we hear pidgin English being read from the Lecterns of our Churches, we will remember Bishop Pius Awa, the great translator of God’s word and the Master of the Pidgin Language. His legacy will live on. Like we heard in the first reading of today from Ben Sirach about godly men, “For all time their progeny will endure, their glory will never be blotted out; Their bodies are peacefully laid away, but their name lives on and on. At gatherings their wisdom is retold, and the assembly proclaims their praise” (Eccl.44:14-15).
Unity and welfare of the clergy was his priority, and he organized every year what was popularly known as the Young Priests’ Meeting which was compulsory for all priests who were 5 years and below in ordination. During this one week long meeting which Bishop Awa personally attended, he schooled the young priests on the priestly life and the evangelical counsels of chastity, obedience and poverty from the practical perspective. He taught them accountability, respect for the Christians and how priests should live like brothers. Only after a priest graduated from this young priests’ meeting, was he qualified to be appointed a Parish Priest. It was almost impossible for an Assistant Priest to win a case against his parish Priest, or a member of Christ’s lay faithful to win a case against a priest, or a religious to win a case against the superior. This was because Bishop believed in the presence of God in the superiors and ordained ministers and he understood well what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples in the Gospel of Luke, “He who listens to you listens to me”(Jn.10:16)
One thing I must say at this funeral about Bishop Awa is that he did not believe in cheap popularity and this made some people to misunderstand him. He did not do things because the people wanted them, but did things because they were good for the people. He did not build Churches or open Schools because the people asked for it, but because he was convinced they needed it. He did not run his diocese according to popular opinion, but ran his diocese according to the mind of Christ, the teaching of the Magisterium and his convictions as a pastor. When he refused the people of Mamfe Town from building a new Church in 1997, it was because he knew that he had asked for a Diocese that was coming in 1999 and would need a cathedral Church, but at that time, he could not tell the people the reason for his refusal. He would rather get a bad name than break the pontifical seal. We in the Diocese of Mamfe will never forget Bishop Awa who selflessly and generously carved out a portion of his Diocese and asked the Holy Father to create the Diocese of Mamfe. He gave the same Diocese of Mamfe the greatest honour by dying on the 9th of February which is the exact date on which the Diocese of Mamfe was erected and on its 15th anniversary. We shall pray to God to reward him for his goodness towards Mamfe and we are confident that the prayers of the Diocese of Mamfe will storm the gates of heaven to let him enter.
Bishop Awa was a good shepherd after his Lord and Master Jesus Christ. He always fitted perfectly in the text of Luke 15:4-7 in which Christ said; “Which man among you with a hundred sheep, losing one, would not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it?” This was the attitude of Bishop Awa during what was popularly known as the Maranatha crisis. During this crisis, he experienced the suffering predicted by Jesus as the warning signs for the end times when he said in Luke 21:12-18; “men will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name….You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and friends… you will be hated by all men on account of my name…” I remember Bishop Awa always saying to me at that time that this is the kind of persecution that the Blessed Virgin Mary predicted for the Church during her apparition at Fatima in 1917, and he asked me to ask the Group of Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima for prayers because only Our Lady, Queen of Peace, Regina Pacis, Patroness of the Diocese, will bring peace to the Diocese of Buea. While the Blue Army was praying, Bishop Awa did what has gone down in history as one of the most heroic acts of his whole episcopate – the unconditional forgiveness of the Protagonists of the Maranatha Crisis. In a pastoral letter addressed to all the Members of Christ’s faithful in the Diocese of Buea on the 22nd of February, 2003, Bishop Awa lamented the situation of Buea in these words; “We acknowledge the fact that within this time of the crisis in the Diocese of Buea, some people said things they should not have said, some people did things they should not have done, some people wrote letters and documents they should not have written. We made ourselves a ridicule to non-Catholics and non-Christians, in which case the whole situation was an anti-witness to the Good News of Christ and a serious block to the progress of evangelization in our local Church. In short, it was a betrayal of Christ whom we pray will look on our diocese and address us with the words on the cross; ‘Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Lk.23:34)”. Inspired by the words of Christ on the Cross Bishop Awa continued; “I have granted unconditional forgiveness…….. to all those who offended my person, priests, religious, dedicated and loyal members of Christ’s lay faithful of the Church in Buea Diocese during those trying moments”. When that letter was read in churches around the diocese, so many Christians could not contain the tears than ran down their cheeks for joy. Like a good and compassionate pastor, Bishop Awa solved the Marantha crisis not with law but with love and for this, his legacy lives on.
There is a popular saying by those who preach the gospel of prosperity that “suffering is not my portion”, but I dare contradict them by saying that just as suffering was the portion of Christ, so too suffering was the portion of Bishop Awa. He suffered multiple strokes which finally left him permanently on the wheel chair and without speech. This made him have the same destiny with great figures like Blessed Pope John Paul II and Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN television. Towards the end of his life, John Paul II was bound to the wheel chair with his speech impaired. But in that condition, he offered up payers for the entire Church and joined Christ in his passion. Also, Mother Angelica, the great communicator ended on the wheel chair without speech and her biographer writes that “Of all the afflictions suffered in her eighty years of life, the loss of speech may have been the heaviest cross for Angelica and her community. The deprivation of language, the inability to release the thoughts racing through her still active mind, became the supreme purgatory”. Bishop Awa passed through this supreme purgatory and like Bishop Immanuel Bushu said on the 20th of December 2011, during the celebration of the golden Jubilee of Bishop Awa’s priestly ordination in Soppo, Bishop Awa like Pope John Paul II probably did more work for the church sitting on his wheel chair and praying than running around. Bishop Awa’s legacy lives on in those who are still suffering today.
Bishop Awa’s life for these 84 years have been one long continuous miracle of God and we can say that he died many times before his death. First and foremost he was baptized one week after his birth in danger of death; as a primary school child in Njinikom he was bitten by a poisonous snake and shortly after his priestly ordination in Rome, he visited France, and there, he was given what used to called Extreme Unction and Viaticum after he had an emergency operation and was in danger of death. He always came very close to death yet he did not die and each time he recovered he made fun of the event. The most interesting was on the 14th of March 2006 during the visit Ad Limina Apostolorum of all the Bishops of Cameroon to Rome. On that day I accompanied Bishop Awa to a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI and during that audience the Bishop suffered from a brief malaise and fainted. The Pope’s own ambulance was called immediately and Bishop Awa was rushed to the Gemelli Hospital which is the Pope’s own hospital. When he gained consciousness after twenty four hours, he asked me what had happened and I told him. He sat quiet for some time and said; “Am I not a lucky man? To have fainted in front of the Pope, carried in the Pope’s ambulance and brought to the Pope’s own hospital! Only few of us have this chance”. He turned a frightful situation into a joke and in these jokes, Bishop Awa’s legacy lives on.
Last but not the least about Bishop Awa, I came to see him once from Bamenda after the Brothers of Martin de Porres had started living with him and I said to him that he was looking very good and happy. He said to me “I am so happy because with the Brothers by my side, I am sure that there will be someone to close my eyes when I die”. Dear Brothers of St. Martin de Porres, even if Bishop Awa founded your congregation only for this care that you have given him, you have fulfilled your mission. Brother Julius and his companions proved to be men of God, dedicated servants of the Church and care-takers of the sick and aged. You made the Bishop to live his last years with honour and die with dignity, and if we do not say “Thank you” even the stone will cry out. You have listened and obeyed the words of the Book of Ecclesiasticus which says “My son, support your father in his old age, do not grieve him during his life. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy, do not despise him in your health and strength; for a kindness to a father shall not be forgotten but will serve as reparation for your sins. In the days of your affliction it will be remembered of you, like frost in sunshine, your sins will melt away”(Eccl.3:12-16). I exhort you to think of caring for retired priests and bishops as part of your apostolate.
It is said that as a man lives so he dies. Bishop Awa lived his life for the Church and in the Church and Christ whom he served all his life did not abandon him in the hour of his death. As he lay dying in the hospital, you could almost see the words of St. Paul written on his forehead; “I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing”(2Tim.4:7-8). Christian Cardinal Tumi, who was at his side all through the last moments, fortified him with the Sacrament of the sick before he died. He was surrounded by the Brothers of St. Martin de Porres of Buea, the Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus of Buea, and his family members, all of them singing and praying the soul of Bishop Awa as it left his body to join the Angels and the Saints in heaven. He died the death of a holy man and all we can do now as Christians is to sing “Happy Birthday Bishop Awa into eternity.”
Your Excellencies, My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this great man has lived a great life and died a great death. Let us think of our lives at this moment and ask ourselves if we shall go to heaven if we die now. Let us always keep in mind the words of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said “Death will individualize and personalize all of us. Because it separates the soul from the body, it finds out each and every one in its search. It will reveal the real me as against the surface me. The soul will stand naked before God, seen at last as it truly is. And if the soul is not then clothed with virtue, it will feel ashamed, as Adam and Even were, when they had sinned and hid from God.”(Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul, p.215).
As we bring Bishop Awa to his final resting place, let us go back to our primary school days and turn into a prayer the song we used to sing in those days; “O When the saints, go marching in; When the saints go marching in. O Lord I want to be in their number, O When the saints, go marching in.” We make this prayer in the name of Jesus the Lord who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
Andrew Fuanya Nkea,
Bishop of Mamfe