The reality of ex seminarianhood is one that is becoming quite common in the local Church Province of Bamenda. When in the summer of 1999, Archbishop emeritus Paul Verdzekov of blessed memory gave me six months’ leave twice every year from my labyrinthine pilgrimage to the Catholic priesthood, he put before me the Pro life maestro – George Yenika as the example to emulate. This was surely a gentle reminder that before me there have been many who have stood the buffets of such capricious times with equanimity and like they say I should not feel being neither the first nor the last. I cannot remember whether he mentioned something of Bernard Fonlon but would be pleasantly surprised if he did not, knowing the enthralling admiration and unparalleled influence of Bernard on Msgr. Verdzekov.
George Yenika in his immediate post seminary years spent a year or two teaching at the minor seminary after which he launched into a banking career rising to the enviable ranks of a Bank Manager and winding up as an illustrious business pro. Yet, I can swear he remained a true disciple and ardent advocate of the Gospel of life even till date. He carved out the Pro life ministry as his sacred niche and became a Plenipotentiary for Human Life International. It is not George’s life I intend to celebrate here but rather that of one who would have been fifty-seven years old an ex seminarian this year. Fonlon was a man of many hats but unlike Jack was a master of his many trades. Yet, it is not his brilliant political career, exquisite academic credentials or chivalrous teaching records that I seek to celebrate here. Rather the task I have so delightfully embraced is to piece the thread that undergirds Fonlon’s superlative biography. In seeking to paint a picture of Fonlon’s modus vivendi, I propose to delineate in broad strokes albeit, the esprit de corps that should define the noble class of gentlemen who fell short of the altar. Yet I must hasten to confess that I am no expert in anything Fonlon. My epistle draws entirely on what I have read having not been part of the select few who had any personal encounters with Fonlon. Twenty four years since his premature exit at 62(three scores and ten is what the bible prescribes for the strong), what could I add to the pedigree of this exalted man of letters that would not instead be a subtraction?
G. K. Chesterton gives me very strong reasons to embark on this mission when he says of the saint: “The saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. In deed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age. Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.” (Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doubleday, 1956, p. 5) Fonlon is not what we want but who we need.
Many will contend that Fonlon was able to attain such heights because of the benefit of seminary formation. His personality and actions seemed to be a direct function or so many thought of the rare formation he had received to the priesthood that was never to be his. The reverse seems to be the case for some of us; whereby many look at some of us and toss their heads in surprise – but are you not an ex seminarian – the courageous bellow or the more conciliatory mutter, both in shock? There is no shortage of ex seminarians today and chances are you have had a trough of experiences with this class dominated by a strange mixture of the bad and the ugly with spontaneous sprinkling of the good. On the occasion of the twenty-fourth anniversary of Dr. Bernard Fonlon’s death, it seems fitting to reflect on the enduring example of an ex major seminarian of all times. If for nothing at least it is my hope that this would inject some freshness into the rather sour pudding some of us have fed the public with; but above all else a reminder first to myself and then my brotherhood that we have in Fonlon a pace setter. Fonlon is a mirror for every ex major seminarian.
The singular endearing fiber defining Bernard Fonlon in my humble estimation is the indubitable fact that he remained a Christian. When he left the seminary, he did not check his values’ chest at the gate of the seminary. He remained in the world but fought vigorously not to be of the world. One would have thought that Fonlon’s dismissal from the seminary would have left him very bitter and acrimonious. Yet, he never seemed to have lost his poise as he is even said to have played the organ on the day of the ordination of his classmates, for example. Ben remained in the Church as a Christian living out the priesthood of the laity whole hog. When he moved out of the seminary, he did not move out of the Church but rather moved on and not in any small way but as a torch-bearer.
Given that we do not have the luxury of having Fonlon give us an account of why this was the case, one could only infer that this was in a large part because Fonlon quickly came to terms with his dismissal from the seminary. He eschewed the complacency of the blame game, omnipresent enticing and conscience massaging finger-pointing or the loathsome self-pity which are excellent recipes for frustrations most of us are adroit in. The Sartrean paradigm – hell is others is a path Fonlon rejected out rightly. Even more is the fact Fonlon avoided the self deprecatory model of guilt with the common experience of slipping into a depression for failing to achieve. The question for Fonlon was not so much who caused it or why did this happen but rather where do I go to from here with what I have?
One cannot deny the fact there is a strong temptation for the ex seminarian to be very angry with the Church which many see incarnated in the authorities of the Bishops and Priests so much so that to continue worshipping within this same institution ostensibly becomes more of an encumbrance. The Church could easily become the scapegoat for the ex seminarian’s frustrations. But like St Paul asked: were you baptized in the name of X, Y, Z? Fonlon knew he was not baptized in the name of this priest or that bishop and so beyond the seminary still sought the Father through the Son in the Spirit. He never lost sight of the fact that at Baptism, he was made king, priest and prophet. Like his master, Fonlon’s kingship was not that which sought palatial honors or regal authority…came to serve and not to be served and his public service record bears eloquent testimony to this; His prophetic mission is greatly accomplished in his panoply of writings, his candor and forthrightness in selfless pursuit of justice and peace; many will rush to quote Fonlon’s abstemiousness and lifelong dedication and commitment to celibacy as classical fulfillment of Fonlon’s priestly mission. Impressive as these in their own rights are, Fonlon also sanctified most of those who were privileged to come in contact with him by his alluring simplicity. And to crown it all, it is in the extraordinary role he played in shaping the destiny of St. Thomas Aquinas’ major seminary Bambui, a so highly prized jewel of the Bamenda Church province, that he truly fulfilled his vocation. There is no denying it that Fonlon espoused one of the best pieces of advice I received from a priest classmate of mine namely: “leaving the seminary could be a knockout but never a blackout and even if it is a blackout it is just intermittent.” I love these lines, a friend uses in signing off his email: if God gives you lemon, then make lemonade with it.
One other epic lesson worth remarking is that Fonlon had the brains and did not let them lie fallow. He exploited the opportunity and grew his brains. There seems to be a cascading consensus in the local church province that teaching is the best if not the only option for today’s ex seminarian. Fonlon was not contented with the barest minimum. The sky was his limit. He sought the silent groves of the academy. In fact, like Chesterton says of St Thomas Aquinas so too can we say of Fonlon that “he loved books and lived on books; that he lived the very life of the clerk or scholar in The Canterbury Tales, who would rather have a hundred books of Aristotle and his philosophy than any wealth the world could give him.” (P.3)
It would be too much of a stretch for me to surmise that every ex seminarian should therefore become a bookworm drudge like Fonlon. The bigger point is rather that Fonlon discovered quite quickly his gifts, talents and potential and explored these to the full. He was destined for a higher mission which he embraced so graciously and worked so tenaciously to accomplish. There is no denying that many ex seminarians today are operating at less than minimum of their full potentials. Most of us have remained so beholden to the Church that we think “outside its walls” we cannot survive. “Thinking outside the box” like Fonlon who instead of pursuing degrees in Philosophy and Theology, disciplines he was already comfortable with, rather he broadened his scope and scaled the horizon. Nothing wrong with studying philosophy and theology but in today’s global world, diversification is central. Today’s ex seminarian should be able to think outside the box and not be glued to the Church’s apron strings like a desperate pauper. We must break the dependency cycle and crack out the cocoon of the ostrich policy.
I have also been fascinated by the fact that Fonlon never became a priest even after he left Bigard memorial major seminary. In spite of the many opportunities that laid before him, he abandoned this path in sure certainty that he could be a “priest without the priesthood.” There is no doubt that given the delicate nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders administered to those called to the priesthood, mistakes have been made in discernment and there is no harm in trying elsewhere. There are many who when shown the door one way found a little window of opportunity and their conviction drove them through and they succeeded. Yet one cannot help but ask the question: Why did Fonlon not become a priest while in Ireland or in England or in France where he studied? Even more intriguing to me is the fact that when his student Paul Verdzekov became Bishop and could pull the shots, Fonlon did not see this as a window of opportunity to exploit. It would have been neat if Fonlon were ordained by one he inspired. This mystery is one that will haunt us for a while yet the endearing lesson of Fonlon’s decision is the fact that there are many “priests” who never get ordained and there is salvation beyond the walls of the priesthood. We can still serve God and the Church without being priests. Often only a notional assent is given to this and some of us behave as though, the priesthood is all we were cut out for. Becoming a priest at all cost is a terribly enslaving mindset to harbor. There is no denying it that many of us spend our energies on the wrong things or to put it in the words of a former Rector, we spend time singing beautifully outside the choir.
The cardinal axis of Fonlon’s life rotated on his integrity. Integrity has the same root as integer which in mathematical jargon encompasses whole numbers. Fonlon was wholesome and a man of great honor. If there is one thing today’s world so desperately needs, it is undeniably integrity. The world yearns badly for men of honor, men imbued with the sense of shame. In a world starving for people of character, the challenge then to the ex seminarian is to be a salt to the earth and light to the world. When I look back, there is an unmistakable indication that I have personally been counter-productive; in fact, to put it mildly, a scandal. Without judging any others, I wish I were alone. A cursory reality check unfortunately will prove me wrong and there are many genuine excuses for this state of affairs which I will address among others in a forth coming book. Fonlon might have enjoyed many supervening graces than most of us have been able to and thus became a man proven and not one yet to be proven. Even though the world generally takes delight in the negative, as we celebrate the twenty-fourth anniversary of the death of Fonlon, it seems relevant to draw inspiration from his stewardship and daily strive to enter like Fonlon into the hall of fame. Come to think of it, the ex seminarian’s average classmates and age mates do not have the benefit of the kind of formation the ex seminarian has received.
Fonlon spent 32 years building a legacy that 24 years later continues to reverberate. We do not need to become another Fonlon but can strive not only to resemble him but even be better than him. Don’t they say if you cannot beat him, join him? It is on this 24th anniversary that I learnt that Fonlon actually died on the birthday of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who would have been celebrating her centennial birthday this year. I would leave the parallels to a different paper. What a happy coincidence and given we do not have the material wherewithal to follow through with his canonization, what better way to canonize him than by emulating his example and leaving our own legacy too. May the life of Shiyla – which means shepherd (as Fonlon’s mother fondly called him as per Gwei Fonlon) shepherd us on this journey through this ‘vale of tears’ May we drink of this Pierian Spring who lived to answer the question of his middle name: Nsokika – what do the Nso people know – by the depth of writings he left. To paraphrase the lyrics of a popular tune: Fonlon you are gone but your spirit lives on. May Fonlon intercede for us.