In a recent Facebook post I made announcing the appointment of a new rector of a major seminary in Nigeria, one lay Catholic commented, “He is carrying bishop looks already.” I read the comment, shook my head, and wondered: How does a bishop look? How do you know a bishop’s look by merely looking at the picture of a priest in his Roman collar? And was that even the most appropriate comment for a post where the easiest thing you could do was to offer a prayer for success in his delicate role of forming priests for the church?

Several times, I have encountered Catholics both physically and virtually who inquire why this or that priest hasn’t been made a bishop. I believe that this question can be motivated by goodwill, especially when one sees that this or that priest has good leadership qualities. But again, I am convinced that there is something wrong with such a question.

Here is what it is: Nigerians are so obsessed with power, title, position, office, and authority. In an age where many have grown cynical and apathetic in the face of bad political leadership, there appears to be a psychological transfer of political legitimation to religious leaders. The big “Man of God,” the Spiritual Oligarch, the Senior Apostle, the Presiding Bishop, the Founding Pastor, the General Overseer, the Revered Prophet, the Chief Evangelist, etc has become the new “Man of Power.” (Read the Nigerian sociologist Ebenezer Obadare’s fantastic book, PASTORAL POWER, CLERICAL STATE, 2022). This explains why many Nigerians want their tribesman to occupy that seat so they can feel a sense of psychological satisfaction that their own person is in power.

Is that not why we have ended up with a nation-state where political offices are endlessly multiplied just so that the fat cake can go round every local government, community, ethnic group, clan, and village? Is this hunger for power and prestige not the reason why at the slightest provocation the average Nigerian wants to show you that he knows some big man in power who can deal with you and put you in your place? Professor Nimi Wariboko, a foremost Nigerian social ethicist in his recent book TRANSCRIPTS OF THE SACRED IN NIGERIA (2023) aptly captures this malaise in his description of Nigerians as “scavengers of dignity.” Our dignity has been so battered by failed leaders. So we look for every opportunity to show that we matter, that we are important, that we are close to somebody who has power.

This social malady has crept into the church as well, where many people agitate for rotational power sharing formula so that the office can get to their own man, their own ethnic group, their own village. Unfortunately the bishopric is now the new deal in this chess game of power. Not content with a man being a simple, committed, and hard working priest, they ask why he has not been made a bishop yet or when he will be made a bishop, as if only by being a bishop can he really be said to be doing the work of God.

In his homily at the episcopal ordination of the Bishop of Zaria last December, Bishop Kukah raised concerns about the growing mentality among many priests and lay Catholics who now see the episcopal office as an “ethnic trophy.” He told a beautiful anecdote to explicate this. Many people laughed at the humor, but the message was well communicated. Many Catholics have come to see the episcopal office as a kind of rotational presidency. Where this does not happen, agitation, rancor, and division set in.

Not everyone wants to become a bishop, neither should it be asked why someone is not yet a bishop as if the church were a civil service institution where promotion is governed by careerism. There are so many priests who even when they appear in the public eye as good episcopal candidates are content and happy doing what God has called them to do. Their forms of service, charisms, and gifts to the church and humanity matter and do not need a skull cap to be validated. After all, when we applied to be admitted into the major seminary, no one applied to become a bishop; we ALL applied to become priests. God has been gracious enough to confirm each priest in that holy desire.

I write this short (or not so short) piece mainly for Nigerian lay Catholics, hoping that we can learn to look at the church, her priests, and their charisms with new eyes. One of the shocking revelations that the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet who headed the Vatican Dicastery for Bishops from 2010 to 2023 made some years ago is the increasing number of priests who decline to be bishops.

Of course, the church teaches us that the Episcopal Order is a divine institution expressly willed by the Lord for the good of His Church. What is worrisome is when the fascination with ecclesiastical power becomes a zero sum. Jesus did not wear a mitre, neither did He carry a crozier. Yes, but He wore a mitre, a different kind of mitre – the mitre of the crown of thorns. He carried a crozier, a different kind of crozier – the crozier of the cross. This is why ten years ago, while speaking to members of the Vatican congregation for bishop, Pope Francis said that “The Bishop is first and foremost a martyr for the Risen One,” adding that the “courage to die” is written in the “DNA of the Bishop.” A reminder that to be a bishop is akin to signing a death pact.

Michael Curry, the black U.S. Episcopalian bishop who gave the sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan at Windsor Castle chapel in 2018 said, “Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate degree for dying on the cross.” Who goes looking for a cross to carry? Who would wish such a cross on another?

© Emmanuel Ojeifo, 2024

Author’s Profile: Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Omokugbo Ojeifo is a Priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja. He’s currently a PhD candidate of Political Theology at the University of Notre Dame.