By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Surprising everyone on Sunday at the conclusion of the Regina Coeli, Pope Francis announced that he will create 21 new Cardinals at a consistory on 27 August.
Among these new Cardinals-designate is Bishop Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, in the Eastern region of Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke joins the college of Cardinals which currently consists of 208 cardinals, of whom 117 are electors.
With the addition of these new 21 Cardinals-designate in August, the College of Cardinals will grow to 229 Cardinals, of whom 131 will be electors.
The soon-to-be Cardinal spoke about how he received the news, his areas of focus in his new role and how his past experiences and responsibilities have shaped him in his pastoral ministry.
Called to serve
At the time of the Pope’s announcement, Bishop Okpaleke was about his episcopal ministry in the diocese of Ekwulobia. He was in one of the parishes, administering the sacrament of confirmation to 138 candidates, oblivious to what had happened. After the Mass, he was greeted by his secretary bearing the news of his new appointment. Following that, the news continued to filter in from different quarters.
He explains that his first reaction was to consider his own unworthiness and shortcomings, but “by the grace of God, if it has pleased the Holy Spirit working in the Church,” he will take solace in the words of Scripture in Romans 8: 28: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
One of four Nigerian Cardinals
With this new position, Bishop Okpaleke becomes the fourth Cardinal from Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, which faces its own challenges on different levels. The Church in the country has been vocal on several issues and has been at the forefront of social justice matters.
Reflecting on the Church in Nigeria, the Bishop highlights that its main challenge is “living true to its primary responsibility of witnessing to the life of Jesus Christ and of His transforming truth and love.” All these, in a context of economic hardships, privatization of state resources by a few at the expense of the majority, insecurity of lives and property, and progressive weakening of institutions of the state, among others.
In the face of this, the Cardinal-designate stresses the need for pastors to be “participants in the culture” in order to allow “the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate such cultures, and to transform, and to build a dialogue between the Gospel and the culture.
In addition to other areas of pastoral response, the Bishop, for his part, says he will be paying particular attention to grassroot evangelization of Christians, integral human formation for social transformation in the power of the Gospel, and interreligious dialogue in the country that is split along a Christian-Muslim religious divide.
Bishop of Ahiara, then Ekwulobia
Bishop Okpaleke’s pastoral ministry has not been without its own challenges. In 2012, he was appointed Bishop of the diocese of Ahiara, Imo State but was unable to take canonical possession of the diocese. The following years were difficult and in 2018, the Holy Father accepted his resignation as the bishop of Ahiara.
Subsequently, the diocese of Ekwulobia was created on 5 March 2020 and Bishop Okpaleke was appointed as its first Bishop.
Looking back at that experience, the Cardinal-designate notes that in spite of the difficult moments and the antagonism which he considers not to be personal, God granted him peace as he had never experienced before.
During that period without the charge of administering the people of God, he explains that he took the time to “reflect, to pray and to read” and to engage himself at a deeper level. These experiences notwithstanding, Bishop Okpaleke insists: “ours is a providential God” who, in spite of seeming confusion and randomness, directs history to his purpose and invites all to “open themselves up and contribute their own God-given energies, insights and talents to the Divine project of making the face of the Earth to reflect more clearly the Kingdom of God.”
He says that he holds the Church in Ahiara dear to his heart and will continue to do so. Even now as the bishop of Ekwulobia, he adds, “I had overwhelming support from both the faithful of Ekwulobia diocese and many from Ahiara diocese.”
Sources of inspiration
Throughout his pastoral ministry, Bishop Okpaleke says he draws inspiration from several sources. First, his relationship with Our Lady and with Jesus in the Eucharist – an unfailing source of inspiration – and he often prays that nothing may separate him from the love of Christ. He explains that as a young boy, he was introduced to the devotion to Our Blessed Mother by his aunt and since then, he has learnt to always look to her for her intercession and patronage.
He also underlines the important need for the direction of the Holy Spirit in his life and in fact, he chose the invocation of the Holy Spirit “Veni sancte Spiritus” as his episcopal motto.
The faithful, priests, religious and laypeople are also a source of inspiration for the Cardinal-elect. Many, he points out, “are heroic in their lives and it is a privilege to encounter them, share the faith with them and minister to them.”
The Nigerian Church in the Synodal process
As the Church continues on the synodal path towards the Synod of Bishops next year, Bishop Okpaleke highlights some aspects that the Church in Nigeria can contribute to the universal Church.
He points at the experience of Christians in some parts of the country who are still being persecuted, noting that their perseverance is “an invaluable gift to the Church” which the synodal process can gather for the enrichment of the global Church.
The Bishop also notes the bountiful vocations to the priesthood and religious life in Nigeria and the willingness to share this gift of vocation with the world.
Another contribution, he says, is the joy of the Lord, visible among the faithful in spite of the challenges they go through. A joy, he insists, which derives from “their faith and trust in God.” He holds up the “spontaneity” of the People of God in Nigeria which he affirms makes the Church an “open community” where people can feel at home.
To the Nigerian faithful, the Cardinal-to-be addresses a message of perseverance, urging them not to lose faith in the hope that the Lord will see us through the present challenges if “we hold firmly to our faith, work and pray.”