Father Afunugo Retiring After 25 Years On Faculty

It was the year 1999, the last year of the 20th century. Google® was only one year old and America Online® was the pre-eminent email service provider of the time. Websites were becoming “a thing,” and Saint Vincent Seminary was preparing to launch its first one.

Father Thomas Acklin, O.S.B., was in his 12th year as rector, and the Seminary had recently completed construction of the Saint Gregory Chapel and the Elizabeth Roderick Center. Future rector Father Justin Matro, O.S.B., was writing his dissertation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B., present-day Seminary rector, was a year out of solemn vows and preparing for his ordination to the diaconate.

In 1999, Father Emmanuel Obimma Afunugo was finishing his 16th year of service to the Catholic Church as a priest for the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. In the years leading up to the new millenium, Father Afunugo had been working at completing graduate studies. After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Kenrick Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, a Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum, Rome), and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., he was able to add the letters S.T.D. to the end of his name, with a newly-minted Doctor in Sacred Theology degree from The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C. His dissertation was “Fatherlessness and the African American Family: A Study in Morality.”

Father Afunugo’s work in the Diocese of Amarillo up to that time included serving as a Consultant in Canonical Affairs, Defender of the Bond, and other similar work. He had served in five parishes as parochial vicar, pastor or administrator. He had taught adult education and had even coached soccer at a local Catholic high school.

One of his professors was the renowned American theologian, Professor William E. May, who was the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Father Justin recalls that “I was residing at the Dominican House of Studies in 1999 from March through May, while I completed my first dissertation draft. At that time this institution housed the Washington D.C. Extension of John Paul II Institute on the Family and the faculty members ate lunch with the community. I regularly had lunch with Gerald May, a notable Moral Theologian, and Father Tom Acklin, who was then rector of our Seminary, asked me to see if Dr. May had any recommendations to apply to our recently vacated Moral Theology position.

“I mentioned this to Dr. May at lunch,” Father Justin said, “and later that afternoon I was told I had a guest. I went to the parlor and this was my first encounter with Father Afunugo, who presented me with a copy of his dissertation and a full portfolio, including his resume and a number of letters of recommendation from Texas to the UK to Nigeria.

“Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed as I attempted to assure Father Afunugo that I had only relayed a question on behalf of the rector to Dr. May and that I was neither competent to interview him for the position, nor to hire him.

“My protestations were never acknowledged,” Father Justin said, “and after about an hour long conversation, I was certain that this was not to be my only encounter with this interesting and somewhat overwhelming man.

“From that day on, I had no relief,” he continued. “Dr. May was daily badgering me at lunch while Father Afunugo called regularly to check in. This continued long after I gladly handed the project on to Father Tom. We all know how that played out; our beloved Emmanuel was soon hired and a new phase of Moral Theology was about to unfold at Saint Vincent Seminary.

As part of the application process, Father Afunugo prepared and gave a lecture to the faculty. The lecture topic was based on his doctoral research at the John Paul II institute.

“I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure my bishop would grant me permission to leave the diocese for a teaching ministry,” Father Afunugo said. But he passed the audition.

“His ingratiating personality and his ready laughter made us all fond of him from the very beginning,” Father Tom recalled. He added that Seminary Chancellor Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, O.S.B., also had a role in the selection of Father Afunugo as the Seminary’s new moral theologian.

“When the fall semester of 1999 arrived, so did our larger than life moral theologian,” Father Justin said. “The first thing to strike us was the diversity of his wardrobe. One day he would be sporting a Roman cassock, the next day an outfit which could only be compared to a zoot suit, and then was the cowboy hat and boots on another day.

“Next was his pedagogical method,” he continued. “Dr. May was not known for beating around the bush. His lecture style was rather brash, loud, and even at times risqué. Father Emmanuel revered his mentor and our students were soon engaged by exactly the same classroom style, with the added feature of a distinct Nigerian accent.

“While it took Saint Vincent a while to acclimate itself to this new and colorful figure, I dare say that Emmanuel never lost a beat; he was at home. Perhaps a more apt statement would be to say that he was large and in charge,” Father Justin said. “Father Emmanuel has certainly left his mark on Saint Vincent Seminary. His presence will surely be missed. I can honestly say that we are a more interesting place because of him, and all the more enriched by his outrageous charm.”

Father Afunugo was more elemental in his recollection, noting that “I arrived in August 1999. I taught many classes: Catholic Sexual Ethics, Catholic Biomedical Ethics, Introduction to Morality, Principles of Moral Theology, Readiness for Ministry for 4th theology students, and [I did] team teaching with Father Tom Acklin, Brother David Kelly and Deacon Larry Sutton. Furthermore, I taught two seminars; Difficult Moral Questions and Seven Deadly Sins. I also taught Sacraments when Father Warren Murrman left for his sabbatical.”

“Father Afunugo was always a good colleague,” said Brother Elliott Maloney, O.S.B. “Always upbeat. Always with a smile and a quick funny line. He made my first trip to Nigeria twenty years ago very enjoyable. I was feted by his village when everyone came out to greet me and dance for me. After such a reception I went back four times to teach in the Dominican seminary in Ibadan, Nigeria. I learned a lot about community from my many new friends in Africa.”

More than 330 students have received degrees during the time Father Afunugo taught at the Seminary.
His last semester of teaching was in the fall of 2023, and he returned to Nigeria at the end of the semester to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his ordination. All of his family members returned home for the celebration. While they have all returned to their various residences, he said, “thanks to modern media, we see and talk regularly.”

“I have many pleasant memories teaching at Saint Vincent,” said Father Afunugo. “The best is the tremendous joy I have in seeing my students raised to the Order of Presbyters and having the honor to address them as ‘Father’ ( I elaborated this fact in my new book published here in Nigeria for my 40th Ordination Anniversary entitled Sacred Dwelling: Reflection on the Apostolic Constitution, Familiaris Consortio of Pope Saint John Paul II ).

“During my tenure at the Seminary, I mentioned several times that Saint Vincent offers us an ‘environmental sanctity.’ Seeing the monks at prayers, the Benedictine Oblates, Ladies Auxiliaries, etc., invites all of us to prayerful dispositions,” he said. “These great examples are seldom seen in diocesan parishes unless the priest is a man of prayer. Saint Vincent offers to us diocesan priests the opportunity to model our lives towards a life of contemplation.”

While Father Afunugo remarked on the positive example of the monks in his life, some of his former students recall the role model he has been for them.

“In my priestly ministry, there are SO MANY times that I hear Father Afunugo’s voice saying something from one of our classes, and I often have the bittersweet experience of having to laugh at hearing it so clearly, and the sadness of not being able to imitate his accent well enough to fully share with others how he said it,” said Father Stephen Kelley, S’13, pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Parish in Gettysburg,. “He has his way of pressing upon us the urgency of our moral calling, but in his way of drawing us to it in the perfect mix of humor and gravity.

“It wasn’t just a solid understanding of the Church’s moral theology, or the reasons why her moral teaching is both truthful and loving in respecting the dignity of the human person and the voice of conscience speaking to his heart. He prepared us to respect and love the priesthood, the awesome privilege and responsibility that we were being prepared to accept,” Father Kelley said. “He let us know that as seminarians we still had plenty reason to be humble, while at the same time giving us encouragement to look forward to the joys of priestly ministry, if lived out in virtue and holiness. I pray that Father Afunugo has a richly enjoyable retirement, and the contentment of having had an eternal impact in forming priests to form others in the truth and love of Christ.”

“Father Afunugo was benefactor to me and many others with his teaching, his advocacy of our vocations, and with his example of priestly life,” said Father Matthew Larlick, S’13, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lewisburg. “Looking at my bookshelf, I see my copy of Moral Absolutes, a book that Father required every student to read. He taught Moral Theology with a precision, clarity, force, and humor that is a delight to recall and impossible to copy. Father in his words and deeds taught us that God is merciful and at the same time just; forgiving and at the same time holding us accountable. Father would share with us amazing stories of his youth in Nigeria, giving to us proof that Christianity is not the private possession of western Europe but instead the gift of God to the entire world. I think of Father Afunugo quite often. He is a one-of-a-kind instructor, a truly trustworthy teacher.”

In February in Nigeria, Father Afunugo noted that the country was experiencing a scorching heat wave, with temperatures ranging from 103 to 106. Taking a moment to answer a question on the political situation in the country, he said there are “kidnappings, continued attack on Christians, church burnings, terrible insecurities, and an epileptic power supply, Lord have mercy!!! But the faith is strong, and Churches are full on Sundays. To God be all the glory.”

“Over the course of twenty-five years of faithful service at Saint Vincent Seminary, Father Emmanuel has taught the Church’s rich tradition of moral theology to a generation of future priests,” said Rector Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B. “His devotion to living and sharing the Gospel and to conveying the clarity and subtlety of Catholic morality at the intellectual and pastoral levels has been a blessing for all his students and colleagues.

“Bringing together the history of the Church and its faith in his teaching, and bringing it into dialogue with the complex concerns of the present day, Father Emmanuel truly exemplifies the words of the biblical prophet Micah: ‘Do what is just, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God’” (Micah 6:8). Father Edward continued, “the Saint Vincent Seminary community extends its heartfelt gratitude to Father Emmanuel as he continues to be a blessing for all those he encounters in the course of his life—’Euge, bone serve et fidelis’” (Matt 25:21).

“Many more healthy, happy, and blessed years dear friend. Nigeria can only be enriched by the return of her wandering son and so have we by your presence,” Father Justin concluded.

“I miss the privilege of celebrating the holy sacrifice of Mass in the Seminary,” Father Afunugo said, “but now I have the honor of doing so to a larger audience in the various parishes of the Archdiocese of Onitsha. May God’s abundant blessings be with all of you.”