New cardinal says he is worried about ‘survival of Christianity’ in Nigeria

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ROME – A week before Cardinal-designate Peter Obere Okpaleke found out that Pope Francis would be making him a cardinal, a news alert claiming he had died circulated on Facebook. Thus, it wasn’t hard for him to presume that the pontiff’s decision was, like his alleged death, fake news.

When the diocesan chancellor called him with the news, “like St. Thomas in the Gospel, I felt that it was too good to be true and demanded for the source of the information,” Okpaleke told Crux this week.

Yet this Nigerian, from the diocese of Ekwulobia, is in fact one of the 21 prelates Francis will welcome into the College of Cardinals Aug. 26, during his eighth consistory.

Okpeleke spoke with Crux about the concerns of the church in Nigeria.

“Our ‘hot button issues,’ understandably different from [Germany and United States’] concerns, are about the survival of Christianity, the life and safety of our people as well as the stability of the West African sub-region if Nigeria were to tip over,” he said. “For many years, Islamist fundamentalist groups held sway in some parts of the country. Recently, they have successfully mounted major attacks close to the national capital, Abuja.”

The cardinal-elect was appointed to the Diocese of Ahiara by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. A group of the diocese’s priests and laity rejected him because he came from a different ethnic group, which led to a years-long standoff that prevented him from ever setting foot in the diocese.

Okpaleke was installed April 29, 2019, as the bishop of the new Ekwulobia diocese, after renouncing his appointment to Ahiara in 2018, in an effort to resolve the situation.

What follows are excerpts from Okpaleke’s conversation with Crux, that has been edited for length.

Crux: How did you find out that Pope Francis was creating you a cardinal? How did you welcome the news?

Okpaleke: I was told by two of our priests and with theatrics. On that Sunday, May 29, 2022, I visited a parish in the diocese – St. Patrick’s Parish Nawfija – and administered the sacrament of confirmation on 138 young persons. At the sacristy, after changing my vestments, the two priests who directed the liturgy approached me and with smiles greeted, “Good Afternoon Your Eminence!” They laid emphasis on the new title. Of course, I was jolted, and a thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind. 

About a week before that day, one of our priests had called me on the phone. When I picked up the call, the relief in his voice was obvious: He told me that he read on social media that I had died. Frantically, he called the diocesan chancellor, and when he didn’t pick up, the priest braved it and placed a call to my number not knowing what to expect. Fortunately, I answered. That confirmed for him that the news was fake. 

So, the information about the cardinalate reminded me of that incident and immediately I dismissed it as fake news. Not quite long after, a member of my staff brought his phone to me – the diocesan chancellor was on the line. He gave me the same information. 

Like St. Thomas in the Gospel, I felt that it was too good to be true and demanded for the source of the information. He had done some bit of research. He had gone online to the Vatican news outlet to confirm. It was only when I switched on my phone and got calls from other Nigerian bishops that the news started to sink in but not without robbing me of sleep for some days. 

It was the greatest surprise I have had in life.

How do you imagine your life will change come August?

My life has changed already. For days, the volume of phone calls and messages I received hit the roof. Cardinals from around the world sent me congratulatory messages as well as archbishops and bishops from Nigeria and from the dioceses where we have fidei donum priests. Friends and wellwishers also sent their good wishes. We are grateful for these. If not for the announcement, I wonder what interest your news outlet would have had in the life and ministry of a simple bishop in a new and rural diocese. These are signs of what the future portends – a bigger stage and more responsibility in addition to the one in the Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia. 

Back when some among the clergy in the diocese of Ahiara rejected your appointment, did you ever imagine the Holy Father would create you a cardinal? Do you see it as a sign of support after several years of suffering?

The Igbo say, ama anaghị agbara uche. This expresses the conviction that the future is not open to human scrutiny. So, from the time I became conscious as a human being till the announcement was made on May 29, 2022, I never and could never have imagined being created a cardinal.

One of the questions I hope to ask the Holy Father is what he saw in me that made him call me to this new role in the church. I know that if my opinion were sought to nominate someone from among the archbishops and bishops in Nigeria for that role, I would never have thought of myself. I cannot even say that the nomination is a sign of support, as you put it, “after several years of suffering” due to the saga at Ahiara Diocese. Some priests and bishops have suffered and are still suffering worse things. 

The question I keep asking myself and which I have not found any adequate answers is ‘why me?’ By the way, the church in Ahiara diocese is close to my heart. I have come to encounter and appreciate the depth of faith and goodness in many of the priests, consecrated persons, and lay faithful of that diocese. Moreover, my history cannot be written without mention of that diocese nor the history of the diocese without the mention of my name. God knows why providence permitted what happened. The more I think about what played out the more I am convinced that it was not personal. I never stepped into the diocese. So, it was not about what I did or failed to do. Rather it is about some deep-seated and simmering differences and contestations among Igbo sub-cultural groups. Like a lightning rod, the episcopal appointment conducted charges down to these issues and sparked off the fire drawing attention to some core issues. This chain of events, in hindsight, is to bring up these issues, as painful as they may be, and give them their due place in the evangelization effort, reflections on and mobilization towards Igbo cultural identity.

After the consistory, cardinals are often appointed as consultants or members of one or several Vatican offices. If you could choose the dicastery/ies, which one would you say you could be most helpful on?

I have never been a cardinal and I never dreamt of being one. So, I never took interest in studying the competencies of the Vatican offices and dicasteries. Moreover, since one is appointed into the various bodies, it is better to leave the assessment and placement to those doing the appointment. What is clear to me, however, is that I have offered whatever competencies and experiences I have gathered over the years to the service of God and I am ready to work hard to acquire whatever knowledge or skill needed to discharge any task creditably. 

The desire that made me answer the call to the priesthood remains the same even if formulated in the light of new experiences – “maturing to the full measure of the stature of Jesus Christ” (Eph 4:13) and assisting my brothers and sisters to do the same to the glory of God and the recreation of the human family and the world. I know that this touches on the functions of the various offices and dicasteries. 

During the days following the consistory for the creation of new cardinals, you will have the opportunity to spend two days with your brother cardinals. So you know some of them?

Yes, I know only a few. I have received congratulatory messages from many of them. For this, I am grateful. So, I look forward to the two days. I imagine it as a return to school – a whole lot to learn about how to serve in this capacity; a new range of experiences to make from different parts of the world; new encounters to open up to and new friendships to establish and build up. I look forward to the encounter.

The Catholic Church, at Pope Francis’s request, is living through a global synodal/consultation process. How is it going in your diocese? From what you have heard so far, what would you say are the biggest concerns of the people you’ve been tapped to shepherd? Any “hot button issues” that those of us who focus too much on the Vatican, and the churches in the United States or Germany, don’t know about?

The formal listening session of the synodal/consultation process has been concluded in the Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia and the proceeds have been sent out for collation with the fruits of the sessions in other dioceses. I used the word, “formal” advisedly to qualify the listening session. This is because right from the creation of the diocese in 2020, before the announcement of the Synod on Synodality, we had initiated ongoing listening sessions with various segments of the diocesan family – women, men, young people, children, students, Catholics in community leadership, etc. This was based on the Igbo leadership principle which says a nụta a kaara eze bụ na eze ana-achịka (leadership success hinges on constant feedback from the people). The aim of such interactive sessions is to encounter and listen to and with these groups the joys, pains, challenges and hopes of members and to explore options, adjustments to be made and programs to embark upon to address the identified issues. 

Our “hot button issues,” understandably different from your concerns, are about the survival of Christianity, the life and safety of our people as well as the stability of the West African sub-region if Nigeria were to tip over. For many years, Islamist fundamentalist groups held sway in some parts of the country. Recently, they have successfully mounted major attacks close to the national capital, Abuja. Kidnapping for ransom has increased steadily so much so that traveling to some parts of the country or plying some highways amounts to a suicide mission. The disparate treatment of the Boko Haram insurgents and other secessionist groups gives the impression of a bigger plot which some people have labeled as an Islamization agenda. Meanwhile, with runaway inflation, youth restiveness, a general election around the corner in 2023, and the enormous power of social media to mobilize bias for good or for ill, the precariousness of the situation is not lost on the people. 

Apart from the hot button issues, the family is under enormous pressure. Parents spend much energy and time eking out a living at the expense of optimal parental contribution to the integral formation of their children. Some young people escape socio-economic distress through substance abuse. This is usually catastrophic for families of such addicts. Worse if the man of the house is the addict. This is a recipe for domestic abuse of different forms and shapes. 

Our church is supported by the community. With the economic downturn, many families do not have enough for themselves and their usual support to the church is being experienced as heavy. Paradoxically, the church is accused of pandering to the rich when fundraising events are organized for some major projects and the rich are invited in an effort to get funds and not fall back on the community as a whole. 

Another recurrent issue in the listening sessions pertains to young people. The universities in Nigeria have been shut down for months because of the industrial action of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). Youth unemployment is high. There are many hardworking young people but some have bought into the mentality of easy money or have focused on migration out of the country by all means. What comes through in the listening sessions is that the church needs to do more.

Anything else you would like to say to Crux‘s readers?

There are many challenges in the world. The church is not left out. Society is changing, and so fast. Persons, things, and processes are interconnected. What is happening in one part of the society or of the world affects other parts. This is more so in Africa. As we play catch-up, may we remember that the interconnectivity of the different parts of the world requires a new ethos, a new vision that is inclusive of all humanity and of our common home; a way of thinking that is expansive, and practices that flow from commitment to the realization of the values of God’s kingdom of love, justice, truth and peace. These are what I take away from the Holy Father’s Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Ours is the task of translating this truth of our faith into everyday life. As we sustain our interaction through communication, and as citizens of this world and of heaven, we embrace all creation with our prayers and good will.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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