A retired Catholic Archbishop of Lagos and former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Anthony Cardinal Okogie, 81, tells TOLUWANI ENIOLA about his life as a priest
Can you tell us about your background?
I was born on June 16, 1936. I was christened Anthony by my father, who hailed from Edo State. My mother hailed from Oyo State. My father moved to Lagos at the age of 17. I would have preferred to be called Michael. I challenged my mother over this. The explanation my father gave was that I was born three days after the peak celebration of St. Anthony of Padua at the Holy Cross Cathedral, Lagos. We were six children in my family but one died. I am the first child.
What was it like growing up in Lagos?
I grew up in Lafiaji, Lagos Island. Those days, if you are not a little bit rascally, you won’t enjoy life. I attended the Holy Cross School, Lagos. I spent about 14 months there because they transferred my father, who was a Customs officer, to Sapele, Delta State. I also schooled in Sapele and did my standard three and four there. I came back to the Holy Cross School to complete my education. In 1951, I gained admission to St. Gregory College. In 1953, I left the college in class three because I felt the impulse to be a priest.
Why did you decide to be a priest?
I was already an altar server in the church. I liked the way the priest acted. I continued my secondary education at St. Theresa Catholic Minor Seminary at Oke Are in Ibadan, Oyo State. I was still very rascally then and they were trying to mould us. They succeeded partially. I later moved to a major seminary in Bodija, Oyo State. In 1963, I went to Rome to complete my priestly course. I became a deacon in 1966 and was asked to come back home by Archbishop J. K Aggey. He said he wanted my ordination to be done by him. Incidentally, my sister also became a reverend sister. People felt my sister was too beautiful to be a sister. In those days, when you have a girlfriend, you couldn’t kiss or hold her in public. The older women had a special way of rebuking young men that one would not try it.
What was it like studying in Rome?
When I got to Rome, I had a good friend there, Bishop Joseph Ajomo, who is now late. As soon as I landed in Rome, he took me to his room and said, “Tony, you are not here on honeymoon. You are here for a serious job. Your name is no more Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, your new name is Nigeria.” Then, we were identified by our country. We had about 52 students from different countries. He told me I had to be careful. Then he said the highest mark was not 100 but 30. He said I would soon see how difficult it was to get 30.
What was the opposition you faced in embracing priesthood?
When I told my father I wanted to become a priest, he told me I was crazy. Being the first child, my father felt it was a wrong decision. I didn’t blame him. He wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. He was not too pleased with my result at St. Gregory College. He wondered why I was not among the best three in the class. He said, “Those with a good result, do they have two heads?” Meanwhile, I had been reiterating my ambition to my mother. She told me to pray.
In 1953, I bluntly told my father during the mid-term holiday that I had made up my mind to be a priest. He told my mum, “You better talk to your son.” Then, when you talk to an elderly man, you would face the ground, as if one was addressing the ground. When he saw I was resolute, he let me go. Many people later talked to him to allow me.
Tell us about the first sermon you delivered?
My first sermon was a fiasco. When I came back from Rome in 1966, the first Yoruba priest invited me to his parish to preach. He was so happy that I was back. He worked in St. Patrick, Idumagbo, Lagos. The church was going to have its harvest programme. I showed the priest my script. I carefully planned the message and even rehearsed the delivery at home. When I climbed the pulpit, I became something else. I became lily-livered; fear overwhelmed me. The paper was shaking in my hand. I couldn’t believe it. It was a great embarrassment. The priest was furious. In order to cover my shame, I started mumbling prayers, and the congregation joined. I inserted a few songs within the prayers. The boldness didn’t really come thereafter. It was my first homily, so I felt bad. As bold as I was, I never knew I could entertain fear. After the service, the Yoruba priest approached me and said, “Look at you. Don’t come here again.”
Did you have girlfriends as a youth?
I had a couple of girlfriends (laughs). When I got into St. Gregory College in 1951, I never knew anything about girlfriend. But I began to hear people talk about it. One of my friends advised me thus, “Why not get one of those girls at Holy Child School as a girlfriend.” I talked to one of them that I liked. I dared not write a love letter then because of my mum. My girlfriend told me her birthday. I told her we would celebrate it together. I went to meet one of my classmates, Adewumi, who has passed on. He said, “Birthday for your girl? That will cost you some money.” By then, I was only getting two shillings and six pence so I started saving. I went to Bombay Store in Idumota where they sold gifts. All you needed to do was to tell them the age of the recipient and they would brand it for you. I took the gift to her on her birthday. She was smiling profusely. She opened it without even asking me. I saw that the smile gradually faded away from her face. In anger, she said, “Tony, is this what your mates give their girlfriends?” I was surprised by her ungratefulness. That was my last discussion with her. In 1952, I had another girlfriend from Queen’s College, a very nice girl from a wealthy home. Anytime we met, I always went for her purse because she had money. On a Friday, she said, “Tony, tomorrow is Saturday. I want us to go somewhere together.” I said that was the time we did cleaning at home, that I could not make it. That was how I lost that one. I had another one when I was in class three. I told her I was going to be a priest. She was shocked. She said, “No, you can’t go. What about the entire plan I have been making.” When she found out I was resolute, she said, “If you become a ‘father,’ I will become a ‘mother’ too.” That was how she left me sad.
Who are those that shaped your priestly career?
I approached the Very Rev. Fr. J. K Kilbey, an Irish man who came to Lafiaji in 1951. “Father, can I be a priest?” I asked him. He looked at me and smiled. He said, “Tony, any fool can be a priest just like any fool can get married. What I should have asked is, ‘Can I be a good priest.” “To be a good priest,” he said, “There are three things; beware of money, women and drink.” Three-quarters of your life would be spent in the midst of women. They are the ones that come with problems. If you counsel 10 people in a day, seven of them will be women, so you have to be careful. He added, “Women will come to you for prayer, saying, Father, touch me here and here, I feel pain here. Touch my head, anoint me. Never touch a woman’s head.”
I can count the number of times I touched a woman’s head in my life. I always touch the shoulders if I need to. One woman told me, “Father, please touch my head.” I said, “No ma. Have I not touched your shoulders? Is that not your body?” One has to be careful because a lot is in a woman’s head. Then, lastly, Fr. Kilbey warned me against taking alcohol. He said, “If you are stupid enough, your friend will lead you into drinking, don’t try it.”
Celibacy is a vital part of priesthood. Have you been tempted by any woman?
Even Jesus was tempted. It was after the third time that the devil left him for a time. Discipline is the key. If you can’t discipline your urges as a priest, you are finished.
Tell us about your temptation encounters.
This question of yours is one of my temptations (laughs). Look at the length women go to make their hair look attractive. Some make their hair like an osuka (a load-carrying pad). It is a waste of money fixing attachments. God gave us eyes; if you don’t control them, they will control you. If you don’t control your senses, they will control you. Some women came around and started rolling their eyeballs to entice me. Some think they are not beautiful enough, so they apply eyelashes etc. No woman can entice me with that.
How did you resist the temptation?
I am neither a saint nor an angel. We are all human beings. I am only saying these are some of the things they do to draw and attract you. These days, some women even go about padding their breasts. This is absolute rubbish. When I see somebody I seem to like, I look for that part I don’t like and concentrate on that. You may think I am looking at you but I am not. No one is a saint. Only God is holy. Some people came to me to tempt me. One of them said, “Father, I can’t understand my husband. I am feeling cold.” I simply told her, “Why not warm your husband if you are cold. Say something that will enliven your husband.” She replied, “Father, you don’t understand.” I asked her, “What do I not understand? At my age, what do I not understand?” They use all these seductive words. It is not easy (resisting them) if you are not really fortified with prayers. God has been faithful.
How difficult is it to be celibate?
It is not difficult. It’s like breathing in air. Discipline is the key, like I said. I would have shared a few of the desperate attempts to tempt me but I won’t because of some reasons. Even when I preach my sermon, they come and challenge me in Yoruba, E de lo soro mi ni church. Mo gbo leni. (Why did you mention my case while preaching today?).” It is not so easy. But once you can draw the line, there is no problem. Anytime a woman comes here, I am careful. You consider thoughts. It is when you say yes to a particular thought that you have sinned. Actualising the thought is where the imperfections come in.
Did you ever nurse the ambition to become the Pope?
I never did (laughs). The only thing I prayed so seriously about was to be a priest. All the others are extra. I believe that if you do your work well, the reward will come. It may be late.
How do you counsel priests who fell into sexual sins?
I told them to return to prayers. You don’t just ask them to go away. A good friend of mine told me whenever people come to me, they had lost their faith. A priest can lose his way. I pray to God not to lose my faith.
What music do you enjoy?
I like Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade and Fela. When I want deep politics, I listen to Fela. At the time Fela died, the British Broadcasting Corporation asked me to give my impression about him. I told them he was a good man. They were surprised I could say that as a bishop. Fela told people the truth which they never liked. I like him so much. I also improved my Yoruba with Sunny Ade and Obey’s lyrics. I like “Ekilo fo mode,” by KSA.
You were drafted into the Nigerian Army as a chaplain. What was it like living among soldiers?
It was during the war. I had to live like them. When I went there, I became a soldier. Monsignor Martin took me there. It was at their headquarters at Port Harcourt, Rivers State. I went to see the officer-in-command, Col. Godwin Alli. Before I left his office, I told him I needed a car to do my job. He said I should write to the GOC, Brig. Benjamin Adekunle, popularly called the Black Scorpion. Adekunle said when Jesus Christ was alive, he had no car and wondered why I needed one (laughs).
How can you compare the military of those days with the current one?
Those days, the love of money was not in the military. They talked fondly about patriotism which our current military officers lack. Money has become the concern of the current military. Soldiers were more civil and loyal then.
You have been a non-partisan Nigerian. How do you handle attacks from politicians you criticise?
Some politicians accosted me at my house close to the City Hall. They pretended as if they wanted to ask a question. One said, “If you speak nonsense again, you will see what we will do to you.” I was calm. I said, “What will you do?” Do you know where I grew up? Then I switched to Yoruba, “Ma dan wo o” (Don’t even try me).” But they never attacked me physically.
What do you do after retirement?
Do I look tired? I still minister but not publicly. Occasionally I join the priests. I go round the house four times, then have my breakfast. People come into see me and after lunch, I could sleep till 8pm. From then, I could be in my office till 2am. At times, I listen to music.
At 81, what are your biggest regrets?
Seeing many churches, left right and centre without (them) making an impact, is my biggest regret. I disagree with the concept of building many branches by the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch Adeboye. Churches don’t make a person holy. There are many churches in Lagos and that’s the cause of traffic. The other day, Mathew Ashimolowo made some outrageous demands on tithing and offerings. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo is right. Corruption has taken over the churches. What are the church leaders doing to curb corruption? Before it was speaking in tongues they used to deceive people, but today it is miracles. It is also annoying when pastors don’t go to hinterland to evangelise. They will rather go to where there are many churches already. According to Lagos law, no two churches should be on the same street. When you see things these Pentecostal leaders do, I ask, do they really believe in God? Have they no conscience?
Is speaking in tongues wrong?
No, it’s not wrong. Very few people speak in tongues today, I mean genuine spirit-filled utterances. I don’t speak in tongues. Not that I don’t believe in the practice but I don’t do it. When I look at Christ Apostolic Church, for instance, I don’t think they are serious.
If you are not a priest, what would you have been?
I may have become what my father wanted. I (would have) liked to be an operative of the Department of State Services because I like to keep order and justice in the society.
Do you take alcohol?
No, I don’t.
I had been warned not to drink. I simply advise people to drink moderately. If you are not moderate, you will destroy your home and become a nuisance. Drunkards waste a lot of money.
What was your most memorable day in life?
It was during my ordination as a priest. Everybody was admiring me at the cathedral as if I was an angel descending from heaven. They respect priests a lot.
Can you share any funny experience on the pulpit?
I love children a lot. After preaching one day, one child walked up to me and said he wanted to ask a question. He said. “Every time you do mass, you cheat us. You take the bigger bread and break ours into pieces.” One of them also approached me and said I made a mistake during mass. He said it was when I opened the box and I didn’t kneel down. I couldn’t even remember this.
Do you regret not having children?
Not at all, I play with my siblings’ children but that thought doesn’t come to mind. It is not easy to maintain a home. I made up my mind long ago, so I don’t think about having children.
What is your take on polygamy?
Marrying one woman is enough problem not to talk of adding more wives. Some people deceive themselves a lot. If you say you love a woman and you still aim to get another one, it means you don’t love her at all. You can only love with one soul and one mind. I have four commentaries on the Quran. There are none of the commentaries that showed that Mohammed asked people to marry four wives. I read the Quran, the English version. Mohammed said if you are not satisfied with one wife and you want to have many concubines, you have to observe four things: Divide your property equally among them; you must treat their children equally. Then he said, you must love the children equally. How many hearts have you to love with? It means Mohammed meant they should keep to one wife. Mohammed was a very clever man.
What’s your take on the rejection of the Pope’s order in Imo?
Those priests must obey. Obedience is important. I suffered the same thing in 1971. I was made an auxiliary bishop of Oyo Province. The priests rejected me. They came to warn me in Lagos that if I came, I was gone. It was tough. I went there and started working. I started winning their hearts gradually. I suffered great opposition. Later, I was transferred from Oyo to Lagos. God has been faithful. I was made an archbishop at a tender age. People started criticising my appointment. They said, “Eni ti o ti gbenu kuro lomu iya e,” meaning someone who is immature.
Do you still pray for longer life at 81?
I like this question because it reminds me of the Yoruba comedy actor, Moses Olaiya, popularly called Baba Sala. I thought I would die at the age of 40. I was fed up at 40. After becoming a priest and now archbishop, I asked what more? Becoming a cardinal was not my ambition. I remember when I told former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu heard that I had become a cardinal, he started dancing. He was so happy. He said, “Don’t you know how important a cardinal is. People that elect the Pope. This is good for Nigeria.” God is the owner of life; He knows what is best.
What are the secrets of your healthy looks at 81?
Be happy. Don’t bear grudges. If you offend anybody, settle it before it’s too late.