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Father Basil Eruo has always seen himself as part of a growing family.
It’s about to get much bigger.
“Being a priest means being called from among the people, from among your family, to serve all of God’s people, minister to them and be a shepherd for them,” he said. “You are serving the whole Church that is one family — different families, different places, no boundaries.”
Fr. Eruo, a priest of the Diocese of Orlu, Nigeria, has been ministering in the Jefferson City diocese since July 2007.
At age 49, he has enlisted in the Chaplain Corps of the U.S. Air Force, where he will minister to servicemen and women and their families from all over the world.
He is scheduled to begin Officer Training on May 19 at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
On July 14, he will be stationed with the 82nd Training Wing at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas.
It’s a bustling training center for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“I’m going to a place where they host like 60,000 airmen from 11 countries all over the world,” said Fr. Eruo.
He’s excited at the prospect of ministering to so many people, right where they live and work, every day.
“My work will be to be present to them — be with them in the moment, help them work through whatever they need to work through,” he said.
Two dioceses, one Church
Fr. Eruo grew up in a large, Catholic family in eastern Nigeria.
He entered junior seminary at age 12 and spent 17 years in formation before being ordained to the Holy Priesthood on Aug. 21, 1999.
He served for two years as an associate pastor and for five-and-a-half as a pastor in his home diocese before coming to Missouri.
He had never been to the United States.
In this diocese, he first served as associate pastor of St. Patrick parish in Rolla, then of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
From there, he was appointed administrator of St. Joseph parish in Canton, Queen of Peace parish in Ewing and the former Notre Dame mission in LaGrange.
He then served as administrator of Ss. Peter & Paul parish in Boonville and St. Joseph parish in Fayette, followed by St. Joseph parish in Palmyra.
He spent the past year in residence in St. Martins, filling in for other priests.
“That changed everything”
Fr. Eruo attended a conference of Catholic priests from Africa shortly after he arrived in the United States.
Several U.S. Air Force representatives were there seeking prospective chaplains.
“I thought about it but it quickly went by the wayside,” he recalled.
He didn’t think he was strong enough. He was worried about being deployed to a dangerous locale.
The Air Force continued sending him emails, asking him to reconsider.
About two years ago, he drove from Palmyra to Whiteman Air Force Base, located west of Sedalia, to visit a priest from his home diocese who was serving as a base chaplain.
“That changed everything for me,” Fr. Eruo stated. “I toured the base, and a lot of ideas came up in my head.”
That chaplain, Father Emmanuel Okwaraocha, described his fast-paced, hands-on ministry among the people he was sent to serve.
“It really appealed to me,” Fr. Eruo recalled. “A week later, I called and said I would like to be a chaplain.”
In the moment
At Maxwell AFB, he and his fellow officers-in-training will undergo testing to make sure they’re not infected with COVID-19.
They’ll spend 14 days doing purely academic work in isolation as an added precaution.
Then, the next phase will kick in.
“It will be a lot of physical training — running, sit-ups, push-ups and marching,” he said.
After Officer Training, he’ll take up residence at Sheppard AFB in Texas, serving as pastor to all of the Catholics on base, in addition to ministering to anyone else who needs it.
He’ll offer Mass every day, baptize children, marry couples and administer the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.
“I’ll be preparing people for the sacraments, as well,” he said.
But the bulk of his ministry will occur “in the moment” — being present to people who are working in high-stress situations.
Some are living hundreds or thousands of miles from their families. Some are preparing for dangerous missions.
“I’ll be there to help them work through whatever they need to work through,” he said.
Fr. Eruo came to this diocese near the front of a wave of international priests who are here temporarily to help minister while gaining experience.
“Before I came here, I thought all the parishes in the United States were in big cities,” he said. “Serving in parishes in small villages was something I never really thought about.”
It took some time for him to get acclimated to U.S. culture, speech patterns and cuisine.
Back home, lunch is usually the big meal of the day, often consisting of fufu (usually made from cassava or yam or cocoyam) and melon or vegetable soup or seasoned rice.
“The portion of meat that one person eats here is probably what three would share where I grew up,” said Fr. Eruo. “We eat more vegetables and grains, and the meat is more supplemental. Here, it’s the other way around.”
Everywhere he was assigned, he found parishioners who were kind and welcoming to him and eager to hear and put the Good News into practice.
“People have been awesome and very appreciative and cooperative,” he said.
Although he’s been speaking English since grade school, the people here speak it differently.
“When you first come here, it’s kind of difficult to understand how an American speaks English,” he stated. “But eventually, your ears get attuned to what you’re hearing and you conquer that.”
Up to the challenge
Fr. Eruo has stayed connected with family and friends back home through regular phone calls and video chats.
He also enjoys taking road trips to visit friends on his day off.
An avid soccer fan, he enjoys rooting for the Manchester City Football Club.
He loves playing tennis, ping-pong, chess and Scrabble.
He believes the people and parishes here have helped him become a better priest.
“Experience builds you up,” he said. “Challenges come, and you get better.”
He no longer worries about what to say to someone who’s sick or suffering.
“I’ve learned that sometimes, you don’t need to say anything,” he said. “Sometimes your presence is enough.”
Ambassadors for Christ
Fr. Eruo believes God called him to be a priest to pray, lead and minister.
“A priest is called from among the people and put out there to provide spiritual guidance for the people, offer the Mass and give them the sacraments,” he said.
For Fr. Eruo, being Catholic is a response to an ongoing tugging in his heart to be close to God, Who made him, sustains him and promises eternal life.
It requires getting to know Him and lead others to Him.
“We’re not just passing through this life and enjoying all of these great things without looking beyond this moment,” Fr. Eruo stated. “It’s very reassuring to know that there’s more to life than we see right now, that it’s not just this empty thing.”
He insists that Christians are always representing God, whether they realize it or not.
“How we relate to others tells them about our connection to God,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re dealing with — someone we like or someone we don’t like — we are always projecting the image of Christ when we relate to them.”
“Give them a chance”
He hopes parishioners will keep showing international priests the kind of welcome and gratitude he experienced here.
“And be patient with him,” said Fr. Eruo. “Understand that he is making a lot of sacrifices to be here to work with you.”
Finally, he noted, no two priests are ever alike.
“Every priest has his unique strengths and passions,” he said. “So appreciate each individual for who he is.”
He offered some advice to priests who come here from other countries to minister.
“First, be ready for anything and everything,” he said. “Second, the more you watch and listen and the less you say, the more you’ll learn.”
He said not to give up on someone if they’re unfriendly or belligerent.
“Someone might start out unfriendly but become friendly, so give them a chance and keep being positive,” he stated.
“You can work with anybody if you’re patient enough, if you are willing to meet them where they are,” he said.
He suggested speaking slowly if there’s a language barrier.
“In six months to a year, you’ll be used to how they speak here, and they’ll be used to how you speak,” he said.
Fr. Eruo asks for prayers for deeper faith and wisdom to minister well to the airmen and their families.
He’s grateful to God for having allowed him to minister among the people of this diocese.
“I’ve learned so much and met so many wonderful people,” he said.
He’s thankful to everyone who helped him get acclimated and made him feel at home.
“This diocese is part of my family,” he said. “The people here have become a part of me.”
He’s especially grateful to the late Brent Crane and Juliana Crane and their family members, the people of the Boonville and Fayette parishes and some of his other friends, who helped raise money for a well that provides fresh water in his hometown.
“I am also grateful for friends from St. Joseph in Palmyra who have supported the training of seminarians in my home diocese in Nigeria,” he stated.
He said he’ll continue praying for the people of this diocese, especially for God to call more young men to the Priesthood — and for them to respond.
“Vocations are nurtured in families, so I will pray for families,” he said. “I will also pray for the priests here to live the kind of joy-filled life that will be a light, attracting young people to the Priesthood.”
His mailing address after Officer Training will be: Eruo, Basil, 527 Avenue I General Delivery, Sheppard AFB, TX 76311.