From a childhood as a war refugee to a career as a Holy See diplomat, Archbishop Fortunatus Nwachukwu will now take on a new leadership role in one of the most important dicasteries in the Roman Curia.
The Nigerian archbishop was recently appointed by Pope Francis as a secretary for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization.
The dicastery is tasked with “the work of evangelization, so that Christ, the light of the nations, may be known and witnessed to by word and deed, and the Church, his mystical body, may be built up.”
In an interview with EWTN last week, Nwachukwu, 62, spoke about evangelization and interreligious dialogue, underlining what Jesus said in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
“We have to continue to insist and to say that Jesus is the sole way to the Father,” he said, adding that “even going from Scripture, we can also refer to non-Christians as our brothers and sisters if they are walking in the truth in search of God.”
Childhood as a war refugee
Nwachukwu also recalled his childhood as a refugee displaced by the violence of Nigeria’s Civil War, also known as the Biafran War (July 6, 1967 – Jan. 15, 1970), in a previous interview with EWTN.
“I was only 7 years old when I was caught up in the midst of a civil conflict, one of the most horrible, horrendous civil conflicts of the last century. This was in 1967, the outbreak of the Nigeria Biafra Civil War,” the archbishop said.
“I lost many of my peers. I lost two of my own sisters. So, I knew right from a very early age what it means to pass through a situation of war. I know what it means to experience hunger. I know what it means to be an internally displaced person. So, I know the experience of being a refugee.”
An estimated 1 million people died during the war that lasted less than three years, with the majority dying from starvation, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
“I know the experience of living away from my home. I lost my father and mother for a long period. We were five and we were under my eldest brother, who was only 13. And we had to survive. So, I know what it means to go through suffering,” Nwachukwu said.
He continued: “I lost years of education, three years from 1967 to 1970. And therefore, when I’m coming to the United Nations, I know what it means to experience war, not at the warfront, but as a victim, a victim that is innocent.”
Nwachukwu noted that he has brought all of these experiences with him to his work as a diplomat, most recently representing the Holy See at the United Nations in Geneva.
“I know what it means to feel one has been abandoned by the rest of humanity. Or what it means to feel one has been discriminated against in one’s own nation,” he said.
“When a person is going to talk to me about discrimination, about violence, about injustice, I think I’ve experienced them all in my own skin.”
Nwachukwu began his career in the Holy See diplomatic service in 1994, 10 years after his ordination as a priest in the Diocese of Umuahia in southern Nigeria.
His diplomatic career has brought him to Vatican posts in Ghana, Paraguay, Algeria, Switzerland, and Rome before he became an apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s equivalent to an ambassador.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Nwachukwu as the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua and elevated him to the rank of archbishop.
He later served as the apostolic nuncio to Trinidad and Tobago in 2017 and nuncio to St. Lucia, Grenada, Bahamas, Suriname, and Belize in 2018.
Nwachukwu holds a doctorate in canon law from the Angelicum and a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Urban University. He also studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany.
The archbishop served since 2021 as the permanent observer of the Holy See to the Office of the United Nations in Geneva. He knows English, Italian, Spanish, German, modern Hebrew, French, and Arabic.
Nwachukwu said in the interview with EWTN last week that “if people of religions were to really put into practice the authentic values taught by their religions, we would put the United Nations organization out of a job.”
“If we were to live, to practice the authentic values taught by our religions, we would so much live human fraternity that much of United Nations activities will be superfluous,” he said.
Dicastery for Evangelization
Nwachukwu’s appointment places him in a leadership role in one of the most important dicasteries in the Roman Curia, which has the pope as its head. The Dicastery for Evangelization is listed first in the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, which means “Preach the Gospel” in Latin.
In the Dicastery for Evangelization, Nwachukwu will work under Cardinal Antonio Louis Tagle, one of the pro-prefects of the dicastery.
The Dicastery for Evangelization is presided over by the pope with two sections, each governed in the pope’s name by a pro-prefect. One section focuses on the “fundamental questions of evangelization in the world” and the other on supporting the initial proclamation of the Gospel in mission territories, including the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
Tagle heads the second section “for the first evangelization and new particular churches,” for which Nwachukwu will also work as its secretary.
Archbishop Salvatore Rino Fisichella serves as the pro-prefect for the first section tasked with the “fundamental questions of evangelization in the world.”
Pope’s book pick
When Nwachukwu settles in Rome, many in the Roman Curia likely will already be familiar with his writing. Pope Francis gave each member of the Curia a copy of Nwachukwu’s book, “The Abused Word,” a reflection on gossip, as a Christmas gift in 2021.
Nwachukwu wrote the short booklet at the suggestion of Pope Francis, who proposed the idea to the archbishop during their private audience in January 2019.
“As we finished talking about many things, talking about the abuse of words, news mongering, calumnies, and such things, as I was going, he took my hand and said, ‘Fortunatus, you write things, why don’t you write something on news mongering, on gossip?’”
“I have always been fascinated by the power of words,” Nwachukwu said. “Think of God creating humanity, creating the world by his power, by his word.”
In 2022 while serving as the representative of the Holy See to the European Office of the United Nations and Specialized Institutions in Geneva, Archbishop Nwachukwu had underscored the main role of Catholic Priests saying they are “first and foremost bridge builders”.
Archbishop Nwachukwu also talked about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, his experience of the Biafra war in his native country, and how the UN can achieve sustainable peace in areas of conflict.
“We are primarily Priests before being diplomats, and as Priests, we are bridge builders,” Archbishop Nwachukwu said.
Making reference to his role as the Permanent Observer to the UN, the Nigerian-born diplomat said, “We represent the Pope, and the Pope represents Christ; he is the successor of Peter, and Christ is presented as a High Priest.”
“The High Priest is a bridge builder; and that is our work as diplomats and as Priests. We are supposed to be first and foremost bridge builders carrying on with the mission of Jesus Christ, of building bridges between God and humanity,” said the Catholic Archbishop who was appointed the Holy Permanent Observer to the UN in December 2021.
He continued, “As Priests, as other Christs among our people, we are supposed to be Pontifical, and that is also what it means by representing the Pope, who is now the supreme pontiff; we are supposed to be Pontifical in our mission, that is, we are supposed to be bridge builders. A diplomat is essentially a bridge builder.”
The Nigerian Diplomat who is also serving at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and represents the Holy See Representative at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) further said that a Permanent Observer to the UN “goes to facilitate peaceful relationships between governments and between nations.”
“That should not surprise us because if you do not have people that facilitate good relations between nations, the danger will be that of having people pursuing their own personal interests, which often conflict with one another,” Archbishop Nwachukwu the representative of the Holy See to the European Office of the UN told CNA Deutsch March 16 2022.
He noted that the “Priest is essentially a diplomat first and foremost in searching for a good relationship between human beings and God. But as Priests, diplomats, we also carry that further to the forum of nations, bringing to this forum what we are trained to be, what we are ordained to be, and that is pontifical meaning bridge builders.”
“Being a Priest and being a diplomat are not contradictory,” Archbishop Nwachukwu further said, and explained, “Being a Priest and being a diplomat could actually be complimentary. They complete one another. Of course, we have to understand being a diplomat in the right sense. Diplomacy does not mean having a double tongue, as people think from the word, for example, duplex or duplicate.”
“We know that the original word diploma means a folded document, and that means a certificate. So, we are supposed to be people that are certified, that carry the certificate given to us by the supreme pontiff to become bridge builders in his name and through him in the name of Jesus Christ,” the native of Africa’s most populous nation explained.
The Archbishop also reflected on the Russia-Ukraine conflict saying, “We are all praying for Ukraine, because the UN is a platform, it is a forum for dialogue and a meeting place for the parties involved in the conflicts, and also a meeting place of the allies of both parties involved in the conflict. We cannot reach durable peace, lasting peace without dialogue.”
The Archbishop who doubles as a representative of the Holy Father in various Caribbean Island nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Bahamas, Suriname, and Belize, among others, said, “Peace that is imposed is only war that is postponed, while peace that is agreed, peace that is reached through dialogue, is lasting peace.”
“The UN has an important role to play in contributing to the peace we are all looking for. By providing a forum for dialogue, a forum for exchanges between the two parties involved, the United Nations is already playing a very important role,” he added.
In the March 16 interview, the Nigerian Diplomat said he brings a rich experience to the UN owing to his witness of the Biafra war in Nigeria.
“I think I come to the United Nations with a baggage from experiences, first from the point of view of my own personal experience, my own personal life, and then experiences that I have gathered serving as a diplomat of the Holy See,” he said.
The Catholic Archbishop further said, “I was only seven years old when I was caught up in the midst of a civil conflict, one of the most horrible, horrendous civil conflicts of the last century. This was in 1967, the outbreak of the Nigeria Biafra Civil War.”
“I lost two of my own sisters. So, I knew right from a very early age what it means to pass through a situation of war. I know what it means to experience hunger. I know what it means to be an internally displaced person. So, I know the experience of being a refugee,” Archbishop Nwachukwu recounted.
He continued, “I know the experience of living away from my home. I lost my father and mother for a long period. We were five and we were under my eldest brother, who was only 13. And we had to survive. So, I know what it means to go through suffering.”
“I lost years of education, three years from 1967 to 1970. And therefore, when I’m coming to the United Nations, I know what it means to experience war, not at the war front, but as a victim, a victim that is innocent,” the Catholic Archbishop said.
He continued, “I know what it means to experience anger, illness without the presence of any medication. I know what it means to feel one has been abandoned by the rest of humanity. Or what it means to feel one has been discriminated against in one’s own nation.”
“So, I bring all this baggage of experiences to my current work. When a person is going to talk to me about discrimination, about violence, about injustice, I think I’ve experienced them all in my own skin,” the representative of the Holy See to the European Office of the UN and Specialized Institutions in Geneva said.