Remembering Rev. Fr. Raymond Arazu, One Year After

By Henry Chigozie Duru

On 26th December 2022 is exactly one year after the death of a Catholic cleric, scholar, teacher, musician, traditional medicine practitioner and advocate of tolerance, Rev. Fr. Dr. Raymond Chukwunyelugwu Arazu, CSSp.

Being a man of many parts, Fr. Arazu represented different things to different people. To me, he was a mentor and great motivator, hence the prompting to pen down this tribute. Arazu was born on May 27, 1939, to a Christian couple in Ihiembosi in the present Ekwusigo local government area of Anambra State. He was the last of eight children (four males and four females). He was ordained a Catholic priest in the Spiritan Order in 1966.

Soon after his ordination, he left for Europe for further studies. Besides the degrees he bagged in philosophy and theology – the minimum for a candidate to the Catholic priesthood – his educational sojourn in Europe ensured he earned further academic laurels as follows: a master’s degree in theology from Gregorian University Rome completing his thesis in Latin language and a doctorate in Moral Science at Lateran University Rome completing his dissertation in the Italian language.

Arazu then departed for England where he enrolled in the University of Southampton for a postgraduate diploma in education (PGDE) which he completed as the best graduating student bagging two awards as a result. His further educational pursuits took him to France and Germany where he earned diplomas in French and German languages in addition to an earlier one in the Italian language.

Upon return to Nigeria, Fr. Arazu was made the parish priest of St. Martin of Tours Parish Ihiala where he remained until 1976. From 1976, in addition to his priestly duties, he became employed in the civil service of the old Anambra State where he started as a youth development officer (level 9) under the Ministry of Youth and Sports until his retirement in 1999 as the director of youths (level 16) at the statutory age of 60.

From 1970s, Fr. Arazu began his translation of Bible psalms into Igbo and composing them into music, producing songs that embody a creative combination of poetry and traditional Igbo musical rhythm. By 1980s he had completed 65 of the psalms and published same in a book “Abu Oma nke Bible”.

The book is a best seller just as the songs have been a dominant presence in the Catholic liturgical culture across the Southeast of Nigeria. Much later, the Department of Music, University of Nigeria Nsukka rearranged the songs in four parts presenting them in solfa and staff notations and recorded the performance on compact disc.

A choral group, “Abu Oma Society of Nigeria” founded by Arazu in Aba now has presence all over the Southeast and has been sustaining this musical legacy of his. Little wonder, on the recommendation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha, the Vatican in 2000 recognised Arazu as the “Religious Musician of the Millennium 2000.” More recently the Music Department of UNN also gave him an “Award of Excellence”.

A defining aspect of Fr. Arazu’s life was his scholarship. He was a man of immense learning and with an encyclopaedic mind. He was a polyglot speaking several languages including Igbo, English, Italian, French, German, and Latin.

As a consummate Bible scholar, he also had a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. Arazu’s scholarly contribution spans across disciplines including philosophy, theology, comparative religion, esoterism etc. He was a prolific writer with numerous academic and press articles as well as nine books.

I am privileged to have read many of the articles and all of the nine books including his number one best seller, “Man Know Thyself,” and my favourite, “Covenant Broken: Sin in Salvation History,” a penetratingly critical exegesis on the twin concepts of sin and salvation in the Jewish religion.

In 1967, as a young priest, Fr. Arazu made what has remained a largely unrecognized contribution to the anthropological study of Igbo culture and religion. Prof. Elizabeth Isichei, a European woman (from New Zealand) married to an Igbo of Delta State origin and had interest in studying the history and culture of Igbo people needed some data regarding Igbo religious worldview.

Fr. Arazu was on hand to help by interviewing two traditional religion practitioners in his native Ihiembosi and producing over 90 pages of transcriptions which Prof. Isichei had used in many of her works on Igbo culture. Isichei had learnt how to speak Igbo.

She took pride in the study of Igbo people as she pursued her sterling academic career including at University of Jos where she was a professor of history. Hence, the story of Isichei’s great scholarship in Igbo history and culture cannot be complete without that huge contribution by Arazu. Many don’t know this!

Fr. Arazu’s studies and research took him into the very heart of the Eastern philosophy. At his centre at Okpuno, Anambra State, he had a Vedic library open to public use and borrowing of books. I benefitted immensely from this library as I explored Eastern philosophy, religion and culture having been influenced by Arazu.

I also had rare access to his personal library within his apartments where I saw and read some good books many of whom I have not been able to find at any bookshop. These were books on a wide range of subjects including rarely mentioned ones like mysticism, esoterism and occultism.

Many who knew Fr. Arazu are aware of his principled stance on religious and cultural tolerance. It was his insistence that people should eschew religious arrogance as born of ignorance. In an interview I had with him in February 2010 for a Lagos-based magazine, he said, “We must learn to understand and tolerate other faiths. God is not a Christian, He is not a Moslem, and neither does He belong to any other religion for that matter.

These religions are different paths to God depending on one’s intentions, conviction, and sincerity. When we refuse to tolerate other religions, when we denigrate and even fight the adherents, that is fundamentalism and terrorism. Today we have a lot of Moslem and Christian fundamentalists and terrorists.

Saul in the Bible was persecuting Christians before he was converted on the road to Damascus; Saul was a fundamentalist, a terrorist. He couldn’t tolerate other faiths because his religion, Judaism, taught him that only the Jewish religion was divine, that others were gentiles. So he resorted to killing them believing he was doing the right thing in the same way his forefathers destroyed the Amalekites,.the Jebusites, the Canaanites and other peoples who professed other faiths; but that is racism and terrorism. Hence God stopped him.

This is what we’re seeing today among Christians and Moslems; because we have been made to believe that our religion is the only authentic one before God, we resort to fundamentalism and even terrorism. Those who kill in the name of God are terrorists just like Saul, those who destroy shrines of other faiths are terrorists, those who persecute members of other faiths in any other way are terrorists.

“[T]here are two ways,” he went on, “through which one will arrive at the truth that all religions are ultimately one. The first is through education. I mean the kind of education that broadens the mind and liberates it from all forms of fanaticism. One gets this kind of education, for instance, by reading about other religions, other cultures, and other civilisations, by studying history, anthropology, philosophy and so on.

The other way is through spiritual growth where one expands his consciousness to become directly and intimately aware of the divine. Everyone professes one religion or the other, but this is a path not too many persons pass. It is the path to self-realization, the ultimate self-awareness, the divine awareness. At this level, one experiences God in His transcendence and immanence, he sees God in everything and in every person.

This is not an experience one can describe to another, one can only experience it. That is the essence of spirituality. At that point, fanaticism disappears as one understands fully that God cannot be monopolized as the God of any religion or any race as the Jews erroneously did, the same error Christians and Moslems are repeating today.”

Interestingly, many people who knew Arazu were mainly aware of his work in the area of traditional medicine. This is unsurprising given that this was the aspect of his life that mainly attracted people to him. His interest in natural medicine research led him to co-found the Association for Scientific Investigation, Conservation and Utilisation of Medicinal Plants of Nigeria (ASICUMPON). He chaired this body which in 2005 published a reference book on the medicinal properties of plants found in different parts of Nigeria.

So prominent was his contribution that Anambra State Government under Governor Peter Obi appointed him the secretary of the Anambra State Traditional Medicine Board and on the expiration of his tenure elevated him to chairman of the Board.

In 2012/2013 Fr. Arazu’s health began to deteriorate. At some point he was flown to India where he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After several months of treatment, he returned home. However, there was obvious slowdown in his activities. He was no longer the workaholic he was for many years which saw him shuttle between Awka, Onitsha and Enugu on weekly basis to attend to his numerous routines.

His weekly “Self-Realisation Lecture” which, for several years, was my every Thursday delight, was no longer holding regularly. No doubt our once very energetic Fr. Arazu was getting frailer day by day. He knew this and little wonder he declared that “The Biblical Story of Salvation”, a 389-page scholarly exegesis written largely on his sick bed in India, was to be his last book.

Save from his regular homily at Sunday masses, the last time I saw him make a public presentation was on Thursday November 19, 2015, at a conference by the Department of Philosophy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka marking the UNESCO World Philosophy Day, where the eminent philosopher presented a short but powerful keynote speech titled “The Metaphysics of Mahatma Gandih.” Much later, Arazu became diabetic, which added to his health problems.

On December 26, 2021, Fr. Raymond Arazu finally breathed his last. His condition had got so bad that he was taken to Parklane.Hospital, Enugu. He could, however, not make it, as he succumbed to the inevitable on the morning of the day after Christmas. The death announcement signed by Rev. Fr. Vitalis Anusionwu, CSSp, Secretary of the Holy Ghost Congregation, Province of Nigeria, Southeast, was titled “The Guru Goes Home.” No doubt, Arazu was a Guru.

The Guru was different things to different people. To some he was a priest. To many others he was a traditional doctor. Yet to some he was a teacher and scholar having lectured on moral theology and comparative religion at higher institutions and taught English language, mathematics, geography, and chemistry to secondary school students.

To a lot of people, he was a musician, while to others he was a character veiled in mystique and eluding understanding. Whatever one may say about him, one thing that cannot be doubted was that he made an impact. He was a preacher of peace. A crusader for unity and tolerance. He was a great man. And for this I have penned down this tribute to him.

The legacy of Rev. Fr. Dr. Raymond Chukwunyelugwu Arazu no doubt lives on! He is surely missed by many. Requiescat in pace. Amen!

Henry Chigozie Duru teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka.

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