There is no shortage of models of the priesthood who inspire young men to become priests and if I could be a priest, Msgr. Lafon would have been the example of the kind of a priest I would have loved to be. He loved the priesthood and that made the difference. He enjoyed being a priest and served with distinction as a priest for 43 years. He radiated the joy of the priesthood which does not flow from the external accoutrements that seemingly characterize the sacred ministry but wells from within. There is no gainsaying it that Patrick Lafon exuded the dignity of the priesthood. Archbishop Quinn’s answer to the question: “Why would any man in his right mind want to be a Catholic priest today?” brings to bold relief the essence of Msgr. Lafon’s testimony of the priesthood: “I believe . . . that this is the best time in the history of the Church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest—that is, to ‘be with’ Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage.”
He embodied very distinctly the response he proclaimed on the day of his ordination: “I am, I am, I am with the help of God.” One could see, hear, taste, smell and feel the charisma of the priesthood in the presence of Msgr. Patrick Lafon. Quite an elite priest without being elitist and Archbishop Nkea’s appointment of him as Vicar for Clergy was quite visionary.
After a 15-year stint at the National Episcopal Conference in Cameroon, one would have expected that his stay at Washington D.C would have given him many openings. He would have been the authority on the Church in Cameroon and the numerous opportunities that such would have opened for him at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He sought no such favors preferring the low profile braving the storms and tempests as he took up abode at the humble rectory of St Theresa of Avila parish in the poor and dangerous neighborhood of South East, D.C.
Who takes a sabbatical to return to academia to pursue a terminal degree in Philosophy? The exceptional rigor of the Department of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, no respecter of title of Father with the lingering vestiges of racism did not deter or impede Msgr. Lafon from sailing through to the end. Quite a feat in humility, the one endearing lesson of the legacy of Msgr. Patrick Lafon.
I watched in disbelief how together with his classmate and friend Fr William Neba, they would serve us food from their refrigerator and would clean the dishes after us who should have been serving them. That’s the reality of the priesthood in America.
Yet he left a distinctive footprint in his prophetic ministry. Speaking truth to power has been the forte of Msgr. Patrick Lafon even while he served in the lion’s den in Yaounde. His prophetic prowess came to light in his academic pursuits in Political Philosophy. He had learnt from the master, Archbishop Paul Verdzekov that the truth will set us free. He shouted from rooftops the truth that politics should not ipso facto be associated with evil especially in Africa. Buoyed by the wisdom of German born American Political scientist, Hannah Arendt whom Monsignor studied for his licentiate in Philosophy in Rome, which foundation is “fleshified” and fortified by the French Philosopher Yves Simon, Patrick proclaimed “virtue in politics!”
It takes the guts and grits of a prophet to stand on the side of a disenfranchised people and tell the truth to power. He was an unapologetic defender of the 2016 Memorandum of the Bamenda Provincial Episcopal Conference (BAPEC) which advocated a revision of the 1961 Constitution that guaranteed autonomous status of the people of former British Southern Cameroons. I can still hear his gentle voice in the hall of St Joseph’s metropolitan cathedral lambasting the goons of the infamous regime. Ask the Archbishop of Douala, then President of the National Episcopal Conference of Cameroon, Samuel Kleda, the forthright challenge Msgr. Lafon posed him during his visit to the South West and North West Regions in 2017 and the abysmal failure of the conference to stand with the Bishops of the region. His recent outing during the visit of Cardinal Secretary of State at the Vatican drives home the point when in his welcome address, Msgr. Lafon noted: “Cameroon has had the dubious distinction of graduating from 25 years of a one-party dictatorship to forty years of an oligarchy. In the process, juridical arrangements and agreements that founded this country as made up of West Cameroon and East Cameroon were jettisoned and a doomed process of assimilation embarked upon.” He called on the eminent prince of the Church to facilitate dialogue towards a mediated resolution of the “civil war” raging in the area. The death of Msgr. Lafon leaves of a gaping hole in the prophetic ministry at the service of justice and peace. He believed in the truth that there is no peace without justice and did not embrace the doctrine of peace at all cost even that of justice.
Msgr. Lafon was certainly not a stubborn, pigheaded critic “opposant” but a clear-minded person who respectfully and objectively stood for the truth,
And like Martin Luther King Jr stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Msgr. Lafon’s prophetic ministry flows not only from his priestly ministry but also from his specialization in philosophy. One could describe Msgr. Lafon as a priest who became a philosopher or a philosopher who became a priest which are two sides of the same coin. Upon return from the stilted walls of the Catholic University of America, he returned to Bamenda where his services became crucial at the Catholic University of Cameroon, (CATUC), Bamenda. After holding the Chair of Philosophy at the said institution and offering lectures in Metaphysics and Epistemology at the John Paul II Major Seminary, Bachuo Ntai, Mamfe, Msgr. Lafon crowned his legacy in Philosophy just a month before his death with the launching of the doctoral program in Philosophy where he would have groomed other budding scholars in furtherance of the Latin adage: Bonum diffisivum sui – Goodness diffuses itself. But helas!
I can still hear his genteel voice gyrating on the rudiments of African Philosophy as he navigated the complex budding discipline. The endearing quality of this servant of God is his simplicity even in his razor-sharp criticality. Patrick Lafon would have agreed with Randall Smith’s conclusion that there is some truth in Alfred North Whitehead’s dictum that “‘Philosophy begins in wonder’ and that ‘at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains’; yet there is more wisdom in Coleridge’s admonition that ‘In wonder all philosophy began, in wonder it ends… but [while] the first is the offspring of ignorance, the last is the parent of adoration.’” There is wonder about the passing of God’s servant, but this leads us to adoration of the creator who gifted us with this wonderful servant, full of wisdom, so simple yet profound and will be greatly missed.
The one consolation we all should have is the fact that by some happenstance Msgr. Lafon died in the Year of St Joseph and is laid to rest on a Wednesday traditionally in honor of St Joseph. The fact that he is buried on the day on which we begin the novena in preparation for the Solemnity of St Joseph, husband of Mary, on March 19th, is a happy coincidence. Msgr. Lafon had a great devotion to St Joseph. The Catholic Men’s Association (CMA) of the Cameroon Catholic Community of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. is the fruit of the labors of Msgr. Lafon. St Joseph has been invoked as the patron of a good death. In the words of St Peter Julian Eymard, “St. Joseph is the patron and protector of a happy death. Those who pray to him are certain to die in good dispositions. He is the model of those who wish to die in the Lord.” This explains the eyewitness account of the final hour of Msgr. Lafon: He asked to celebrate the sacrament of penance which he did for about an hour. Thereafter he asked his brother, classmate, and friend whom he fondly called Willy Neba to anoint him. After the rite was performed, he said his body is no longer here and that he wants to meet his God. He said they should raise his leg which was down and heavy up to the bed. Then he just coughed lightly like a little baby who had choked and slept quietly. That was it: “Mission termine!”
May the angels and saints bring him to the home of his father. May St Joseph intercede for his eternal repose and may the sweat, tears and joy of Msgr, Lafon be sown for an eternal harvest.