By Martin Anusi, Uche Amunike and Michael-Jude Nwolisa
It was wild and wide celebrations in the entire old Awka Diocese and beyond, March 5, 2020, as the news of the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese spread round like wild fire. The clergy, religious and lay faithful, all united in jubilation over the news of the new diocese.
What even made the erection of the new diocese more remarkable was the appointment of the emeritus Bishop of Ahiara Diocese, Most Rev. Peter Ebere Okpaleke, as the first Bishop of the new Diocese. Bishop Okpaleke's new appointment was obviously a prayer answered in the hearts of many who followed the drama that played out when he was initially sent to Ahiara Diocese.
In this interview with Fides, the Bishop of the new Ekwulobia Diocese, Most Rev Peter Okpaleke, tells how he received the news of his new appointment, his action plan for the new diocese and his message to the clergy and lay faithful in Ahiara, Awka and Ekwulobia Dioceses.
We all rejoiced at the news of the creation of the new Ekwulobia Diocese and your appointment as her Bishop. What were your first reactions and when did you receive the news?
My first reaction was to thank God for continuing to express His confidence on me to serve Him, the confidence that the Lord Himself manifested on the day I was ordained a priest on 22nd August, 1992. So when this appointment came, I thanked God. At least it was a manifestation that God has not abandoned me, that He still needs me.
The news was broken to me on 5th March 2020 being Thursday. Any other speculations and side talks earlier than then were just rumours. I officially got the news at 12 noon on the 5th of March, 2020.
How did you feel when you received the news?
I felt humbled once more, for God to have manifested His Grace on me this way. May His Name be praised.
As soon as the good news went round, there were shouts of jubilation in different quarters especially in Ekwulobia territory. It seemed people had been waiting for this news for long. And when you look at the manifestations of goodwill from people towards you, you will notice people are also expecting a lot from you. What do you think will be your first actions when you eventually take over the new diocese?
Firstly, reacting to the jubilations of the people when they got the news, I will say they were reactions of a people long expecting the Lord to come nearer to them. They believe that the creation of a new diocese is bringing the Church closer to the people. I hope that those rejoicing over the new diocese have the right understanding of the implications of creating a new diocese. If so, glory be to God.
So my first action as the Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese will be to invite the people to respond to that God's call. As I said, creating a new diocese means bringing the Church closer to the people of GOD. I will, as the bishop, draw the people closer to also respond to the manifestations of God's plan for the people of Old Aguata, Orumba North and South. God has continued to manifest His plans for the people here, summarised in the salvation He wants to give them. I hope the people understand that too.
Can we know your plans as the Bishop of the new diocese?
Well my first plan is to go into a deeper relationship with God and invoke The Holy Spirit to help me and also help the people of the new diocese; the clergy, the religious and the lay faithful. We need the Holy Spirit to help us understand His plans for us and to be able to appreciate them as they manifest in and among us.
My second plan is to interpret God's indications, signs or signals which He gives to us.
So far this is the much I think I can say for now, as we continue to enter deeper into prayer, asking God not only to shower His graces and blessings upon me, but also on all the people of God in this diocese and beyond.
When we had an interview with the Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor, he spoke so highly of you. He said your level of patience was extraordinarily admirable. What was the secret?
(Laughs) Sincerely, when I hear about me being patient, I get surprised. I was born without any choice. God decided to give me life and I was born. I had my secondary education like every young man. It was by God's direction I entered the seminary. I eventually became a priest and carried on with my priestly vocation. One day I was called that the Holy Father has decided to make me a bishop, I accepted. I continued to live my life as a bishop.
Even if the whole world is collapsing, my conviction is that if I remain faithful, surely God remains faithful, I have nothing to fear. No matter where I find myself, I will be confident and happy that I will meet my God there and He will continue to take care of me.
So I do not see what people interpret as patience. I cannot go before God, neither can I be more powerful than God. So, the summary of my life is abandoning myself to divine plans of God.
So, do you see your new appointment as home coming?
No, it is not necessarily homecoming. It is a continuation of my life as a priest and as a bishop. Even if the Pope tells me to go to Kafanchan or Sokoto Diocese, I will see it as home coming there. I will make there my home.
Going to Ekwulobia Diocese is even more challenging. You know the experiences Jesus had when He worked among His own people. I would have even preferred going to an unknown place to work. But since God has decided that I will work in my own local government, among my own people, so be it.
How reliant do you intend to be on the mother diocese, Awka?
When a diocese is created, by the announcement of the Holy Father and the Decree, the two dioceses become independent of each other. So Awka and Ekwulobia Dioceses are independent of each other and yet relating together as brothers and sisters under the same metropolitan province. So that's the nature and level of relationship.
And the relationship between myself and Bishop Ezeokafor and indeed other bishops; the relationship between my people of Ekwulobia Diocese and the people of Awka Diocese are as children of God that we all are.
Otherwise, the Catholic Church has structures of relationships which are not dependent on me, but the teachings of the Church.
So, do you think the creation of the new diocese is a positive development?
Of course, yes! It is the Church and the chief shepherd coming closer to the people. Pope Francis will always say, “when you come closer to the sheep, you smell the sheep”. I know what we experience here. We are three bishops working in Awka, but we still find it difficult to reach every aspect.
So, the new diocese is like bringing salvation and God nearer to the people. Yes, it is a positive development.
People are already discussing the future ownership of certain institutions in the now Ekwulobia Diocese, like St Dominic Savio Seminary and the rest. Will they now be fully owned by Ekwulobia Diocese or will they still be part of Awka Diocese?
The Church is very wise. There are basic principles on how to settle such issues. For instance, parishes within Ekwulobia Diocese and every other thing belong to the new diocese. Other institutions like the Seminary you mentioned will definitely belong to the new diocese. Part of that seminary is at Isuaniocha in Awka Diocese. For example, when Nnewi Diocese was created from Onitsha Archdiocese, St. Paul's Seminary, Ukpor became the seminary of Nnewi Diocese while All Hallows Seminary remained in Onitsha.
However, there is room for mutual relationship between the dioceses too as I mentioned earlier. There are certain assets the two dioceses may want to own together like the Holy Family Spiritual Year Seminary, Okpuno. Ekwulobia Diocese can continue to send her seminarians to the seminary for spiritual formation. Peter University, now in Ekwulobia Diocese does not mean that Ekwulobia Diocese will automatically take it over, but there will be some memorandum of understanding.
We understand that the rationale behind these institutions is to help the people get salvation, not just business ventures. So, if the people understand that, we will know that the reason for Awka Diocese establishing Peter University remains the property of the Church and the Church is meant to benefit from it whether Awka or Ekwulobia Diocese.
What may keep coming to the mind of many people now with this new appointment is, “Who is Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke”? Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born on the 1st of March 1963. Earlier, during my childhood, I cannot even remember the date, my grandmother came to visit my mother from Uga to Amesi. I followed her back to Uga to continue my primary school education and then secondary education. In fact, people do call me “Nwa Uga'' because I grew up there. It was when I was in primary school, in 1972, that I miraculously joined the Altar Servers. I never planned to join them. It happened that I was on my way to Church one day with my aunty when there was a sudden downpour.
Getting to the mass, there was no one to serve at mass. The parish priest, just called me, took me to the sacristy and vested me with the altar servers' dress. I expressed shock and confusion at what my duties on the altar would be. He said to me, ‘if I call you, you come. If I say sit, you sit'. That was how I served at mass without any practice.
I felt fulfilled after the mass and also won the respect of my friends. So I decided to remain an altar server.
I later completed my secondary education and was employed as a teacher under Rev. Fr. Elias Anyaora as the first Amesi citizen to teach in the secondary school after Class 5. One day I called him and told him I wanted to become a priest. He directed me to the then Bishop of Awka Diocese, the late Archbishop Albert Obiefuna, with a letter.
When I came to St. Patrick's Cathedral then, I met one old woman, Mrs Dibua, sweeping the compound. She is the oldest woman in Awka now. I told her I wanted to see Bishop Obiefuna and she directed to the refectory where the Bishop was. I sat near the tank and waited for the Bishop. Later, one huge man came out. I did not even know the Bishop. He asked what I was doing there, I told him I wanted to see the Bishop. He asked which Bishop, then I gave him the letter from Fr. Anyaorah. Bishop Obiefuna, read my letter and then called a priest to take me to the seminary. But the priest never did. He rather sent me to join the altar servers who were working at the bakery.
One faithful day, as I sat down close to the round-about where Bishop Obiefuna always drove by, he saw me and shouted, “Nwa Anyaora”, as he fondly called me. “What are you doing here, why are you not in the Seminary,” he asked. I narrated to him what happened. There and then, he called his driver who took me to the seminary. That was how I started my journey to priesthood at St. John Bosco Seminary, Isuaniocha, where I was heartily welcome by Fr. Sylvester Mgbemfulu.
There at Isuaniocha, I was assigned to teach three subjects; Economics, Government and Literature. I was also made the Bursar. From there, I proceeded to the senior seminary and onwards towards priesthood. That is why, when certain things happen, I see it as God in action. I never, from childhood, thought of going to the seminary, but here I am today. God has his own plans for us all.
When the drama that trailed your appointment as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese played out, what was your state of mind?
I was just laughing. As a matter of fact, that was my happiest moment. I kept asking myself who moved these people to do these things? Was it the Spirit of God? Yes, I believe it was the Spirit of God. Otherwise, they would have kept quiet and Okpaleke would arrive and something else would have happened. But the Spirit of God, I believe, moved them to react without even knowing me and myself knowing them.
You see, from that period of Ahiara drama to the period of my appointment as the Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese, was my happiest moment. I became so free. I prayed when I wanted to pray. I ate when I wanted to. I came to the office when I wanted to and so on. So, it was a very free time for me to live my life as a priest and as an individual. People were pitying me, but I laughed because they did not know the grace God had given me within that period.
Behold, I have been called out of my “retirement” with this new appointment as the Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese.
Then, there is no point asking if you have forgiven the people of Ahiara Diocese?
I definitely have no problem with them. I have absolutely nothing against them. Many of them still reach out to me today. Nothing that happened then touched my priestly life. So, there is no offense to forgive.
What message do you have for the Ahiara People?
I have no particular message for the Ahiara people, rather, I have a message for the people of God everywhere, including myself. Let us think more of how to come closer to God. Let us emphasize more on things that will help us live our lives as real, good and authentic human beings and then aspire to see God at last. Whether Ahiara or Awka or Ekwulobia Diocese, we are the same humans all aspiring to see God.
Looking back on your life, through your journey as a priest and now Bishop, what has been the greatest lesson you learnt in life that will help you in your new position?
One of my greatest life lessons was from Fr. Elias Anyaora as our then Principal at Christ The Redeemer's College, Amese Fr. Anyaora never discriminated between Catholics and non-Catholics. He had one old Peugeot 404 car then, which used to spoil at different places. Whenever the vehicle broke down anywhere, he would enter the nearest compound and alert whoever lived there that his car had broken down in front of their compound. He would not care if the people were Catholics or not. He would not even lock the car and everything would still be safe. He kept managing the car till his elder brother bought a new Peugeot 504 for him.
I also learnt a lot from Fr. Belonwu Okonkwo who worked in our parish. People may have varied opinions about him but I used him as a model of someone always punctual, available and coming closer to the people. Some saw him as strict, but he was disciplined too. He associated with all classes of people and he never held back the truth from anybody. I have also come across many priests, seminarians and human beings who have positively influenced me.
Bishop Fulton Sheen was one day asked a question on how he prepared his homilies. He said it took him an entire life to prepare a homily. Now people do also highly commend your homilies for always being inspiring. How, do you prepare them?
Well, in preaching, it is God talking to His people, I am only a messenger. For me to deliver the message effectively, I must first listen to the One who owns the message. I do listen to Him to make sure I understand as much as possible what He wants me to communicate. I try to speak less, so that the congrgation will capture one thing or another. I develop my preachings from the Holy Scriptures, the Magisterium of the Church and the Holy Catechism because that is where the fundamental principles of our faith are enshrined. Then I allow the Holy Spirit to speak through me.
There is one great lesson we have learnt from you concerning funerals. You are always very early to burial/funeral services. One priest remarked that when his father died, you were at the funeral before him. How did you come about this virtue? Was it something you learnt from someone or something you developed?
I will say, somehow, it was a virtue I developed. One of the lapses I noticed on the part of priests and pastors is that they often do not show enough concern when their faithful dies. You hear that a parishioner died and you are relaxed in your house or office waiting till they come to book the date. That should not be your first reaction, rather you should go and sympathise with the bereaved, console the living and pray for the dead before commencing preparations for the funeral.
So when a priest, religious or parishioner invites me to a funeral, I do my best to be there early enough, sit with them, pray with them before going to the church. It is not something extraordinary, but just a way of preaching the gospel and praying for the dead.
Where are you going to live as the Bishop of Ekwulobia Diocese?
The Canon Law provides that the Bishop must live within the Ecclesiastical territory of his diocese. So I will live within the territory of Ekwulobia Diocese, that is what I’m sure of. As for the building or the room, I am not sure of that yet, till after the official inauguration. So, I am still looking around for now.
What message do you have for the people of God in Ekwulobia?
Firstly, I invite them, including myself, to see this once more as a gift of God, a special moment, not just for celebrations that we have a new diocese, but that we have a challenge, a new beginning, a new opportunity to come nearer to God, through prayers and good works which will be manifested in the structures we raise, the relationships we establish between one another and the families we unite together. So, it is an opportunity for us to begin a new our relationship with God. That is the first message I will send out to our people.
And your message to the priests and religious?
I have the same message for them. This work belongs to all of us. They should not think that Bishop Okpaleke, as the Bishop, knows everything. That's not possible. If we go back to the Scriptures, in the Book of Numbers 11: 16 – 30, you will see that Moses who saw God face to face still needed the help of 70 elders to lead the people of Israel. So, I need such 70 elders, if not more, to help me and advise me. Solomon, in all his wisdom still needed advisers and helpers around him.
I also pray that God will shower His Holy Spirit upon us all so that we all can see this work as a joint venture so that we can help the people of God to enjoy a deeper relationship with God.
What is your message for Fides Newspapers?
I want to commend you all. You are doing a great job there at Fides. I invite you to continue to cover Awka and Ekwulobia Diocese. I see Fides also as our Social Communications outfit. Do keep up the good works.
Finally, what message do you have for the Bishop of Awka Diocese, Most Rev. Paulinus Ezeokafor and his Auxiliary, Most Rev. Jonas Benson Okoye?
After appreciating God and the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), my heartfelt appreciation will go to Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor and Bishop Jonas Benson Okoye. They are very wonderful people.
I encourage them to maintain the cordial relationship.