By Uche Amunike
In my six years of working here in Awka, I never gave much thought to the young bishop Peter Ebele Okpaleke. That was of course, until I heard the story of his rejection by a large majority of the faithful and even priests of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara. It was something I found hard to comprehend, especially when the protests done by these crop of people were led by priests in that diocese. I remember writing a piece on that issue years ago which triggered a lot of resentment of my person by these same people. They called my line endlessly and vented, asking me what right the church had to impose a non-indigene on them. Like I told them, they bit a little more than they could chew and I hoped that God would touch their hearts to see the folly in their actions. So, I have never really been close to the Bishop. I can't even boast of knowing him one-on-one. I have merely observed him from a distance and felt so much pity for him each time our parts crossed. I couldn't help wondering what his state of mind must have been during and after his ordeal in the hands of the Ahiara people. One thing I am however sure of is that the few times I have been privileged to listen to his homily, it leaves me super enriched. He is a man I have found to be cerebral, humble and humane. You can then imagine how elated I was when news of his appointment as bishop of Ekwulobia diocese filtered in. It was the best news I had heard in a while. It sounded like music to me. I knew then, that God had finally decided to give him a befitting crown after his travails in the hands of the Ahiara people. Perhaps, it would be necessary to give a brief insight into the life and times of the amiable Bishop Okpaleke.
Most Rev. Peter Ebere Okpaleke was born into the family of Reuben Ezeuko Okpaleke & Bridget Ekejimma Okpaleke (both of blessed memory), of Amesi in Aguata L.G.A of Anambra State. He is the fourth of nine children. He attended Bigard Memorial Seminary (now St. Joseph Major Seminary) Ikot-Ekpene (1983-1987) and Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu (1988-1992). He was ordained a priest on August 22, 1992 by Most Rev. Simon A. Okafor, the then Bishop of Awka Diocese. After ordination, he was appointed the Assistant Secretary to the Bishop and he served in this capacity till 1995 when he was asked to go to the Catholic Institute of West Africa (C.I.W.A) for post-graduate studies in Canon Law (1995-1997). On his return to the Diocese, after his Masters' Degree programme, he was appointed the Diocesan Financial Administrator as well as vicar and afterwards Chaplain of St. Joseph the Worker Chaplaincy, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka (1997-1999). He combined this with his work as Diocesan Financial Administrator. In 1999, Msgr. Okpaleke was sent to the Pontificia Università della Santa Croce, Rome, where he obtained a Licentiate and a Doctorate Degree in Canon law (1999-2002) as well as a Diploma in Ecclesiastical Administration (2002). To the glory of God, Okpaleke demonstrated his intellectual endowment by consistently obtaining First Class Honours in most of the examinations he took in the course of his studies both in Nigeria and abroad.
On his return, he was appointed Parish Administrator of St. Anthony's Parish, Nanka (March 2002 - October 5, 2002) and then the Diocesan Chancellor, (2002-2011). He was one of the Diocesan Masters of Ceremonies. From 2011 till his Episcopal appointment, Okpaleke was the Parish Priest of Ss. John and Paul, Umuebele, Awka.
He has served on many Boards, Commissions and Committees. These include the Finance Council; Pastoral Council; Diocesan Board of Examiners; Presbyteral Council; College of Deans; Priests' Education Commission; Committee on the Creation of Parishes and Judges: Onitsha Inter-diocesan Marriage Tribunal. He was the secretary of some of these Boards and Commissions. Since 1995, he has been a member of the Canon Law Society of Nigeria and, in 2009 he was elected Coordinator of Research and Publication of this body till now.
Okpaleke has nine books/monographs to his credit. They are:
1). The Administrator of Diocesan Property (2002).
2). A Handbook on the Administration of Parish Property (2002).
3). Conflict Prevention. Management and Resolution in the Church (2004).
4). Irregular Unions (Marriages) and Denial of the Reception of Holy Communion (2004).
5). Pastoral Visitation: Towards Knowing the Significance and Necessary Preparations (2006).
6. The Role of Deans in Diocesan Apostolate (2008).
7). The Establishment, Competence, Functions and Organization of Diocesan Pastoral Council (2010).
8). I Believe in the Communion of Saints (2011).
9). Consultative Process and Not Democracy in the Catholic Church (2012).
Today, he is very humbled with his appointment as Chief Shepherd of the new Ekwulobia Diocese and my heart is truly gladdened. I was able to talk to three amazing priests about this new development and their submissions were most touching.
Rev. Fr Prof Anthony Chiegboka (a Professor in UNIZIK, Awka): We thank God for his benevolence to the church in Nigeria especially in our own metropolitan province. We thank the foundational bishop of Awka Diocese, the late Bishop A.K Obiefuna and by extension, the bishop that followed him, the late Bishop Simon Okafor who actually desired to have the diocese of Ekwulobia created and greatly to Bishop Ezeokafor who in his own time accomplished and realized the desire of the priests, religious and laity of Awka diocese. We thank God for the gift of the new bishop, given responsibility to pastor Ekwulobia Diocese. For the bishop, it is a relief. To a lot of us within the diocese, it is also a relief. After the rejection and the pain he suffered at Ahiara, we thank God for the grace he gave to that young man to stand stable, focused and with an ardent faith accepting the conditions and going through the pains with every amount of joy. We thank the diocesan bishop, Ezeokafor, the clergy, religious and laity who actually, in spite of his being our brother, accepted him fully in all implications and dimension. I extend the same appreciation to Bishop Jonas Benson Okoye who actually, in solidarity with the diocesan bishop and every other person, equally accepted him in all dimensions. Finally, God has given us Ekwulobia and has assigned the responsibility to Bishop Okpaleke. It's a challenging moment for the new diocese and he has placed a personality who is actually imbued with extraordinary faith. The environment is equally latent in faith and zeal in relation to what concerns the things of God. So, the meeting point of these qualities and values will actually put the new diocese on a right and developmental track. In all things, we must continue to trust in God. When the two bishops finish their discussion about who goes where and it is accomplished, any personel, both at Awka and Ekwulobia will definitely see to the growth of both dioceses in a level that will be appreciated, not only to God but to the entire people of God within those two jurisdictions. I thank FIDES MEDIA LIMITED for your own services to the local church of Awka Diocese. May God continue to assist you people, the director and members of staff for the good works you are doing and continue to do for the greater glory of God.
Fr Lawrence Nwankwo (Parish Priest, St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Ugwuoba): I count myself privileged because I worked with him closely for a couple of years, from 2004-2009 or thereabout. He was the chancellor of the diocese, while I was the Bishop's Secretary. So, we collaborated a lot. As regards his person, I can say he's really seasoned, thinks things through and fair minded. He's a trusted hand. He's somebody you can really rely on and he's a team worker. We really worked together as a team because, working as a team means that you recognize that we can always grow. Again, when he was made a bishop of Ahiara Diocese, it was good news because I considered him a suitable candidate. And when all the whole stuff started happening, nobody would have known that after the announcement, those things would come about. I can bet you that many of those from Ahiara didn't know also. I was privy to the information that when the news of his appointment broke out, the presbyterium organized and paid him a visit as their new bishop. So, it wasn't as if the whole problem started automatically. Initially, there was this new person not from their presbyterium, but nonetheless, an openness to work with him since the pope had announced it. But then, along the line, I don't know what happened. But I can imagine that other views, insinuations and colorations were given to the whole stuff and we all are witnesses to how it all turned out.
Well, it's a pity that it all turned out like that and it's a real pity that a lot of priests were spearheading the whole stuff. And more so that the arrow head was an ex-priest who was actually doing a whole lot of write ups and so on. However, it has happened. My one joy is that Bishop Okpaleke never stepped a foot there because, if he had been there even for one day and some of these things are said, you will be tempted to give the benefit of the doubt to those who are saying what they are saying. But he never went there. Therefore, whatever they are saying, the whole thing boils down to 'why did you accept' or 'it's ambitious of you to accept' as if as priests, we're not sworn to obedience. So, it has all played out. It's a show of shame not only at the ecclesiastical level but even at the level of Igbo nationhood. Be that as it may, a new page has been turned, both for the Diocese of Ahiara when he resigned his appointment and then, for himself too. I really commend him because I can imagine, it has not been easy. But knowing him, I think he lived through it. And not just living through it. I think he thrived through it because, I can imagine too that it gave him time to go into himself, reflect on the essentials of what being a chief shepherd is, because what was at play in the Ahiara saga was looking at the bishopric as merely for power and not for service. If it were for service, why would people be campaigning for service? And that's what Jesus has called us to be. And if you're to be a shepherd, your call is to lay down your life and if you're called to lay down your life, I wonder why people are saying it should be our own son and not someone from somewhere else. But be that as it may, I believe that now that he has really been assigned to start off a new diocese, I think that Ekwulobia Diocese will be luckier for all those experiences because we learn more from hardship than from good times. So, I can tell you for sure that those years of weathering the storm, having to have things concocted about you that are falsehoods, I mean things you never dreamt of, people making them up and pushing them as if they were true. He really had it tough but I believe he came out the better from all those. He'll translate all those lessons and hard experiences and have them integrated into his own person. This would really colour and shape his relationship in the diocese that he has been entrusted to.
Rev Fr Louis Nwobi (Parish Priest, St. Paul’s Parish, Obeledu): The appointment is long awaited. He's a good choice for the start of the new diocese because of his knowledge, intelligence and wisdom. I expect that the diocese will grow both spiritually, morally and structurally under his care.