By: Stephen B. Lavalah
After a protracted period of illness and silence of one of Liberia’s outspoken and valiant clerics, Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, has finally given up the ghost in such a great agony. His death is a complete misfortune not only to the Catholic Church, but it is deeply an ordeal to Christendom as well as other religions in Liberia and the world at large. It has left an irreplaceable gap in furtherance of the struggle for social justice and equitable distribution of resources for all Liberians and even foreigners residing in the territorial boundaries of the country. It has left behind an indelible mark in the political, economic, social and religious landscape of this glorious land of liberty. And, it has even sickened the quest to ensure the provision of basic social services and the fight against corruption including nepotism, tribalism and other societal vices that have kept the country backward for far too long.
His Grace Archbishop Francis was a leader willing to serve, a character to emulate, a beacon of hope, a compassionate educator and a devout servant of God. Besides, he was an indefatigable voice for the voiceless, a courageous civil rights advocate and a gallant campaigner, who was always willing to safeguard the dignity of every man, woman and child to achieve their full potential and measure of happiness irrespective of religion confessed, dialect spoken, county of origin, place of birth or family name. He saw Liberia greater than the sum of his individual ambition and bigger than his greed for power or wealth or worldly possession. Archbishop Francis did everything possible to unearth and expose societal ills in a tireless, fearless and selfless manner and form.
With all these charisma and knowledgeable comportment, the cold hand of death has once again smashed away a great mentor, a dynamic visionary, a disciplinarian, an astute statesman and devoted Christian without any prior notice of the condition and time and place. Though, death is an integral part of life, but it still remains a mystery, because no knows when it will come.
In Matthew Henry’s concise commentary on the Bible in accordance with Ecclesiastes 8:1-5, “God has, in wisdom, kept away from us the knowledge of future events, that we may be always ready for changes. We must all die, no flight or hiding-place can save us, nor are there any weapons of effectual resistance…The believer alone is prepared to meet the solemn summons.”
It was indeed an awesome opportunity from my resolute parents to have attended the Saint Kizito Catholic School located in Zayzay Community, Paynesville City outside of Monrovia at a very young age in the second grade. During those good old days, it was customary for a mass to be held at the Saint Kizito Parish in the early course of every academic semester with different speakers. It was fascinating, rewarding and amazing to listen, learn and come face to face with His Grace Archbishop Francis during my first semester. Being so curious, I sat attentively in the front pew and later woke up to glimpse at the liturgical dancers and altar servants escorting the Archbishop, who was in a smiling and joyous mood stepping majestically while the drummers and singers were performing their tasks. At long last, after some ceremonial functions were being done, Archbishop Francis was seated and faced the congregation. I looked at him with great enthusiasm and waited patiently for his exhortation. And when he had begun, he spoke with a gentle tone in a simplistic and eloquent manner, pronounced words distinctly, and expatiated about shortcomings in the educational system, lapses in the governance processes and pitfalls in the social as well as reconciliation roadmap that could further endanger peaceful coexistence and rule of law including constituted authority.
With a great deal of competence and qualification and patriotic spirit, Archbishop Francis did not only concentrate his thought-provoking and inspiring message to perpetually criticize the status quo so as to gain fame and glory as has become the order of the day for most so-called activists, but instead he advanced reasonable and durable recommendations that could curb challenges. The passionate educator urged students to become tolerant and critical thinkers and as well learned to make informed decisions and smart choices. He cautioned students to get rid of academic skullduggery and invest more time in being studious and burning the midnight candles. Archbishop Francis challenged students to take the lead and aspire for greatness in a world that has come much more competitive.
The long-standing civil rights advocate encouraged young people to hold their government accountable for every penny. He also emboldened Liberian youth to wake up, shakeup and standup for their inalienable and fundamental rights no matter the circumstances and prevailing situations. In the words of Archbishop Francis: “No amount of threats from tyrannical leaders or dictatorial rulers or despotic governments should hinder your unceasing quest to ensure equitable distribution of resources, social justice and respect for the worth and dignity of every human person”. Up till today’s date, this statement still rings bell in my ear and I have become so much more inspired to join the lifelong journey of a fearless, relentless and selfless prelate like Archbishop Francis. To this end, I have grown up with an abiding affection to advocate for freedom, justice, and equality and as well make people become problem solvers.
Apart from the memory of Archbishop Francis in the Saint Kizito parish, I was opportune to have met him intermittently. Two of my most favorite recollections were: the official visit of the Archbishop to Saint Kizito Catholic School, where he performed a Holy Eucharist and admonished students to become catalyst of change in the transformation of Liberia. Soon after his arousing sermon, some eleventh graders decided to provokingly mispronounce Archbishop Francis’ middle name. He became distraught and immediately suspended for a few days the students who were caught in the act. The Archbishop’s action demonstrated his unbinding and unwavering commitment to instill discipline and mannerism in young people no matters the circumstances. Another captivating remembrance of Archbishop Francis was at one of his annual meetings with twelve graders in the Diocese of Monrovia which took place at Saint Joseph Parish. During his interactive discussion, he motivated graduating seniors to become patriotic, law abiding and engage into voluntary and entrepreneurial initiatives so as to rebuild and remake the broken fabrics of war-torn Liberia. This sort of meeting, promoted acquaintanceship, cultivated unity in diversity and enhanced pride and values among prospective graduates.
Archbishop Francis walked the talk and was a man of his word. He used the truth-telling station, Radio Veritas, which remained perpetually closed by ill-intentioned individuals under the pretext of “technical breakdown” as a medium and advocacy tool to expose Charles Taylor’s oppressive government. The station which was initially non-commercial reported credible and unbiased news and information without fear or favor. In powerful and inspiring sermons as well as speeches, Archbishop Francis articulated his candid opinion on issues of national concern with vigor and boldness. The Archbishop refused to succumb to the authoritarian regime of former President Taylor. On countless occasions, Liberia’s erudite and eloquent Archbishop was insulted and humiliated by cronies and surrogates of the then ruling establishment. Noticeably, overzealous and verbal extremist, Sando Johnson of the defunct National Patriotic Front of Liberia, rewarded and turned Senator of Bomi County, publicly used insolent and vulgar words to describe the high-ranking prelate under the canopy of being self-professed ‘activist’ for social justice. In the midst of the persistent and consistent bellicose deportment demonstrated by malicious Sando Johnson, the Archbishop remained resilient, steadfast and determined to blow the whistle and raise the red flag on the clandestine deeds of Taylor’s administration and at the same time divulge the untold and inhumane suffering of the people whom the regime claimed to have liberated, redeemed and emancipated.
Besides, Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis was an innovative and brilliant leader. Under his dynamic and impressive leadership, the Catholic Church in Liberia accumulated more resources to build more schools to educate Liberia’s emerging generation, constructed several clinics and health centers to keep the people healthy, strengthened additional Don Bosco homes to take of the welfare street children, empowered CARITAS to ensure relief and recovery of war victims, reinforced Catholic Relief Services to help the needy and operated its own independent media entity. In addition, Archbishop Francis assiduously worked to enhance the evangelistic wing of the Church. The Queen of Peace Prayer Movement, which provided a unique opportunity for me to acquire more knowledge about the Church even though I am not a Catholic, taught and supplied useful doctrine of the Catholic faith to students. Likewise, other vibrant congregations and groups emerged within the Church to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Inasmuch as the Archbishop was involved in evangelism to increase the Church’s membership, he was moderate and tolerated people of other Christian denominations and religious beliefs. As a result, he became very instrumental in the formation of the Liberian Council of Churches. Due to his passion for education and quality healthcare, Archbishop Francis ensured that the fees for schools and medical facilities were somewhat reasonable and far below the nowadays skyrocketing fees.
Though, our loving, caring and sharing Archbishop is dead and gone, but his memories must forever remain. In so doing, young Liberians and older folks should emulate the exemplary role of the Archbishop in putting Liberia first above personal greed. Young Catholics and all those who believe in Catholicism must strive hard to ensure that the Catholic Church live up to the true meaning of its creed. In the midst of extreme hardship, appalling education system, dreadful healthcare, high unemployment, unacceptable inequality and unbearable cost of living; the Catholic Church must once again rise up to the legacy of Archbishop Francis and take its rightful place to speak for the voiceless, empower the less fortunate, foster peace and transform Liberia for the common good of all. With the Virgin Mary interceding for us through her son Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I am convinced that the Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis’ soul is being rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Good bye for now and may light perpetual shine upon you and all faithful departed. Till we meet again to sing your favorite song “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. Go and take your rest.
About the author: Mr. Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder/Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES).