Newest addition to the Eastern Province
Fr. Bindel Mary Ifeanyichukwu , CM arrived from Nigeria October 5. He joins Fr. Joseph Ita Sam, also a Vincentian who arrived earlier in the summer. Both are serving in St. Vincent’s Parish in Germantown. I had the privilege of being touched by his simple enthusiasm. It is a long way from Nigeria to Philadelphia so I asked him to start at the beginning.
In a nutshell, he said… I was not the one in my family who supposed to be the priest. I did not want to be a priest. I wanted to be a lawyer for the poor. But an inner voice grew louder… and louder. I finally discovered, with Mary’s help the joy of being with the lowly.
Let me unpack what I heard.
A voice that surprised me
“I was not the one in my family of seven siblings who was supposed to be a priest. Everyone expected my younger brother to become a priest. But then in 1994, he was run over and killed by a priest! We all thought that was the end of anyone in the family becoming a priest.”
“I certainly did not want to become a priest. I saw my path clearly. It was the path of a lawyer who wanted to help the poor who are so often victims of fraud in my country. I had graduated from high school and was waiting for the prized acceptance into college and law school. While waiting I discovered the “Block Rosary”.
In Nigeria, the Block rosary has blossomed into a Catholic lay organization promoting neighborhood prayer. Members of the Block Rosary believe there is no room for both the rosary and crime on the same street. The movement has its roots in the message of Fatima.
As he described it, it sounded very similar to the way associations of the Miraculous Medal function in most other countries of the world. Small groups committed to communal prayer centered around devotional images of Mary carried from one neighborhood to another. I also heard echos of Father Peyton’s Rosary Crusade.
He soon found himself as a mentor or guide to 18 of these groups of young people. Each week he visited and accompanied the 30 or so young some people in each of these centers or neighborhoods. He clearly loved this work and they loved him. (I think of Pope Francis’ frequent calls for a theology of accompaniment.)
At first, he paid little attention to their tendency to refer to him as “brother”, a title usually associated with someone in the seminary. It seems recognized his vocation well before he did.
A voice that grew louder
In a number of pivotal ways the call became clearer in his own soul. The inner voice became stronger when he participated via TV when Pope St. John Paul TV invited all Nigerians to join with him in praying the rosary. And even louder when he had occasion to meet face to face with his Archbishop AJV Obinna. He poured out his questions about a vocation. The responses of the Archbishop spoke to his heart.
He now realized he wanted to serve the poor, not as a lawyer but as a priest. But another question arose. Am I called to the diocesan priesthood or in some group specially devoted to serving the poor?
Once again it seems God called. This time through the unwitting voice of his mother. She had a practice of periodically buying a book for the whole family to read. One of the books she bought for the family was a 1958 life of Vincent by Woodgate. He devoured it! He knew he had to respond to this call.
“My vocation, however, was not my mother’s plan”. When he finally felt it was time to speak of his plans to his parents he surprisingly met strong disappointment from them. Seeing this, for a time, he stopped sharing his plans with them. He did, however, continue his exploration, a story in itself. As he shared all of this I sensed his confusion, anxiety, and determination at the time. He shared with me particularly poignant moments when, separately, his parents cried. From someplace deep within he found himself saying to his mother “God will replace me.”
Through all of this he said it was the “first voice”, that of the poor he learned to serve with joy, that kept him going.
The joy of his ordination
He was ordained Friday, July 13, 2018. “I cried through most of my ordination.” He knew that he had been called. But then came the surprise call within the call. He had volunteered to serve in some of the poorer missions served by his province. Out of the blue, he was asked to travel to Germantown, PA. He firmly believes it is not about his voice but what God has surprisingly called him to.
His is a story to be continued. For now, we rejoice that he has responded to that call. We assure him our prayers.