Reflections At The Loyola Jesuit College, Gidan Mangoro, Abuja, Graduation Mass

By Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah
By Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah
Today’s first reading should make a lot of sense to us as Nigerians where for now, where you come from is very important in how people perceive you and what role they even think you can play in society. It is not only the people of Anambra that want to decide which prisoners to receive, there are those today who wish to decide who can serve as a vice-chancellor in their university, those who can decide who will be a parish priest, a bishop in their diocese, their principal, the bursar or their senior prefect or whatever you call them here in your school. Like good old Amaziah, the prophet in today’s readings, the reasons are often personal, very little to do with the common good. Amaziah was defending his territory and power base from what he saw as intrusion.

Often, in terms of those who lead us, we might say, we prefer someone from our faith, someone from our tribe, or a classmate, or even my best friend. We believe that outsiders will threaten our interests or even destroy them. However, this is often an excuse to cover our own inadequacy and insecurity. For example, a student who is ill prepared for his or her examination, or for an interview would really be happy if the supervisor turned out to be a family friend. But if you were prepared for your examination, it would not matter to you who the examiner or invigilator is. If you are honest, it does not matter who is at the head.

When I was a parish priest in Kaduna, often, after the release of the results of the WAEC examinations, I would ask the mother of a Mass server or one of the young people I knew who had sat for the examination; ‘how did John do?’ They would often say, ‘Father, don’t mind those foolish WAEC people. They failed my pikin.’ She would often add, ‘but we are waiting for NECO.’ (NECO was often considered a slightly easier examination to pass). If on the other hand, the child does well, mothers would often wave joyfully, ‘Father, my pikin cleared WAEC! My pikin pass WAEC well well.’ When pikin fails, it is foolish WAEC that failed them, but when they pass, honour goes to them. We are often looking for excuses for our failures.

Today, we are celebrating the joy of those of you who have been lucky to successfully finish the first major step of your education. Some of you or almost all of you will go to the university now. Some will go beyond the university to other things in life. Whether WAEC will pass or fail you, we will have to wait to hear from your mothers later on in the year. But, you have the assurances of my good wishes for the future. However, as you bid one another good-bye in this early phase, it is clear that a good number of you will head in different directions, some to the United States of America (the country of first choice for Loyola alumni, I imagine), the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. Others will go to Ghana, Malaysia or remain in Nigeria. I imagine it all depends on the depth of the pockets and the ambitions of your parents.

However, there is need to pause and think. I am not sure how many of you will see one another again. If you organise a good alumni programme, then it is likely that by the grace of God, many, the Class of 2015 will meet in a re-union. While we gaze into the future, let me tell you a little story about a Rabbi who was a teacher. This Rabbi was a good teacher but each time he entered the class, he would bow to his students before starting the lessons. One day, one of his students said to him: Rabbi, you are our teacher and you know almost everything. We only stand up to greet you when you enter the class. But why do you bow before you start teaching? The Rabbi said: Well, I did not know you noticed this. However, despite being your teacher, I bow before you because I know that one of you may be my governor, my senator or my president tomorrow. So, I want you to know that I recognised this well before you got to the position. Like the Rabbi therefore, I also take a bow, to the future Mr or Madam president, governor, first lady, senator, speaker of Nigeria.

But, as in real life, not all of us will end up as presidents, governors or senators. I will use an example. The story of two friends which went viral recently is a good illustration. It is the story of one Arthur Booth and Ms Mindy Glazer. I imagine some of you or your parents might have followed the story. Mr Booth was a brilliant student who excelled in Mathematics and Science. He dreamt of becoming a neuro surgeon and he obviously had the brains to achieve that. His best friend, Mindy dreamt of becoming a veterinary doctor. However, like you, upon graduation, they parted ways and never met again.

As she grew up, Ms Glazer changed her mind and decided she would be a top class lawyer and not a surgeon. She rose in her career and became a Judge in Dade County in Miami. On July 3, a 49-year-old gentleman was brought to her court on charges of burglary. The defendant had been a serial criminal of sorts, addicted to cocaine and gambling. He was found guilty and after the sentencing Judge Glazer who obviously had recognised the criminal standing before her as her classmate asked if he went to Nautilus High School, the school they attended. If you Google the story, you would see the reaction of Mr Booth who threw up his arms, shouting, Oh my God, Oh my God! Judge Glazer went on to tell the court how Mr Booth had been the best kid in the class, how they had both played ball together and so on, and now this is where it had all ended for him.

As you graduate today, know that you have reached a major junction in your life. It is up to you now to decide which way you turn, left, right, or if you would go forward. Whichever direction you turn will determine your future. Your parents have offered you the starting point in life. By coming to Loyola, you have come to one of the top schools in Nigeria and perhaps the best. It is the Harvard of secondary education in Nigeria. For whereas, others may offer glass and mirrors of external attraction, Loyola offers you a moral backbone which, if you nurture, will enable you stand erect along with the best in the rest in the world.

You are now walking right into the world, away from the security of parents and schoolmates. You will have more freedom now. You will meet more challenges and more complex people and you will face complex choices. Here, I wish to turn to the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama for inspiration.

On May 25, 2015, she delivered a Commencement speech at Oberlin College, in Oberlin Ohio. Some of the sentiments in her very powerful speech should speak to you about the future. She said to the graduands like you: Here at Oberlin, Ohio, most of the time you’re probably surrounded by folks who share your beliefs. But out in the real world, there are plenty of people who think very differently than you do, and they hold their opinions just as passionately. So if you want to change their minds, if you want to work with them to move this country forward, you can’t just shut them out. You have to persuade them, and you have to compromise with them.

It is important that you bear this in mind because almost all of you here come from privileged homes where you have had things at your beck and call, drivers, stewards, money, toys, holidays, cosy homes and so on. Some of you would probably have never washed your own clothes, cooked your own food. Although surrounded by stewards and drivers older than you, most of them old enough to be your grand fathers, you have learnt to refer to Papa Ade as cook, and Mr Chike as driver. And so you belt out the orders and throw tantrums over food that is not well cooked, water that is not hot, drivers that are not driving fast, a car that has not been washed and so on.

Elite parents believe that their wealth, acquired sometimes by hard work or by theft of state resources, have earned a good life for their children. They do not believe their children need to suffer again and that their fortune is a comprehensive insurance policy for their children. Parents believe that apart from their sweat, the stewards, nannies, drivers that they hire to look after their children are inferior human beings. They do not teach them how to respect their fellow human beings simply because of status. As such, in schools across the country, many of these children turn out as spoilt brats, above the law. They do not believe that the red lights are for them. They do not believe that any rules apply to them. They believe they have power over alcohol and drugs. After his examination, when one of these spoilt kids was asked by his classmates how the examinations had gone he said: Well, the examinations were hard, but I am not worried. My dad is working on my results. He will sort out the examiners.

Chimamanda Adichie, whom most of you must have heard of, wrote a most timeless piece titled, The Danger of a Single Story. Among other things, she made reference to her own life, something that is useful for us here. In the essay, she spoke of her own experience. She said: I come from a conventional middle class Nigerian family. My father was a professor and my mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic helps who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight, we got a new houseboy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, Finish your food. Don’t you know people like Fide’s family have nothing. So, I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family. Today, some of you have been taught to feel sorry for those who work as domestic staff in your homes.

Let me end, by once again re-stating that from today, the steering wheel of your life is in your hands now. Your parents and teachers have done their best. From now on, you will be on your own with fewer rules and supervision. If you consider this to be a license, an extension of your parents’ privileged lawn, then you might end up like Mr Booth above. The choice is yours.

Life is never what we dreamt it would be, but experience based on personal reflections and looking at the lives of others make all the challenges even more exciting. The words of Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem simply titled, IF, present us with lessons about life. I will quote just the first, second and final verses which go as follows:

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; if you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated, don’t give way to hating, and yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Finally, I also want to leave you with something someone sent to me. I also find it very useful for you as you move on in life. It reads:

A tennis racket is useless in my hands. But a tennis racket in Ms. Serena Williams’ hands is worth millions of dollars. Remember: It only depends in whose hand it is in.

A football is just a piece of inflated leather, but under the feet of a Lionel Messi, it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It depends on whose feet it is on.

A rod in my hands will keep an angry dog away. But a rod in Moses’ hands parted the mighty Red Sea. It only depends on whose hands it is in.

A catapult in my hand is a toy and it might manage to kill a bird. But a catapult in David’s hand was a mighty weapon that fell the almighty Goliath. Remember: It only depends on whose hands it is in.

Two fishes and 5 loaves of bread in my hand is just enough for breakfast for my family. But two fishes and 5 loaves of bread in my Lord, Jesus’ hands fed thousands. Remember: It only depends on whose hands it is in.

Nails in my hands might just cause a temporary injury. But nails in Jesus Christ’s hands produced salvation for the entire world. It all depends in whose hand it is.

A certificate from Loyola College should be a treasured gift. It is now in your hands. I hope you can use it to change the world.

God bless you.

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