Nigeria’s Newest Cardinal Shares Secret Behind the Highest Mass Attendance in the World

Cardinal Peter Ebere Okpaleke offers Mass in Rome at his titular church, the Holy Martyrs of Uganda Catholic Parish, on Feb. 5, 2023.

After Nigeria was recognized 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.

Cardinal Peter 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, 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.

Awareness of God’s presence


Nigerian society as a whole has “a traditional worldview” that recognizes the presence of God in life and society, according to 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 secularization has atrophied a culture’s sense of the divine, the Church can benefit by emphasizing how it is a “gateway” that fulfills the “inner hunger in the human being to relate to the divine,” he said.

Family as ‘the domestic church’

More in Africa

In Nigeria, there is a strong sense that “the family is ‘the domestic church,’” a term used by early Church Fathers and emphasized 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,” Okpaleke said.

In Nigeria, there is a strong sense that “the family is ‘the domestic church,’” said Cardinal Peter 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. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNAIn Nigeria, there is a strong sense that “the family is ‘the domestic church,’” said Cardinal Peter 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. Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

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.”


Sense of community

Catholic parishes and dioceses in Nigeria provide people with a strong sense of  “community and belongingness.”

“Largely, people feel a sense of community in the Church,” 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.”

Okpaleke 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, the cardinal has been touched by how Catholics in his diocese “made and continue to happily make sacrifices for the growth of our diocese.”

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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,” he said.

What the world can learn from Nigeria

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

Okaleke acknowledged that the vibrant faith in Nigeria is in part the fruit of missionaries who brought the Gospel to the country.

“There was a time when the percentage of Mass attendance in some parts of the world was almost 100%. This has changed in many places,” he said.

“It is therefore important for the Church in these areas to reflect on what caused the shift in worldview that resulted in the drop in Mass attendance.”

Today Nigeria sends priests to serve the Church in Europe and the United States, for example, where the number of priests in the U.S. dropped by 70% from 1970 to 2020.

Okpaleke, who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2022, underlined the important role of the family and of parish communities cultivating a living faith.

“The Church as a community has also to strive to embody the yearning of human beings for love, community, and belongingness in order to effectively proclaim Jesus,” he said.

This is part 1 of a two-part series of articles based on an interview with Cardinal Peter Ebere Okpaleke. The second will cover the upcoming Nigerian presidential elections and the ongoing violence and insecurity in the country.

Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.