By Chioma Ndife
The Catholic Pontiff, Pope Francis, on the 5th of March, 2020 announced the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese alongside other dioceses in different parts of the world for better propagation of the Catholic faith. The creation of Ekwulobia Diocese was followed with the appointment of Bishop Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke as its substantive bishop.
Bishop Okpaleke, an Indigene of Amesi Community, Aguata LGA, Anambra State, was ordained a Catholic priest on 22nd August, 1992 and became a Bishop on 21st May, 2013, after his episcopal ordination at Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri and subsequent installation as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
It will be recalled that Bishop Okpaleke was rejected by the Catholic faithful of Ahiara about six months after his installation. The rejection prompted him to tender his resignation as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese to Pope Francis after about five years of refusal and rejection by Ahiara Diocese.
Sequel to the pronouncement made by Pope Francis, Fides sought the opinions of Priests and Catholic lay faithful of the newly created diocese, to determine the hopes, aspirations and projections of people as it relates with the new diocese.
Speaking to Fides, the Dean of Neni Deanery and Parish Priest, St. John's Parish, Neni, Rev. Fr. Charles Umeoji, considered the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese as a welcome development and stated that Bishop Okpaleke as its substantive bishop was deserving, judging from the great human potentials which the bishop was made of. He said the creation of Ekwulobia Diocese had reduced the administrative burden which the chief shepherd of Awka Diocese had been bearing.
He disclosed that Bishop Ezeokafor, since 2009, had been writing to the Vatican City in Rome for the creation of Ekwulobia and Adazi Dioceses, noting that the diocese had the greatest number of priests and parishes in the whole of West Africa. He maintained that salvation of souls remained the Church's primary goal and said that the newly created diocese would help the Church to achieve its goal.
He pointed out that land and Nigeria's economic situation would pose a great challenge to the new diocese but maintained that the happiness of the people over the announcement of the newly created diocese was a projection that they would support the diocese whole-heartily.
He assured Bishop Okpaleke of the total and committed support of the Ekwulobia faithful, saying that people were ready to co-operate with him to see that the diocese took off immediately.
On the possibility of the new diocese having adverse effect on Awka Diocese, Fr. Umeoji explained that Awka Diocese would remain a home for both priests in the present Awka Diocese and new diocese. He said it was important for those at the helm of affairs in Awka Diocese to come up with ideas on how to help the new child 'Ekwulobia Diocese' to begin on a solid footing, saying that Awka Diocese remained stable with a complete cathedral, secretariat, spiritual year among others.
On the importance of the newly created diocese, the Parish Priest of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, GRA Awka, Rev. Fr. Anthony Akabogu, appreciated God for his grace which made the creation of the diocese possible, saying that people had long anticipated the creation of the diocese. He recalled when Awka Diocese was crafted out from Onitsha Archdiocese and noted that many beautiful anticipations, hopes, aspirations and projections came to mind with the creation of new diocese.
He described the new Ekwulobia Diocese as a virgin soil filled with great potentials and difficulties. He maintained that one of the key difficulties had been solved by Bishop Okpaleke, who he labelled as the son of the soil with effective understanding of personnel in the new diocese who were previously in the mother diocese following the length of time he had worked in the mother diocese.
Fr. Akabogu explained that the newly created diocese would help the Church come closer to the people at the grassroots and promote grassroots evangelization. He disclosed that the population of Awka Diocesan priests before the coming of Ekwulobia Diocese was too big for a bishop to handle, noting that priests would be better managed.
The Parish Priest of St. James Parish, Neni, Fr. Patrick Chukwuma, who agreed with the points raised by Fr. Akabogu, said that the diocese which was created after it was long overdue, signified growth of Catholicism in the Eastern Part of Nigeria, noting that Anambra State at the moment housed about four Catholic dioceses.
Fr. Chukwuma who made case for Adazi Diocese, said it was greatly needed for better step down of evangelism. He prayed God to give Bishop Okpaleke the needed wisdom to lead the flock of the diocese.
On the challenges to be faced by the new diocese, Fr. Chukwuma viewed the mixed feelings which comes with the separation of priests in the old Awka Diocese and unavailability of land at Ekwulobia for siting of its secretariat, spiritual year and other important structures as challenges.
On the area of cooperation, the member representing Aguata Federal Constituency in the Federal House of Representatives, Hon. Chukwuma Umeoji, assured that the people of Aguata and environs would do all within their powers to support the building of the new diocese.
He pointed that there was a lot of work to be done in the new diocese, both in functions and operations, saying that a lot of demand would be required in its operations and maintained that members of the new diocese would put hands together to provide the required material and human support.
Hon. Umeoji described the creation of the new diocese as a challenge to Catholics in Aguata and environs for them to show how committed they were in the things of God. He thanked Pope Francis for creating the diocese and congratulated Bishop Okpaleke whom he described as a man of great faith, patience, courage and humility. He noted that the current appointment showed that God's time remained the best.
On the benefits to be derived from the new diocese, the trio of Hon. Okechukwu Okoye, Engr. Emmanuel Nwafor and Hon Charles Ezeani, member representing Aguata 11 in the State House of Assembly; member representing Orumba South and former House of Assembly member for Anaocha 11 Constituency, respectively, all agreed that the newly created diocese would make the faithful become more active in church activities and offer the bishop opportunity to cover more areas that might have previously been abandoned in the old Awka Diocese. They noted that more effective and efficient administration of parishes would be obtained, saying that more spiritual growth of the faithful would lead to better conduct of humans.
They disclosed that people under Ekwulobia Diocese were ever ready to support the new bishop and would do all within their means to see to the speedy take off of the diocese. They viewed the years of Bishop Okpaleke's rejection in Ahiara as a training ground and fortification process which had prepared him for the task ahead in the Ekwulobia Diocese. They commended Bishop Okoye for effectively managing the Ekwulobia Axis in then Awka Diocese and beckoned on him to disclose the hidden secrets of the area to Bishop Okpaleke to prevent him from making unnecessary mistakes and ensure its smooth take off.
On the preparedness of St. Joseph's Pro-Cathedral, Ekwulobia, to house the administrative centre of the new diocese, the Episcopal Vicar of Ekwulobia Region and Parish Priest of St. Joseph's Cathedral Church, Ekwulobia, Rev. Fr. Ignatius Onwuatuegwu, said that the structures in the cathedral were more than enough for the diocese to take off. He disclosed that the cathedral, the Bishop's Court, hospitals, among others, were all ready for use, saying that the in-house offices within the cathedral would still serve as the secretariat for the time being before the secretariat would be erected.
He revealed that the installation of the bishop and inauguration of the new diocese would be followed with the dedication of the cathedral. He said the creation of the diocese was a long awaited, adding that the newly created diocese had the manpower and personnel who had effective understanding of what was required to become a diocese. He assured that the priests and laity of the new diocese were well prepared and poised to co-operate with the new bishop.