For Reverend Father Jude Iroleh, a saint in transit [Pulse Contributor's Opinion]
Jude held mass on Saturday. His day would later end in a hospital, and from there things degenerated.
It was to my uncle, Rev. Monsignor Raph Madu, whose sudden death left my entire community reeling in agony. The writer’s prologue would have been along the following summary: a high-profile priest dies, and his nephew, another priest with a fast-rising profile deemed his natural successor, joins him three months later.
But nightmares of this nature are seldom common in fiction, yet my kin and I are left to process and endure its real version, with neither answers nor explanations. We are to accept that it’s final, that death cutting people down in their prime is part of living, that we should adjust to the coldness of the universe’s cruelty.
So, here’s the story. Tomorrow, Jude Udochukwu Iroleh, a young catholic priest with huge prospects for top leadership within the church’s clerical hierarchy, will be buried. His final journey home starts today with a vigil mass that will be held later in the evening. He died suddenly last month. Fr. Jude was due for the internal defence of his PhD in just a few weeks. Scholarly and supremely cerebral, he was the diocesan Vocations Director, and the Rector of St. Peter’s Seminary Okigwe.
When I saw my sister, Nkemji’s call the night it happened, my heart throbbed as if it was going to leap out of my chest. I didn’t know why I was scared. It was the first time I was not excited seeing her call. Twice, it came and, twice, I refused to answer. But after about a minute, I summoned the courage to call back. And in a shaken, subdued voice she informed me of the calamity.
My stomach tightened. My bones quivered. I lost coordination.
But I got a hold of myself soon enough, summoning an instant composure to declare it impossible.
I had concluded within seconds that, except he died in an air crash - the news of which I would have heard without anyone having to call me - nothing else would make sense. As Nkemji explained what she was told, I was terrified and begged her not to believe the story. As if she desperately needed that plea, she agreed with me, convincing us both that it couldn’t be true. There was a rope of hope, even though thin, to which we now clung. I felt a rush of sudden relief, and continued to pump myself up with my usual logic about Fr. Jude being a young and healthy priest. But she called back shortly after, with more horrifying details: our cousin was dead indeed. He took ill on Saturday, and by Wednesday he was gone. It was a 5-day transit from illness to death. No chance to fight to save him, to move him around hospitals.
The last time I cried so hard was over a decade ago. It did not make any sense to me that Jude would die this untimely. There was no way to explain it. I was inconsolable.
I was reluctant to write this eulogy because, as I mentioned earlier, I did one three months ago. If I would become the unofficial chronicler of my small community, the events shouldn’t be just about deaths and pains and sorrow. But I am also conscious of the duty I owe Fr. Jude to tell the world about him. We were pretty close as kids and young men growing up, until adulthood and demands of work created a geographic distance and reduced our physical meetings to just occasional visits.
Perhaps that closeness explains why, on the night of Monday 19th April, two days before Jude’s death, I fell into a strange dream that had me weeping and yelling until I woke up. My senior brother was stabbed from behind his right chest, with a sharp knife piercing through and sticking out at the front. I didn’t know whom the assailant was, but I was threatening revenge. I carried him, hurrying to the nearest hospital while urging him to hang on. But strangely, as I got to the door of a hospital, about to take him in, he breathed his last. It was at that point that I yelled out shouts of sorrow that burst through the curtains of the dreamworld and roused me from sleep. I woke up crying. When I checked the time, it was 3.a.m Tuesday, 20th April. I prayed, and tried to go back to sleep.
Unlike some dreams whose details get blurry as dawn nears, the clarity of this one was etched in my mind. I told my brother the next day, and he assured me he was fine, and would join in praying against any evil befalling anyone of us. Well, we prayed, but now I wonder if the dream was only given to us as a mere window into what laid ahead, rather than a warning that we might be able to prevent.
Jude held mass on Saturday and as he was about to leave the church, he staggered, but was steadied by the people around. When he got home, upon climbing the stairs to his house situated within the church premises, he staggered again. His colleagues steadied him again and urged him to go see a doctor. His day would later end in a hospital, and from there things degenerated.
Unlike our uncle mentioned in the opening paragraph whose funeral was rushed as if his sudden death itself was long anticipated and prepared for by the Owerri diocese, Jude's burial has been rightly delayed, allowing for everyone to first absorb the shock before coming to terms with his final exit. His obituary poster, designed and published by the Okigwe diocese, is replete with texts that convey deep pains for everyone connected to him, from the diocesan Bishop to the priests. The announcement expressed genuine emotions; the type religious organizations in these parts are not known to associate with. It feels good that his diocese was sensitive enough to be both human and spiritual in their handling of his death, and not just the latter. Their public acknowledgment of pain validates our own case that we lost a giant and are shaken by the experience. It is comforting to know that Fr. Jude, our hero, was not a local champion.
I will struggle to permit the memory of Jude fade, because we shared so many to last me multiple life times: the many days we spent with my dad as kids listening to tales of his experience in Fernando Po; the letters we exchanged as young secondary school students separated by the distance between Makurdi and Okigwe; the days he spent in my senior brother’s house as a seminarian on regular vacation; the lengthy phone calls we had while he did his master’s in the Netherlands.
Jude grew into a purposeful, responsible adult and member of the society, easily emerging a young leader within the Okigwe diocesan clerical order. I watched him embrace in totality the enormous responsibility his obligation to the church thrust on him. As a priest, his words increasingly became measured as his texts sought to bless. He would send out monthly messages on his social media platforms, proclaiming grace and mercy.
As a parish priest in Agbobu, Okigwe, he told me of how he encouraged the natives to take to gardening, leading the action himself by making a vegetable garden around his parish house where he grew ugu leaves which, as he told me with excitement in his eyes, he also shared with the locals.
Few weeks before my wedding, he asked for my bank account details. I sought to know why and he urged me to just send it. I declined, citing as my reason the fact that he was a priest and should not be the one to send me money. I reminded him that he just finished burying his mother a few months earlier. Of course, he insisted, but I insisted too. My winning strategy was to not send him the details. When he waited and didn’t get it, he just called and said a heartfelt prayer.
I don’t know if it was due to his training in philosophy but he grew rather remarkably into a stoic man - unmoved by tragedy no matter its severity. I watched him accept with calm the sudden demise of his own mother in 2017. His summation of the experience: “It pleased God to take her.”
Two years later, he would again absorb another devastating shock, this time the death of his father. I watched him bless his body in the morgue before we moved his casket home for lying in state and interment. He was the one priest, in the midst of scores of others including a bishop, who faced the torturous task of supervising the lowering to the grave of his own biological father. It does appear that catholic priests are compelled to do their parents the last honour of performing their burial rites. And Jude did it with admirable equanimity.
He fetched the red sand already dug up from the grave, sprinkled it on the lowered casket like any priest would, read out his father’s name without any personal attachment, like a random priest would, before fetching another sand and handing the shovel to each of his siblings surrounding the grave to perform their own rites.
With a steady voice, he asked God to receive His “servant, Nze Livinus Iroleh”, in His kingdom.
For a young man with such immovable faith, his longevity would have benefited thousands of God’s people with whom he still would come in contact. With his own experience in dealing with grief, and a tested faith in God that worked, his life would have been a testament to the assuredness of dawn coming after dark. This inexplicable death, in my honest observation, serves no one, not even God’s people. But as Jude himself would say, “it has pleased God”.
Jude’s death is heavy, and has thrown into mourning multiple groups of people. I have struggled for what to tell his siblings, for whom he rose and became a parent after the quick, successive exits of their parents. He represented hope, the same idea he represented for the rest of the extended family, the entire kin, the Nunya community and the Isuikwuato church. The Bishop of the diocese will miss him, as can be sensed from the texts that jump out of the obituary announcement. The staff and students of St. Peter’s Seminary, his alma mater and last place of assignment, will miss him.
The most important thing that happened to Fr. Jude in his last days was his retaining his voice and mental alertness, both of which made him able to prepare everyone for his eventual demise. He urged total acceptance and submission to the will of God should “anything happen” to him. We know such admonitions are easier said than kept, but this one will be kept.
In the end, when our tears finally stop flowing, when the tightened stomachs finally loosen, when the trembling nerves finally calm, we will, even with our hearts still shattered, stick with the one option we are left – acceptance that Jude actually died and that we will henceforth describe his countless good works while he was on earth in past tense.
But while that is true, it is also true that his every act of service here has now become an extension of him. This is why we will see him everywhere: in the stillness of the dutiful mass server holding a bible for the priest with outstretched hands during consecration; in the reflex of the teenage goalkeeper hurling himself at an incoming shot to stop his team from conceding a goal; in the sonorous voice of the boy soprano rehearsing with the choir to make the next mass special; in the eyes of every attentive priest showing empathy to the church’s most vulnerable.
We are consoled that he left himself in a thousand places, active enough in all of them to remind us daily of the privilege we had: playing hosts to a saint in transit, a giant who lived a short but impactful life, who stretched himself so that others might breathe easy.
May the good Lord whom it pleased to call home the Rev. Fr. Jude Iroleh grant his soul eternal rest, and may that same God send comfort to his immediate family.
Pulse Contributors is an initiative to highlight diverse journalistic voices. Pulse Contributors do not represent the company Pulse and contribute on their own behalf.
About the author: Chinedu Ekeke is a public affairs analyst, PR consultant and writer. He contributed this piece from Lagos.
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