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The late Catholic pontiff, Pope John Paul II, headed what is still the largest church on earth. With such a congregation, it was usual for him to travel to as many countries as possible on trips called pastoral visits. In 1982, he was in Nigeria, which has one of the largest concentrations of Catholic faithfuls on earth.
This historical piece explains the visit and the events surrounding it. As it was the tradition in Nigeria, receiving a major dignitary was done in style and President Shehu Shagari made sure he left no stone unturned in receiving the Pope and making sure he had a nice time as a much-celebrated guest.
The Pope was in Nigeria from the 12th to the 17th of February, 1982 and he visited Lagos (which was then the capital of Nigeria), Onitsha, Enugu, Kaduna and Ibadan. It was his 10th foreign visit. Millions of Nigerians were ecstatic to receive the Pope and till date, it remains one of the most memorable events in the country. Upon arrival at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, the Pope, in his usual respect and love, paid homage by kissing the soil of Nigeria and broke his silence with an address to the people of Nigeria. Here are more photos from the visit:
For Christians, it was a major moment of joy and grace. The Pope called his maiden visit to Nigeria an unfolding vision of hope. A few years later in 1985, the centenary of evangelization in Eastern Nigeria was celebrated. This was described thus:
‘Two major events in the history of the church in Nigeria mark out the starting point of the new era of evangelization in Igboland. The maiden visit of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria in 1982 and the celebration of the centenary of evangelization in Eastern Nigeria later in 1985 were occasions of reflections about the success and failures of former missionary strategies in order to improve on them. In his own well chosen word, the Pope refers to his maiden visit to Nigeria as an unfolding of ‘a vision of hope’. This pastoral visit revealed equally his esteem for the worthy religious values that are cherished in Nigeria as a people. This same visit merits also the qualities of being missionary since the Pope came as well to proclaim Jesus Christ (who was already in their midst) among the Nigerians in order to strengthen them in faith and love for God and for one another.
It was also a pilgrimage according to the descriptions of Cardinal Tomko, and the Pope demonstrated this understanding by his various bodily and verbal expressions. Giving recognition to the Nigerian soil as a holy ground also, the Holy Father indicated the sanctity of God’s creation and of the natural environment from where the Nigerians are called to be ambassadors of Christ and the living saints of his church. It meant that at the same time an acceptance of the church in Nigeria by the universal church, on whose behalf the Pope came to meet, listen to, as well as to pray with, bless and celebrate for etc.
His actions were certifying and sanctifying, having acted in the name of Christ, the universal king and redeemer of human race. Speaking later to the Nigerian bishops gathered in Lagos for his papal audience, the Supreme Pontiff hit the nail properly at the head, thereby challenging them to a return to the riches of their cultural background which should also enrich ecclesial activities in their various dioceses. The Supreme Pontiff called his plea for ‘a new era of evangelization’ in terms of repeated prayer. Without mincing words, he further declared to this effect as follows:
‘Having herself embraced the Gospel, the Church is called to communicate it by word and action. The Catholic people, under your leadership, have the opportunity, the privilege and duty to give a corporate witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the culture in which they live. They have the power to bring the Gospel into the very heart of their culture, into the fabric of their everyday lives.’
A proud nation commissioned famous artist Bruce Onobrakpeya to create a befitting present for the Catholic pontiff. So he made the Pope John Paul II, a commemorative plastograph with the image of the pontiff dominating the mask which serves as a pedestal for his massive frame, with staff in one hand while the other is raised in blessing. The head in the foreground is surrounded by small figures of adults and children representing the masses.
A commemorative print was also commissioned by Bishop Edmund Fitzgibbon of Port Harcourt and Warri Diocese to mark the visit. Catholics believe the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth and that his visit generated a lot of excitement and frenzy is understandable.
The Pope would later return to Nigeria in March 1998 during the kleptocratic regime of military dictator General Sani Abacha for a second and final time. The pontiff pleaded with Abacha to release prisoners and improve the image of his regime by ending human rights violation. Abacha did not listen and a few months later, the tyrant was dead. For an overjoyed superstitious nation, that was a symbol from heaven.
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