It is one week to the date since the Church in the ecclesiastical province of Bamenda erupted in song and dance at the news of the appointment of one her priests to the office of Bishop for the Benjamin of the province – diocese of Mamfe. One could write an encyclopedia about the Bishop-elect but would prefer to mention three gifts the new Bishop brings to his ministry in Mamfe namely eloquent preaching, elegant administration and erudite playwright.
In his priestly ministry, bishop-elect Andrew Nkea distinguished himself as an eloquent preacher. One could rightly refer to him as the John Chrysostom of our age – the man with the golden tongue not to be confused with one with the sweet or glib tongue known for sugar-coating meant to impress or cajole. Rather, simply put, Bishop-elect Nkea is a gifted preacher. Even though we may take it for granted that good preaching is a gift, it is important to note that it is a cultivated gift. A good sermon is the fruit of prayer and reading. He was just so good that when he was chancellor of the diocese, Christians started rotating mass attendance based on where he was going to be celebrating mass and preaching just to savor the richness of his sermon. And rich they were!
Yet it is important to point out that true to his name, “Nkea” which literally translates as “It is not I, it is you,” this gift did not let him turn away from the giver. Never preaching to impress but rather to win souls for God. He did not let the gift become an idol. Our Holy Father Pope Francis in his new encyclical notes idolatry is “a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands.” Yes, Bishop-elect eschewed this temptation.
As Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium (LG) states, “Among the principal duties of Bishops, the Preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For, Bishops are Preachers of the Faith, who lead new Disciples to Christ. They are authentic teachers, that is Teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice” (LG. 25).
In this year of the faith, what greater gift could the people of Mamfe ask for than to have a seasoned preacher like Bishop-elect, Andrew Nkea. Mere coincidence? One would not be wrong to surmise that the urgency to proclaim the Gospel not so much ad extra as ad intra, not so much to the heathens as to those within the Church, warranted the choice of this gifted preacher.
The announcement came five days after the release of Pope Francis’ first encyclical: Lumen Fidei – The Light of Faith. Through his word, the light of the faith would shine forth in Mamfe diocese. But as Pope Paul VI reminds us: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” And as Christ challenges all of us: Your light must shine in the sight of men so that seeing your good works they may give praise to your father in heaven.
When what has become known as the “maranatha” crises rocked Buea diocese, then Chancellor of the diocese and now Bishop-elect, Andrew Nkea rose to the challenge and showed true candor, fortitude and stamina. The one thing that stood out clearly during the crisis was the complete reversal of the cardinal principle of African tradition: Blood is thicker than water. Msgr. Andrew showed that the waters of Baptism super cede blood relations. True to type, many people read the crisis as two “bangwa people fighting.” Then Bishop elect was not afraid to lose the support of his clansmen. Truth trumped tribal affiliations and triumphed in the end. There is no denying it that it is thanks in part to the indefatigable work of then chancellor, that the diocese weathered the storm. His tenure in the chancery of the diocese of Buea could now be seen as prep time for the third duty of the Bishop, which is governance or more loosely administration. From my perspective, I have known the Bishop elect to be very diplomatic with civil authorities, pastoral with Christians and fraternal with priests. He is an administrator par excellence.
A surprising nugget in Bishop elect’s treasure chess which his profile on LinkedIn (and yes Bishop-elect is social media savvy) and all that I have read about him have failed to capture is the fact that he is a playwright. With Fr. Marcellus Bekong of blessed memory, he co-authored an unpublished play, “Chibili’s will,” which the drama club of St Thomas Aquinas’ major seminary, Bambui, thrilled the population of Bamenda and its environs with. It is a riveting tale of the Lekang society of the Nweh community and the demise of one of its leaders. What is at play here is the fact that in crafting this literary piece, Msgr. Andrew Nkea displayed knowledge of the culture of his people, which he truly appreciates that he could “codify” into a literary text. He is the cosmopolitan rooted in the traditions of the land but solidly grounded in the Christian faith. He is an African Christian par excellence.
But what has his literary genius got to do with his appointment?
Fr. Gerald Gurka, a priest and pastor in the diocese of Scanton, PA in his article, “Liturgy as theater,” so beautifully elucidates this: The Eucharist is, of course, an awesome sacred drama that goes beyond even the most superb theater production. It connects us to the creative wonder of God’s immense, mysterious love, which unconditionally allowed his son to become one of us, to suffer, die and rise for us and in us. The Mass invites us onto the eternal stage where no curtain or bad seat distances us or veils our sight.
As a playwright and actor himself, Bishop-elect Nkea truly comprehends this. The celebration of the Eucharist then is not just perfunctory and mechanical but animated by principles already incarnated in this skill. Hence, one can guarantee that the “dramatic” of the liturgy will be the experience of many in the diocese of Mamfe especially during this year of the faith.
This was not meant to be a panegyric in honor of Bishop-elect – Nkea; after all, good palm wine needs no advert; or even an attempt to justify the Vatican’s decision with this appointment, which would be lame for the Vatican needs no such corroboration. Rather this attempt, wanting as it is, should be read as an attempt to define in broad strokes albeit the ministry of the Bishop and how a mentor and family friend’s ministry has prepared him for the challenging ministry to which he has been called.
It would be presumptuous for me to seek to advise the new Bishop especially given my own inability even to ascend to the basic priesthood. But as a Catholic, I would dare offer some words to the new bishop.
Speculations were rife amongst ecclesiastical politicians (that many Christians are) that Bishop Awa was preparing his chancellor to replace him when he retires. This did not happen as Buea diocese got a new Bishop. With hindsight, divine providence seemed to be preparing you for this moment by testing you in the crucible of the recent crisis that Buea diocese suffered among its priests. As you must have learnt, a crucial part of your ministry will be in the relationship you have with your priests.
One of the many new functions you will have exclusive right to is ordination of priests. At every priestly ordination, the Bishop addresses the candidate as: “My son…” This is no mere formality. Neither does it draw meaning exclusively from the sociological “father-son” relationship but fundamentally from Trinitarian perspective.
My Lord, Bishop-elect Andrew Nkea think of and work for the welfare of your priests. Be a true father to them. Avoid creating soccer-like leagues in the diocese with some playing in division one and others playing in division two at best or at worst mere spectators. Help your priests to enjoy the priesthood.
May the good Lord in his mercy and goodness who has begun the good work in you bring it to fruition.