As he was escorted into the Nigerian jungle at gunpoint last December, Bishop Moses Chikwe’s fear gave way to a vivid vision of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I saw the trial, the torture, His crucifixion,” Bishop Chikwe recalls. “I said to myself, ‘if they did this to him, what can I endure?’ ”
Bishop Chikwe’s Dec. 27 kidnapping generated international news coverage and a public appeal from Pope Francis for his release. After five days in captivity, during which he said he was beaten, Bishop Chikwe was released by his captors, who told him his abduction had been “a mistake.” The leader of the gang that had seized the Bishop and his driver asked for his forgiveness, Bishop Chikwe said.
“I said, ‘I will pray for you and forgive you,’” Bishop Chikwe said. “ ‘I pray that you will change the way you are living.’ ”
Bishop Chikwe is an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Owerri in southeast Nigeria, which has a connection to the Diocese of San Bernardino: four priests of his Archdiocese are currently ministering in the Diocese. He spent most of August in Southern California visiting with priests from the Archdiocese of Owerri and meeting with local bishops, including Bishop Alberto Rojas.
“His presence was a sign of support and brotherhood for our brother priests who have been a blessing in our Diocese for many years,” Bishop Rojas said of the visit from Bishop Chikwe.
Both bishops describe the relationship between the Archdiocese of Owerri and the Diocese of San Bernardino as collaborative. It helps the Diocese address its shortage of priests and meet the sacramental needs of the 1.7 million Catholic faithful here, but it also helps the Archdiocese of Owerri fulfill its commitment to Evangelization around the world, Bishop Chikwe said.
“They love what they’re doing and the interaction and engagement they have with the people here,” Bishop Chikwe said of the feedback he is receiving from the Nigerian priests ministering in the Diocese.
There are 30 priests from Nigeria who are currently ministering in the Diocese of San Bernardino. In addition, African-born priests now make up the largest segment of foreign-born priests in the Diocese.
The Archdiocese of Owerri has about 270 diocesan priests and another 30 religious priests to serve a Catholic population of just over two million. It can send its priests in significant numbers to the United States and other western nations because vocations to the priesthood are thriving in Africa. Bishop Chikwe attributes the vocations boom in his Archdiocese to increasingly strong Catholic religiosity among families in Nigeria and strong education and formation programs for children.
“The family background is a key player,” Bishop Chikwe said. “And people are deeply religious. Parents are having children enough to allow them to enter religious life.”
The Diocese of San Bernardino, meanwhile, reports 67 percent of active priests here are either from religious orders or are externs, meaning priests who are here temporarily from another diocese. There are 70 diocesan priests in active ministry in the Diocese. About 70 percent of all priests serving in the Diocese are foreign-born.
“We are grateful to our Nigerian brother priests and to all the priests who have left their families, friends, culture and countries to come and serve our Diocese,” Bishop Rojas said. “Peace and blessings to all of them.”
In addition to the U.S., the Archdiocese of Owerri sends priests to six other western countries – some for ministry and some for study – along with Australia and Burkina Faso. Back home in Nigeria, life is returning to some semblance of normality after a year-and-a-half of the pandemic.
“The [COVID-19] numbers are very minimal. I think it is God’s intervention, otherwise it would have wiped us all out,” Bishop Chikwe said. “Quite a good number of our people have returned to full worship and daily activities.”
Yet, his country is beset with problems of unemployment and civil unrest, he says, factors that lead young people to join gangs that carry out frequent kidnappings and violence. Bishop Chikwe said his own kidnapping put him in greater solidarity with the people.
“You feel the pain of others,” he said. “They have been going through this for so long.”
But the experience also deepened the Bishop’s faith.
“It goes back to the universality of the Church,” he said. “It was quite a touching thing to know people were very much concerned and praying for my release.
“The fact of this faith we share. At the end of the day, God is always close to us.”