Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Images: Onipa


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)



Let us all rejoice in the Lord, as we celebrate the feast day in honor of all the Saints, at whose festival the Angels rejoice and praise the Son of God.

Today is a special day and it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God. For today by your gift we celebrate the festival of your city, the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother, where the great array of our brothers and sisters already gives you eternal praise. Towards her, we eagerly hasten as pilgrims advancing by faith, rejoicing in the glory bestowed upon those exalted members of the Church through whom you give us, in our frailty, both strength and good example.

As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, I would like to reflect with you my understanding of the Akan word “ONIPA”. Akans are found predominantly in Ghana, though some of them can be located in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, and other West African States.

After my ordination in 2004, an Akan elder told me that ‘I should strive to be ONIPA.’ I knew the meaning of ONIPA as “Human Being”, nothing more, nothing less. But this elder had the time to give me a lecture on the term ONIPA. He traced the term to the word “goodness”. He said the word comes from the Akan phrase “onim pa pa” (he knows goodness). To this elder the human person is an embodiment of goodness because he was created in the very image and likeness of God. To him every person is born a saint and can only loose that status if he give-in to sinful lifestyle that is why he wants me to be a priest who is ONIPA (someone who is good and live by his original nature of goodness). St John Paul II also refers to this state as “man’s theological pre-history.” Human nature as we experience it today is wounded by original sin, but not destroyed by this wound. Though man has lost his original innocence, St John Paul II writes, the answer of Jesus is “decisive and clear”: The “normative conclusions” of original innocence regarding man’s identity and dignity are still in force and must be considered essential in the discernment and evaluation of man’s ethical behaviour. Though fallen from original innocence man is still “rooted” in his theological prehistory – he is ONIPA (embodiment of goodness).

Some years later when I studied advanced Latin at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, I came across this Latin word vir. The word virtue comes from the Latin root vir. Vir was the Roman word for man, but it was strongly associated with martial courage and the honour associated with that. But, as the Roman empire expanded the word vir began to include other qualities – industry, fortitude, dutifulness. Thus, it is from the Latin vir that we get the modern word ‘virtue’. Like the Akan’s Onipa, vir carries the nuance that man is saintly by nature.

Aristotle said for the Magnanimous man “virtue of characters results from following the right habits...” and I believe that it is the right habits that will pave way for a person to be known for his “fama di santita.” Today, one of the criteria used for canonization is “fama di santita” (fame of sanctity).  The fame of sanctity is the reputation of holiness. The Church arrives at this for a saint when there emerge views among the faithful about the purity and integrity of life of him and about the virtues practiced by him to a heroic degree. There should be the reputation of intercessory power that has spread among the faithful about the graces and favors received from God through the intercession of the Saint.

We are celebrating the lives of these saints because of their “fama di santita.” How did they arrive at “fama di santita”? By the grace of God, they made great efforts and sacrifices to enhance their original identity as “onipa” or “vir”. We celebrate them today in order to emulate their great examples.

Can we live saintly lives in today’s world? YES. Some of the eras that these saints lived were morally corrupt than ours but the saints became stars lighting-up the darkness those eras. When one reads the lives of the saints, one encounters a plethora of men and women who searched for the truth, found it, and, as the saying goes, “lived happily ever after”, that is, happily ever after in striving to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Church wishes to celebrate us also one day on All Saints’ Day. This feast celebrates all the unknown saints who are now in Heaven. Sanctity is within everyone’s reach; through the Communion of Saints each part of the Mystical Body of Christ helps every other to grow in holiness. To be a saint is not a call to an extraordinary way of life but only a call to live your original identity as onipa or vir. May the grace of God help all of


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