OWENSBORO, Ky. (OSV News) – By the time he set off on his 16-day trip to Nigeria in October, Bishop William F. Medley of Owensboro had become something of a pro at international pastoral visits.
And yet, these experiences never cease to move his heart and give him an opportunity for deep reflection upon returning home.
The bishop's goal for his international trips is always the same: "To meet and thank the families of our priests, for sending them to serve our diocese," in reference to the 27 priests serving western Kentucky who were not born in the United States.
These priests are the pastors of 29 of the 78 parishes in the Diocese of Owensboro. They come from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, India, and Myanmar (also known as Burma), as well as several countries within the continent of Africa.
(The Owensboro Diocese currently has 80 priests – though this includes several retired priests and one priest, Fr. Uwem Enoh, who is serving as a military chaplain with the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.)
Bishop Medley began what he calls his "goodwill tours" in 2018. He was aware of the sacrifice of these priests' families, most of whom never see their sons apart from when the priests can travel home for occasional visits.
He felt the need to say "thank you" in person.
Bishop Medley's inaugural trip was to Mexico. Then, in early 2020 – the same year he celebrated his 10th anniversary as bishop of Owensboro – he visited India and Myanmar. It was while returning home from the latter trip that he saw people wearing masks in airports, and shortly after he made it back to Kentucky, the world was overcome with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic waned, the bishop was able to visit Guatemala in 2022. And following that successful visit, he considered Africa – keeping in mind that western Kentucky's priests hail from countries as varied as Nigeria, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
He decided to visit Nigeria, which is home to five priests currently serving the Owensboro diocese: Fr. Emmanuel Udoh, Fr. Uwem Enoh, Fr. Julian Ibemere, Fr. John Okoro, and Fr. Jude Okeoma. Nigeria is also the home of the provincial house of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, two of whom currently minister in the Diocese of Owensboro (Sr. Anthonia Asayoma and Sr. Anne Maria Joshua).
Several of these priests were ordained for and belong to the Diocese of Owensboro, and others serve the diocese with permission of their bishops in Nigeria.
During Bishop Medley's Oct. 9-24 trip, he was accompanied by Fr. Udoh and Fr. Jerry Riney, an American priest of the diocese.
Out of everything he saw and experienced, he was most impressed by the "celebration of the liturgies," the bishop told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro's diocesan newspaper.
He said that at all Masses he attended – from typical parish Masses to an ordination – "people were backed out the door for want of room," and it was normal for the liturgies to last several hours.
Bishop Medley said this is consistent with the data he has seen: according to the World Values Survey, between 2017-2022 Nigeria had the highest rate of Catholic Mass attendance among countries surveyed. The report stated that weekly or even more frequent Mass attendance among self-identified Catholics in Nigeria is at 94%.
The bishop also was impressed by "the vocations of both men and women. Our Nigerian sisters have to turn down as many as they accept," he said.
Indeed, the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2021 – which provides a global view of the pastoral action of the Catholic Church – showed that during that year, Africa had nearly 1,000 priestly ordinations.
"I marveled at the prolific vocations," said Bishop Medley.
At the invitation of Bishop Camillus Raymond Umoh of the Diocese of Ikot Ekpene, Bishop Medley even presided at the ordination of three transitional deacons.
Fulfilling his original goal of the trip, Bishop Medley met with the families of the Nigerian priests ministering to the Owensboro Diocese. All five of the priests were able to be present, having coordinated their schedules to be in Nigeria during the bishop's visit, including Father Enoh, who received special permission from his military chaplain duties.
The bishop also visited the Nigerian headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency.
"I've always been fascinated by their work, especially as a bishop," he said. He said that he had contacted CRS in January to see if he could meet with a representative during his visit.
They went to the CRS national office in Abuja and met the country representative, Akim K. Kikonda, whose role is like that of an executive director.
"He took us to a vocational training graduation for 60 young adults," said Bishop Medley, listing fish production, seamstress work, and design/digital communications as some of the tracks offered.
He learned that CRS in Nigeria has more than 400 employees, "many of whom are not Catholic."
Throughout his visit, Bishop Medley said he never felt uneasy for his personal safety, despite news reports on violence in Nigeria ahead of his trip. Aid to the Church in Need, for instance, documented that in 2022 alone, 28 priests were kidnapped and four were murdered in Nigeria.
The bishop said his uneventful journey could have been because they spent most of their travels in regions not impacted by regular violence, and that he knew those traveling with him were vigilant about his safety in case any concerns were to arise.
The bishop said one of his most profound experiences in Nigeria was when he saw some wooden desks in a local school. Painted on the front of each desk was a message that said these desks had been donated by St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Paducah, Kentucky.
"Being 5,000 miles from home," he said, "and yet seeing these hand-painted desks" made him proud of the people of his diocese, who, having benefited from the service of Nigerian priests, had in turn provided these gifts for the schoolchildren of Nigeria.