Birthday anniversaries are milestones that set markers on one’s life trajectory. Fifty is such a golden age and a time for great celebrations. While such celebrations seem perfunctory, they carry immense significance. It is a celebration of life, of a journey and of course, achievements. In private, it is or should be a time of stocktaking.
One way of celebrating a birthday is by “recovering the origins” an idea beautifully expressed in this line: “To know ourselves – and become fully who we are – we have to look back to our origins. The word that seems most apt here is anamnesis, a remembering that connects our present to the past.” In Catholic liturgy it draws significantly from the Eucharist with the words “Do this in memory of me.” In a sense, then true celebrations of birthdays should be a memorial.
The first gift we receive at birth and carry throughout life is our names. Our destinies are wrapped up in the names ascribed to us at birth. To recover the origins of Bishop Michael Bibi, the golden boy, it seems fitting to pay a little bit of attention to his names. The bishop himself recounted that at his birth, there was a little scramble on what name to ascribe him and his grandmother had the last word: “let them say” which turned out to be his middle name “Miabesue.” This presents a little insight to the modus operandi of the bearer of the name. True to his name, he knows how to cut through the noise.
The providential coincidence of Bishop Bibi’s celebration of his golden jubilee in Buea, a few months after taking canonical possession of the diocese of Buea is worth pondering. At the time he celebrated his 49th birthday, he found himself embroiled in an unprecedented backlash as Apostolic Administrator. He had committed the cardinal sin against the Holy Spirit: he had dared touch the golden goose of the diocese: Catholic University Institute of the Diocese of Buea (CUIB) and recalled the popular president of the university, a priest of the diocese.
Bishop Bibi’s arrival as the apostolic administrator also saw the rise of the ecclesiastical gossip paper, “Catholic Spectator”. Threats on his person, frivolous lawsuits and calumny did not deter Bishop Bibi. True to his name and unperturbed by the filth, he stayed the course as though to say: Let them say! The naysayers sought canonical marabouts, poisoned the wells with the tribal tag and held prayer vigils invoking doom and gloom so the Apostolic Administration would not accede to the prime real estate as chief shepherd of the diocese of Buea. They drowned in their own cesspool as Miabesue prevailed as though to say: Let them say!
The fact that Buea diocese got an apostolic administrator immediately instead of a successor Bishop should give some pause. This diocese, the mother of all dioceses in the Bamenda ecclesiastical province had been in crisis since the advent of Bishop Bushu. This remains a basket case of poor adjustment to episcopal transition. With the retirement of now deceased Bishop Pius Awa fondly revered by his priests ascribing to him the title “Pantokrator” literally translated as the “Almighty” and the arrival of the more spiritually inclined Bishop Bushu, the presbyterate of Buea became dangerously divided. The one sticking point that defined and almost derailed the episcopacy of Bishop emeritus Bushu remains the elevation of a coterie of priests and prioritization of their agenda over all others. While Bishop emeritus Immanuel Balanjo Bushu saw his ministry blighted by the infamous memorandum written by his priests accusing him of neglect and playing favorites, Bishop Bibi’s as Apostolic Administrator launched off amidst skepticism, cynicism and outright rejection.
Bishop could not rely just on “Miabesue” – Let them say but invariably turned to Michael. The name Michael is ascribed to one of the archangels and has Hebraic origins expressed rhetorically as “Who is like God?” True to his name, Michael, nobody is like God, he leveled the playing fields and thus won the ire of the old barons and their cronies. The failure of many to grasp the eternal wisdom of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s literary genius captured in his famous line “the old order changeth yielding place to new; And God fulfils himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world,” explains the tensions that bedeviled the experience.
The Bible portrays Michael as a soldier and as an archangel. He is named as the protector of Israel while in the book of Revelation, Michael is portrayed as the leader of heaven’s armies in the war against Satan. In Cameroon, the fire brigade is part of the military. Michael, the soldier was sent to extinguish the flames burning in Buea diocese seeking to consume it. He came as a firefighter and troubleshooter and in twelve months demonstrated pastoral leadership skills calming the storms rocking the boat. He might not have been the Bishop Buea Diocese wanted but he is the one the diocese got. One could opine that Buea got an archangel who is a soldier to burnish it and purify it.
Turning 50 while a Bishop is a great feat and a great blessing. Msgr. Paul Verdzekov became a Bishop at the age of 39 having been a priest for only ten years. Msgr. Pius Awa became Bishop at the age of 40 and Msgr. Cornelius Esua became Bishop at the age of 39 having been a priest for averagely ten years. Bibi became a Bishop at the age of 45 having been a priest for 17 years. The wisdom of the experience of years as a priest should be handy and serve the episcopacy. It seems apropos to exhort Bishop Michael Bibi not to let himself be pushed around or be seen as being pushed around. Episcopal collegiality is very important but so is episcopal independence. It is the one lesson he can learn from Bishop emeritus Immanuel Bushu who stood his grounds to create CUIB while the provincial project CATUC was afoot. The symbiotic relationship between him and his predecessor seen in the fact that Bishop emeritus Bushu preached at Bishop Bibi’s 20th anniversary celebration as a priest and Bishop Bibi preached at their joint birthday celebrations is great mark worthy of mention.
In recovering the origins, one thing that must never be lost to Bishop Bibi is his origins. His daily prayer should be the words of King David: “Who am I Lord and what is my lineage that you have brought me this far? (2 Samuel 7:18) And come to think about it, when next the question: Can anything good come from Metta quarter – a notorious neighborhood in Bamenda is posed the answer shall always be a resounding yes! A Bishop!
Bishops have and wield power and a lot of authority. Power is one of the most abused element of the Bishopric. From the humble beginnings in Metta quarters, to Bishop’s house Bamenda and now Bishop of Buea, Bishop Bibi must never contaminate that unassuming personality with hubris. Like the Greek Philosopher Plutarch notes “there is no stronger test of a person’s character than power and authority exciting as they do every passion, and discovering every latent vice.” The exercise of the power and authority bestowed upon Bishop Bibi should bring out the humility of his origins which characterized his life.
It seems fitting to draw a line from Pope Francis’ address to the Roman curia in December 2014 when he lists the spiritual diseases that may plague the curia and the first he references is power/authority. He said inter alia: The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups….A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable! It is the disease of the rich fool in the Gospel, who thought he would live forever (cf. Lk 12:13-21), but also of those who turn into lords and masters, and think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is the grace of realizing that we are sinners and able to say heartily: “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10).
The ecclesiological paradigm that animates Bishop Bibi should not just be the institutional namely the Church as an institution but should be the Church as a family.
I have watched from a distance the great pastor that Bishop Bibi is. His pastoral exuberance and effervescence is laudable. Yet, one must hasten to add that there is the need to go slow. The current wave of enthusiasm is to be expected given the diocese’s need for new blood. Every new thing enjoys a certain period of popularity, it soon peters out. My birthday gift to Bishop Bibi on his fiftieth birthday is to remind him that he has 25 long years to serve in Buea or better still as Bishop. I know firsthand how much he wants that diocese to be transformed. With the current predicament of the people mired in an intractable crisis and an economy that is choking, I can only pray Bishop Bibi to go slow with the people of Buea and for someone who has turned 50, he needs to prioritize golden calculated steps.
To this end, I invoke the guidance of St Michael the archangel that he may defend Bishop Michael Bibi in battle, be his protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke the devil, we humbly pray; and may the prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Ad multos annos.