Father Julius Abuh presides at his silver-jubilee Mass

St. Therese and St. Joseph parishioners fill the Clinton church to help their pastor celebrate 25 years of priesthood

By Dan McWilliams

Parishioners of St. Therese in Clinton and St. Joseph in Norris packed the Clinton church July 22 to help their pastor, Father Julius Abuh, celebrate his 25th anniversary in the priesthood.

An overflow crowd watched as Father Abuh presided at his silver-jubilee Mass. Bishop Richard F. Stika attended in choir. Principal concelebrants were Father John Orr, a former St. Therese pastor, and Father Michael Woods. More than a dozen priests attended, including homilist Father David Carter of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, and master of ceremonies Father Michael Hendershott, who is an associate pastor at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville. Monsignor Bill Gahagan, another former St. Therese pastor, also was present.

“I just want to thank the bishop,” Father Abuh said during the Mass. “I just want to tell you how grateful I am for the opportunity of allowing me to serve in the diocese and for the opportunity of you being present today, for where the bishop is, there is the Church. So we know that the Church is fully represented today.

“To my brother priests, I can’t thank you enough. I understand how busy especially Saturdays can be, for you to leave your parish schedules to be here today. . . . All of you, from wherever you have come from today to be part of this celebration, you have really made my day and made this celebration very, very special.”

In his homily, Father Carter compared the priesthood of Father Abuh to the light and trajectory of the moon, which he observed during a recent backpacking trip to rural New Mexico.

“There was one night when the moon was full,” Father Carter said.

“It rose with a regal silver color and was bright enough to light up the whole night sky — I wanted to sit in that moment forever — it was so beautiful — sit and stare and wonder I did for a while, but then it moved and went behind a mountain and out of my sight. I was sad for a moment until I thought, that is what moons do — it wasn’t meant to stay still. It has an orbit that is ordained from on high, and it would not glorify the creator if it stayed put in disobedience just to indulge my desire. That is the first lesson that I learned from the moon during that trip.”

Father Carter said he noticed another phenomenon of the moon on his trip.

“I noticed the moon wane as it made its way around the earth in that monthly orbit that causes the moon to take on its descent from full to gibbous to crescent to new and then back again,” he said. “This is the second lesson I took from the moon. It moves, but it also changes and from different angles and different aspects does its job of lighting up the night sky.

“The third and final lesson one learns from the moon is that of hope. The moon has no light of its own. Its soil is but a mirror reflecting the sun’s rays. But the cause of our hope is that when the earth turns away from the sun, and darkness covers the land, there is a beacon in the sky that reminds us that even though there is darkness around us now, the sun is still shining bright out there — constant and faithful as He is.”

Father Carter said “this argent and effulgent, ever-moving, ever-changing mirroring orb in the sky is a great analogy for the priesthood.

As I was reflecting on these phenomena I thought of Father Julius Abuh, a priest of Jesus Christ forever, according to the Order of Melchizedek, but who has exercised this ministry on earth for 25 years.

Like the moon, he has not stayed in one place but has moved around as priests are wont to do and as ordained from on high. And his ministry has been diverse, waxing and waning, taking on different shapes and aspects, serving all the while as a guide to the transcendent for those in the valley of darkness — faithfully reflecting the light of the sun as the sun willed it.”

Father David Carter preaches at Father Abuh’s anniversary Mass what Bishop Stika later called “probably . . . the best priestly anniversary homily that I’ve heard.”

Father Abuh, “25 years ago you may have wanted the moment of your ordination to stay fresh and vibrant – an ever present moment. But that is not what your ordination was meant to be,” Father Carter said. “It was really a death and resurrection and the beginning of a cycle toward something out of this world. Your ordination launched you into a different orbit with a new trajectory. It was the day you died to earth in order to become the moon reflecting the sun. Julius Abuh, on July 18, 1992, you died in a cathedral, before a bishop who received your self-oblation but then who brought you to a new kind of life by the touch of his apostolic hands upon your head, linking you in an unbroken line to Jesus, and the invocation of the same Spirit which breathed over the waters in the beginning and which burned as flames upon the heads of the 12 at Pentecost.

“This was your new moon phase, and although there was hiddenness to it, the light you received was gradually revealed over time as you eased into ministry in your first two assignments as a parochial vicar. But the priesthood moved you — it wasn’t meant to stay still. The call to ‘come and follow me’ cast shadows in your life that made it a mosaic of places, people, and apostolates from parish ministry in Africa, to work in the diocesan curia, to further studies in Rome, travels throughout Europe, as a seminary formator, professor, and spiritual director, until your arrival here in East Tennessee. Who could have predicted this movement? But it shouldn’t take us by surprise. The waxing and waning of a priest’s life and ministry is part and parcel of the journey of the master Himself, whom we reflect.”

Sometimes a priest finds himself “in the dark phases of his journey with the sun,” Father Carter said.

“It is only in looking back that you can see how the Lord worked through you,” he said. “You probably thought at times that your words made no impact, and your labor bore no fruit — but in reality your mere presence and the gravity of your divinely inspired office made tides rise and fall in people’s lives and in their souls — even if all you did was stay close to your people and reflect the light of the sun.

These 25 years of priestly ministry have surely gained you wisdom that will serve you in the future. You have reaped where you did not sow, and you have sowed where you will not reap. And so generously and wisely sow and reap until the Lord calls you home.”

Father Carter looked toward that future “another 25 years perhaps,” when “you still have work to do and light to reflect. Other cities, too, need the Gospel preached to them; other sheep that do not belong to this fold need the ministration of a shepherd; and to them, too, you will, you must go. This is part of the Good Shepherd’s master plan. He is the true pastor of souls — you are the moon to his sun — and you will need to reflect His light when and where he calls you.”

The homilist told Father Abuh to “never forget to stay close to the source of your ministry. After all, what is a moon without the star that makes it bright? What is a priest who doesn’t stay close to Jesus? He is your only source of light.”

Father Carter said Father Abuh has “become the moon in our dark night to give us hope that one day all of us can reflect the rays of the rising sun when he comes in his glory.”

Bishop Stika spoke at the end of Mass and praised Father Carter, drawing a round of applause.

“I’m kind of glad that Father Carter preached,” he said. “First of all, it is probably in my 32 years of priesthood the best priestly anniversary homily that I’ve heard, and I’ve heard many.”

Father Abuh began Mass by saying how nervous he was at presiding with the bishop present, comparing the situation to “cooking in front of your grandmother.” That remark brought him merciless teasing from the bishop.

“Now I just turned 60, but I’ve never been compared to someone’s grandmother,” Bishop Stika said.

“Maybe it’s time for that moon to cause him to move along,” a remark that drew laughter before the bishop added: “I’ll be like the Blessed Mother, and I will keep all of these things in my heart.”

Priests present at the Mass hailed from Africa including the honoree’s native Nigeria — Germany, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

“To all my brother international priests, it just shows the beauty of the Church, the universal nature of the Church,” Bishop Stika said.

Both Father Carter and the bishop wished Father Abuh “ad multos annos.”

Deacon Dean Burry (left), Father Julius Abuh, Father John Orr, and Father Michael Woods react to a remark by Bishop Stika.

“I just want to say in the name of his eminence, Justin Cardinal Rigali, who always enjoys his visits here to St. Therese, in the name of all my brother priests and deacons and the good and faithful laypeople who make up the Catholic Church of East Tennessee, ad multos annos — many more years of being the face and the hands, especially the hands, of Jesus,” Bishop Stika said. “I as the bishop, who represent the Catholic Church in East Tennessee, I just want to say thank you for your desire to be a true missionary like the apostles were sent forth, and to be a missionary here in East Tennessee, which is a bit of paradise, I always say.

“May the Lord continue to bless you and keep you close to His heart. May the Blessed Mother always present you to her son, Jesus, and may Jesus always present you to the Father, inspired by the Holy Spirit, when you continue to preach the Word of God. My only advice to you is, at least compare me to a grandpa. . . . God bless you all, and continue to teach Father how to be a good priest, and, Father, continue to work with them to bring them to the very presence of God daily in their lives as you are privileged to offer the liturgy, the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the beautiful celebration of Jesus present with his people. Ad multos annos.”

After Mass, Father Julius said the liturgy “means a lot to me, that I know I’m much loved by my parishioners. This will keep me with the joy of my priesthood.”

The Mass included two special highlights for Father Abuh. Those who brought forward the gifts, Brutus Umanah and his family, are Father Abuh’s good friends from Our Lady of the Hills Parish in Columbia, S.C. For the Communion meditation, the choir sang “Wa Wa Wa Emimimo.”

“The meditation hymn was in the Nigerian language,” Father Abuh said. “That was very beautiful. That came as a surprise to me, and they sang it very well. I’m very grateful to our choir for all their time and sacrifices.”

In the future, Father Abuh said he will “look forward to serving the people of God. I look forward to a closer relationship to Jesus Christ, who is the source of my priesthood.”

Father Abuh was born June 5, 1967, in Anyigba, Kogi State, Nigeria, into the family of Alfred N. and Martha Abuh. He was admitted into St. Augustine Major Seminary in Jos, Nigeria, by the late Bishop Ephraim Silas Obot. He was ordained a priest by Bishop Obot in Nigeria in 1992.

Father Abuh spoke of his priestly journey at a luncheon at the Clinton Community Center following the anniversary Mass. He said he wanted to be a medical doctor originally. He went with a friend who was entering seminary to see Bishop Obot, and the bishop encouraged him to go with his friend to seminary. His parents disagreed with the decision.

“My dad says [to Father Abuh’s mother], ‘Don’t worry yourself. Once he goes there, it won’t take them long before they kick him out.’”

At the time, Father Abuh met with a spiritual director at the seminary, who said, “‘Why do you want to become a priest?’ I tell him, ‘No, I don’t want to be a priest.’ He said, ‘Why are you here?’ I said,

‘My bishop said I should come.’ He said, ‘Really?’ So then I explained to him why I came. So he said, ‘Julius, if you become a priest, you will become a spiritual doctor. But when you become a medical doctor, you will become a physical doctor. You will take care of the body. But as a priest, you can also take care of spirits; you can be a spiritual doctor.’”

The spiritual director gave the future priest a copy of Confessions by St. Augustine, and that helped steer his course.

“To make a long story short, that friend of mine never became a priest, and you know what I have become,” Father Abuh said at the luncheon. “So it is indeed a day of gratitude, and I thank all of you for being here today.”

A number of parishioners spoke that friend of mine never became a priest, and you know what I have become,” Father Abuh said at the luncheon. “So it is indeed a day of gratitude, and I thank all of you for being here today.”

A number of parishioners spoke at the luncheon of their affection for Father Abuh. The speakers also included Father Mark Akubo, a native of Father Abuh’s home Diocese of Idah, Nigeria. A person at the luncheon asked Father Abuh, “‘Father, 25 years ago, if someone showed you this picture of these people today in this hall, would you have ever believed it would be true?’” He replied: “I would never have believed that someday I was going to be standing here in the United States of America, after 25 years.”

Father Abuh closed the luncheon with a “final request.”

“Keep me in your prayers,” he said. “I do need your prayers, and I will continue to pray for you. God bless you.”

Comments 2

  1. Super awesome job East Tennessee Catholic writers. I am reading this beautiful article from my country home in Nigeria. Viva ETC. Fr. Okai.

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