Farewell Letter

by Fr. Williams Abba  |  02/07/2024  |  Images of Faith

After 25 years of hard work, I was exhausted and almost lost it. I needed a break. I needed a place to escape to and take a deep breath. I had spent 20 years of my priestly life helping to form priests for our local church. I was juggling time between a provincial seminary in the Middle Belt and the diocesan seminary/institute in my home diocese in Nigeria, and I had the most challenging task of designing the curriculum and ensuring that the seminary and institute complied strictly with what we designed as content for the training of local clergy and future leaders of church and state. We were in affiliation with a local university, and every so often, we touched base with the parent institution that was more than 200 miles away. These trips were frequent and numerous, sometimes weekly, sometimes bi-weekly. Mixed in with the constant travel, I had courses to teach in the seminary and pastoral work to do in the parish. I had so much on my plate, but I was determined to carry on. That was a typical routine for me for years. Because this went on for so long, I eventually hit a wall.

Even as I was committed to carrying out all these duties, I also had an overriding passion for social justice. Our region was under siege by a vicious militia of the Fulani ethnic stock. A band of terrorists was invading our communities and killing our people with reckless abandonsometimes 200 or 300 dead bodies needing burial at the break of day. Mass graves dotted our landscape. The militia would sack communities and occupy them. Our land in Nigeria is green and lush, blessed with good soil and beautiful vegetation. God’s gift of nature became the envy of the militia who were determined to be ruthless: they would kill our people so that their cows could graze and enjoy the green vegetation and mountainous environment. They terrorized our people and went away without consequences. The government looked the other way. It was clear that there was more to this barbarity than we initially thought. It was obvious that that the government was unwilling to admit that there was an agenda of the militia to overrun our communities and take over our land. This conflict assumed ethno-religious dimensions. We were Christians and non-Hausa/Fulani. That was our only crime.

I was determined to speak out. I drew the attention of the world by way of organizing a huge and successful protest at the heart of the capital of Nigeria (google “Stop the genocide, says a Priest in appeal to Nigerian government” reported by Aid to the Church in Need and published by Catholic Ireland.net on March 24, 2019). We took the security agencies by surprise. In no time, we had assembled a large crowd at the famous Abuja Unity Fountain. These determined young men and women of Southern Kaduna extraction were clad in black and united in purpose before the government and its agencies could disrupt our protest. I gave a powerful message to the world. That singular action helped mount pressure on the governor of my state (Kaduna) to put measures in place to end the siege on our people. Feeling embarrassed by my action, the governor sent word that he must arrest me. Undeterred, I kept speaking out and criticizing the government. I was obviously a nuisance to the government and tension was beginning to build even among high-ranking clerics of the Christian fold. I was being asked to tone down what they were calling “rhetoric.”

I was losing hope. I felt threatened. And gradually I was becoming depressed. So, I asked my bishop to grant me permission to take a prolonged sabbatical leave. My Bishop was gracious and approved of my request but converted it to mission work. He had spent time at Our Lady of the Lake in Lake Havasu, in the Diocese of Phoenix as a Fidei Donum priest when he got called back in 2019 to be the Bishop of Kafanchan, my home diocese. With the special relationship now created between my bishop and the diocese of Phoenix, it was easy to secure placement for me.

Paperwork done, immigration hurdles overcome, I was ready to begin a new life in faraway America. A month before I arrived, I had received my posting to work in Blessed Sacrament Parish, Scottsdale. Sue Schindel, then executive assistant to the Vicar for Priests, made sure I received my posting ahead of time. She added a note that calmed me down: “You are going to a beautiful parish to work with a kind, holy man as your pastor and one of my favorite monsignors.” She was referring to Fr. Bryan Buenger and Msgr. George Schroeder. Naturally, before arriving, and out of curiosity, I had gone to Google to familiarize myself with the staff, and the parish family. I arrived in Phoenix on July 18, 2021, to the warm embrace of Fr. Bryan, who was patiently waiting for me at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. On the 20-minute ride from the airport to the rectory, we chatted, and I knew, from that moment, that I was home. The bond between us was already beginning to be strong. Fr. Bryan was very kind and took me in like a younger brother. With jet lag over after four days off granted to me by my pastor, I was ready to begin ministry in my new community. On the first weekend, Fr. Bryan introduced me at all the Masses, describing me with great kindness. The thunderous applause from parishioners was again proof that I was welcomed and that I was home. Any anxiety and tension melted into thin air.

It's been two years and seven months of intensive friendship between me and the beautiful parishioners of Blessed Sacrament. I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my time here. With every one of you, I have come to believe that the water of baptism is thicker than any blood relationship. I have been blessed and impacted by your friendship and prayers. You have challenged my world view and have made me a better priest. In Blessed Sacrament Parish, I found love and acceptance. Not even for a minute did I ever feel like a stranger. All of you welcomed me and loved me and showed me how much I was cherished and appreciated.

You taught me that in the grand scheme of things, all you ever want me to be to you is just to be a PRIEST. For me, I celebrated every Mass as if it was my last. I watched your adoration of Jesus at every Mass.

Every time I shared my slogan, “Our God is good,” you responded in unison, “all the time.”

As parochial vicar, I have worked with the wonderful staff and parishioners; we worked together to accomplish great things for God. I have learned from every one of you. You have helped me grow spiritually. As I preached to you, you in turn preached to me and ministered to me. You opened your doors and your hearts to me. Your generosity to me cannot be quantified. You have kept a date with the annual collection to help my bishop build a model school in the diocese. This weekend and the coming days provide another opportunity to do this for me and my home diocese one more time. My bishop and I need this help, and we are truly grateful for the collaboration.

In fact, because of your charity and personal donation to me, I have been able to build a beautiful church for my local community in Nigeria. The church is called Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Godogodo. Our brand-new church is being painted and readied for Easter as I write this piece. Soon after the painting, we will have the pews ready. My folks back home will have a decent place of worship. Hopefully before I leave, I will have pictures to share with you. Every time Mass is said in my community, prayers are extended for all of the parishioners of Blessed Sacrament in Scottsdale. By choosing to name the church Blessed Sacrament, I have succeeded in immortalizing the very parish in Scottsdale that gave me everything.

I love serving the parishioners of Blessed Sacrament. Many of you have expressed the same sentiment of wishing for our relationship to continue. Your expressions of sadness at my leaving are heartwarming and appreciated.

Your emails and text messages have made me emotional. But, you see, this is the life of priests: we are missionary in nature, and when the church requests our service elsewhere, we are bound to say yes. The church was smart to have added the “obedience” clause in our vows. That’s why I am going to St. Elizabeth Seton, to continue the missionary mandate of Christ.

I will not say goodbye. Families do not go their separate ways. A part of me stays here. Blessed Sacrament will continue to be home to me. I am going to my new assignment, aware that I have got your backs and that you will continue to pray for me. I will do my best. I will not fail you.

My gratitude goes to Fr. Kilian McCaffrey and Fr. Bryan Buenger. These reverend gentlemen have demonstrated that the priesthood of Christ transcends our imaginary boundaries. I will lean on them and count on their wise counsel. Their period of mentorship is not over until I stop asking all the questions. We will continue to be friends and brothers.

Let me end with St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians 3:1-6: “I thank my God every time I remember you, in all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with this joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began the good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus”.

God is good, all the time.

I love you all!