If someone called and asked me to make an educated guess of the priest chosen from the archdiocese of Bamenda to be bishop, Auxiliary Bishop-elect Michael Bibi would not have readily come to mind. Not in the convoluted sense of the proverbial familiarity breeding contempt but rather because of traditional biases or better still, conventional wisdom.
First, Bishop-elect is not Rector of the St Thomas Aquinas’ Major Seminary (STAMS), Bambui and has not been full time faculty there. Ecclesiastical history shows us that of the five Bishops of the Bamenda ecclesiastical province, only Bishop Nkuo of Kumbo did not have any direct relation with the seminary; three former Rectors of the major seminary in Bambui (Cardinal Tumi, Bishop Bushu and Bishop Agapitus) have become Bishops with one, the lone cardinal of Cameroon. Three former lecturers (Archbishop Esua of Bamenda, Bishop Nkea of Mamfe and Retired Bishop Lysinge of Mamfe) have also become Bishops. Clearly, the path to the episcopacy in the Bamenda ecclesiastical province passes through the major seminary. My friend does not fit that mold even though he taught on a part time basis in the seminary. It is worth mentioning that Bishop-elect Michael Bibi is the fifth ex-student of STAMS, Bambui to become Bishop.
What is more, Bishop-elect Bibi did not study in Rome where he would have been steeped in the ecclesiastical accoutrements wont of the episcopacy or “Bishops-in-waiting.” Or better still, he would have been known amongst the “power-brokers” in Rome. Again, with the exception of the Bishop of Kumbo who studied in Ireland, all the others have studied in Rome. Bishop-elect Michael studied in England where he fortified the legacy of the Bamenda-Portsmouth relationship.
However, like two of his predecessors, Bishops Andrew and Agapitus, Bishop-elect Michael has “walked” the corridors of power having been chancellor of the archdiocese of Bamenda for seven years. Bishop Nkea served as Bishop’s secretary of Buea diocese during the infamous years of the “Maranatha” crises and demonstrated an uncanny expertise that helped diffuse and dissipate the growing tensions. Bishop Agapitus Nfon erstwhile auxiliary Bishop of Bamenda now Bishop of Kumba served as Bishop Esua’s secretary in Kumbo. He later on went to Rome and studied Patristics which he later taught in the seminary before becoming Rector of the seminary. One would not be wrong to opine that Bishop Awa’s legacy lives on with Bishop Nkea of Mamfe and Bishop Nkuo of Kumbo. And now Archbishop Esua’s legacy will live on through Bishop Nfon of Kumba and auxiliary Bishop-elect Bibi.
Bishop-elect’s path to the episcopacy fits the bill of Gerard Hughes’ famous book: God of Surprises! He is the product of “Abakwa” town growing up in Metta quarters of all places and attending Providence Comprehensive College, Mankon not one of those “A-list” of schools. This has been an interesting journey. The very cathedral he would be consecrated in is one he knows very well. He served there as an altar boy and would later be ordained there as a priest in the jubilee year, 2000. He returned to serve as Bishop’s secretary and now comes the icing of the cake with his election as auxiliary Bishop. This is the work of the Lord!
The 5:30a.m. “Whatsapp” message from Fr. Maurice Akwa announcing the election of Bishop Bibi saw me leaping in joy. My “own man” is now a Bishop! Unlike in political circles whereby such an elevation would have afforded one some favors such as appointments to some high office with financial remuneration, I find my friend’s election as auxiliary Bishop an enormous responsibility to be able to help him accomplish his mission and succeed in his ministry. Chesterton’s words seem appropriate in this context when he opined in his famous work Orthodoxy, that if this was something to stand by, then this should be the norm, that we take the crown and go to the recesses of the world in search of the man who knows he is not worthy to wear it; the man who would sincerely say, like St. Augustine, “Noli me episcopare” – (Not me for Bishop).
My first apostolic assignment in the archdiocese of Bamenda was at the Youth Office. I had the honor of being chaperoned by now auxiliary Bishop-elect who was also on similar assignment. He would pick me up from our Ndamukong street home every morning and drop me off every evening. For six years, while we journeyed through the seminary, we became true friends and real brothers. Both of us were “called” to the priesthood but he was “chosen.” It would seem odd that all of a sudden because he has become a Bishop, this relationship should fizzle out.
In his recent book, “Living the priesthood: Personal reflections on 25 years of Priesthood,” (which I highly recommend the Bishop-elect to read if he had not already done so, or to re-read within the context of his new position), the author, Rev. Dr. Joseph Awoh underscores the importance of friendship for priests. He notes: “Priests need priests. It is important that all of us have special friends of our presbyterate, religious community or whatever group God has placed us – not only as a psychosocial support system – but also as a spiritual support system. Ideally these friends should be people of our generation – classmates or age mates, people who studied with us in the seminary. (Emphasis is mine).
This is a refreshing recommendation which even though it celebrates “priest-to-priest” friendship, drives home, unintentionally albeit, the role some of us former seminarians are called to play. I belong to a special class of persons who like Bishop-elect felt called to the priesthood but unlike him fell along the way or rather off the way. The greatest tragedy for many of us in this special class is not the fact of having fallen along the way but rather our inability to sustain the relationships we cultivated while on that pilgrimage to the priesthood. Some of us have become so tainted like the biblical lepers that it is scandalous for some priests – our school and classmates- to be friends with us. While there are many reasons for this, it seems the answer lies in what true friendship means.
It might be apropos to read the great philosopher Aristotle’s enunciation of friendship. In his classical work, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship namely, friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure and friendship of the good. With friendship of utility, Aristotle surmises that friends do not love each other in themselves but in so far as some benefit accrues to them from each other. In other words, the friend is not loved for his own sake, but for the sake of some benefit received by the other.
Friendship of pleasure is based on pleasure: for instance, when one enjoys the society of witty people not because of what they are in themselves but because they are agreeable to one.
Aristotle recommends friendship of the good as the perfect form of friendship which is that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue. For these friends wish each alike the other’s good in respect of their goodness, and they are good in themselves; but it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friend’s sake who are friends in the fullest sense since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally. It is along such Aristotelian paradigm that I seek to deepen the friendship with the Bishop-elect. Bishops can be very lonely. Even Bishops too have and should have friends.
In seeking the key to unlock the contours of his ministry, I found this in the fact that Bishop-elect had a passion for soccer. Interestingly, he played with defunct Adidas Football Club – in the second division league where he guarded the goalpost before proceeding to the minor seminary in Buea.
My first encounter with the Bishop elect happened on the 11th February 1990 when I watched him defend the goalpost in an exciting “Youth Day” final, pitting Bishop Rogan College minor seminary against the vocational school OIC – a mismatch by any standards which turned out to be a repeat of the David-Goliath spectacle. Bishop Rogan College carried the day. I would move there the following year for high school studies. Michael proceeded to the Major seminary in Bambui where for all seven years remained the goalkeeper of the invincible seminary soccer team. One would not be wrong then to observe that just as Christ called Peter, the fisherman to be a fisher of men and he has called Michael the goal keeper to be the goalkeeper of the faith and the flock; in fact goalkeeper of the Kingdom. Be a keeper of your brother priests; be a keeper of catechists.
During his consecration on March 25th, the principal consecrator will address him in the following words: As a steward of the mysteries of Christ in the church entrusted to you, be a faithful overseer and guardian. Since you are chosen by the Father to rule over his family, always be mindful of the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and is known by them and who did not hesitate to lay down his life for them.
The Bishop is a guardian. The French word for goalkeeper is “guardien” which shares some affinity with the English, guardian or custodian. Former goalkeeper for the United States of America soccer team Brad Friedel captures the essence of goalkeeping when he says: Being a goalkeeper gives you quite a unique perspective on things. You are part of a team yet somehow separate; there are no grey areas, with success or failure being measured in real time; and you have a physical job which you can only do well by paying attention to your mental well-being. A great goalkeeper has to have the keys to a great mindset. To be able to work well in the box, I believe you have to be able to think outside the box.”
Mundane as these words may read, they contain practical wisdom for Bishop-elect’s edification.
One cannot fail to recognize the tremendous work the Bishop-elect has already accomplished with the Maryvale Institute in the archdiocese of Bamenda. He has trained many catechists and in fact many lay persons on the rudiments of the faith. I had a feat when my dad informed me about his graduation from the Maryvale institute and told me the nice things he had learnt in Canon Law, Scripture, Liturgy and Church History. Bishop-elect is an expert in Catechetics. Every Bishop is a chief catechist. Having been engaged in the formation of catechists for the local Church, my prayer for my friend is that may the new function he embraces be (in)formed by the lives of the many catechists whose selflessness and dedication in the Lord’s vineyard is unparalleled.
The most celebrated quality of Bishop-elect Michael Bibi is his simplicity. It is the one quality that many have trumpeted since this news broke. The temptation with such a position is its corruptibility. It presents an enhancing environment for the probable and possible to become reality. And as wisdom teaches, “corruption optimi pessima est” – the corruption of the best is the worst. Hence, the virtue could become a vice as a result of the new function. If I could preach a retreat to the auxiliary Bishop-elect (something we recently joked about), I would focus on the words the principal consecrator on the day of consecration would proclaim inter alia:
You, dear brother, have been chosen by the Lord. Remember that you are chosen from among men and appointed to act for men and women in relation to God. The title of bishop is not one of honor but of function, and therefore a bishop should strive to serve rather than to rule. Such is the counsel of the Master: the greater should behave as if he were the least, and the leader as if he were the one who serves.
To God be the Glory! May the “Yes” you will profess and proclaim on March 25th mirror the “Yes” of the Virgin Mary as you ascend to the high office of auxiliary Bishop on the solemn feast of the annunciation.