Cardinal-designate Okpaleke: “All things work for good for those who love God”

Bishop Peter Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, Nigeria, is among the 21 new cardinals Pope Francis announced on 29 May. The Cardinal-designate speaks on how he received the news of his appointment and how his pastoral experiences contribute to inspire him in his new role.

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 with Vatican News 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.

““Jesus talks of this type of peace in John 14:27,” he says, “Now I know what Jesus meant, that he gives us peace, not the kind of peace that the world gives.””

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.”

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