Marital dissatisfaction, discord and their attendant disaster are some of the most intractable problems in most African communities in the United States and Europe. It is estimated that the average span of African marriages in the United States is only seven years. Granted that the data are skewed by marriages of convenience, genuine African marriages still hit the rocks at an alarming rate. Nigerian Parents Magazine (NPM) sat down with Monsignor Anselm Nwaorgu, the first African-born Monsignor in the United States, to discuss this nuptial epidemic that threatens the foundation of African families in the Diaspora. In the first part of this interview, Monsignor Nwaorgu, who holds a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology and whose doctoral thesis is is an xray on Nigerian marriages and marital distress in the United States is a licensed marital counsellor who has provided services to hundreds of couples in the United States. We invite you to enjoy the interview and watch out for the podcast.
NPM: Monsignor Good evening. And thank you for joining us at Nigerian Parents magazine this evening.
NWAORGU: Thank you very much. I am very privileged to be called by you guys to interview me.
NPM: Tell us a little about yourself. Who is Monsignor Anselm Nwaorgu?
NWAORGU: Thank you. Let me begin by expressing my absolute gratitude to you Guys for considering me in the line of the people you interview for this magazine. I’m not quite sure how my name got into your circle, but for some reason it did and here we are. I do not take that for granted. I feel privileged that you do consider how we have grown here to be of importance to our people. So, I thank you for that.
Who am I? I’m a young man from Amafor, Imerienwe, in Ngor-Okpala local government in Imo state, Nigeria, who began his secondary education in Port-Harcourt and finished at St. John’s Primary School in Imerienwe, and went through Okpala Junior seminary for my secondary education. I finished that education at Owerri Grammar School Imerienwe in Ngor-Okpala LGA. Then I became a claretian seminarian, from 1977 to 1984. Undergoing four years of philosophical studies, at Bigard Memorial Seminary, Ikot Ekpene. And then I did two years of theological studies, at Bigard Memorial seminary in Enugu before I left for the United States in April of 1988. And I finished my theological studies in the United States at the Immaculate Conception seminary, Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. Then I became ordained to the priesthood in 1992.
I also did a master’s degree in systematic theology, master’s degree in counseling prep and a Master of Divinity in pastoral counseling. And by the grace of God, I was able to accomplish all three in two years. And then I did a PhD in counseling psychology. Then I became also licensed in the state of New Jersey and then surprisingly, in May of 2009, when I was only about 16 to 17 years a priest, I was named a Monsignor by Pope Benedict the 16th. And that, for some reason, made me the first African-born priest ever to be named a Monsignor in the United States Catholic Church. So, that is in a nutshell the person that I am.
While I was at Seton Hall University, studying theology and finishing my Master’s in pastoral ministry, I was told that the pope had awarded me a papal medal for academic superiority in theology. I cherish it because it is something that I have not heard one of our own from Africa get to the point of receiving the paper medal. So I’m grateful for these things that have happened in my life.
NPM: Thank you very much Monsignor. So, the name Nwaorgu, what does that mean? I know it is Igbo and you are from Ngor-Okpala but what does that name mean?
Monsignor: Literally, it means son of war. And what is coincidental is that my first name, Anselm, means “shield of God”. Anselm is a German name and I do not think that the person who gave me that name did understand that… because the person who gave it to me was my godfather, who also is a priest and a Monsignor, Father Sylvester Nwaorgu. So when I came to this country, I began to search for the root of my name Anselm, only to figure out that the name Anselm means “shield of God in times of war” and my last name is son of war, so I’m fully shielded and fully inoculated
NPM: This title Monsignor. I know you have spoken about it earlier: What does it mean? And how does one attain the status of a Monsignor in the Catholic Church?
NWAORGU: Let me first, investigate the meaning of that title. A Monsignor actually is a title of honor, and it is an ecclesiastical rank that is bestowed upon a priest by a Pope, and is usually done in recognition of distinctive work and performance, either in conjunction with an office or with your area of pastoral work. The process is that you don’t know that you will become Monsignor. When your Bishop believes and decides in his heart that a priest under his jurisdiction should be honored for exceptional service to the church, the bishop nominates and forwards your name to Rome, to the Pope and he will tell the pope that this priest needs to be honored for exceptional work in the area he has been assigned. And the Pope after consideration and consultations, will accept or not accept the recommendation. If he accepts the recommendation, the pope will make you what we call a papal chamberlain, which means he will bestow the title of Monsignor upon you and then your Bishop will call you and let you know that the Pope has made you a Monsignor. So, that is the process. I have no idea how my name ended up there. All I can tell you is that I received the call that the Pope has made me Monsignor.
NPM: Well, you know what they say, you cannot light a candle and put it under a bushel. Your light was shining so gracefully for them to recognize. Congratulations.
NWAORGU: What struck me was that I was having dinner one evening with the priest who lives with me. Our secretary called me and said “Father Anselm please get to the phone, the Archbishop is on the phone for you”. I say: “Yeah, right, would you stop that joke?”.
“The Archbishop is on the phone for you.”
And I said, “if this is a joke, you are in trouble with me. Do you understand that?” She said, “please pick up the phone”. I thought that she was kidding, the Archbishop never called me before. Secondly, if the Archbishop calls you, you are in trouble. So, I pick up the phone and I say yes, Father Anselm. He said no, “Monsignor Anselm”. And I said, “who is this?”
They said, “this is Archbishop Meyers”.
I said, “oh my God”. I said, “this is Father Anselm”. He said, “I know, but you are now Monsignor Anselm”. And I said “me?”
He said, “yes, you”.
I said, “me? Monsignor?”.
He said, “yes, you Monsignor”.
So, when he dropped the phone, I called his office. I called the Office of the Archbishop, and I said, Secretary, somebody is playing a prank with me, and I just want to make sure that this is not a prank. I said somebody called me and said his name is Archbishop Meyers. And he told me that the Pope has made me a Monsignor. So, I just want to make sure that there is not a prank. They all fell off laughing so hard in the office. I could hear them laughing and they said no, that was Archbishop Meyers. Oh, my God. And that was how I came to know.
NPM: You know, the analogy that comes to mind is you are called to the headmaster’s office. And rather than the headmaster telling you what you have done wrong, he gives you an award. That is awesome. All right. We have been on your website. Congratulations on a beautiful website, by the way, a lot of information out there. So, you have this new book, Beating the Odds, which is a remarkably interesting title. Could you tell us a little bit about that and what that book is all about?
NWAORGU: Yes, again, many people think that the name Beating the Odds had something to do with me. But really, in a way it may be related to my own life history, but it came to me as an inspiration from Matthew chapter 25. This chapter of the Bible has three sequential parables. And reading those parables, I came to the inspiration that they were addressing three specific areas of living that will make you successful, both here on earth and successful hereafter. Therefore, I brought it together and the question is, how does one overcome all the obstacles may be on the road towards a successful living and how does one succeed not just here on earth, but also use your success on earth to predict how the hereafter may be for you.
And so, that name Beating the Odds became for me a summary of how man, using that as a generic term for human beings, how man could be totally successful. So, the fact is, this book bears this logic, that nothing good in life comes easy. I think both you and I and all of us who read your magazine can attest to that. This is why they say that the success of a man is not much about how much he has, but he went through, to get to where he is and I think that is a very good measure of success.
So, in my opinion, this book, therefore, outlines three specific guidelines to beating the odds in life. The very first parable in chapter 25 of Matthew is a parable about what they call the foolish and the wise maids. In summary, I think it calls for us to take responsibility for productive preparation. That is the first thing in life. If you are not prepared, things are not going to happen. You have to be prepared in life. The second thing is to take responsibility for productive action. The second parable in that chapter is about the parable of the talents. The three guys who received money from their master and how they invested that money. So, I summarized that as taking responsibility for productive action. The third story in that chapter is about the last day – who makes it into heaven or not. And I call that who makes it into the smoking or non-smoking section of eternity. That is what I call taking responsibility for productive giving.
Responsibility for productive action, productive preparation, and productive giving, in my opinion, allows humanity, any man to succeed in this life, bearing other situations that may come up. That is what I call beating the odds. And I think that it speaks to people who are successful and to people who are being challenged. It also speaks to people who are trying to become successful and to young people. Most importantly, it speaks to all of us in terms of how we can move from ground A to ground B
NPM: Monsignor, we at Nigerian Parents Magazine, we are all about family. What you have done so far, gives you that unique ability to address one of the biggest issues that we have today in the Nigerian community in the diaspora – divorce and broken marriages in the Nigerian community and it is getting worse by the day. I am sure you have heard it. I am sure you know about it. I know that you have counseled many married couples. In fact, one of the prayer points on your website is prayer for success in marriage. If I may ask you, could you please delve into this topic? Why is divorce so high amongst Nigerians in the diaspora and what can we do about it?
NWAORGU: Your thinking about this is so consistent with the title of the magazine that you publish. It is very much at the heart of our Nigerian families here in the diaspora and unfortunately, you may want to know that my doctoral dissertation, has to do with Nigerian marriages and marital distress in the United States. So that took me from interviewing 250 people here in the United States to Nigeria to find out why marriages are distressed. I probably would spend a little bit of more time on this matter. I think it is at the center of what your magazine. I think you are offering our people an immensely powerful way out.
We all want to come to America. We all want to go out, wherever we want to go. But I feel that the first thing we must all understand is that migration is an uprooting disorder. We do not easily see that at the beginning. But migration takes you out from who you are, where you are, and who you have become to who you may become, and into an environment that is not yours. Therefore, it is an uprooting disorder. It shatters everything that you know, especially if you are coming from a societal structure that is different from the one you are migrating into. And when it comes to Nigerian couples, that is absolutely the matter.
We must have at the back of our minds, that we came from a patriarchal society into an egalitarian society. So we are moving from patriarchy, whereby men rule, and men govern, and men have rights and privileges and purposes that are sacrosanct. But women are basically on the second tier of life, and therefore they do not have as much liberty, as much standing, and as much authority as men do. That is patriarchy. We are moving from there into an egalitarian society, where society tries to create a level of equality, not just in matters of gender, but in matters of rights and privileges. It is especially important to understand the diametrical difference between these two structures. First, When you move from patriarchy, into egalitarianism, two things will happen, men will lose privileges and rights, women will gain privileges and rights. It is particularly important to have this at the back of our minds.
Second, whenever you are losing privileges, you are bound to resist societal norms and when you are gaining privileges, you are bound to adapt very quickly to societal norms. So, Nigerian couples when they come in here, you’re going to have men losing privileges and prerogatives as men because they’re moving from patriarchy. You’re going to have women very quickly adapting to America because it throws onto them a beautiful curve of new rights and privileges that they otherwise wouldn’t have in Nigeria. What that does is, it creates what we call disparate adjustment. So men are going be a lot slower in adjusting and adapting to this culture, where women are going to be much faster in adjusting and adapting to this culture and challenging patriarchy, which they now see as slavery. Men will challenge egalitarianism, which they now see as absolutely disregarding to male authority. Just put those two things in your mind. They’ll come back to play an important role in the question you’re asking. Now, remember this, marital commitment is based on two things by research – constraint commitments and personal dedication. What do I mean by that? In psychology, and in all the studies done about marriage and commitment, they have been able to group commitments into two areas. One is constraint, where you have all the parameters that allow the marriage to survive and when you deal with patriarchal societies, there are a lot of constraints. You know that; and I know that. If you divorce, the first person to tell you to go back to your husband’s house is your mother and your father. Your mother will tell you that you have no idea what I went through with your father. In some instances, when you divorce, the church will deny you communion.
You come back to your father’s house, and if you complain, they tell you to go back to your husband’s home. The women, the married ones around you, will make sure that they keep you as miserable as possible until you go back to your husband. Sometimes in Nigeria, if you divorce, that could even mean that you lose your job. A lot of women have suffered because they were teaching in Catholic schools, they divorced and, the priest tells them they cannot come to church and they cannot teach.
Constraints keep you in marriage, not necessarily because you are happy, but because you want the marriage to stay stable. I want you to understand those two things: marital satisfaction and marital stability are two separate things. In a patriarchal society, marriage is stable, not because it is satisfactory, but because of the constraints. Now we are migrating to America. You are coming to a place where patriarchy is no longer a constraint to marriage; where Church is no longer a constraint to marriage, where family and extended family is not a constraint to marriage; where money is no longer a problem and a constraint to marriage, where the constraints are removed, as they are in an egalitarian society. Constraint is no longer what holds the marriage together, what holds marriage together in an egalitarian society is personal dedication.
Personal dedication is a product of satisfaction, not stability. So, I stay in this marriage, not because the people will mock me if I leave but because I am satisfied. I am satisfied and I am mocked are two very separate powerful, distinctive natures that can prevent a woman from leaving a marriage.
In Nigeria, one of the biggest constraint to marriage is children because patriarchy is also patrilineal. When you marry in Nigeria in Igbo land, the children belongs to the man. Egalitarianism believes that emotional attachment of children is good on their mother than on their father. So, women have the first prerogative of custody of their children. If you give a woman her children, the woman is willing to leave her husband if she is not happy. Therefore, marital stability is no longer what holds marriage together. What is holding marriage together, now in an egalitarian society is personal dedication and personal dedication is attached to marital satisfaction, not marital commitment. So, if I am not happy, and I can sustain myself, and I have money to take care of myself, and if I don’t have you are forced to pay me money, and I’m the one taking care of my mother and father at home, they will now support me to leave you. Because, I am now the fruit of their survival. Suddenly, the extended family has no right to get to you. They are so far away from you; they cannot impact your life. There are no village women to mock you, and the church does not care anyway. You can still go to church and receive communion. Therefore, all the constraints are gone.
When you have all these constraints that are so restrictive to women removed, the woman is only concerned with one thing – happiness. “Am I happy?”, becomes the mantra? And so now we are no longer dealing with constraints; we are now dealing with personal dedication.
Why am I emphasizing this? Remember, I have spoken about marital commitment as constraint and personal dedication. What is holding us here is no longer the constraints, but the dedication.
To be continued…