A few months ago I was assigned to write an article which involved interviewing Fr. John Osom, a Nigerian priest from the Missionary Society of St. Paul. It was a lengthy interview, part of which (believe it or not!) was conducted in Italian. Unfortunately, a week after I submitted the article he was reassigned out of our area and, as a result, they decided not to run the article (I was still paid).
But his story is too inspirational not to share ...
Father John Osom
Pro Christo Legatione Ergo Fungimur
(Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ)
When Fr. John Osom talks about his journey to the priesthood, he often uses the expression would you believe? before revealing an important event in his life. It’s a question which delivers a dramatic pause to emphasize something wonderful and unbelievable. And in Father’s story, there are many such moments.
As a little boy growing up in Akwa-Ibom (one of Nigeria’s 36 states), Father John knew at a very early age exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“I remember that the priest would invite the children to come and sit closer. I saw him raise something up – was it a white cookie? – and then say something which I didn’t understand. I was only five or six years old, but I knew I wanted to be him,” explains Father. “Would you believe that I would even play Mass? I would gather my friends, they would kneel, and I would hold up a piece of bread and make up some words. When I was finished everyone would say Amen!”
The idea of the priesthood stayed with him even as he began his primary education. In Nigeria, religion in the schools is heavily taught, along with discipline and moral instruction, so Father was in an environment which continued to foster the idea of the priesthood. In fact, at the age of 13 when he was faced with the decision of attending secondary school or enrolling in a junior seminary, he chose the junior seminary.
And Father did well. He studied, worked hard, and was even awarded a scholarship during his second year which would enable him to continue his studies at the university level. But when he passed his final examinations with honors and graduated at the top of his class, the scholarship complicated things because while the seminary was one pathway – one which he always intended to take – the university was also calling to his heart.
“The scholarship divided my attention,” he explains. “But then I heard about the Missionary Society of St. Paul, and would you believe that is what sealed my intention to enter the seminary?”
Unbelievably, this was a pathway Father hadn’t foreseen since he always thought he would attend the traditional seminary and, once ordained, return to serve in his diocese. But the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSP), which was being established that very year in Nigeria, was different in that ordained priests would be following in the footsteps of St. Paul and be sent to all parts of the world to serve as “ambassadors for Christ” (2Cor 5:20).
The next eight years were difficult ones. The formation program was challenging, and to gain pastoral experience Father was sent all over Nigeria to work with different ethnic groups and with people who spoke different languages. Of the nine seminarians in Father’s class, over the years the numbers dwindled until, in the end, Father was the only one left. On June 22, 1985, Fr. John became the first member of the Society trained in the seminary and the first to be ordained.
Immediately following his ordination Fr. John returned to his diocese and began traveling from village to village to celebrate a Thanksgiving Mass. Not only is this an important tradition in Nigeria, but it is such a huge celebration that the Mass is held in the village square so everyone can attend. During this time Father assumed that he would now spend two years working in his diocese, but when he was in the middle of his 18-village tour something extraordinary happened.
“Would you believe that I was told that I was being sent to Rome to continue my studies?” he explains. “Everything happened so fast. I had to start celebrating two Thanksgiving Masses a day so I could finish them all, and I had almost no time to say goodbye to my family.”
Within the month, Father obtained a passport, boarded a plane, and for the first time in his life left his country.
When he landed in Rome he was hit with the harsh reality that all his classes would be taught in Italian (instead of English), and so he was given a train ticket to Puglia where he would take Italian language classes to help prepare him for school. Sitting in the train station, alone and away from home, Father felt overwhelmed; he didn’t know where to go and he didn’t know the language to be able to ask for help.
“Would you believe at that moment a man – a stranger – approached me and asked if I needed help?” he explains. “When I showed him my ticket he walked me to my train, bought me some snacks, and arranged for two young men on the train to help me at the next stop. At the next stop these two found a woman to help me during the next stage, and she arranged for a taxi once we got to our destination. All these strangers helped me in my journey.”
In six weeks Father mastered conversational Italian, in six more weeks he could understand the lectures at school, and at the end of the school year he challenged himself to take his final oral examinations in Italian instead of English. When he eventually left Rome he had a doctorate in Moral Theology.
The jump from Nigeria to Rome was the beginning of Father’s life as an ambassador of Christ, a life of going where you are sent. It has meant living in different countries, learning new languages, and being “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22). Today, as a missionary priest Father has worked in Nigeria, Rome, England, the United States, and Grenada. While he is first and foremost a missionary priest, he has also served as a chaplain, a pastor, a lecturer, and a teacher. And in all the places Father has been sent, and in all the places he could go, would you believe that now, for a short while, he is here with us? What a wonderful blessing for our parish.
“Anywhere I go I am comfortable,” explains Father. “I am where I am supposed to be. A missionary has to be as happy as any person, and I find happiness being with the people.”