Nigeria Gets 5th Cardinal Appointment of Roman Catholic Church

By Gabriel Omonhinmin

A Cardinal in Latin, Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae cardinalis, literally “cardinal of the Holy Roman Church”, is a Senior Member of the clergy of the Catholic Church, immediately behind the Pope in the order of hierarchy. Collectively, the members constitute the College of Cardinals and are appointed for life.

Their most solemn responsibility is to elect a new Pope in a conclave, always from among themselves (with a few historical exceptions), when the Holy See is vacant. During the period between a Pope’s death or resignation and the election of his successor, the day-to-day governance of the Holy See is in the hands of the College of Cardinals.

The right to participate in a conclave is limited to cardinals, who have not reached the age of 80 years by the day the vacancy occurs. In addition, cardinals collectively participate in papal consistories (which generally take place annually), in which matters of importance to the Church are considered and new cardinals may be created. Cardinals of working age are also appointed to roles overseeing dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the central administration of the Catholic Church.

With the revision of the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV, only those who are already Priests or Bishops may be appointed cardinals. Since the time of Pope John XXIII, a Priest who is appointed a cardinal must be consecrated a Bishop, unless he obtains a dispensation.

On Sunday, 29th May 2022, the 59 years Old Catholic Bishop of Ekwulobia, Anambra state, Peter Okpaleke, was appointed a Catholic Cardinal. His appointment was announced by the head of the Catholic Church Worldwide, Pope Francis.

Bishop Okpaleke was one of the 21 new Cardinals from around the world announced by the Pope on that Sunday. With this appointment, Bishop Okpaleke is now the fifth Cardinal from Nigeria to be so appointed by the Catholic Church.

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Nigeria has since independence produced five Cardinals in the Catholic Church. The first Catholic Cardinal from Nigeria was Dominic Ignatius Ekandem, who died in 1995 at the age of 78 years. He was followed by Francis Anizoba Arinze, who will soon be 90 years on November 1, 2022. He is an expert on Christian/Muslim dialogue, having spent most of his professional life in Rome, and is now retired.

Anthony Olubunmi Okogie is the third Cardinal from Nigeria and the second alive. He will be 86 years on June 16, 2022. He is retired and was the Archbishop of Lagos Archdiocese for 39 years.

On October 24, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed the then Archbishop of Abuja Archdiocese, John Onaiyekan, who is now 78 years old and five others as Cardinals.

Archbishop Onaiyekan was before Bishop Okapleke was appointed a Cardinal, the youngest of the Nigerian Catholic Cardinals. He is known for his peace and reconciliation work across the increasingly bitter Christian/Muslim divide.

The unique thing about Bishop Okpaleke’s appointment is that he is still young and falls within the age of a working Cardinal. Working Cardinals not only participate actively in a conclave they can be appointed as a Pope if there is a vacancy in the Holy See today. Pope Francis after the announcement of the new appointments at Regina Coeli on Sunday, May 29, 2022, said, “On Saturday, 27th August, I will hold a Consistory for the creation of new Cardinals. Let us pray that they will help me in my mission as Bishop of Rome for the good of all God’s people.”

The College of Cardinals currently consists of 208 Cardinals out of whom 117 are electors and 91 non-electors. But with the new additions, the number will grow to 299 Cardinals, of whom 131 will be electors.

Of the 21 newly appointed Cardinals, eight are from Europe, six from North America, and four from Central and Latin America.

Cardinal Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who was born on March 1, 1963, is from Amesi, Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria.

He had his primary school education at Amesi, and in 1983, he entered the Bigard Memorial Major Seminary in Ikot-Ekpene and Enugu, where he studied philosophy and theology from 1983 to 1992.

He thereafter went to study Canon Law in Rome at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.

He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Awka on August 22, 1990. On the 7th of December, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Okpaleke Bishop of Ahiara, Nigeria. He was consecrated as a Bishop on May 21, 2013, but there was opposition to his appointment on the basis that he was not from the Mbaise ethnic group. As expected, the Pope insisted that he remains the Bishop and the church will not tolerate such ethnic bigotry.

Tribalism in the Catholic Church

The division amongst the Igbos is so deep that it is now affecting even religion, specifically the Catholic Church, known as the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

In the Catholic Church, the powers to appoint a Bishop are exercised by the Pope. Once the Pope exercises this power, it is not subject to any form of debate or negotiation. Once the Pope has spoken, the decision is final. This is the premise of the statement attributed to St. Augustine – Roma locuta est, causa finita est (Rome has spoken, and the case is closed).

To put it in context, the Catholic Church thrives on the principle of ‘sensus ecclesiae’ which connotes universality. In line with ‘sensus ecclesiae’, there were times when we had Nigeria’s Priests and Bishops who were Irish because the Catholic Church is one and universal. Recall the days of the missionaries in Nigeria and you will realize that those Oyibo Priests were not serving in their local governments or state of origin. Nor in their villages of birth.

Now, pause for a moment and ask why an Igbo Catholic Priest was appointed by the Pope to become a Bishop in an Igbo Catholic Diocese in 2012 and the entire Diocese rejected his appointment and refused to allow him to take canonical possession of a Diocese validly entrusted to his pastoral care by the Supreme Pontiff.

Surprisingly, the reason was that the then Bishop Okpaleke is from Awka Diocese in Anambra State and not from Ahiara Diocese in Imo State.

The rejection was bold, daring and not even pretentious; it was so scathing and embarrassing that his Episcopal ordination was held outside the Diocese he had been appointed to lead. Despite his ordination, he was refused entry into the Diocese and never took charge of Ahiara Diocese even for one day. The Ahiara Diocese made a loud statement and they were clear – they would rather stay without a Bishop rather than have a Priest that is not from Ahiara Presbyterium. They didn’t mince words about it and remained defiant.

After a while and in a bid to calm the tension and for peace to reign, Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke had to resign his appointment as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese in February 2018, an office he never really assumed. One can imagine how he survived those difficult moments of his life. He would have relied greatly on the Holy Spirit as epitomized in his episcopal motto – ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’ (Come Holy Spirit!).

Regardless, he remained a Bishop, albeit, a Bishop without a Diocese. To reiterate, Bishop Okpaleke was without a Diocese because even as an Igbo man, the Igbo Diocese he was appointed to oversee rejected him because he was not from that particular part of Igbo land. It is also important to emphasize that there is no provision in the Canon law that stipulates that only Priests from a particular Diocese must serve as Bishop of that Diocese.

In March 2020, a new Diocese had to be created in Anambra (Ekwulobia Diocese) and he was appointed as the first Bishop of the newly created Diocese. His Episcopal installation took place on April 29, 2020, and he has been serving in that capacity before his new appointment as Cardinal.

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