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Nigerian Pioneer of Prayer and Faith
By John Feister


Active, Yet Contemplative
Giving Form to Faith
'Patient, Wise Art of Peace'
Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi

Pope John Paul II was determined to broaden our sense of holiness. To that end, he beatified and canonized more holy people than any pope who had preceded him. One of those he beatified is Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, who brought Christianity to his neighbors and worked to bring the charism of contemplative prayer to the Church in Nigeria.

What drove Blessed Cyprian was his love of the Lord and his devotion to spreading that love to the people of his culture. Many of them had never before been invited to the fullness of life in Christ.


Active, Yet Contemplative

Iwene Tansi was born in southern Nigeria to a family which included four brothers. His parents wished a better livelihood for him and sent the two-year-old to live with relatives. They enrolled him in a Christian school where he was inspired to become a priest.

1903 Born in Igboezunu, Nigeria, named Iwene

1912 Baptized in Nduka, named Michael

December 8, 1955 Given name of Cyprian as a Trappist novice

January 20, 1964 Died at a Trappist monastery in England

March 22, 1998 Beatified by Pope John Paul II

After his ordination in 1937, he began a school. He established programs to protect young women from exploitation, common in his area. Later in life, he went to England to become a Trappist, hoping to live a monastic life in Nigeria. The Trappists ultimately chose neighboring Cameroon as the site of their foundation. But Father Tansi died before he could move there.

Young Francis Arinze had been a student at the school Father Cyprian began. Arinze was inspired there to pursue ministry himself. Now a cardinal, he heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. At his mentor’s beatification, Cardinal Arinze reminded us all, “Saints are ordinary men and women who come from your villages.”

Holy people strike each of us differently, in our own place along the way of faith. The early death of Blessed Cyprian’s father touched me because I was a teen when my own father died. Many whose parents have died too soon are left with what my friend Richard Rohr, O.F.M., calls a “hole in the soul,” an experience that becomes a key to understanding life in its deepest sense. To me, it’s no surprise that Blessed Cyprian pursued a contemplative lifestyle and wanted to share that with others. He was devoted to reconciliation, a theme that Pope John Paul II highlighted at his beatification. He preached and promoted peace in a land of divisions.

What of his people who, as one biographer says, “found the faith for themselves”? The seed of faith, of course, was planted by Christian missionaries, another connection for me and anyone else who has aspired to spread the faith. But, as the late African missionary Father Vince Donovan describes in Christianity Rediscovered, African peoples were filled with a lively faith before the Christians arrived. Christianity gave language, form and ultimate meaning to that which the Holy Spirit was already guiding.

Could this be a message for all of us who seek to pass on our faith today? Rather than worry about doing it all ourselves—a worry to which I am particularly prone—we do well to respect what we find. In the words of Blessed Cyprian, “We do very little good when we embark on our own. We do much good when we allow God to direct us and direct our enterprises.”

Next: Alojzije Stepinac


“When we see others as brothers and sisters, it is then possible to begin the process of healing the divisions within society and between ethnic groups. This is the reconciliation which is the path to true peace and authentic progress for Nigeria and for Africa. This reconciliation is not weakness or cowardice. On the contrary, it demands courage and sometimes even heroism: it is victory over self rather than over others. It should never be seen as dishonor. For in reality it is the patient, wise art of peace.”

—homily from the Mass of beatification


John Feister is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

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