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In the beginning

Archbishop Nwachukwu: “In my thought, in my actions, I tried to be an activist for justice and peace.”

Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu was appointed as the pope’s representative for the Antilles Episcopal Conference in November 2017. Catholic News writer/copy editor Simone Delochan interviewed His Grace earlier this year to find out more about this learned man of the cloth. Part one of this series appeared in the October 14 issue; part two, October 21.

Archbishop Nwachukwu did not begin his formation as a diplomat. He was sent to Rome by his bishop in 1986 to specialise in biblical sciences, spending four years in biblical exegesis at the Biblical Institute of Rome: three years doing the licentiate and a further year on his pre-doctorate.

When he began the doctoral thesis, he moved to Frankfurt, Germany, pursuing textual criticism of the Old Testament under the guidance of the renowned German professor, Fr Norbert Lohfink SJ. “My field of specialisation was in trying to identify the original text of Deuteronomy. I was therefore working between texts of Deuteronomy in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and Latin.”  This he did for 18 months before he was called to Rome and the academy.

While in Rome, he was doing another doctorate in Systematic (Dogmatic) Theology and had “a painful decision to make” which led to his suspending the dissertation in Germany. He quickly finished the Doctorate in Systematic Theology and then finished another Doctorate in Canon Law.

He avers though that his main field and original love is biblical studies which emerged out “of a special experience I had as a child” and where the theme of forgiveness became important.

“When I was seven, 1967, we had to live through the gruesome experience of a civil war. I was in the part of Nigeria that wanted its independence, it was then called Biafra….I saw my own contemporaries, young children, die from a malnutrition sickness called Kwashiorkor. The only source of a good warm meal was the Caritas Internationalis centre, twice a week. We received a portion of cornmeal and fried egg. This was the year 1968, and especially 1969. We grew up with almost a mentality of hate towards those who had caused this type of suffering.”

He was at a crossroads: allow the sentiment of hate to grow after the war and let it manifest into concrete acts of destruction and vengeance, or allow a Christian spirit to come in. He chose the latter.

“Two years after the war, I entered the seminary. I was eleven.… the question of forgiveness became fundamental for me ….In my thought, in my actions, I tried to be an activist for justice and peace.”

Another influence came from the fact that his mother was Anglican before she married his father. So, as a young boy, he faced a good number of Bible-based questions from his maternal kin.

While in the seminary, he challenged himself to find meeting points with the practice of his faith and what was in scripture: “This is the origin of my interest in the Bible and that has formed my life and strengthened my devotion.”

He moved into this more deeply during his initial doctorate in Bible exegesis, and even while analysing the biblical text as literature, he also read it as a book of faith. Of this he explained, “…I went and registered for Systematic Theology and Dogmatics to try to relate the two things [faith and intellect], and I can tell you, it’s the best thing I ever did for my personal formation, because I was able to have coherence and correlation between my doctorate information and my faith.”

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Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu admits that before coming here he knew little about Trinidad and Tobago. In the Vatican as head of protocols of the Secretariat of State, he had welcomed an ambassador who presented his credentials and as a Nigerian, he had studied about the Caribbean. The first thing that struck him in his early months in the country was the mix of people. To this he commented, “…I love it. I find it delightful.”