The story of Rev Fr Lambert Ejionueme who was ordained a Catholic Priest on 3rd April 2016 by the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Dioceses, Most Rev Prof Godfrey Onah, after his priestly ordination was postponed by Bishop Okobo, the emeritus Bishop of Nsukka dioceses in 1997, is indeed a must-read for all and sundry. It is a heart-touching story that carries with it myriads of lessons of the rewards of the virtue of patience. In an exclusive interview which Fr Lambert granted to the Editor-in –Chief of AMEN Super News, Barr Ike Maximus Ugwuoke, on 14th April 2016 (few days after his ordination) Fr Lambert made some startling revelations as he narrated how and why he waited for 19 years after his deaconate before he was ordained a priest, what he passed through within the 19 years waited, his encounter with Fr Ejike Mbaka the Spiritual Director of Adoration Ministry Enugu Nigeria and others on his way to the cross, how he received the news of his Ordination and what happened during his ordination. This was coming just a few days to his first mass after his ordination held on 17th April, 2016 at his home town, Ukehe, an occasion that Rev Fr Ejike Mbaka and the entire Adoration family dominated. Here is the Excerpts
May we know who we are speaking with?
You are speaking with Rev Fr Dr Lambert Kenechukwu Ejionueme.
Who is Rev Fr Dr Lambert?
“Okay, I am a catholic priest of Nsukka dioceses. I am from Ukehe (Igbo Etiti LGA of Enugu State); specifically my village is Umuofiagu. My late parents are John and Angela Ejionueme. I passed through primary school at Holy Redeemer Primary school Nru Nsukka in 1972. Then in 1973, I proceeded to Federal Government College Port Harcourt where I did my Secondary school. Then when I finished in 1979 I gained admission into collage of technology Owerri now called Federal Polytechnic Nekede, Owerri where I read Estate Management. After my HND programme I went to Youth Service in 1983/84 and after then I picked a job with the then Anambra State education commission as classroom teacher from 1985 to 1988 when the urge to become a priest came. I had to resign and went to Seminary. The Church admitted me then under Enugu dioceses. I went for probation in 1988/1989 at St John Cross Seminary Nsukka . I was posted to Bishop Shanahan Hospital Nsukka to do one year apostolic work in 1990/1991. Then in 1992, I was sent to St Joseph Seminary Ikot Ekpene. I did both my philosophy and Theology at Ekot Ekpene, finished in 1997. I was supposed to be ordained in 1997 but the local church at Nsukka felt there was the need to form me further after the seminary had formed me and they asked me to wait. From that 1977 till this year 2006, I was waiting for the Church. And now the Church feels that for these 19 years, they have formed me enough and through the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Most Rev Prof Godfrey Igwebuike Onah , the Church ordained me a priest on the 3rd of April 2016.
At what stage of your life did you hear the call to become a priest and how did you respond to this?
“My brother, actually I was already a graduate when I got the call and I prayed over it, told my parish priest and many other priests. I resisted the urge but it kept coming. Between 1986 and 1988 when I eventually entered the seminary, the urge was coming but I resisted it. But I could say that what actually made the call become very prominent was that there was a deity in a town close to my town. The thing was mesmerizing our people particularly young girls and by the grace of God I met our then Parish priest, Rev Fr Daniel Ani and we started fighting the deity. And as God would have it in February 1988 it was proscribed through a military decree and everything concerning the deity was destroyed. The fight against the deity started in 1986, when the then Government set up a commission of Inquiry that looked into the worship of the deity and one retired Justice was the chairman. It wasn’t an easy fight as the proponents of the deity used many means to fight those of us who were out to curb the excesses of the deity. So within the time I was into this battle, I was in intensive prayers. I was getting the message “Why not go into the seminary?” When the urge became unbearable, I had to resign my job.
What really was the reason the church took the decision that you had to wait after your deaconate: what really happened?
“That period is a period one wouldn’t want to remember but the much I know, the Church received some report alleging that I had some impediment that would not allow them to admit me to the Order of Priesthood. And it took the Church 19 years to investigate whether this allegation was true or not. Within the period, the Church asked me to go to University of Nigeria Nsukka and do some programmes and by the grace of God, I was able to do my PHD within the period. I am happy with what Bishop Onah who ordained me a priest said during our Ordination (because we were two, the other colleague of mine was supposed to be ordained in 2001 while I was supposed to be ordained in1997), the Bishop told the audience that he was not granting the two of us executive pardon as if we committed any offense , that it was just the grace of God and that no person should blame the Bishop who postponed our ordination and that no person should praise him who eventually ordained us and that it was just how God wanted it.
Now, these 19 years that you had to wait what was the experience like?
“Very bitter and sweet experience. This was because it got to a time that some of my friends deserted me and some of my relations deserted me. Some individuals I didn’t know before came close and became Simon to help me carry the cross. Specifically someone like Rev Fr Ejike Mbaka met me at the first station of my cross and took it upon himself to carry the cross. He didn’t wait for me to get to the 5th Station. He carried the cross from the 1st station up till the 15th Station because I know the 14th station is the burial but then Fr Mbaka carried it to the 15th Station which is the Resurrection. The experience is very enriching and I learnt a lot; that people can always be around you when things are going well with you but they will just forget about you when it becomes tough. I remember that I even visited a priest who for fear that the Bishop who postponed my ordination may think that he is friendly with me, avoided me and hurriedly left his house for me because he wouldn’t want to be connected. So some rejected me, some were afraid that getting close to me may just attract the wrath of the church on them, while some braved it and took it upon themselves that this is the son of Abraham who should be helped. The experience was a sort that one cannot explain. At a stage even I was passing through very excruciating moments, bitter moment. At a stage I was not feeding yet I was reading. I was deeply troubled and the pains told on my body that I became pale and the rumour spread that I was HIV positive. I know that I was not HIV positive, but I was suffering. Some people ran away from me thinking I was HIV positive. You can’t understand. For some days I could go without eating. But I am happy. As soon as Ejike Mbaka got to know of my situation, things changed for me and those people who were looking at me from far thinking that I would die any moment, some of them now came closer to me to confess. The experience my brother is something I can’t explain. It is enriching, I have learnt a lot.
It is very unusual for someone to wait this long, 19 whole years. How did you manage to keep waiting even when there was no sign of any date of your ordination?
“It was because I had confidence in God. And I told myself that God hears prayers, I had confidence that He will vindicate me. I had confidence that God would send a Daniel sometime who will look into my matter and find out the truth. And eventually God sent one. Confidence in God was just the core thing that sustained me. I know I have a living God and I had confidence in Him and He has proven that the confidence I had in Him was not in vain. I waited and waited because I had confidence, not in man and not even in myself. I knew many people who had such problems and they were frustrated out and some of them even died.
If your priestly ordination was delayed further, would you still have waited?
“Yes of Course, I would have waited for God. I was waiting for God was ready to continue waiting.
You said Fr Mbaka met you at the first station of your cross. We would like to know how Fr Mbaka came into the picture; at what stage of your journey to the Calvary did you meet him? Was it after you were condemned to the cross of waiting or when you took the first step into the journey?
(Laughs hysterically) “ Actually, Fr Mbaka and I were contemporaries at St Joseph’s major Seminary Ikot Ekpene. He was two years ahead of me. He was aware that my ordination was postponed. So one day my cousin and a good friend of mine, Fr Agujiobi visited me with him and he saw me and said ‘now you have changed’. I said ‘yes I have changed because of hardship’. So he now asked me why I should just change. Because I was very pale, looking at me one would see ‘Nigeria in distresses in a human being. (Laughs).
So he asked me to tell him what was the problem. I told him and he just issued a cheque and told me that any time I had problems I should just let him know and even as I am talking to you now, he has not left me alone. He always asked me how I was faring. Even few minutes ago before this interview, he called me to ask me how prepared I was for my first mass. So I don’t know how to describe Fr Mbaka. We knew ourselves at Ikot Ekpene but we were not very close then. But when my situation happened, he decided to carry it upon himself without even minding any person or demanding anything. I must tell you, God used him to sustain me. When I said I had confidence in God it is only someone who is alive that can talk of having confidence in God. But if one is dead, how would he have confidence in God? . Fr Mbaka took up my matter socially, materially, financially, spiritually and in everything. He just told himself that my case was his case and he took it. I know the efforts he made to get me ordained. He was even prepared to send me to a congregation but the law of the church wouldn’t allow him to do it easily. He was prepared to send me to another diocese but the Church law wouldn’t just allow him to do it easily. Then he resigned to prayers. Several times, he had asked the adoration members to pray for me. And I am happy God has heard his prayers and he is happy. I don’t even know whether I am happier than him. He is happier than me over my ordination.
(Super News Cuts. ‘Indeed He has being celebrating you with us. For instance, on Sunday he told the Adorers that he had prophesied that the day you were going to be ordained a priest, everybody should be at your mass and for this reason was not going to have mass at Adoration on Sunday the 17th day of April as everyone should come and join you at your first mass in your town, Ukehe)
“That is to tell you that he is even happier than me. (Laughs)
When you eventually heard the news that you were going to be ordained, how did the news get to you and what was the experience like?
“My brother, I was in the Church in the last Chrism mass sitting with the other Reverend Father who was ordained a deacon and had stayed up to 15 years; mine is 19 years. We were sitting together at the Chrism mass and when the Bishop finished his homily he made one last statement asking the congregation “How many priests did I tell you we have in Nsukka Diocese?” And they replied him “259”. He said, “Okay, you are correct. On the Sunday after Easter we will now be 261 because, Rev Lambert Ejionueme and Rev Mike Nwabueze will be ordained priest that day”. That was the end of his homily and the church broke into hysterical shouts.
So that was how he broke the news, that was how I got it and that was how every other person got it. No pre-knowledge, no nothing. He took every body by surprise, so in fact I held myself because it was in the church and you know they say that happiness is temporary madness. So I can’t recollect my next action after that announcement because it appeared like a dream. At the end of everything, I went to my Parish priest and asked him,’ did you hear well?’ He said yes, that he heard well. I asked him if he had any pre-knowledge of it and he said no. So the Bishop took everybody by surprise. So when I went to thank him at the end of the mass, he told me to go and meet the diocesan secretary so that he will tell me when i will be starting my retreat. That was that same Thursday. I went to the Diocesan Secretary and he said that I will be starting my retreat on Monday. So my brother, in fact, I lost control of myself from that moment. Laughs (Cut in: We can imagine what it was like). No no no. It is unimaginable. Laughs.
Your ordination day proper, what was it like to you?
“My brother, on that day from the retreat center, the Diocesan Secretary came and picked the other gentleman and myself. We went there with him and some priest were already there before us. When we got there we waited. The Bishop came and asked us how the retreat was and we told him our experiences of the retreat. And he said ‘If you must pray for any person including me, make it brief so that you don’t talk much’. From that moment it dawned on me that this thing is true. from that moment I started laughing till He finished the whole thing and people noticed that I was laughing all through. When the Bishop ordained me and I hugged him, I shed tears, tears of joy. So that is just briefly what I passed through. It is only somebody who experienced what I experienced that will actually know what I passed through. You can imagine a couple married for 19 years without a child and from nowhere God just give them a child, my brother, they will be mad ooo. The picture of that day from the time I woke up till when I went to bed, if you ask me I will narrate it to you exactly how it happened. It was a day I will never forget.
So where do we go from here? What next after your ordination.
“For now, I am still on holidays after the ordination. Normally, after ordination, a candidate will be given two weeks to rest. That is what I think I am doing now. But I am a staff of University of Nigeria Nsukka and I am still doing my job waiting for the Bishop to post me officially to where I will stay to do my apostolate.
Are there some persons that you would want to appreciate in this medium?
“The answer is obvious. How can you be asking me such question? The answer is obvious. The first person is just like I told you, Rev Fr Camillus Ejike Mbaka in particular and the Adoration members at large. Because Fr Mbaka was taking care of me and very close to me, many of the Adorers are close to me, sharing with me the load I was carrying. Someone like Fr Jude Onyeka (Marshal) is a big brother, I thank him very much. Fr Tony Okechukwu, Fr Peter Chukwu and many other priests, many of them Adorers, they care much. Down here at Nsukka there are priest who are equally concerned, like Fr Chidi Ngwoke, Fr Denis Agbo , Fr Nnaemeka Agujiobi they are big brothers. Among the lay people, yes I have some friend. Dr and Mrs Cyril Nnadi who happened to be my doctor. All these 19 years he never took a kobo from me. Even the time I was on admission in his hospital for 15 days, he would just treat me free of charge. I equally have some friends outside the State, like Stephen Agagu and family from Kogi state, Emmanuel Ayaeca equally from Kogi state. And down here in my own village, my traditional ruler HRH Igwe Aninweze , he never missed booking mass for me every Sunday. There are others like Dr Nnachi Oyogu , a consultant at UNTH and many others I can’t mention. I want to avoid mentioning others and fail to mention many. In university of Nigeria Nsukka I equally have some friends there that have been very supportive. Many of them helped me in carrying the cross. And you too (CUT in: for doing nothing) (laughs)
Lastly we would like to find out from you if you can recollect any other priest that had this your kind of experience of having to wait for 19 years to be ordained a priest after their deaconate especially in Nsukka diocese or beyond ? Or is yours the first of this kind?
“Yes, there is this Priest from Owerri Arch Diocese, I think his name is Davison. He stayed 17 years, but in his case the Bishop, late Bishop Unegbu who postponed his ordination ordained him a priest before he retired. Now I know that in Enugu Diocese, Late Bishop Eneja postponed somebody’s ordination but he ordained the person before he retired. So these are just the few experiences I know. But in my own case, my priestly ordination was postponed; the Bishop who postponed it retired with doing anything about it. At a stage, when the new Bishop of Nsukka came on board, Fr Mbaka got afraid that the new Bishop may say ‘after all I don’t know about this case and I am not the one who postponed his ordination’. Fr Mbaka intensified his prayers to make sure that the new bishop revisit my case and eventually God answered our prayers and the new Bishop revisited my case,.
(Super News Cuts in Wonderful, this is to say you have made history in the church. The two incidents you reported were nothing compared with yours for two reasons. One, none of them waited as long as 19 years and secondly the same Bishop that postponed their ordination ordained them before they retired. It is history indeed)
“I tell you my brother. If I imagine now how the 19 years just passed by, I can’t recollect.
It has been a nice time talking with you, on Sunday the 17th April we will all be there at your first mass