Editor’s note: Bishop Barry C. Knestout will ordain five priests for the Diocese of Richmond on Saturday, June 1. This is the largest priesthood ordination class since Bishop Walter F. Sullivan ordained eight priests on Saturday, May 13, 1989. This week’s Catholic Virginian features profiles of two of the five men who will be ordained. The other three are scheduled to be featured in the May 22 issue.

Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian

Deacon Tochi Iwuji could be celebrating his sixth anniversary as a priest this year. Had he continued his seminary studies with the Claretians, a religious community of priests and brothers devoted to missionary work, he was scheduled to be ordained in 2013. 

“I felt I wasn’t called to the religious life there,” he said.

However, the seeds of faith and service that the late Virginus and Juliana Iwuji sowed in the youngest of their seven children did not go dormant.

“Because I volunteered in one of the parishes as a marriage instructor and I was a volunteer to a charity organization, that is how I came to study pastoral counseling,” he said of the degree he pursued at Liberty University. (See accompanying story.)

Deacon Iwuji, 39, attended a boarding high school seminary in his home Archdiocese of Owerri, Nigeria.

“I went to high school seminary, but I went there for the education, not to actually be a priest,” he said. “When I finished, I got involved with a lot of youth organizations so I became the coordinator of the Young Catholic Students in my diocese.”

Witnessing parents’ faith

While priesthood wasn’t on his mind, family and school provided a foundation for his vocation.

“Growing up I studied the concept of what domestic Church means. But I experienced it at home because my parents were strong and faithful Catholics, very much involved in the life of the parish,” Deacon Iwuji said, noting his dad was a leader on the parish council. “I saw my parents’ witness to the faith. I didn’t understand in concept what those meant, but they actually planted a seed.”

While he was in the seminary for the academic education, he was learning things not taught in the classroom.

“Living there at that early age planted some seed of selflessness, how to be selfless and generous, because I saw myself being in charge of some things,” Deacon Iwuji said, recalling how he was given a budget and given responsibility for purchasing gas for the generator and working with the cooks to buy food for the school.

The seeds took root.  

“I was challenged to think about others. Toward the end of my high school, I started thinking of doing something for humanity,” he said. “So that was when I wanted to study law; I wanted to study law so that I could help others.”

Discerning priesthood

Students in Nigeria apply to study law at the university level before being admitted to law school. On his second attempt, Deacon Iwuji was admitted to the university program, but not before being influenced by the work of the Claretians.

“My parish is a big parish. They have almost eight Masses every weekend so they get a lot of visiting priests, and one of them was a Claretian. After Mass he would hang out. He was very present to the people,” Deacon Iwuji said. “So I started thinking, ‘Oh, this guy is doing the things I would love to do — being with the people and helping out.’ I said maybe I would like to be the kind of priest he was.”

While the archdiocesan vocations director wanted him to study for the diocesan priesthood, Deacon Iwuji, then 22, prevailed and joined the Claretians for two years of formation, beginning in 2002. Two years later he began his university studies in philosophy. After four years, he was ready to begin studying theology.

“When I finished my undergrad, I was having doubts — not about being a priest, but about the life (of a Claretian),” he said, adding that he shared those doubts with his spiritual director.

As he completed his studies, Deacon Iwuji lived in an apartment behind the seminary so he could continue to pray with the Claretians. One of the priests asked him to volunteer at a nearby parish where he began to do marriage counseling. The more counseling he did, the more he realized he needed further studies in the field. His family agreed to sponsor his education and he headed to the U.S. in 2014.

Although he left the order, Deacon Iwuji credits the Claretians for helping him in “many big ways.”

“That’s why I can’t forget my roots. Because I went to places ordinarily I wouldn’t think I was going to go to,” he said. “Because as a missionary I went to places and ate food that though it was in Nigeria, it was different from me. That has helped me.”

Prayer, parishioners sustain vocation

Deacon Iwuji credits his spirituality and prayer as sustaining him throughout his vocational journey. 

“My prayer has evolved over time. Prayer is a conversation. I talk to (God) and then dialogue. So now I’m at the point of relationship,” he said. “My relationship with God has been one of the key things that has sustained me in my vision. That, and the people that I have associated with and that I keep associating with.”

As Deacon Iwuji discerned his vocation as a priest for the Diocese of Richmond, he didn’t know what to expect.

“What sustained me was the love from the parishioners at St. Thomas More in Lynchburg. They showed me love that I told myself, ‘This is where I am meant to be’ because I didn’t imagine going to another place to begin to build new relationships and new families,” he said.

When his apartment lease expired and he needed a place to live while at Liberty, parish families opened their homes to him. 

“I still go back there and still go and stay there,” Deacon Iwuji said of one of the families that welcomed him into their home.

Msgr. Michael McCarron, pastor of St. Thomas More, got to know Deacon Iwuji during the latter’s time in Lynchburg.

“He came with a desire to deepen his faith. He felt the Lord calling him to consider ministry,” Msgr. McCarron said. “He’s a very, very pastoral man. He loves our Lord personally and endeavors to know him more and more.”

He described Deacon Iwuji as a person with “a very good heart” and “an eye for people on the fringe.”

St. Thomas More Parish includes at least 40 African families from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Congo and Kenya. 

“He was very good at gathering the very disparate cultures,” Msgr. McCarron said. “He’s very anxious to get people involved.”

Ready to serve Church family

Given his roots in the domestic Church of his family, it is not surprising how Deacon Iwuji views the Church he is being ordained to serve. 

“I love God. I love his people. My attitude to my job is to see people as a family of God’s people. I’m a big fan of seeing the Church as a family of God’s people, a community of faith,” he said. “What that implies for me is that it is a family of the strong and the weak, that my job as a priest will be to accompany them, to find God’s grace and to renew their trust in God.”

Deacon Iwuji emphasized that being a priest is not about him, but “about God and what he does.” 

“The call for me was an invitation to join Jesus in his ministries. It’s Jesus’ ministry that I’m becoming a part of as an instrument,” he said. “So continually, I make an effort to make sure I’m not in the way, that I am not putting myself out there as Jesus, but that they could see some light and find what they’re looking for, who is Jesus.”

With his academic knowledge, pastoral counseling experience, life experiences and his formation at Saint Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, Deacon Iwuji is prepared to serve wherever he is assigned and “to be present for the people.”

“I’m going to bring my story, my narrative, and I’ll bring my experience, my background, in doing it. When someone meets me and asks me what it means that life is difficult, I know what it means,” he said. “Life has been difficult. When someone talks about certain things, I can connect.”

How Deacon Iwuji came to Lynchburg

In 2014, when Deacon Tochi Iwuji was looking for a school at which to pursue a graduate degree in pastoral counseling, he searched and found the program he wanted at Liberty University in Lynchburg.

However, he was living in his home country of Nigeria, had never been to the United States, and didn’t know anything about Lynchburg. He was not deterred.

“I took time to read about the culture, and then I paid for my accommodations before I came,” he said, noting he wanted to make sure he had a place to live. “Luckily for me, one of my high school classmates went to Liberty so I called him, and he connected me with some Nigerian guy who was a student. So I sent money for rent for the first month — August.”

After landing in Washington and staying with a priest friend for two days, he took the train to Lynchburg where the person who arranged his housing met him.

“I’d never traveled that much so I made sure I wasn’t stranded,” he said with a smile. 

Even though he did not know it was a Baptist school when he chose it because it was marketed as “Liberty Christian University,” Deacon Iwuji said he adjusted quickly because he has Baptist friends in Nigeria and had been a member of a non-denominational youth organization called Royal Youth Movement. 

“So I had that exposure to how non-Catholics think,” he said, “but Liberty was unique because it was different from most things I know about the Baptist church.”

In addition to pursuing his degree, which he earned in 2015, Deacon Iwuji was involved in campus ministry. He had a background in theology due to his seminary studies, and he had worked with young adults in the Archdiocese of Owerri. Nonetheless, he couldn’t automatically lead a Bible study group.

“For (the university) to allow me to lead, I had to go through the training provided by Liberty,” he said.