Father Francis Eworo has lived at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral for a little more than a year, and during that time, Bishop Matthew H. Clark has learned a lot about the priest’s native country of Nigeria.
But the stories, struggles and triumphs related by Father Eworo, the cathedral’s parochial vicar, didn’t become real to Bishop Clark until the bishop experienced examples of them firsthand while visiting Nigeria during his Oct. 15-Nov. 4 trip to Africa.
Nigeria has had such a history of corruption and instability that church officials there thought it wise to have an armed guard travel with Bishop Clark and Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general and Pastoral Center moderator, as they toured the country.
When they arrived in Ogoja, Father Eworo’s native city, Father Eworo was there to show them around. In Ogoja and everywhere else they went, Bishop Clark and Father Hart were greeted by great hospitality, the bishop said. They also were able to see and understand Father Eworo’s home community and traditions.
“What he brings of his culture are his people, his piety and his spirituality,” Bishop Clark said.
Father Eworo is one example of the many extern priests who for the past 40 years have sacrificed greatly to come to the Diocese of Rochester, either to study or to serve, the bishop said. His trip to Africa gave the bishop a better understanding of what the extern priests left behind when they came to America and what intangible gifts they bring with them, he noted.
“They are really pillars of their community,” Bishop Clark said.
The extern priests were one reason why Bishop Clark and Father Hart decided to travel to Africa. Over the years, the bishop had received several invitations from African bishops visiting their priests working or studying in the Rochester Diocese.
“I’m very, very glad that our people have been so responsive to their needs, and I hope we find ways to continue that relationship,” Bishop Clark said.
A travel gift received in 2004 for his 25th anniversary as Bishop of Rochester offered the opportunity for the trip to Africa, during which Bishop Clark and Father Hart visited Kenya and Tanzania in eastern Africa, and Ghana and Nigeria in western Africa. Although they noted some differences between the areas, such as a need for clean water in Eastern Africa that does not exist in Western Africa, the trip illustrated the similarities between parishioners in the Diocese of Rochester and in Africa, he said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are one in faith,” Bishop Clark said.
The first word on the lips of each of the bishops visited was thanks to the Diocese of Rochester for showing hospitality and consideration to African priests over the years, he added.
“The one thing they wanted me to say was how very grateful our friends in Africa are for the relationships they have enjoyed with us for four decades, and how deeply interested they are in extending those,” Bishop Clark said.
The bishop pledged a continuance of that support by planning conversations during the next several months on how the Rochester Diocese can help improve conditions in Africa. He cautioned, however, that it will be necessary to prioritize needs in the African nations so that local churches don’t become overextended.
“We have to honor as best we can our own desire that this be a mutual exchange,” Bishop Clark said.
Among the greatest needs in the African countries visited by the bishop and Father Hart were adequate health care and access to education. Many countries also need help providing people with proper nutrition and health care for HIV-positive people. Although treatment is available to help slow the onset of HIV symptoms, one African bishop told his visitors that the stigma associated with the disease stops people from seeking treatment, Bishop Clark said.
Another concern is corruption, which is deeply ingrained into political life, accounting for dire poverty in countries such as oil-rich Nigeria, Father Hart said. Priests frequently are on the front lines in the battle against corruption and know who has been jailed or roughed up and whose house has been broken into, he added.
“The church often ends up being an important voice against the power of politicians,” Father Hart observed.
While the Rochester leaders were in Africa, they met with Archbishop Joseph Ukpo of Calabar, Nigeria, whose house was ransacked a few days later, following the end of an oil symposium he had hosted. Although they are not sure that the two events were related, the coincidence was striking, Bishop Clark noted.
Since unreliable phone lines hampered communications, the two travelers could not visit several places they had intended to see. Roads also were often impassable. Due to nearly a quarter century of neglect by a previous Kenyan president, many roads in that country were under construction, Bishop Clark said.
“Over here, what would have taken a half an hour to travel would take two-and-a-half hours,” he said.
Despite hardships, many people they met were carried through their struggles by a deep sense of faith and joy, Bishop Clark said. Masses included joyful offertory processions, one of which took 45 to 50 minutes, the bishop said, noting that this didn’t seem to bother anyone in attendance.
In Nairobi, Bishop Clark celebrated a weekday morning Mass for 2,500 people. That morning Mass was one of several planned for the day, he said. He also celebrated several confirmations.
“It’s a very young church, with very young people, and a very strong family presence, which is quite impressive,” Bishop Clark said.
Father Hart, who in addition to his work in diocesan administration is coadministrator of Brighton’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, previously had visited the Kenyan capital of Nairobi about 30 years ago. He said he found the city much the same, except for a huge slum that had grown up in the middle of the city since his last visit.
The slum now is home to about 1.5 to 2 million people, many of whom are Somali refugees who moved to escape wars, Father Hart said. Many positive efforts were taking place in the city, including an orphanage that is helping young boys to move from the streets by learning how to take care of themselves and by becoming employable, Father Hart said.
While some signs of poverty have grown, other signs of prosperity are evident, he noted.
“What’s new is all the children wear shoes, which is a change from 30 years ago,” Father Hart said, noting that shoes prevent disease-causing parasites from entering a person’s body through the feet.
In rural areas, Father Hart said he also noticed an almost complete disappearance of traditional thatched-roof housing with dirt floors in favor of new buildings with concrete floors. This advance also has led to more sanitary living conditions, he said.
“This also says that the level of poverty has lessened,” Father Hart said.