Soon-to-Be Cardinal of Nigeria: ‘I Remain Grateful to God’
An interview with Bishop Peter Okpaleke of Nigeria
Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, Nigeria, was one of 21 new cardinals designated by Pope Francis. He will be elevated to cardinal at a consistory at the Vatican Aug. 27.
Born March 1, 1963, in Anambra, Nigeria, Bishop Okpaleke was ordained to the priesthood in 1990. Pope Benedict XVI consecrated Father Okpaleke bishop in 2012 and appointed him to head the Diocese of Ahiara. Because of tribal tensions, the clergy and laity wouldn’t accept his appointment, leading to Pope Francis’ ordering the clergy to write a letter promising their obedience and accepting their new bishop; but they refused. In 2020, the Holy Father created the Diocese of Ekwulobia and installed the cardinal-designate as its bishop. Cardinal-designate Okpaleke was interviewed via email June 6 by Register staff. He discussed the path to his new role and how he and his diocese can contribute to the universal Church as well as combat religious persecution in Nigeria, highlighted by the slaying of Catholic worshippers at Pentecost Sunday Mass.
What was your reaction to your appointment as cardinal? What concerns and insights, as a leader in the Church in Nigeria, do you hope to share with your fellow cardinals in the universal Church?
I was surprised to distraction. Indeed, my surprise bordered on incredulity. I woke up and was about the program of the day — a pastoral visit to St. Patrick’s parish, Nawfija. At Mass, 138 people were confirmed in the faith. As I was unvesting after Mass, my secretary and the bursar of the episcopal household came up to me and addressed me as “Your Eminence.” My first reaction was to dismiss it as a joke. Shortly after, the chancellor of the diocese called with the same information.
A greater part of me felt it was one of those sensational fake news [headlines] that go viral on social media. I had been the subject of one such news [story] two weeks earlier. Even when some bishops started calling to congratulate me, it was still very hard to believe. Now, I understand better Thomas’ frame of mind which made him predicate belief in the Resurrection on seeing and putting his finger into the wounds on the hands and side of Our Lord (John 20:25).
There are some concerns, insights and hopes that I bring along to the cardinals and to the Church.
The first is the joy of the faith and the deep hunger of the human spirit for God. Communicating the faith has, however, become more challenging. This is not because it has become inadequate to slake the thirst of the human heart but because it remains the narrow gate that few find and take (Matthew 7:13-14). Moreover, the human heart is being made coarse through the social values and visions about life that are being made the default in many people’s lives.
God trusts human beings so much that God not only brings human beings into the world through human cooperation, but, above all, the social environment in the family and in society at large has enormous influence on how the person turns out. There is still so much goodness in the world — love, commitment, reconciliation — but because of the selective attention to negative news — corruption, violence, conflicts, abuse of power and privileges, etc. — there is growing apathy and suspicion of the good. There is, therefore, need for focus on human formation, especially in the family context and media formation, especially for the young. There is also a need to discern the dominant values and vision of life in every context and find ways of bringing this to interact with the Good News. The effort is to form people who have personalized the faith and are growing in intimate relationship with the God of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.
Another concern is about the management of diversity so that it does not degenerate into indifference or exploitation on the one hand or domination on the other. There is so much awareness of diversity and difference without sometimes a corresponding awareness of that which is common, to us as one human family, that is, the medium against whose background differences become graspable. This gives rise to an insular mentality or struggle of the particulars either in the preservation of advantages or to dominate.
This dynamic plays out in wars and militant fundamentalist movements. The result is usually violence, oppression and other forms of injustice.
The challenge is how to make love the principle of life, not only at the individual [level], but also at the level of society — national and international. This is the vision and mission the Holy Father, in his latest encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti, also shares with us.
Would you tell us about your new diocese and your plans to build up the local Church? What has given you hope during the first two years of your time there?
The Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia was created out of the Catholic Diocese of Awka on March 5, 2020, by the Holy Father, Pope Francis. It has a total population of 984,415, among whom 602,115 are Catholics. The diocese was inaugurated on April 29, 2020, and I was installed as the first diocesan bishop. At the inauguration, we had 82 parishes and 245 priests and 20 religious houses made up of religious orders, one of which is cloistered, two semi-cloistered and eight that live active lives. Presently, there are 101 kindergartens with 5,832 pupils, 101 primary schools with 15,290 pupils and 17 secondary schools (comparable to the high school) with 5,297 students. There are also five hospitals and health centers.
The creation of the diocese was received with a lot of enthusiasm by all the faithful. It unleashed a lot of positive energy. I experienced and continue to experience the grace of a new beginning. Everybody — the clergy, religious and the lay faithful — is eager to contribute to building up the diocesan family with their time, ideas, strength and financial resources. In short, all take ownership of the diocese. This makes the work easier for me. I pay attention to ensuring that we have an enabling environment to support and share the faith and to discern and encourage any initiative for the growth of the faith and the well-being of the people. In response to many local challenges, grassroots evangelization sums up the thrust of our effort with special interest on the family through integral formation of all. The catchphrase of our pastoral emphasis in the 2021/2022 pastoral year is “Catch them young and keep them for Christ.” This included the provision by each parish of audio-visual aid for children’s ministry — for instructing them in the faith and entertaining them. We are making arrangements to train a graphic artist in animation so that we can produce content locally with images that the children can easily relate to. We have already articulated some vision for harnessing the energy of young people and responding to the enormous socioeconomic, political and cultural challenges facing our people. The openness and responsiveness of the children and young people to the faith are for me a great source of hope for the Church and the society in Nigeria and elsewhere. We also lay emphasis on the ministry of the word. There is a hunger for the word of God. Yet human beings are facing enormous difficulties because of the new-media format. Many Catholics have also succumbed to routine. They come to Mass not expecting to be touched by God. All these [issues] make preaching the Gospel more challenging but exciting at the same time.
What can you tell us about religious persecution of Nigerian Catholics and how you and the rest of the bishops are addressing this?
It is not only Catholics who are persecuted. It extends to all Christians. Yet, from another vantage point, some Muslims can also be said to be persecuted. This may seem to blur the lines. But it is important to get a feel of the complexity of the situation.
From the point of view of religion, the Nigerian map can be divided into two sections: the Christians, who are predominantly in the south, and the Muslims, predominantly in the north. Interreligious relationship between the predominantly Muslim and the significant Christian population in the north is more challenging. This challenge has a historical background, and some elements are peculiar to Nigeria, and others derive from global trends.
I remember reading an article by Emmanuel A. Ayandele with the title “Missionary Factor in Northern Nigeria 1870-1918,” which chronicles the tide and troughs in the missionary endeavor in what became northern Nigeria.
According to the author, 1906 marked a turning point and a breakdown in the cordial relationship between the missionaries on the one hand and the colonial officers and the northern emirs on the other. This gave rise to positive effort to hinder missionary activities and the marginalization of Christians.
The rise of militant Islam and the radicalization of many Muslim youths have complicated matters. Christians and Muslims alike suffer from the mayhem that members of these groups cause. On May 12, there was the lynching of Deborah Yakubu Samuel for alleged blasphemy by fellow students at the Shehu Shagari College of Education Sokoto. The situation is more horrifying because some Muslim clerics support such killings by irate mob, irrespective of the fact that some other Muslim clerics, mostly from outside the country, indicate that there is need for a judicial process to establish blasphemy, for example. The silence of some Muslims may not be an expression of active support but fear of the threat and sometimes the actual visitation of violence on them for daring to disagree with the militant and/or fundamentalist ideologies of their co-religionists. The result is that, gradually, both within and outside the Islamic communities, the militant version of Islam seems to be the only self-presentation of Islam. The weakness of the Nigerian state and its seeming captivity to some interests must be factored into the analysis of the precarious situation in the country. The Nigerian state has failed and alienated many of her citizens. It seems she is not able to police her borders. Boko Haram fighters and other [militant] groups are still able to mount coordinated offensives against the state. Christians are sometimes targeted. We remember the Christmas massacre at St. Theresa’s Church, Madallah, in 2011, perpetrated by the Boko Haram.
On June 5, there was the attack of worshippers on Pentecost Day at St. Francis Catholic Church Owo, Ondo state, in the southwestern part of the country. The governor of Ondo state has been quoted as saying that the attackers are not Nigerians but jihadists trained and sent into the country to cause mayhem. As we pray for the repose of the departed, we recognize the desensitization taking place. Violence and killing are gradually becoming part of everyday life, searing people’s minds. Furthermore, many Nigerians are sinking daily into poverty. Many young people have seen their dreams and visions stalled. They are without means of livelihood and, therefore, constitute an army of restive youths.
In the face of this, one hears stories of embezzlement of staggering amounts of state funds. Disenchanted with the state and its apparatuses, many non-state actors with different ideological bents have stepped in. Some clamor for restructuring of the polity; others have given up on the country and insist on secession. The result is a further weakening of the Nigerian state and degradation of its capacity to ensure the security of life and property of its citizenry.
The commitment of the bishops, both as a conference and in their dioceses, is to strengthen the fledgling democracy, enthrone good governance at all levels, and secure the space for all Nigerians to live in peace and freedom.
At critical junctures in our national existence, the bishops have prophetically spoken up clearly and unequivocally, denouncing injustice, corruption and leadership failures of the political class. Many engage in the delicate process of negotiations for peace and conflict transformation in various communities and are at the forefront of interreligious dialogue. As the 2023 general elections approach, the Church in Nigeria has mobilized the people to discharge their civic responsibility. Above all, the bishops and the faithful ceaselessly pray for peace in the country and encourage all to continue on a path of reconciliation.
The Catholic faith in the West is waning while it is surging in Africa. What can the universal Church learn from the explosion of the Catholic faith in Africa?
I have had cause at the beginning of this interview to note that life is lived forward but understood backwards. The Church in the West, to use your nomenclature, offers us in Africa a backward look at a life we have not yet lived. That is why, before I respond to the question of what the universal Church could learn from the Church in Africa, I want to express a concern that I have, which is that whatever could go wrong, will go wrong, unless a concerted effort is made to forestall it.
We should as Africans not rest on our oars, but exercise vigilance and show commitment to being truly the family of God, a community of the faithful, being keepers of our brothers and sisters and sharing love and life, sustained by the word of God and the sacraments and ensuring that this experience is handed down the generations, so that the Church can continue to animate the life of the people.
Community is at the center of our faith experience and journey. Jesus calls us into the community of the Church. Community is therefore integral to our faith in God, who is a Trinity of Persons. Happily, despite imperfections and challenges therefrom, the community is still a central value for many Africans and the key point of our episcopal ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia. ...
Do you have any final thoughts to share before you are given the “red hat” in August?
It is still hard for me to believe that I am going to receive the “red hat.” This is a surprise beyond my wildest imagination. I desired to be a priest and to strive to the best of my ability to serve God through my neighbor. The rest and even the priesthood is unmerited favor.
I remain grateful to God. It shows that God has not finished with me yet. I pray for the grace to remain open to God’s love and guidance and to be a witness to this love. As I grow older, it is becoming clearer to me that all we need is love. May we continue to strive to love one another as Jesus loves us (John 13:34).