Aloysius Attah, Onitsha
It was a historic moment recently in Anambra State following the installation of Peter Ebere Okpaleke as the Bishop of the newly created Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia.
Okpaleke, Emeritus Bishop of Ahiara Diocese, resigned as the Bishop of Ahiara on February 19, 2018, after a six-year crisis following his rejection by the priests of the diocese for being a “foreign” Bishop.
While the whole crisis lasted, he operated like a Bishop without a Cathedral until his resignation. On March 5, Pope Francis announced the creation of the Diocese of Ekwulobia from the Diocese of Awka and appointed Okpaleke its pioneer Bishop. The news elicited widespread joy and excitement in the area. The installation ceremony was already scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Attendance at the event was strictly by invitation, with attendees sporting face masks, sitting two in a row, to observe social distancing. Other safety protocols were duly observed before entering St. Joseph’s Cathedral Church, venue of the ceremony.
The Metropolitan Archbishop of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, Most Rev. Valerian Okeke, represented Pope Francis at the event. He handed the pastoral staff to Bishop Okpaleke and prayed that the Bishop would succeed in his new role.
In his homily, Archbishop Okeke listed the duties of a Bishop, saying he was expected to carry out the mandate that Christ gave his apostles to unite even unbelievers alongside the children of God. He enjoined priests of the new diocese to see their Bishop as a father, brother and friend and to rally support for him with love to make the diocese a model.
Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano, urged Bishop Okpaleke to put his vision for the diocese into work for him to excel. He also advised the priests and laity to walk strongly with faith, obey the Bishop and also imbibe team spirit.
In his inaugural speech, Okpaleke noted: “God does not shield us from hard situations but will use them to draw the best from us, if we remain open. We only need to trust and discern his purpose.”
He said he was convinced that God was saying something to him by allowing Ekwulobia Diocese to be born within the framework of Easter and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to him, COVID-19 reminds everyone that every life is fragile, noting that life and safety depended on interconnected lives of others.
“We should no longer live for ourselves, but for one another, animated by love of the one who died and rose again. This is possible if, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we die to our old selves,’’ he said.
The Prelate noted that, before the pandemic, people freely shook hands, hugged, visited each other, and went to work, church and other places, “but today, engaging in those activities usually taken for granted can result in illness and death.”
“God is inviting us to take nothing for granted anymore and to cultivate gratitude as basic disposition in life. God has allowed the church buildings to be locked up so as to allow the question of the deeper meaning of ‘church’ to emerge. Hopefully, after the storm, there will be due sensitivity and commitment to becoming more truly the people of God in our communities,” the Bishop said.
He noted that people were stuck with their families during the lockdown, reminding all that “when the chips are down, the family is what we are left with.” And, “as one body of Christ, we have to work together to be the light and salt of the earth. We are all responsible and should live out our responsibility toward one another.”
Bishop Okpaleke thanked Awka Diocesan Bishop, Paulinus Ezeokafor, and his Auxiliary, Bishop Jonas Benson Okoye, for their support and love all through.
He expressed gratitude to Gov. Obiano for his support. He recalled that though Moses was closer to God, he needed the support of 70 elders to work. The Bishop later announced the appointment of some priests to work with him.
Some of the dignitaries at the occasion were the Anglican Bishop of Aguata, Rt. Rev. Samuel Ezeofor; Igwe Emmanuel Onyeneke of Ekwulobia, vice chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Prof. Charles Esimone, and Senator Victor Umeh, among others.