Nigeria’s Newest Cardinal Shares Secret behind World’s Highest Mass Attendance

By Sunny A Ijomah

After Nigeria was recognised as having the highest Mass attendance in the world, the African nation’s youngest cardinal has shared some of the secrets behind his country’s vibrant sacramental life.

A recent study found that 94% of Nigeria’s 30 million Catholics say they attend Mass at least weekly or more, while only 17% of American Catholics attend Mass weekly.

Peter Cardinal Ebere Okpaleke, 59, who leads the Southern Nigerian Diocese of Ekwulobia, sees three key factors behind the active participation of Catholics in Nigeria.

In an interview with CNA when the Cardinal was in Rome this month, Cardinal Okpaleke said that he believes Nigeria’s traditional worldview, the role of the family, and a sense of community within parishes have kept Nigerians close to the sacraments, generation after generation.

Nigerian society as a whole has “a traditional worldview” that recognises the presence of God in life and society, according to Cardinal Okpaleke. Nigerians have not lost sight of how the spiritual world imbues everyday life.

“There is a general awareness of the role of the divine in human life. It is this awareness that translates into Mass attendance for Catholics, who come to Mass to encounter Christ in the Eucharist,” the Cardinal said.

He noted that High Mass attendance “cuts across income brackets” with the poor and the rich, the uneducated and the educated all drawn to the sacraments by a shared desire for God.

In other parts of the world where secularisation has atrophied a culture’s sense of the divine, the Church can benefit by emphasising how it is a “gateway” that fulfills the “inner hunger in the human being to relate to the divine,” he said.

In Nigeria, there is a strong sense that “the family is ‘the domestic church,’” a term used by early Church Fathers and emphasised by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio.

The family is viewed as the primary place where the “faith is handed over to the next generation,” Cardinal Okpaleke stated.

In Nigeria, there is a strong sense that “the family is ‘the domestic church,’” said Peter  Cardinal  Ebere Okpaleke at a Mass in Rome as he took possession of his titular church, the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Parish, on Feb. 5, 2023.

The Cardinal noted that while the family is “facing a lot of pressure because of the socioeconomic and cultural situation in Nigeria,” most families have held out against this pressure, drawing “from the faith to surmount the challenges thrown at them.”

He recommends that Catholics around the world “pay pastoral attention to the family as the domestic church because that is where everyone’s faith experience is formed.”

Catholic Parishes and Diocese in Nigeria provide people with a strong sense of  “Community and belongingness.”

“Largely, people feel a sense of Community in the Church,” Cardinal Okpaleke said. The Cardinal has seen this firsthand in his own Diocese, which is only 3 years old, where Diocesan Synod on Synodality discussions felt like “traditional sessions in village squares where matters of interest to the Community were discussed.”

He leads the Southern Nigerian Diocese of Ekwulobia, a new Diocese created in 2020.

With the creation of the Diocese amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic challenges that followed, Cardinal Okpaleke has been touched by how Catholics in his Diocese “made and continue to happily make sacrifices for the growth of our Diocese.”

He is now working to establish a diocesan retreat center that can also serve as a hub for ongoing formation for priests and lay Catholics.

“The creation of the diocese unleashed so much joy and energy in both the priests and the lay faithful. The new diocese was taken up by all as their project,” the Cardinal said.

He sees Nigeria’s High Mass attendance as “both something to cheer and a challenge” to work to preserve,” this invaluable gift from God.