It was Henry Wardsworth Longfellow who stated that “lives of great men all remind us, that we can make our own lives sublime and while departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time”. These time-honoured words of Longfellow, find concrete expression in the servant of God, Bishop Michael Ugwuja Eneja, whose glorious life and legacies, we recall and celebrate today, in grace and gratitude.
Born in 1919 in Ibagwa-ani in Nsukka area of Enugu State Nigeria to pagan parents, Michael Eneja came into existence at a time Western civilization brought about by the British colonial government was slowly creeping into Igboland. He willingly embraced the new ways which involved going to school to receive Western education and going to church to become a Christian. This choice was not without troubles and difficulties. Michael came from a traditional priestly family of a very popular and powerful deity called Abodo Owerre. His own immediate father was at that time chief priest of this deity, and Michael (Ugwuja) was a possible candidate who by divination could succeed him. So, disappointed and angered by what was perceived as treachery, his parents ostracized him and sent him away from the family house. Thus, at a very tender age, Michael already began to manifest heroic faith, enduring persecutions from his loved ones and refusing to conform to a tradition he disdained. He was unwavering in the face of ostracism and took temporary refuge in the home of Maria Asogwa, a Christian convert at the time but was later recalled to the family by his parents who were not ready to lose him completely.
He started elementary school in 1928 at the age of 9 at his hometown, Ibagwa-ani and completed his Standard Six at Eke in 1937. Shortly afterwards, Michael was employed as a Pupil Teacher in Eke Parish in 1938 and within one year, he was able to teach as needs arose in three stations—Umulumgbe, Okpatu and Egede. In 1939, he entered the Junior Seminary which was then in Christ the King College Onitsha and successfully did his Senior Cambridge Certificate Examination in 1942. Thus began his journey to the priesthood.
As a seminarian, Michael distinguished himself as a pious and law-abiding student. His burning desire to be a priest never diminished throughout the course of his seminary days. The only desire he had in the world was to be a priest. Between 1943 and 1944, Michael Eneja served the mission as a teacher at the College of Immaculate Conception C.I.C., Enugu and thereafter proceeded to the Major Seminary at Okpala in 1945. Michael Eneja was in his final year of Theology when St. Paul’s Major Seminary was transferred to Enugu in 1951, making him one of the pioneers of what was to later become Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu. On 29th July, 1951, he was ordained a priest at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Onitsha, by His Grace, Most Rev. Dr. Charles Heerey, C.S.Sp., thus becoming the first man in the old Nsukka Division to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
After serving as a curate in various parishes from 1952 to 1955, he was appointed as the pioneer parish priest of the then newly established parish at Iva Valley. In addition to administering that vast mission territory effectively, it was also credited to him to have constructed the present Iva-Valley Primary School. Thereafter, he was sent to Rome to do a diploma course in Spiritual and Social Development.
When Fr. Godfrey Okoye was appointed Bishop of Port Harcourt in 1961, Fr. Michael Eneja was chosen to replace him as Rector of All Hallows Seminary Onitsha. In 1965, he became the parish priest of Immaculate Heart Parish, Fegge-Onitsha. He left Fegge at the out-break of the Nigerian civil war and consequent evacuation of Onitsha in 1967. With the end of war in 1970, Msgr. Michael Eneja came back to Fegge, but after a short stay, he was appointed Spiritual Director of Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu where he also taught Spiritual and Ascetical Theology. He left Bigard in 1976 for Sabbatical leave, and later was posted to Christ the King Parish Onitsha where he worked until his election and consequent installation as the third bishop of Enugu on the 26th of February, 1978.
His administration was characterized by humility and brotherly love and he maintained an open-door policy throughout his episcopacy. Until his death, his humility overwhelmed those working under him. As Rector, for instance, Michael Eneja would sneak out in the night to fetch water for the common use of his fellow priests in the rectory.
Sanctity and the necessity of acquiring it loomed large in all his homilies and public addresses. This is because, as he always said, “It is sanctity; union with God, that is the whole aim of the struggle.” As bishop, he not only continued his ascetic life-style, but also endeavoured to inculcate the same in priests and lay people alike. In his view, “Self-denial is a sine-qua-none of good living.”
Besides his insistence on holiness, especially for his priests, Bishop Eneja also emphasized two other merits which priests must aspire to, namely studies and morals which he variously also termed learning and character. Within the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference at the time, Bishop Eneja chaired the Commission on the formation and quality training of the Pastoral Agents of Evangelization, namely, the Seminarians and Priests of Nigeria. It is common knowledge that further education for his priests was a primary concern in Eneja’s episcopacy and he sent a lot of his priests for further studies in both national and international universities. His retirement was made public on 8 November, 1996, and on 8 February, 1997, he officially handed over to his successor, Most Rev. Dr. Anthony Okonkwo Gbuji.
Bishop Michael Eneja, even after retirement, remained an active and well respected shepherd of his flock. His books and Lenten pastorals are indicative of his own deep spiritual life and his numerous public addresses and homilies bear witness to his popularity among all levels of society. Groups and individuals, fellow bishops and government officials flocked to him for advice. He was second to none in his use of Bible verses to buttress his exhortations, teachings and admonitions.
Bishop Eneja was endowed with good health even during his time as Bishop Emeritus. All the ill-health issues he went through at this time were those that are connected with old age. However, on the Solemnity of All Saints, 1st November, 2008, he was admitted to the Niger Foundation Hospital and two weeks later on 14th November the same year, he passed on in the Lord.
The funeral brochure of the late Bishop Eneja bore the telling Caption: “Exit of a Saint and a Generation.” This captures the general perception of the people about the man, Michael Eneja. He exhibited the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance in a manner that singled him out in all his ecclesiastical and social endeavours throughout his meritorious life as a seminarian, priest and bishop. His firm belief that he was a mere instrument in the hands of God was given expression by his motto in his episcopal coat of arms which reads: Fiat Voluntas Tua (Your Will be done). Many think, and rightly so, that he represents a generation of the Nigerian clergy that are a class apart in their approach to the priesthood. Since his demise ten years ago, many have continued to bear testimony to his extra ordinary life of sanctity and while it is generally believed he is already enjoying the beatific vision, a cause for his formal canonization has been opened by the Church in Enugu and it is firmly believed, that the heavens would provide the proof needed to bring that to fruition.
(- Rev. Fr. Benjamin Achi, the Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Enugu and head, publicity of the Committee for the cause of Canonization of Bishop Eneja)
May 13, 2019
April 16, 2019