By Nyuykongmo Gerald Jumbam
Writing about a man of Professor Bernard Fonlon’s standing is certainly not the kind of race a man runs carrying snuff in his palm. It is serious business, not for want of great deeds worth mentioning and reflecting on, but for too many exploits begging for mention. How else do you describe a colossus so respected, even among his kinsmen, that he was conferred with the chieftaincy honor of Shufa-ai, one of the noblest titles awarded a man in that culture? Yet Fonlon is too great for just a clan. In fact his life is like the proverbial story of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant by feeling it, each telling his according to where he touched and felt. I consider myself on this solemn occasion also marking his 90th Anniversary as one of the blind men telling his story from the Christian angle – as that icon of an African laity befitting the vision of the Second Vatican council and meriting to that effect the official title of Saint from the Church he truly represented in the written word and holy deed.
2. Bernard Fonlon: A Legacy for the Church
Mgr. Jules Peeters came back from the epoch-making Vatican II council enthused at implement the ideas of the Council. One of such novelties was the exalted role of the laity in church affairs. When he gave voice to the laity and fired their hearts into Church life and documents as the Council expected, it generated opposition from the priests of his diocese. There is a story-legend about an educated lay man in those late Sixties who delivered a talk in the diocesan hall, citing Church documents here and there, with masterly ease, astonishingly, to the displeasure of a large part of the clergy present. The lecture went on and on, then at one point, the priests present couldn’t bare this effrontery of a lay man any longer and dramatically staged out of the hall fuming with anger at what intellectual arrogance!
No other name embodies well this story than the name Bernard Fonlon, in an epoch where the laity’s role in the Church was to pray up, to pay up and shut up. He incarnates that vision of the Second Vatican Council even right back in those difficult times. In fact the dynamism of the episcopacies of Mgr. Paul Verdzekov and Mgr. Pius Awa was in a major part thanks to the counsel of this devoted lay man. Because Paul Verdzekov, saintly and scholarly as he was, knew the role the laity can play in the church, he opened his heart to the largesse of the ideas of the Fonchas, the Mubangs, the Ndis and the Fonlons, and the results were amazing. That is why he listened to lay women when they proposed a Major Seminary for West Cameroon, that is why in his time a Fonlon had the astonishing courage to dare and write an open letter to bishops towards the creation of that Major Seminary, that is why a lay man could allow a whole pilgrimage centre(an enormous hill) in his time for an Archdiocese.
I came to this world through an intellectual of a dad whose library, humble as it was, contained almost all of Fonlon’s main works. At 8, I was already familiar with the name and I know it was the thumbing of his books that the aspiration towards the priesthood began. As child therefore, I heard about Fonlon and demanded for more until I went dreaming it. We cogitated over both his works and the wonder-worker, and Dzemo Romuald my childhood and longstanding friend knew this, for I intimated to him that I shall accomplish for Fonlon what he was not able in the seminary – the priesthood. My words – that came as fun at that time – came true.
It is misfortune to a people if their Christian climate generates a situation where ecclesiastical powers are jealous of the laity and fearful of them if their knowledge of and education on theology grew too great. It has happened, and it did happen in England in the days of Cardinal Henry Newman, and Newman spoke out against this state of affairs because he believed that the Church will look foolish without the laity and that not merely the clergy, but the whole community is a sign erected before the nations.
Have we ever stopped to think that Jesus told the story of the three servants who were given talents in the Gospels to us ? Two invested and one buried his. The moral of this story is that it doesn’t matter what role you play in the Church. The ministries are for service. Whether the one is of humble state or the other is of an exalted state – all are seen by God only in the measure that we do not bury the ministries. That is why on the Church’s line of saints, people of all walks of life – priests, laity, bishops, popes, religious, thieves, drunkards, the brave, adulterers, the humble, the hot-tempered, killers – are represented. And lo! You may find the same type of people lined up for hell.
Do I by this give my seal of approval to lay vainglory, or lay arrogance towards Church authority? Far be it from me. In fact I say that it is not difficult to believe in the Church when she speaks through her authorities; the real trouble comes when a number of little popes come up, laymen often, and preach against bishops and priests, and make their shaky opinions the faith, and frighten simple prayerful people and antagonize the flow of the Holy Spirit in innocence faithful. We neither wish to lose ecclesiastic authority for vital lay-initiative nor sacrifice lay co-responsibility for clerical domination. Both elements are mutually complementary and necessary – as harmonizing as that lasting friendship of Fonlon and Verdzekov – for the true well-being of the Church.
3. Canonization Still a Dream?
The slow pace the impending beatification of Bernard Fonlon is taking, is an issue straight-minded people should begin asking questions. Fonlon was one of Cameroon’s greatest literary and spiritual figures, and it is always interesting to see who will arise to oppose the ecclesiastical recognition of such a holy colossus. It is not the preoccupation of this write-up to bring out all those qualities this man possesses for canonization, because it needs nothing short of a big book – which would come.
Quite apart from the legitimate inquiries, study, discussion and debates through which the heroic virtue of a candidate must be established, potential saints become flashpoints of discontent whenever the candidate’s elevation is seen to work against some group’s self-interest or ideological standpoint. For recent individual cases reveal the same pattern, even among Catholics. Thus the causes for canonization of Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Cyprian Tansi in Nigeria were roundly criticized by Traditionalists. They objected strenuously to Mother Teresa’s openness to the inherent goodness of the non-catholic poor she sought to serve without demanding their conversion; and similarly to John Paul II’s extensive ecumenical initiatives as well as his failure to discipline. If not of the moral courage of the Onitsha faithful and the likes of Cardinal Francis Arinze, Cyprian Tansi’s beatification could have still been a pipe-dream in Nigeria. Essentially the argument is that if the candidate did not follow ‘my’ program for the Church and the world, that is proof of a lack of holiness. Conversely, if the Church should canonize such a person, it should reflect badly on ‘my’ program. Biased critics have a tendency to prefer needles to haystacks, however hard they are to find.
Here is what Archbishop Paul Verdzekov left as evidence in an interview on L’effort Camerounais a few years before he travelled to join Fonlon in Paradise.
“Your Grace, do you think that some day we shall be able to venerate Bernard?
Mgr. Paul: His hearing has not begun yet, for all I know, but it’s a pity, we are not doing enough to provide the information that the Congregation for the Cause of the Saints demands. Personally I think Bernard merits it. Someone who knew him well in Nigeria, Cardinal Arinze, has asked me, why we haven’t started the canonizing process of Bernard.
Who should initiate his cause for canonization, Your Grace?
Mgr. Paul: It is the particular Church that baptized him, and in which he grew up. It is not the Holy See that begins such a cause. It is that local Church that must carry out its duty. Just like for Fr. Baba Simon, a priest of what is now the diocese of Edea, formerly the diocese of Douala. Then he worked in North Cameroon, what is now the diocese of Maroua- Mokolo. They have done their work as a local Church, at the end they submit the matter to the Holy See, with all the documentation and all that they know. If there is a cult for that Christian, the Church then asks its members to pray for that canonization.”
From the above testimony, we can all see how these things happen. Despite John Paul II’s popularity, if his Wadowice brethren did not walk the talk, the pace could have been snail-like as usual; likewise Teresa’s Calcutta, likewise Tansi’s Onitsha. It is not some distant ecclesiastical authorities, as some think, who begin these things; and the saying is true that until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.
History testifies that great things are wrought in the Church thanks frequently to the sensus fidelium, the strong local voice of the laity who, after all, make 99.9 % of the Church’s members. For my part I can only strike the cord, but the beautiful musical symphony is generated by his local church – the Banso faithful. There is a way of getting around this, and until we begin to ask questions and to dare and do, we will remain where we are today. How to do it, is the million dollar question blown to air by this write-up.
This is no writing to be taken as a smokescreen for bookish intimidation or to score cheap points or, much less to hurt feelings. For the entirety of 90 years now, the specter of Bernard Fonlon’s life hangs over our existence in Banso. I would have written this article if no one had ever wanted to read it, if it went nowhere but inside a desk-drawer that our children pulled out one day to find a tool for survival, a symbol of how strong the stock from which Fonlon came is, and how much we have come through. To know that we came into the Ahidjo and Foncha’s union embattled to work until we died but didn’t die, and instead grew up to produce intellectual and spiritual giants respected around the globe.
I am only doing my own part – like that legendary tortoise that with the little strength left with him, told the world he had struggled… Once upon a time the Leopard who had been trying for a long time to catch the tortoise finally chanced upon him on a solitary road. ‘Ahaa’, he said; ‘at long last! Prepare to die.’ And the tortoise said: ‘Can I ask one favour before you kill me?’ The leopard saw no harm in that and agreed. ‘Give me a few moments to prepare my mind,’ the tortoise said. Again the leopard saw no harm in that and granted it. But instead of standing still as the leopard had expected the tortoise went into strange action on the road, scratching with hands and feet and throwing sand furiously in all directions. ‘Why are you doing that? asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied: ‘Because even after I am dead I would want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.’
That is all I am doing – struggling. Perhaps to no purpose except that those who come after us will be able to say: True, some of our fathers were defeated but they tried, they tried in telling the world of their giants. I am not so naïve as to think I have slain the monster of apathy against Fonlon’s name with one stroke of the essay. There is a school of thought against this venture that needs a more than normal courage to right this wrong and do justice to a historic and holy fact which like every good thing always meets with opposition. Whether we acknowledge Fonlon as material for sainthood or not, like Julius Nyerere (another saintly layman) he is already canonized in the hearts and thoughts of pious people of many creeds in Africa that the world needs to hear.
I believe that from this fountain of inspiration, real strength for renewal will spring up. In this way the perusal of this essay can be a blessing, a spiritual adventure, a boundless enrichment and a grace. Pay the price of reading it in the proper disposition, and your harvest will be plentiful. May the Servant of God, B. Fonlon pray for reawakening in the heart of Every Son of Nso.