…No retreat, no surrender

…Protesting Catholic priest raises questions for the Pope

By Chidi Nkwopara

It is no longer news that the Ahiara Catholic Diocese has remained without a bishop for more than four years. It is also no longer news that in some time past, Bishop Peter Okpalaeke was appointed and consecrated to replace the late pioneer bishop of the Diocese, Rt. Rev. Victor Chikwe.

However, since the consecration of Okpalaeke, a section of Mbaise priests, supported equally, by a segment of the laity, have remained stoutly opposed to his taking possession of the Diocese.

As the stand off continued, a lot of unprintable words oozed out of the mouths of priests, against their brother priests that are pro-Okpalaeke.

President of Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Priests Association, Rev. Fr. Austine Ekechukwu,explains why his colleagues rejected Bishop Peter Okpalaeke, during a recent interview with a national daily.

Kaigama, Pope and Okogie

“The priests and the laity in Mbaise rejected Bishop Okpalaeke because of the sheer injustice that we noticed in the selection process, which led to his appointment and consecration. It is absurd that out of the 700 Mbaise indigenous priests, none of them was considered qualified to be named a bishop, either in their home diocese or elsewhere”, Ekechukwu said.

He recalled that Awka Diocese where Okpalaeke hails from, with far less number of priests, has seven bishops.

When asked if Okpalaeke was not qualified to be consecrated as Bishop of Ahiara Catholic Diocese, Ekechukwu answered affirmatively, adding that he speaks a different Igbo dialect that would be incomprehensible to the rural dwellers in Mbaise.

He fumed that for refusing to accept Bishop Okpalaeke, “Mbaise people have been discriminated against, ostracised, persecuted and sacramentally starved for more than four years”.

The leader of the aggrieved Mbaise priests also said that hundreds of their young lads have been denied the sacrament of confirmation, while no fewer than 48 senior seminarians have been denied priestly ordination.

On the recent visit to Rome, the priest confirmed that some people actually went to see the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

He however said that those who made the trip, were not their representatives.

Reacting to a letter from Rome, demanding an apology and unconditional acceptance of Bishop Okpalaeke by the Mbaise priests or face sanctions, the priest confirmed that they received the letter.

He however stressed that after perusing it carefully, they came to a conclusion that the mail was faulty.

“It was faulty because His Holiness, Pope Francis cannot, after writing a letter of such, fail to officially sign it. It was not duly signed and we cannot accept it”, the priest said.

In the beginning

The human memory may be short but there was a time all Catholic bishops in Nigeria were Irish missionaries. Put bluntly, these bishops were from other continents of the world.

The names that readily come to mind are, but not limited to, Bishops Heerey, Whelan, Shanahan, Kelly, Taylor, Owen McCoy, McCarthy, O’Rourke and so many others.

Tribe or place of origin did not play any noticeable part in the appointment of these bishops. What mattered most was the faith they professed.

With them and through them, the Catholic Church grew by leaps and bounds. With time, we started having indigenous priests and bishops. It must be mentioned also that these indigenous bishops were not appointed from their dioceses of origin.

Some of the names that readily come to mind are Dominic Cardinal Ekandem from Calabar. He was moved to Abuja. There was also Bishop Alexius Makozi of Port Harcourt. He was a priest of Lokoja.

Anthony Cardinal Okojie started as Auxiliary Bishop of Oyo and was eventually moved to Lagos. Similarly, Bishop Silas Obit started as Auxiliary Bishop of Ikot Ekpene and was later appointed the first Bishop of Idah, Kogi State.

Bishop Anthony Gogo Nwedo was a native of Oguta, Imo State, but was named the first Bishop of Umuahia, Abia State. He was replaced by Bishop Iwejuru Ugorji, from Naze, Owerri North . What this means is that no indigenous priest from Umuahia has been named as bishop of Umuahia and there is no known war raging in that Diocese till today.

In Cross River State, Bishop Joseph Ukpo was moved from Ogoja Diocese and made the Archbishop of Calabar, and the heavens did not fall.

In Enugu Diocese, Bishop John Cross Anyogu from Onitsha and Bishop Godfrey Mary Paul Okoye, a native of Ifitedunu in Anambra State, headed the Diocese at different times. Okoye was moved from Port Harcourt to Enugu, to replace Anyogu at the end of the Nigeria/Biafra war in 1970. Bishop Anthony Gbuji was moved from Issele Uku, Delta State, to Enugu. Bishop Emmanuel Otteh, who was then from Onitsha, replaced Gbuji at Issele Uku. The Catholic Church did not sink with these appointments and movements, but kept growing.

The Kabba, Kogi State-born John Cardinal Onaiyekan was once an Auxiliary Bishop of Illorin Diocese. He later became the substantive Bishop of Ilorin. He thereafter became the Coadjutor Bishop of Abuja and was made Archbishop of Abuja, two years later. He has remained so till today.

Bishop Solomon Amatu of Okigwe Diocese in Imo State, is from Awka, Anambra State.

Bishop John Oyejola of Oshogbo Diocese was originally ordained for Oyo Diocese. Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, an Ijebu man, was originally ordained a priest of Oyo Diocese, but ended up as Bishop of Oshogbo.

It must be recalled that Oshogbo Diocese was vacant for almost three years when Bishop Abegunring was moved to Ibadan as Archbishop. Mention must also be made that Archbishop Felix Alaba Job, who recently retired at Ibadan is an Ijebu man.

Moving up North, some striking similarities are noticeable. Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos Ecclesiastical Province, is a native of Taraba State. The Bishop of Bauchi Diocese, Hilary Dachelem, is a native of Benue State. Bishop Oliver Doene of Maiduguri Diocese, was originally ordained for Jos. He is today, incardinated into Shendam Diocese. Bishop Charles Hammawa of Jalingo Diocese, is a priest of Yola Diocese. Bishop Michael Gokum of Pankshin Diocese, is a priest of Jos Diocese.

In Shendam Diocese, Bishop Philip Dung is a priest of Jos Diocese, while Bishop Stephen Mamza of Yola Diocese, is from the Diocese of Maiduguri.

Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna Diocese, is a priest oYola and became Bishop of Maiduguri, before he was moved to Kaduna.

The Bishop emeritus of Sokoto Diocese, Kevin Aje, is from Plateau State. Bishop Matthew Hasan Kukah of Sokoto Diocese, is a native of Kaduna State. Bishop Joseph Bagobiri is a priest for Kaduna Diocese, but appointed Bishop of Kafanchan. Bishop John Miyiring of Kano Diocese, is a native of Kaduna State.

Bishop Martin Igwe Uzoukwu, a native of Ozubulu, Anambra State, was ordained for Ilorin Diocese and is today, a Bishop of Minna Diocese.

Archbishop Augustine Akubueze is from Anambra State. He was ordained for Issele Uku Diocese. He was appointed the first Bishop of Uromi Diocese and he is today the Archbishop of Benin Ecclesiastical Province.

The first ever known Nuncio from Nigeria, Most Rev. Jude Okolo, the present Nuncio in Ireland, is from Onitsha. This is the first time an African is holding that post in Ireland. The pertinent question to ask here now is whether the Irish people should reject him and back-load him to Nigeria, since he is not a native of Ireland.

All the foregoing can amply testify to our understanding of the universality of the Catholic Church.

It is therefore baffling when and how it became an unwritten law that an indigenous priest must be a bishop in his place of birth. It is also astonishing that some priests and laity have forgotten that we are under the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples of the Roman Curia.

Craze for indigenous heads

The Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Professor Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, once spoke to Saturday Vanguard on the issue. Excerpts of his view is reproduced here, for emphasis.

“In the history of the Church, we have always had moments of crisis, breakdowns, moments of building up and growth.

“But don’t think that while we were growing in faith, Satan was there applauding. He would always want to get into the system and thwart the plan of God for us. Satan has always tried it. Each time God gives humanity any gift, Satan tries to change the objective for which God gave that gift……. So, at every moment of our history, Satan is there.

Protesting priest in procession

“Christ instituted the priesthood as service for his people and Satan wants some of us to use it as a source of power against the people, for ourselves, for our personal growth and enrichment and aggrandizement or whatever, for our own ego.

“Anybody who understands the priesthood and understands the episcopacy, will know that nobody has the right to be priest or the right to be bishop. Nobody.

“With regard to coming from one’s area, there are all the arguments about the advantage of somebody who understands the people culturally. There are all the arguments about the sense of belonging that a people will feel if their own son is their leader.

“There are all the arguments about the possibility of human manipulation of a process that should be left to the Holy Spirit, yes using human beings but principally directed by the Holy Spirit. All those are arguments.

“But, those arguments don’t remove anything from the basic principle that the priesthood is a gift, a gift from God. You either accept it in faith or every other thing behind the priesthood crumbles. I will give you a few examples.

“How is it possible that you accept that a man pours water on you and mumbles some words and you become transformed and your sins are washed away and you become son of God? That a man picks a piece of bread and mumbles some words and the piece of bread changes and becomes the body and blood of Christ, who is God and man? And the man imposes hands on you and says something and you are transformed from the village criminal that you were to a man, who calls God down from heaven?

“How can you accept that because a church teaches you that and the same church teaches you that one man has the last word to say who will be bishop here or there, and you say no, I won’t take that one? Ah! My dear friends, it is a packet. If you don’t take one, please leave the rest. This is what it means to belong to a church, a body of faith.

“I know the case you are subtly referring to. Everybody knows it. It has hurt us deeply and spiritually. And I will put this on record for the whole of Igbo people. No matter how the Ahiara case ends, we will all come out of it weakened.

“But I will ask: How did we get so low? What went wrong? What happened to the church leaders in Igboland? What did they do or did we do that made it possible for some priests to suspect that some church leaders manipulated the process of choosing a bishop? What body language or style of life, action or inaction in some leaders of the church, made people even to think that, that was possible? These are the questions that we have to continue asking.

“How did it ever happen that in Catholic Church, a set of priests will begin to think that what was decided by the Pope, was manipulated by some other person in the Catholic Church?

“Of course, we know the Pope is the Head of a Church that spreads throughout the whole world and he may not even know some of us who work directly in the Vatican. He may not know some of us personally. Like every leader, he will depend on his co-workers and when they have recommended, he studies their recommendation and makes his pronouncement.

“If anybody made a mistake along the line, let God judge him for his mistake. Everybody has his own responsibility according to his standing in life. But I don’t think it helps our cause as Christians, as Catholics, as Igbo people, to insist in areas where you have no right to do so.

“And I will say this, and that is, if we want to push the logic to its ultimate conclusion. Before we can allow a group or priests in a diocese to determine who becomes a bishop in their diocese, we must first insist that in that diocese or in every diocese, the faithful must themselves choose who will be their priest. Who will get ordained at all in the first place?

“Our people don’t choose their priests. Sometimes, they tell bishops don’t ordain this man. We know him. He shouldn’t be a priest. And after having listened to them, praying over it, trusting in the Holy Spirit, and following his conscience and goes ahead and ordains him. And the person becomes a priest and now denies the Pope the right to listen to all the opinions about who should be a bishop and following his conscience and directions of the Holy Spirit, makes his own decision, does it sound reasonable to you?

“I don’t understand it. But the basic problem comes when we think that the bishopric, the bishop’s office is for the exercise of power. My brother, I have never seen people struggle to serve anywhere. People struggle to gain. Nobody struggles to die in place of others. If people really knew what it means to be a bishop, I wonder how many would want to be bishops. And again, how does being a bishop make one a better Catholic, and a better Christian?

“Whether the bishop is your elder brother or another person, provided that the person really leads you to do the will of God. The Catholic Church has never pretended to be a democracy. By the way, it is ridiculous that while we are fighting about our right to determine who becomes our bishop, we can’t even speak out when councillors and local government chairmen, senators and members of the house of assembly and governors are imposed on us by a few people.

“We accept that willingly, sing for them and clap for them. In a democracy where we have the right to choose and take people to court when they do the wrong thing, we don’t, but when the Pope decides, that is the time we carry protests, demonstrate and shout blue murder. Do you know what that is called in English? Perversion!!

And this advice

In a private letter written by Rev. Fr. Francis Nwaiwu, to one of his brother priests of Ahiara Diocese, the cleric said: “This debacle in your Diocese has lingered for a long time. In your anger and bitterness, many printable and unprintable things have been said. In that anger, you have behaved as if you are no longer part of the universal church, denigrating our church high officials whom we revere: Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, even the former Nuncio did not escape your hit-seeking missiles and vitriolics.

“My dear Father, I write this with tears because we all belong to the priestly family or fraternity. You guys have made your point. The world has heard you. The Pope himself has heard your voice and complaints. Unfortunately, in spite of all these,he took the decision that is before all of us.

“I urge you now to reflect on your vocation as priests, lower your head in humble submission and sheath your sword and consider the battle over for the sake of the church that you serve and for the sake of the priesthood.

“The Pope himself, the Vicar of Christ and Head of the Church (do you still believe that?), has spelt out definitely and in a very unambiguous language, his decision. Anything short of obedience is from the evil one.

“No matter how unpalatable or how seemingly unfair, or insensitive the judgment is, is now beside the point. Remember the famous maxim: ‘Roma locuta causa finita est’.

He passionately appealed to his brother priest to imagine the consequences of this dark, ominous cloud hovering over Ahiara Catholic Diocese and of course the Nigerian church is allowed to fall.

“Don’t allow the ego to play to the gallery. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Obedience to the Pope will not in any way diminish your personality. Rather, it will set you up on a higher moral, pastoral and dignified pedestal as priest, who understands his priesthood”, Fr. Nwaiwu pleaded.

The full text of Pope Francis address

I cordially greet the delegation and thank you for coming from Nigeria in a spirit of pilgrimage.

For me, this meeting is a consolation because I am deeply saddened by the events of the church in Ahiara.

In fact, the Church (and excuse the wording) is like a widow for having prevented the Bishop from coming to the Diocese. Many times I have thought about the parable of the murderous tenants, of which the gospel speaks (cf Matthew 21:33-44), that want to grasp the inheritance.

In this current situation the Diocese of Ahiara is without the bridegroom, has lost her fertility and cannot bear fruit. Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpalaeke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church.

This is forbidden; perhaps he does not realize it, but the Church is suffering as well as the people of God within her. The Pope cannot be indifferent.

I know very well the events that have been dragging on for years and I am thankful for the attitude of great patience of the Bishop, indeed the holy patience demonstrated by him. I listened and reflected much, even about the possibility of suppressing the Diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.

I feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese.

I think that in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord. The Church is a mother and whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, its very serious.

However, I decided not to suppress the Diocese. Instead, I wish to give some indications that are to be communicated to all: First of all, it must be said that the Pope is deeply saddened. Therefore, I ask that every priest or ecclesiastic incardinated in the Diocese of Ahiara, whether he resides there or elsewhere, even abroad, write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally.

We all must share this common sorrow. In the letter: 1. One must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope, 2. Whoever writes must be willing to accept the Bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed. 3. The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.

This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this? Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences. May be someone has been manipulated without having full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.

To you brothers and sisters, I would like to express my sincere thanks for your presence: and also to Cardinal Onaiyekan for his patience and to Bishop Okpalaeke, whose patience and humility I admire. Thank you all.

Saturday Vanguard recalls that soon after the Pope issued the directive. Mbaise priests trooped to Government House, Owerri, to confer with Governor Rochas Okorocha, behind closed doors.

It was not very clear at press time, what these priests expected Okorocha to do for them.

From the way some of the priests were sounding, it appears that the priests were still sticking to their guns. It is a case of no retreat, no surrender.

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