What happens when the cathedral burns down only eight days before Christmas and eighteen days before two seminarians are due to be ordained as deacons?
This was the terrible situation that has confronted Bishop Matthew Audu of Lafia, Nigeria within the past month. Late in the evening of 17th December, an electrical fault in the roof led to the gutting of the cathedral in spite of the best efforts of fire-fighters and local people. Within a very short time, the roof gave way under the ferocity of the flames, the wooden benches underneath merely serving to fuel the blaze. Within minutes the fire reduced them to ashes. A smoke-blackened altar remained, probably unusable, bearing little resemblance to the colourful decorations and lovingly adorned sanctuary that had been the pride of the diocese only a few hours earlier.
As if the destruction of his cathedral were not enough, Bishop Audu had another urgent consideration. Recent politico-religious disturbances in the city of Jos had, only days earlier, resulted in several hundred deaths. The fire could easily be misconstrued as a deliberate act of vandalism rather than an accident. The Cathedral Administrator and the Secretary of the Nasarawa State Government rushed to the local radio station in order to announce the cause of the destruction before rumours could lead to similar disturbances across Lafia.
Bishop Audu, at his Episcopal Ordination on March 31, 2001, declared that everybody within the perimeters of the diocese, regardless of their religious affiliation, deserved his special care and attention. He has subsequently worked strenuously to ensure good relations especially between Christians and Muslims in a country that regularly experiences interreligious stresses. Fortunately, the local Muslim spiritual and temporal leader, the Emir, Alhaji Mustapha Agwai II, is equally keen on dialogue and cooperation. It was, then, no surprise that the Emir immediately visited the bishop in order to offer his sympathy, describing the occasion as 'a mark of solidarity and sympathy'. He encouraged the church to take consolation in God praying also that the Lord who knows all and helps all in times of need like this may be gracious to the Church.
To the people of any diocese anywhere in the world, the cathedral has a special importance, acting as a focus for the activities and mission of the Church. The diocese of Lafia is no different.
At the time of the fire, the parishioners of St William's Cathedral Church had been practising for their Christmas liturgies. They were also preparing for the ordination to the diaconate of two young men, Vincent Abeshi and Vincent Ozegya; on 6 January.
In spite of the fire, the went ahead and was a sign of hope and rebirth. The cathedral was no more, but the fire did not bring an end to the Church in Lafia. If anything, it the people more closely together. Christmas and the ordination, celebrated in the nearby parish hall, held a new intimacy and shared determination to rise above the loss of the cathedral. From the ashes, there is a new beginning and a new year in which to build, not only the cathedral, but also the community.
Bishop Audu was recently host to representatives of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) from Scotland, England and Wales as they visited Nigeria on behalf of the charity. The Pontifical Mission Societies worldwide supports every mission diocese in the world, with the National Office for England and Wales contributing £126,700 to Nigeria during 2008, over and above the 'ordinary subsidies' for the running of the dioceses, through the Society for St Peter the Apostle (SPA) and Mission Together (Holy Childhood). England and Wales has, for many years, supported the Nigerian seminaries, regularly contributing over £250,000 per year towards the formation of priests at the Bigard Seminary in Enugu, traditionally known as the largest seminary in the world.
Monsignor John Dale, National Director for England and Wales, said: "We know just how hard mission dioceses work towards their own growth and development. A cathedral is an important symbol for the people and a concrete statement that the Church is present in their midst. It is, then, a special sadness when a cathedral is destroyed, even by accident. We know that the people of Lafia will pull together to rebuild their cathedral. Our thoughts and prayers are with them as they face the reconstruction of this much-loved church. May the building draw them closer together and also serve to strengthen them in their faith."
To learn more about the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies, see: www.missionsocieties.org.uk/