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Has Pope forgiven Ahiara priests?

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By Sam Eyoboka

TWO weeks after the expiration of papal directive to Catholic priests in Ahiara Mbaise Diocese to write individual letters of apology to the Catholic Pontiff or risk suspension, there is no clear indication if all the priests had complied with the directive and what action Pope Francis, who was visibly vexed by the embarrassment the protracted rejection of Bishop Peter Okpaleke, has taken.

Pope Francis had on June 9, 2017 given all Ahiara Mbaise priests 30 days to write a letter promising obedience to him and accepting Bishop Peter Okpaleke, appointed for their diocese, stating that any priest who failed to write the letter could be suspended.

In our efforts to get to the bottom of the crisis, our correspondent stumbled on a letter dated July 3, 2017 and signed by the Archbishop of Abuja and the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan titled: “I bring greetings and best wishes from Rome to the priests of Ahiara Diocese.”

Though the letter spoke of a meeting with the Pope where the latter offered full forgiveness for all past acts of omission and commission and “looks forward to embracing everyone in a new spirit loyalty and communion,”   sources close to the Vatican told  Saturday Vanguard  that the head of the over  1.285 billion  Catholics could not have forgiven the priests who had not adhered to his directive.

The letter signed by Cardinal Onaiyekan on July 3, was marked delivered on July 5—four days before the expiration of the papal directive—reads thus: “My dear brothers in the Sacred Priesthood, may the peace and joy of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”

It was addressed to the Ahiara Mbaise priests.

Continuing, Onaiyekan said: “I was briefly in Rome last week, for the consistory of the five new cardinals on Wednesday, June 28, and next day June 29, for a papal Eucharistic concelebration of the solemnity of SS Peter and Paul, both events in the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter’s. at the end of the Holy Mass, I had a brief but warm exchange of greetings with the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

“He asked about Ahiara Diocese. I assured him that with his prayers and God’s grace, all will be well. He sends his blessings and good wishes to you all, and to the entire diocese.

“The one month of grace, granted by His Holiness for the true and sincere restoration of reconciliation, unity and peace in your diocese is fast drawing to a close. The Pope has offered full forgiveness for all past acts of omission and commission. He looks forward to embracing everyone in a new spirit loyalty and communion. We continue our fervent prayers that the Holy Spirit may guide everyone into the path of full communion with the church cum et sub Petro.

“Please be reminded that the letters to the Holy Father are to be sent by registered mail or DHL in good time in hard, signed original, NOT EMAIL, to either the Nunciature in Abuja, or directly to the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith in Rome.

I am hoping and planning to pay a short pastoral visit to Ahiara very soon after July 9, to join you in Eucharistic worship in the Cathedral for God’s mercy, grace and blessings on Ahiara Diocese. Details will be communicated soonest. May the Lord guide and guard our sincere intentions.

“Counting as always on the powerful intercession of Our Lady, Mother of the Church and Patroness of Ahiara Diocese, I remain,” the cardinal concluded.

Pope Francis had given the Ahiara Mbaise priests 30 days to write a letter promising obedience to him and accepting the bishop appointed for their diocese, stating that any priest who fails to write the letter will be suspended.

A day earlier, a Nigerian delegation met with Pope Francis to discuss the situation of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who was appointed Bishop of Ahiara by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but who has been unable to take control of the diocese because of protests, apparently by a majority of the priests.

The Vatican issued only a short communiqué on the meeting with the Pope, describing the situation in the diocese as “unacceptable.” The protests were motivated by the fact that Bishop Okpaleke is not an indigene of Mbaise.

“The Holy Father, after a careful evaluation, spoke of the unacceptable situation in Ahiara and reserved the right to take appropriate measures,” the Vatican said.

According to the Pope’s remarks posted by President of Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, CBCN and Archbishop of Jos, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, Pope Francis said: “I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.”

The Pope also referred to “the parable of the murderous tenants” in  Matthew 21:33-44.

“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church. This is forbidden,” the Pope said.

Francis said he had even considered “suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.”

Instead, he said, every priest of the diocese, whether residing in Nigeria or abroad, must write a letter to him asking for forgiveness because “we all must share this common sorrow”.

Each priest’s letter, he emphasized, “must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope” and indicate a willingness “to accept the bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed”.

“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,” the Pope said, according to the posts.

“This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this?” Pope Francis asked. “Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences.”

Bishop Okpaleke, the contested bishop, also met the Pope and was joined in Rome by other Nigerian bishops and a handful of priests making an unusual kind of visit  “ad limina apostolorum” (to the threshold of the apostles) in early June.

While  “ad limina” visits usually are done in national groups, the Vatican communiqué described the Ahiara diocesan visit using the same term. It noted that the nine-man delegation prayed at the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul and in the Basilica of St. Mary Major. They also participated in a private celebration of the Mass with Pope Francis.

Later in the day, the Pope held a private audience with the group. Members also met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Fernando Filoni and other top officials from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples to examine what the Vatican called the “painful situation of the Church in Ahiara”.

When Bishop Okpaleke was appointed to the diocese, the announcement was greeted with protests and petitions, calling for the appointment of a bishop from among the local clergy.

Nevertheless, he was ordained a bishop in May 2013, although the ordination took place at a seminary in the Archdiocese of Owerri.

Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic district of Imo State. Bishop Okpaleke hails from Amesi  in  Aguata Local Government Area of  Anambra  State,  which borders Imo to the north.

A petition to Pope Benedict XVI launched by the “Coalition of Igbo Catholics” said: “That no priest of Mbaise origin is a bishop today…is mind-boggling. Mbaise has embraced, enhanced the growth of and sacrificed for the Catholic Church, has more priests per capita than any other diocese in Nigeria and certainly more than enough pool of priests qualified to become the next bishop of the episcopal see of Ahiara diocese, Mbaise.”

According to the Vatican, the diocese has close to 423,000 Catholics and 110 diocesan priests.

Trying to calm the situation, in July 2013 Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Onaiyekan to serve as apostolic administrator of the diocese, and the following December he sent Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, then-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to Ahiara to listen to the concerns of the diocesan priests and local laity.

Cardinal Onaiyekan joined Bishop Okpaleke on the  “ad limina”  visit to Rome, as did Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri and Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama. Three priests, a religious Sister and a traditional elder also made the trip.

All efforts to get Cardinal Onaiyekan to explain the current situation were not successful as he didn’t pick our numerous calls neither did he replied our text messages. Our correspondent also tried the president of CBCN, Archbishop Kaigama but his lines were switched off.

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