This article was written by Fr.Gareth Leyshon a member of the Chaplaincy Team
As a Catholic Priest, it’s not unusual for me to be asked to conduct a wedding. But this was a request from a Glamorgan student who intended to get married in his home parish: St Paul’s in Benin City, Nigeria! I’ve never travelled in Africa before (unless you count a visit to the Canary Islands during my previous career as an astronomer) but I thought about it long and hard, and said yes!
One doesn’t visit Nigeria just for a weekend, so I decided to make the most of the trip and explore the country, using my contacts in the Catholic Church. Through a mutual friend, I was invited to visit some religious sisters in Jos, part of the Plateau State in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. So my plan was to fly to Lagos, explore the city before moving on to Benin for the wedding ceremonies, and then spend a week in Jos.
This wasn’t the first time that Nigeria and Valentine’s Day have featured in my work as a priest. Shortly after my ordination in May 2007, the first baby I ever baptised was a Nigerian named Valentine (after his birthday), the new son of a Glamorgan student and his wife. Whenever I was asked to “say something about myself” as a guest at various churches in Nigeria, I would tell them this story, and receive an enthusiastic round of applause. At Easter 2008, I confirmed another Nigerian Glamorgan student at St Dyfrig’s (my parish church is the one in the roundabout next to Domino’s Pizza in Treforest). Now I was celebrating the wedding of two Nigerians on Valentine’s Day (and it was actually the first time I was marrying two Catholics to each other).
Nigerian tradition is that the bride and groom read the Bible readings at their own wedding.
The groom, William Cocodia, was a Master’s student in engineering at Glamorgan in 2007,
and chose to read the passage from Genesis, “It is not good for a man to be alone.”
So began my sermon by saying: “William. I have good news! You are not alone! Your chaplain
– an oyibo (white man) all the way from the University of Glamorgan in Wales – has come to be with you!”
From the reaction of the congregation, I had judged the Nigerian sense of humour well.
After the wedding, I moved on to Jos – a 10-hour road trip across Nigeria.
The sisters hosting me there had arranged a packed schedule of visits to local schools, healthcare clinics
– and to celebrate a religious service at the Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of Jos (Unijos).
I was expecting a crowd: the students had mistakenly been told that I was coming the previous week, and
more than 200 had turned out to see a white priest visit. A week’s waiting hadn’t dampened their enthusiasm as
I found the room packed to standing room only!
Catholic Students in Nigeria often affiliate to the “Nigerian Federation of Catholic Students” – NFCS.
At the end of the service, the president of the local NFCS group presented me with a gift to mark my visit –
a very large hand-made card and two copies of their Catholic Student Magazine. Leaving the building was
not straightforward. Almost every student there seemed to want a photograph taken with me… after the photo
of me with the NFCS executive committee (featured) I couldn’t take two steps through the crowd without half a dozen mobile phones being aimed in my direction. Talk about being famous for 15 minutes!
As a Catholic priest and chaplain, I deal with parishioners and students from many nations and cultures. But in every university where I have worked or studied, Nigerian students are prominent among the worshipping Catholics – the whole country has a deep ethos of devotion and even the minibuses habitually display slogans in praise of Jesus Christ (Muslim slogans are also prominent). I’m glad to have visited, and my wealth of experiences cannot fail to be helpful in my ministry to students at Glamorgan, and elsewhere, in the future. On Ash Wednesday this year the parish doorbell rang: a student from Nigeria wished to be confirmed. The future is already at my doorstep!
Fr.Gareth with Catholic Students in Nigeria