Growing up in Nigeria, Father Julius Okojie earned the nickname “little priest” while in middle school.
Raised in a devout Catholic family who were members of the Legion of Mary, he would visit the sick at hospitals and homes and report back to his priest about who was in need of the sacraments. Eventually, it was noticed that he had a charism for healing, and he was called upon to go and pray over the sick.
“I became very personal with the Lord in terms of my prayer – not just prayer in groups, but the personal prayer” at that time, Father Okojie said.
“Even though my faith was not mature, and I didn’t understand deeper mysteries, it was working. At a very young age, the love of the Lord was ingrained in me. I would invite my siblings to pray, and we would pray together. My life has been permeated by that grace that I see. When I look back on my childhood, I see I was very committed to personal, active prayer.”
His nine years in seminary school in Nigeria provided the opportunity to learn about the deeper mysteries of the Faith and time to discern whether the Lord was calling him to the priesthood. Responding to this call, he was ordained in 2009.
After coming to the University of Notre Dame for further study, Father Okojie spent five years serving at a small parish in Lakeville, Indiana, before coming to St. Therese, Little Flower Church in South Bend two years ago. He has recently been incardinated, or formally attached, to the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
“It’s been great,” he says of his time at St. Therese. “It’s a new experience for me, coming from a smaller church to a bigger one. There’s been lots of learning, challenges, and opportunities for growth. I didn’t hold an administrative position in my previous pastor assignment before now. I’m exploring the dynamics of parish administration in the United States, which is different from within my home country. This stretching me and helping me to grow is a blessing. I have learned a lot of patience – even though patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, I have grown in patience.”
“One of the things I have learned coming to Little Flower is self-effacement – learning to lean more on the Lord than my own strengths and abilities, even though my abilities are needed. I have learned to lean more into prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to help in areas that have been very difficult.”
“The decisions that I make flow from prayer. I don’t make it solely based on what I think is the best thing to do; I go to the Lord with it. Some ideas that I thought were the best have had to change, even though it hurts. That’s what leaning on the Lord does to you: it rearranges your visions and desires, if you learn to depend on Him.”
Father Okojie has also grown closer to the Lord through his relationships with the staff at St. Therese, Little Flower. Spend any amount of time with them, he said, and you will notice how easily they speak from their personal relationships with God and the role the Holy Spirit plays in guiding their work.
“Being at Little Flower has been an opportunity for growth, even in my own spiritual life,” Father Okojie said. “When you work with people who are joyful about sharing their faith, where it’s natural to talk about Jesus, it helps in one’s own faith walk.”
Father Okojie said there’s an “iron sharpens iron” effect, referencing Proverbs 27:17. “This intermingling of personal experiences and faith helps you to grow in your own faith. It was very moving for me when I got here to see that in the staff.”
Ministry to the sick and homebound retains a special place in Father Okojie’s heart, and other seeds that were planted by God in his childhood continue to bloom. He notes that he was affected by the work of Irish missionaries who came to Nigeria to minister, making a lot of sacrifices in doing so, and that this placed within him a desire to be a missionary.
St. Therese’s strong focus on evangelization aligns with this missional desire. The parish regularly offers programming – which has included the Alpha program and the Rescue Project – with the intent to draw people into a relationship with God.
“We are no longer living in Christendom,” Father Okojie said, “so the Church has moved to an apostolic focus. It’s more of a fisherman than a shepherd model: The shepherd takes care of sheep within the fold; the fisherman goes out into the deep. It’s a difference between maintaining versus going out to bring more into the fold. We offer the second. When programs are developed, we often have the outward-looking orientation in mind. It is not just for those within the Church, but also those outside of it – the unchurched. And our messaging reflects this.”
As part of its evangelization effort, the parish has “households”: intentional gatherings that take place in parishioners’ homes and create a community life that is also welcoming to those non-churchgoers who may be curious or seeking. The Rescue Project, held during Lent, was specifically intended for people who were not yet disciples in order to bring them to a deeper encounter with the Lord. These gatherings were held at several different times and locations, including the parish and parishioners’ homes, allowing participants to choose what worked best with their schedules and locations. Even the parish OCIA program (formerly known as RCIA) is intended to not only help to create disciples, but missionary disciples. Father Okojie said their OCIA program “intends to help those participating to be disciples so that they can bring others into the fold.”
As he looks toward the future with the parish – a future that will be guided by the Holy Spirit – Father Okojie said: “My hope is to see a church on fire with love and the Holy Spirit. I hope everyone sees Little Flower as theirs, and that they’re joyful and willing to share their story and invite others to come and encounter Jesus.”
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