African Witness. Blessed Cyprian Michael Tansi

Forty years ago, Father Tansi concluded his pilgrimage here on earth. The legacy of this outstanding Nigerian priest and monk challenges the Church to be ever more faithful to its identity and mission.

Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi was born in 1903 in Igboezunu, southern Nigeria. His parents were Igbo farmers. At the age of six, Iwene was sent to Nduka, a nearby village, to begin his primary education. There he met some Irish missionaries who helped him to know the Christian faith. Three years later he was baptised and given the name Michael.

He continued his education and, at the age of 16, completed his leaving certificate. This certificate enabled him to teach in the primary schools of his area. Michael distinguished himself for his intelligence, goodness, dedication to his commitments and great faith. At the age of 20 he became the headmaster of St Joseph School in Aguleri.

During all these years he reflected upon the calling of God and, thanks to the help received from the missionaries, he decided to leave the teaching post and to enter the seminary. The family was against his choice, but Michael was adamant: he was sure that God was calling him to be a priest and in 1925 he entered St Paul’s Seminary in Igbariam.

After finishing his theological studies he was ordained a priest in the cathedral of Onitsha on 19 December 1937. He began his ministry with great enthusiasm and love: on foot or by bicycle, Fr. Tansi went from village to village preaching, catechizing and setting up prayer centres that eventually became parishes. He spent long hours hearing confessions and in prayer. His zeal, shining example of prayer and penance transformed the people into a true Christian community, resulting in many vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

In 1950, Bishop Heerey expressed the desire that one of his priests would embrace the monastic life so that he could later establish a monastery in the diocese. Fr Tansi immediately expressed his availability and was sent to the Trappist Abbey of Mount Saint Bernard in England. When he joined the novitiate, he took the name Cyprian and, in 1956, he took his solemn vows. For the next seven years he lived the hidden life of prayer and work, humility and obedience, in faithful and generous observance of the Cistercian rule.

In 1963 the Bishop was ready to call him back to Nigeria to establish a monastery but, on account of political tensions and problems, it was decided to start the monastery in neighbouring Cameroon. This was a big blow for Cyprian who was looking forward to re turning to Nigeria and there spread the love for monastic life. In January 1964 he began experiencing intense pain in one of his legs. Diagnosed as having thrombosis, the following morning he was found unconscious and taken to Leicester Hospital.

He died on January 20, 1964. He was buried two days later in the cemetery of the monastery. Several Nigerian priests were present at the funeral, including his spiritual son, Father Francis Arinze, the future archbishop of Onitsha, now Cardinal and President of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Pope John Paul II proclaimed him blessed on 22 March 1998 during his second visit to Nigeria.

The witness of this new African blessed challenges the Christian communities to be ever more faithful to the message of the Lord and to place the Kingdom at the centre of the various activities that are carried out. Blessed Tansi, whose memory is celebrated on January 20, is set before the priests and religious of Africa as an outstanding example of a priest who lived his life to the full and in a spirit of faithfulness to the calling he had received.

He carried out his pastoral activities with love and care for the people entrusted to him. In spite of many difficulties and problems, he gained strength and courage through a deep life of faith and prayer. He lived his ‘ordinary’ life in an extraordinary way by placing the Kingdom as the first priority of his life. Fr Tansi offers a powerful message to all those who have embarked on the way of holiness.

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