By MARTINS UBA NWAMADI
The anecdote of “the Blind men and the Elephant” keeps popping up each time one thinks of the perception of very Reverend Monsignor Theophilus Ibegbulam Okere by different people.
Many see him as priest. A priest! Yes, that is what he is, first and foremost, and a very good one at that. Some see him as a teacher, a teacher indeed of the scholastic tradition with pedigree linking him to St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, for others he is Rev. Fr Theophilus Okere, the accomplished literary man, an orator as fluent in his native Umuonyike, Nnorie dialect of Igbo land as he is in English, French, German and Latin Languages and more. For those who have had close social contact with him, he is the fine, humble and perfect gentleman in whom all that is perfect in every culture blends. He is a priest, philosopher, theologian, scholar, historian of culture, music artiste, intellectual and man of letters, all in one.
To capture the quintessential Theophilus, however, one sees him as encapsulating all of these in optimal proportions and blend. In the performance of any role, he brings in every attribute of every other role. Thus, at the pulpit, he makes you realize that he is also a literary icon, a philosopher, a teacher, a polyglot, etc. In conversation, you cannot mistake the fact that he is a priest.
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Monsignor Theophilus Okere was ordained a Priest of the then Diocese of Owerri in 1962. The same year, he proceeded to Ireland where he read for a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English at the University College, Dublin, graduating with honours in 1965. He then studied Philosophy at the prestigious Catholic University of Louvain, obtaining a PhD in Philosophy in 1972, the first Nigerian to do so.
His PhD dissertation, “Can there be an African philosophy”: A Hermeneutical inquiry into the condition of its possibility” was seminal. It set the stage for later researches in African philosophy, having demonstrated definitely that philosophy, any philosophy and therefore African Philosophy, can be itself, only as a hermeneutics or interpretation of its culture.
And since his own culture is Igbo, the logic of his thesis has placed him as one of the foremost Igbo thinkers. His commitment to and familiarity with Igbo culture manifest in his conversations, writings, lectures and sermons to the extent that he has once been dubbed “an unrepentant native”.
Monsignor Okere taught Philosophy at Bigard Seminary (1972 – 1976), St. Joseph’s major seminary as rector 1981 – 1984, and Jesuit St. Joseph’s University Philadelphia 1994 – 1999. It is his long stay in the seminary system that has made him pre-eminent as the spiritual and intellectual father of more than half of the priests serving today in Igbo land. Hundreds of these men of the cloth adoringly greet him with “Okere wu Agbara” as a tribute to what they perceive as his versatility and his encyclopedic wealth of knowledge.
Monsignor Okere has served the church in various capacities including a tenure as consultor to the Vatican Dicastery at the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with non-believers. Back home, he is the first President of the Catholic Theological Association of Nigeria and has between books and articles, lecture and homilies, over 200 titles to his credit. He is a laureate of the two prestigious lecture series in Igbo land; Odenigbo (1997) and Ahiajoku (2007) both of which he delivered in Igbo Language.
The above is adapted from the “Biography of Very Rev. Monsignor Theophilus I. Okere” written by Dr Augustine Okere and Fr. George Nwachukwu.
On Thursday November 12, 2020, Monsignor Theophilus Okere’s remains will be laid to rest. James White Comb Riley said of death: “I cannot say, and I will not say that he is dead. He is just away. With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand, he has wandered into an unknown land. And let us dream how very fair, it needs must be since he lingers there… I say, he is not dead; he is just away”.
Monsignor Theophilus Okere, your prints will forever remain in the sands of history for your life of selflessness, industry, honesty, integrity will remain an enduring compass to those who strive for moral rectitude. At your end is your beginning. Adieu ‘Okere wu Agbara’.
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