Keeping the Legacy of Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis Alive: A call to Catholics of Liberia
His Grace Lewis Zeigler Archbishop of the Arch-Diocese of Monrovia
Most Rev. Andrew J.Karnley, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cape Palmas
Most Rev. Anthony Fallah Bowah, Catholic Diocese of Gbarnga,
President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Liberia (CABICOL)
Priests of the three Dioceses of Liberia
Catholic Brothers and Sisters
Members of the lay apostolate
Officials of Government
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen
My fellow Catholic brothers and sisters, before I proceed any further, please permit me to impose upon you the duty to stand up for one moment of silence to the memory of Bishop John Collins, Diocese of Monrovia, Archbishop Francis Carroll, Bishop Patrick Kla Juwle, Diocese of Cape Palmas, Bishop Boniface Nyema Dalieh, Cape Palmas Diocese, Bishop Benedict Dotu Sekey, Diocese of Gbarnga and Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, Archdiocese of Monrovia. May the souls of these faithful departed and those of others of our faith rest in perfect peace with the saints and may light perpetual shine on them. You may have your seats.
When I received the invitation to be here today and to perform the task of giving the keynote address, I wondered why me, amongst the thousands of my Catholic in Liberia. My only conclusion was that the leaders of my church in Liberia wanted me to speak about something that will stimulate the Catholic Church towards liberation theology. Liberation theology is a doctrinal direction that is traced to the seminal work on liberation theology written by Father Gustavo Gutierrez, a Dominican Catholic Priest in 1971. Liberation theology presents our Lord Jesus Christ as the liberator of the poor. Poverty manifests itself in both material and spiritual terms. But, the focus of liberation theology is on the directing of evangelization to speaking for the poor and against those who use political power to make the majority of the people poor. Many priests, bishops, and cardinals have stood up for the poor in the history of the Catholic Church.
The Late Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis stood up for the poor by speaking against the evils of society, especially condemning the use of political power to acquire wealth. He spoke against the violation of human rights and other forms of injustice. Arch-Bishop Francis was never afraid to speak the truth to power and did not care for any risk to his personal life for speaking truth to power. As a good shepherd, Arch-Bishop Francis was prepared at all times to take a stand on behalf of his flock. Therefore, on this very important occasion, I have chosen to speak to the bishops, priests, and my fellow Catholics on the topic: Keeping the Legacy of Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis Alive: A call to Catholics of Liberia for action on side of the Poor in Liberia.
When I was growing up, I met two persons who impacted my life. First, I met father Robert G. Tikpor in Tappita, in 1969, as a student at the St. Francis Catholic School in Tappita, Nimba County. Then, when I transferred to the St. Mary’s Catholic School in Sanniquellie, also in Nimba County, I met Father Michael Kpakala Francis. Later, Father Francis became bishop of the Arch-Diocese of Monrovia and Father Tikpor became a Monsignor. Because of these two priests, I wanted to be a priest, but, my mother whom I love so much rejected the idea and I changed my mind. Both of them served in Nimba County, during the administrations of Tubman and Tolbert, when the True Whig Party had absolute control over political power as the only political party in Liberia. Even then, these two priests were critical of the wrongs in society and most often, the wrongs were committed by men holding political offices. After more than ten years as a priest in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, Father Francis was made Rector of the Major Seminary in Gbarnga and later appointed Bishop of the Arc-Diocese of Monrovia. It was in this position that the rest of the people of Liberia began to know this powerful priest that the people of Nimba had known for over a decade.
From my recollection, the first action that he took that had a national impact was his criticism of Bishop Bennie D. Warner for accepting the position of Vice President of Liberia. He said that it was wrong for Bishop Warner to abandon his flock as a shepherd because a good shepherd does not abandon his flock. He also argued that it was unethical for Bishop Warner to serve both as a Bishop and at the same as Vice President of Liberia. This statement was made by Bishop Francis at the University of Liberia at a special intellectual discourse program organized by the University of Liberia Students Union (ULSU) following the appointment Bishop Warner as Vice President. Vice President Warner reacted by saying that Bishop Francis was a young inexperienced bishop, but said nothing regarding the substance of the critical statements made by the bishop. In his preaching, pastoral letters and public statements Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis made the position of the Catholic Church known on every wrongful action that was committed by the government against the people. He was critical of the Tolbert Government, the Doe Government, and the Taylor Government. I believe that if he had not come down with a massive stroke and subsequently died, he would have been critical of the Government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
On at least one occasion he was barred from entering the office of the President of Liberia. In 1984, Samuel K. Doe stopped Bishop Francis from going to his office as part of the Liberia Council of Churches, because of his critical positions on human rights violations by the People’s Redemption Council of Liberia.
Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis was not only critical of the government. He also criticized even the warring factions during the fourteen years of civil conflict in Liberia. For speaking against the evils of society, the bishop was persistently insulted publicly, falsely accused in many ways, and most often, criticized both by Catholics and non-Catholics for what they termed as politicizing the Catholic Church. At one time he was accused by Doe of supporting the National Patriotic Front of Liberia rebel group led by Charles Taylor and later accused by Taylor and his associates of supporting the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (ULIMO) rebel group led by Alhaji Kromah. In the midst of all these challenges, the Late Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis did not stop speaking truth to power. He made the position of the Catholic Church known on every national issue that had the propensity to undermine the peace and progress of this country. He was an advocate for the transformation of the Liberian society consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ as contained in the Holy Bible. Bishop Francis left no doubt in the minds of the Liberian people on the position of the Catholic Church on the issues of corruption, inequality, violation of human rights, lack of respect for the rule of law and bad governance generally.
Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis made the presence of the Catholic Church felt in many ways in shaping the destiny of this nation. During the Liberian Civil Conflict, he played a leading role in the formation of the Interfaith Mediation Committee (IMC) along with other Christian prelates and the Late Sheik Kafumba Konneh of the Islamic Faith to mediate, initially between the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the Government of Liberia and later other warring factions. It should be noted that it was the blueprint for peace produced by the Interfaith Mediation Committee that was adopted by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the ECOWAS PEACE PLAN.
Arch-Bishop Michael K. Francis led the Catholic Bishop Conference of Liberia to establish the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission for the first time in Liberia, with the specific mandate to expose human rights abuses in Liberia and to provide legal aid for victims of human rights abuse. The JPC was the leading human rights organization in Liberia during the Liberian civil conflict and under the regime of former President Charles Taylor.
He was criticized for being too vocal. But the people who criticized him forgot to know that he was a leader of the followers of Christ, Christians. The word Christian refers to a Christ-like person. Jesus Christ was an advocate for change. He came to save the world from sin. He did so by speaking against the evils done by leaders of his time. Advocacy cannot be done in silence. Speaking out for changing society for the better is, therefore, consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis’ actions as leader of the Catholic Church were, consequently, in line with the teachings of Christ. I call upon all bishops, priests, sisters, brothers and lay members of the Catholic Church not let the legacy of Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis die. We must keep his legacy alive.
The leadership that Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis provided for the Catholic Church in Liberia was similar to the leadership that other Catholic leaders provided for the Catholic Church in other parts of the world during critical times. For example, Cardinal Ricardo Vidal played a leading role in the change process that transformed the Philippines from the oppressive rule of Ferdinand Marcos to a democratic rule. Similarly, many Catholic priests and bishops played active role in the change processes in Latin America in the 1980s, 2000s and are still active today in that part of the world.
These actions of the priests and bishops in Latin America and the Philippines were guided by liberation theology-the theology that pays equal attention to the physical wellbeing and salvation of Christians. Catholic priests and bishops are best suited to speak truth to power because their advocacy is not based on any personal desire for political power. Even if a priest or a bishop wants to occupy a political office, he cannot; because the law of the Catholic Church forbids it. Therefore, nothing should hold a Catholic priest or bishop back from preaching and speaking openly about the ills of the Liberian society.
My call for keeping the legacy of the Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis alive is not only addressed to the priests and bishops of the Catholic Church. The members of the Catholic Church who occupy positions of trust in and out of government must also carry on the legacy of Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis. We must each ask ourselves whenever we are faced with a situation, the question “what would have Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis done on this occasion or in dealing with this issue?”. In fact, this is the critical question that a Christian must ask when facing a difficult situation. The question must always be what would have Christ done on this occasion.
This reminds of an organization called the Young Christian Students (YCS) that once existed in Catholic Schools in Liberia any many parts of the world. The organization was student lay apostolate movement. Its motto was: see, “judge and act”. By its motto, the YCS required its members to be conscious of what was happening around them. This was the see part. The next step was to determine whether the things observed were bad or good. This was the judge part. The next question was what would have Christ done if he were present here today. It is the answer to this question that formed the basis of a YCS team’s action in dealing with every situation. But this should be the basis and motivation of every action of a Christian. In other words, a Christian must be conscious of what is happening around him or her and must do what Christ would have done if he were present. Jesus summarizes what he expects of Christians when he says love your neighbor as yourself. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will always do something to protect or save him or her from any bad situation. If we do not show love for our neighbor, we could be affected eventually by what affects our neighbor. For example, it is the failure of people to care for their neighbor that was partially responsible for the deaths of most people during World War II. Whenever Hitler forces were targeting one group the other groups felt that they needed to do nothing because they were not part of the group that was targeted. Based on his observation and experience in the Second World War, A German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller in 1946, made the following open confession a poem:
First, they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
The question we Catholics must ask ourselves today is what would have Arch-Bishop Francis done today. My answer is that he would have been campaigning for justice and national reconciliation as a way forward for sustainable peace in Liberia. I can say without an iota of doubt that Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis would have been calling on the Government of Liberia and the International Community to establish a war and economic crimes tribunal in Liberia and the full implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a war of reconciling the people of Liberia. Reconciliation as the Bible tell us is based the confession of sin, an appeal for forgiveness and a commitment not to repeat the sin for which forgiveness is sought. As the Bible says in 2nd Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” The current wave of killings in Liberia is based on the fact that nothing was done to those whole killed thousands of people during the Liberian civil conflict. The only way to end the level of impunity in Liberia is to account for what happened during the 14year civil conflict in Liberia. I, therefore, call on the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Liberia to make the position of the Catholic Church clear on the issue of the establishment of the extraordinary tribunal for war and economic crimes in Liberia. This is the way to keep the legacy of Arch-Bishop Michael Kpakala Francis alive. We must all work towards keeping the Legacy of Arch-Bishop Francis Alive.
May God be with us all.
I thank you.
A Keynote speech for the 2019 Catholic Bishop Conference held in Harper, Maryland County, and Republic of Liberia on April 30, 2019
By Tiawan S. Gongloe PS: Because of the bad road to Cape Palmas, Cllr Gongloe did not deliver this speech; however, it was sent to the Conference and its contents were reflected in the final communiqué read at the end of the conference
Main pic/Tiawon Gongloe