There is a time for everything under the sun, so says the holy scripture: a time to serve at a particular organisation and a time to start moving. So, it is with Very Rev. Fr. Lazarus Atarima Anondee; a Priest of the Catholic Diocese of Navrongo-Bolgatanga, in the Upper East Region of Ghana; who has served the Ghana Catholic Bishops’ Conference (GCBC) as Secretary General (SG), for the past seven years.
In this interview, Fr. Anondee, popularly known as Fr. SG, shares with Sr. Elizabeth Mgbaramuko, SHCJ, on his service to the GCBC as Secretary General and by implication; the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Catholic Secretariat (NCS), Accra, Ghana, which is the Administrative Arm of the GCBC.
Father SG, nice to meet you! So, what have you to tell the world, after your privileged position of walking hand in hand with the holy men of God in the Ghana Episcopate for the past seven years?
Indeed, I must admit, it is a great privilege! Actually, I have served the Bishops for a total of almost 12 years. My arrival at the NCS was in July 2011, on appointment by the GCBC as the Coordinator of the National Catholic Service Centre (NCSC), which is a Unit in one of the Departments of the NCS -the Department of Strategic Investment (DSI). In playing my role of Coordination and arrangement for tax exemptions on materials such as vehicles and hospital equipment donated to the Bishops or to their Dioceses by their foreign partners, as well as facilitating the procurement of their travel documents, (visas and passports), I came into contact with many of the Bishops without even seeing them physically. Consequently, I was given additional responsibility as the Acting Executive Secretary of the DSI. I served in the two positions for five years, and in August 2016, I was appointed Secretary General of the GCBC.
What do you think was responsible for such swift elevation?
Service! I think I offered the Bishops credible service.
What roles did you play as Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of the Secretariat?
I oversaw the overall supervision of the Secretariat, including coordination of the activities of the various departments, to ensure that the decisions, policies and programmes of the GCBC were effectively and efficiently carried out, especially their statutory meetings and plenaries. My role as Secretary General also involved the responsibility of handling volumes of correspondence between the GCBC and other Organisations or individuals which were effectively handled throughout my period of service. At the level of my being the CEO of the NCS, we worked as a team and in that teamwork, we were able to organise and also participate in the executions of the statutory programmes of the Conference. In addition, we organised other forms of meetings between the Conference and other Bodies in the political, academic, religious and socio-economic spheres of life, and at diocesan, provincial, national and international levels. We also planned and successfully executed our NCS internal programmes each year.
Can you speak more about these other forms of engagements the Bishops had?
The Conference engages in what it calls non-statutory activities for the common good of all. In the Ghana 2020 elections, for instance, there were some serious challenges among the top politicians –bordering on the verbal assassination of one another. The GCBC moved in, implored the political gladiators to eschew politics of insults, and encouraged the judiciary to follow the rule of law and the citizens not to take the law into their hands. The Governance, Justice and Peace Directorate of the GCBC held town-hall meetings to educate the people on the need to avoid violence and to exercise their franchise. They teamed up with the Coalition of Domestic Observers and monitored the 2020 elections. Also, throughout the devastating period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the GCBC collaborated with the State to control the spread of the disease. The Conference raised funds, made donations of cash to the Government and materials to the rural dwellers as well as gave out some Catholic Pastoral Centres to serve as COVID-19 Treatment Centres. Our NCS team organised all the Bishops, Priests and entire staff of NCS and got them vaccinated.
The Bishops also engaged the government in the Galamsey fight, challenged them to address the issue concretely including environmental degradation and other burning issues such as confusion in the educational system and crisis in the financial sector. The Conference questioned some of the Government’s blatant decisions especially, the Auditor General’s removal saga. These and many other non-statutory engagements are reflected in the GCBC’s communique and official public statements.
What achievements at the NCS would you like to be personally identified with and what legacies are you leaving behind as you are about to exit?
Well, I would like to be identified with the infrastructural development of the NCS and I am leaving a legacy of service and maintenance culture. Soon after I took over as Secretary General, I realised that the hall for meetings and the dining room were all upstairs and very small. I further realised the challenge some of the elderly Bishops were facing while climbing up to the offices and the Chapel at the second and third floors when they come for their meetings. I felt that the activities of the Bishops should be brought down to the ground floor.
First, I presented a proposal to the Conference. Initially, I faced the challenge of convincing the Bishops of my good intentions for them and once they got convinced, I was given all the support I needed to solicit funds and carry out the restructuring and relocations. I solicited for and got some funds from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Diocese of Cologne, Germany and the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, including some local support. With this encouraging financial and moral support and teamwork on the part of the NCS staff, our collective dream became a reality.
Today, all that needed to be constructed, restructured and relocated (brought down) have been completed: the NCS Conference hall, a new dining hall and Bishop’s parlour, reconstructed NCS Chapel, GCBC President’s Office with the President’s Conference Room added, and a Cafeteria constructed outside the NCS building but within the NCS premises. The entire NCS compound was given a facelift through improvement in the drainage system, filling of the compound with stone chippings and beautification of the environment.
Still with the funds provided, the NCS Centenary building got renovated in 2021/2022, with nine new offices constructed for rent; some of which are rented out already. Close-circuit cameras are mounted at strategic locations within the building and the compound, and a digital attendance device is provided to replace the old system of hand-writing and signing of staff attendance Register. Today, NCS staff operate on digital attendance and the entire building is on close-circuit cameras surveillance.
At the spiritual level, and through the moral and financial support of His Excellency, Most Rev. Henryk Mieczyslaw Jagodziński, Apostolic Nuncio to Ghana, a life-size Statue of St. Pope John Paul II was sculptured and erected on the grounds of the NCS, as Patron Saint of the NCS family and in gratitude to the Pope who visited the NCS and commissioned the NCS Centenary Building in May 1980.
What were the challenges you faced both within and outside the NCS in all of these?
I believe in cooperation, collaboration and teamwork. That I am Secretary General does not mean I should do everything. I allowed people to carry out their mandates. In spite of that, there were some stubborn people who did not want to cooperate. It was also difficult for me to convince some of the Bishops about the reconstructions and relocations. Today, I thank God that I did not disappoint them and that they are happy with the outcome. Talking about challenges; the real challenge came in getting experts to carry out the reconstructions. Requisite expertise to carry out the responsibilities involved were sometimes lacking and you need experts to help and they were not easily available.
How about the challenges inherent in your additional responsibility as Assisting Priest at the Saint Mark Catholic Church, Atomic Hills, Ashongman, in the Catholic Archdiocese of Accra?
I see the opportunity to serve in that capacity as an added privilege to serve the church – the people of God. It has not been much of a challenge to me but rather helped me to exercise fully, my ministerial priesthood functions. My work at the St. Mark Church served as a great opportunity for pastoral work; I ministered to the people of God in the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments. When I fell sick, the church community prayed for me, visited and gave me gifts.
Are you aware that at the St. Mark Church, your other name is Fr. Sharp – Sharp? Why?
The fact of the matter is that, I am a time-conscious person. In other to manage time properly, I write my homily out, and follow it. I don’t give out too many points. I make sure I start the Mass on time and finish on time. That could be what is being referred to as ‘sharp-sharp’. As for time management, it’s just part of me. In my positions, I am multi-tasked, and if I’m not time conscious, I cannot manage programmes on time. I don’t believe in laissez-faire.
Apart from your ability to manage time well, people also see you as humble and as having excellent human relations. True or false?
You have said it. Gratitude I owe a debt of gratitude to the Conference and the Bishops for choosing me and for allowing me to serve them and others. I am also grateful to my Diocesan Bishop for agreeing for me to take up the GCBC’s appointment.
To my colleague priests at the Secretariat and the entire NCS staff, I express gratitude for their love, cooperation and collaboration. To all my parishioners at the St. Mark Catholic Church, my relatives, friends and well-wishers everywhere, I thank you all for your goodwill and support. My overall gratitude goes to God, for the gift of life, the gift of the Church and the priesthood of Christ, that called me to service.
Any advice to the incoming Secretary General?
- He should allow the spirit of cooperation and collaboration to continue, for effective and efficient services to the GCBC, the Secretariat and the Church in general.
- Prudent management of the financial resources is critical for the smooth operation of the Secretariat’s activities and this calls for a strong collaborative working relationship between the Secretary-General and the Finance Manager.
- Particular attention should also be paid to the maintenance of the existing facilities; preserving them through consistency in maintenance culture and maximizing the use of what is available while adding necessary new facilities.
- The necessity for the Secretary-General to offer credible service can never be overemphasized. I was chosen to serve, not because I have high academic qualifications or degrees but because I am a Catholic priest, called to serve.
- The Secretary-General must avoid power tussle! If the people see you as one who looks for power; you are a danger to the Church, because, no one knows what you are likely to do with the power. Where power is the goal, it is more for parochial interest than for service. Ÿ The Church needs people who have the spirit of service and put it into practice because Jesus came to serve and not to be served. He actually served to the point of laying down His life for us