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.