The unprecedented profile of the 2 Africans becoming cardinals

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From Nigeria and Ghana, these leaders come to the College of Cardinals with unique backgrounds.

Among those who will receive the cardinal’s biretta on August 27, 2022, are Bishop Peter Okpaleke, 59, of Ekwulobia, Nigeria, and Bishop Richard Baawobr, 62, of Wa, Ghana: two young new cardinals with unusual profiles. 

Bishop Peter Okpaleke, the bishop humiliated by his diocese

By creating Bishop Peter Okpaleke a cardinal, Pope Francis has made a very strong choice for the Church in Nigeria. The 59-year-old Nigerian has a totally atypical background. When Pope Benedict XVI decided in 2012 to appoint him bishop of Ahiara, Peter Okpaleke faced a rebellion from Catholics in the diocese who did not accept his appointment. This outcry was partly linked to his ethnicity. Unlike his predecessor, who was from the Mbai ethnic group, the majority in the diocese, Bishop Okpaleke is from the Ibo ethnic group, the majority in southeastern Nigeria. It was a situation that the laity and priests of the diocese were unwilling to tolerate. 

In 2013, Bishop Okpaleke asked to postpone the date of his episcopal consecration by a few weeks, hoping that the situation would calm down, but in vain. Consecrated as a bishop outside the diocese, Bishop Okpaleke would never take office in Ahiara, despite protests from Rome. Faced with this “lamentable” reality, Pope Francis himself stepped up to the plate and made his displeasure known in 2017 when he received a delegation from the diocese. “I think that in this case we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempt to take over the Lord’s vineyard,” he said during an audience in which he compared the rebellious diocesans to the homicidal vinedressers of the Gospel.

In the presence of the Nigerian delegation, he praised the patience of the humiliated bishop. Then the pontiff asked all the priests of the diocese to write to him within a month so that they would reaffirm their obedience to the pope and recognize their bishop. The priests complied with this request, hoping that another bishop would be appointed, reported the media outlet Crux.

Finally, in the face of the impasse, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke. But two years later, he erected a new diocese, in Ekwulobia, and appointed him as its bishop. 

Bishop Richard Baawobr, the first African superior of the White Fathers

Pope Francis has decided to create a cardinal the former superior of the White Fathers, Bishop Richard Baawobr, who is now bishop of the Diocese of Wa, in northern Ghana. In 2010, he was the first African elected to head the Missionaries of Africa, a society founded at the end of the 19th century by French Cardinal Charles Lavigerie.

Born in Ghana on June 21, 1959, Richard Baawobr joined the White Fathers in 1981 after studying philosophy at St. Victor Seminary in Tamale. From 1981 to 1982, he was in Fribourg, Switzerland, for his novitiate. Then, from 1982 to 1987, he completed his theological studies at the Missionary Institute in London. It was in the British capital that he made his religious vows before being ordained a year later, on July 18, 1987.

After ministering at a parish in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the priest left for Rome to study exegesis at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. Then he crossed the Alps to Lyon to study Ignatian spirituality at the Jesuit spiritual center of Le Châtelard. There he obtained a degree in Sacred Scripture and a doctorate in biblical theology.

After spending some time in Tanzania, from 1999 to 2004 he was the director of the White Fathers’ formation house in Toulouse. He then became the first Assistant General of the Missionaries of Africa. During his mandate, he survived a deep vein thrombosis.

In 2010, he was elected Superior General of the Missionaries of Africa, a position he held until 2016. In this position, he said that he was aware that their mission was no longer limited to Africa but also to Europe, the Americas, and Asia.

He was also chosen by the Union of Superiors General to participate in the Synod on the Family in October 2015. In 2016, this specialist in Islam—then the Vice Grand Chancellor of the PISAI (Pontifical Institute for Arab-Islamic Studies)—was appointed Bishop of Wa, Ghana.

Pope Francis appointed him as a member and consultant of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity in July 2020.

Read below how he has made mental health a priority in his diocese.

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