By Muyiwa Adetiba
I once bought a pair of trousers when coming from a trip for someone who worked with me. He thanked me profusely for the gesture, but regretted he could not accept the gift because his religion forbade it.
It turned out there is a white garment church where the worshippers don’t wear anything in black or red as they claim the two colours signify mourning and hardship. I like black and I cannot imagine my wardrobe without black trousers and tops. But then, each to his own.
There are those who don’t wear jewelleries or any form of ornaments because they are things of the world. There are those who don’t watch television for fear of its corrupting influences. Each church has its idiosyncrasies from the use of holy water, to the use of salt and sugar or even brooms and handkerchiefs. Each church has its own order of worship.
Each church has its own structure. While it is true that many of us are born into which ever church we find ourselves; it is also true that we have a choice which is to leave the church if we find the mode of worship—or structure—uncomfortable. It’s a choice many of us have exercised. The church will not change for us, so we will have to change for the church; or find another church.
It is one of the reasons I find the stand-off in the Ahiara-Mbaise Catholic Diocese in Imo State confounding. For four good years, some priests, yes priests, and the Laity have refused the Bishop appointed for them by the church on the ground that he was not a native of their community. They claim that they have over 700 priests and a bishop should be picked from them. The first question is to ask whether that is the norm and if the Catholic Church had made an exemption in their case. The simple answer to that question is negative.
There is no law—or convention for that matter—that says the Church should pick a Bishop from a community. In fact, the contrary seems to be the norm. Even the church, despite some advantages in having a local priest, is not obliged to pick parish priests from the community. Besides, a local priest can easily be compromised by an overzealous laity like the one in Ahiara. In any case, the church does not patronise zoning or quota system. It also does not subscribe to ‘he is our son. Let him do it.’ Every parishioner knows this or should. Every priest certainly does.
The Catholic Church is highly hierarchical and structured. No organisation can survive the turbulence the church has survived over the centuries without evolving an enduring structure. I am told the hierarchical discipline within the church can only be likened to that of the military. For example, an associate parish priest is not expected to publicly disagree with his parish priest and a Bishop is treated with so much reverence. A Cardinal irrespective of colour, is treated like a demi god anywhere in the Catholic world. This structure, this respect for constituted authority, is the glue that has bound the Catholic Church together over the years. It is the distinguishing fabric, the ‘aso-ebi’ that characterises the Catholic Church. It is this authority, this glue that the Diocese in Ahiara has challenged for the past four years.
The unfortunate thing is that it is this same authority that gives the priests the respect they get from the parishioners. The authority with which a priest hears confession and absolves sins is derived from the church. The authority with which a priest turns ordinary bread into the body of Christ and ordinary wine into the blood of Christ just by mumbling a few words is derived from the church. That is what differentiates them from you and I or even pastors from other Christian denominations. The parishioners have implicit faith in the authority reposed in the priests; just as they have implicit faith in the authority reposed in the Pope as the representative of Peter in whom Christ gave the keys to His Kingdom. And when the Pope pronounces on anything within the Church, it is regarded as law. Hence the famous maxim ‘Rome has spoken, case is finished’ or words to that effect. To challenge that moral and spiritual authority of the church which is what some priests and the laity of Ahiara-Mbaise Catholic Diocese seem to be doing, is to challenge one of the important pillars on which the Catholic Church stands. It is to challenge the moral and spiritual authority of even their own priesthood. On another level, how do you want to be respected as a priest if you do not respect your Bishop. It is like a governor Fayose who wants to be respected as a governor but continuously insults the President. Or a Senate which wants to be respected as an institution but shows disrespect to every other institution. You are either a Catholic priest who abides by the doctrine of the church or you are just another pastor.
Finally, any priest who has ever mounted the pulpit must have preached the virtues of humility, obedience to constituted authority and faith because they are cardinal to Christianity and because all the great prophets, including Jesus the son of God and the founder of Christendom, exhibited these three virtues. Jesus was said to be obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Prophet Samuel told King Saul while striping him of his crown that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice.’ Furthermore, pride and intemperate anger are regarded as mortal sins in the Catholic Church. It is alleged that pride caused the downfall of the arch-angel Lucifer. The priests in Mbaise diocese have clearly departed from what they preach or used to preach because I don’t see how they can now mount the pulpit and preach these virtues in all conscience. And by allowing the carnal to subsume the spiritual, they have led the laity astray. Worse, in their home grown quest for justice and fair representation, they have employed words and actions that have dented the image of their community and the universality of the church. They have been obdurate, intemperate and disobedient. They might not know it, but they have actually moved themselves away from the Catholic faith.
Irrespective of what Rome decides, these priests should go back to the seminary to re-learn the basics of priesthood. Nobody has the right to be a priest. Nobody has the right to be a bishop. Just as there is no career organogram that leads to an office in Rome.