By Ikechukwu Amaechi
Let me say from the onset that I am very distraught over the treatment meted out to the Catholic faithful in Ahiara Diocese by Nigerian bishops.
I am troubled because I am involved. The situation in the diocese is the classical tinderbox in wait for a match. Why would Nigerian bishops be the ones willing to spark the light?
I have resisted joining the fray, at least not publicly, all these years because of two main reasons.
First, I am aware that in most faith-based issues, reason is a casualty and the Ahiara Bishopric saga is no exception. Second, when it comes to Catholicism, I am old-fashioned, having been brought up to believe that the clergy are God’s direct representatives on earth who are beyond reproach. All things considered, that is illogical but as Karl Marx would say, religion is an opium.
I am one of those Ahiara Catholic faithful who Most Rev. Joseph Bagobiri, Bishop of Kafanchan, described as “the most respectful religious group in Catholicism who view insults to the ordained and consecrated as insult directed to God himself.”
I am distraught because I am involved. Ahiara is my diocese. I was born into Catholicism, initiated through the sacrament of baptism 22 days after birth, received First Holy Communion ten years later, was confirmed on February 26, 1984 and wedded in the church. I was an “Altar Boy” while growing up. I will die a Catholic.
I also know most of the clergy involved in this crisis.
Most Rev. Anthony Obinna, Archbishop of Owerri Metropolitan See, was my lecturer just as Rev. Fr. Austin Bernadine Ekechukwu, who has been mischievously labelled chief rebel, was my secondary school teacher. So strong was the bond of relationship Fr. Ekechukwu and I forged while he was our parish priest in the 1980s and thereafter that he cut short his vacation in the U.S. in 2002 in order to officiate at my wedding.
I am distraught because some of these Men of God, devoted messengers in the vineyard, are being demonised just for raising their voice against injustice in the Nigerian Catholic family.
The story of the Ahiara Bishopric saga is fairly known and needs no further chronicling. Suffice it to say that the crisis ensued with the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke as the second bishop of Ahiara to succeed late Bishop Victor Chikwe. Unfortunately, five years after his appointment, Okpalaeke has not been able to take canonical possession of the diocese because the people believe that the process that threw him up was rigged and did not follow due process.
And for five years, the Catholic faithful in the diocese, as punishment, have been denied every Episcopal service.
In seeking a solution to this needless crisis, Nigerian bishops have not denied that the process was rigged but even when they acknowledge that the people were shortchanged, they insist on “obedience.” In doing so, they have been so high-handed with some hinting at the suppression of the local church as the ultimate punishment.
For five years, the Nigerian bishops were united in the pursuit of this vendetta, or so it seemed, until Bishop Bagobiri publicly broke ranks with his colleagues in a public statement on Friday, December 1, 2017.
Titled, “Give Ahiara a bishop close to or who understands them: Exploring a home grown response to the Ahiara saga,” the Kafanchan Bishop wrote: “The crisis that ensued with the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke as the second bishop of the diocese of Ahiara to succeed late Bishop Victor Chikwe has lingered on for about five years. All this could have been avoided or resolved long ago if the CBCN had been courageous enough to follow the path of truth and justice, by listening to the aggrieved party and presenting their case positively or in an empathetic manner as a united force to Rome.”
“When we were one year into this crisis, to be precise, at the second plenary assemble that took place at Oturkpo, it was advised that insisting on the option of commanding obedience from the Mbaise faithful of Ahiara diocese as against seeking to constructively engage them in dialogue with a view to striking some fair and reasonable compromises as was the case with Warri Diocese will not solve this problem.”
Bishop Bagobiri then went ahead to tell his colleagues some home truths, challenging some of the noxious orthodoxy upon which they claim to have predicated their actions.
Priests are trained to question whatever is done wrongly and not according to due canonical process, rather than submitting to blind obedience in the face of perceived breach of the normative and standard manner of doing things, he reminded his colleagues.
“The people of Ahiara feel shortchanged by a process of selecting a bishop for their diocese that excluded or denied them their right to exercise a consultative vote on the discernment process … Questioning an anomaly of this nature does not make them rebels or a disobedient lot.”
He called for an end to the wilful demonization of the people insisting that they are “the most respectful religious group in Catholicism who view insults to the ordained and consecrated as insult directed to God himself.”
On the issue of not finding one priest from the diocese worthy of being a bishop, Bagobiri said it was a heresy, literally.
“To say that out of a vibrant presbyterium of over 500 priests you are unable to find one good priest to be appointed Chief Shepherd, is not only an insult but a strong indictment on the formation given in our seminaries.”
Rather than address the issues raised by Bishop Bagobiri, the CBCN in a letter dated December 5, 2017 and signed by Most Rev. Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos and CBCN President, and Most Rev. Augustine Obiora Akubueze, Archbishop of Benin City and Vice President, Nigerian bishops accused their colleague of disobedience to Pope Francis, who they claimed “had taken a definitive position on the matter” months ago.
And just as they have been blackmailing Mbaise clergy for insisting that the right thing be done, they threw Bagobiri under the bus.
“We demand, in the name of the CBCN, that you immediately issue another statement through the public media withdrawing in its entirety your earlier statement and apologising to the Holy Father, the CBCN, Bishop Peter Okpaleke, and the People of God in Ahiara Diocese for the damage your statement is already doing.”
The Kafanchan bishop has massaged their ego. In another letter on Tuesday, December 12, he humoured them by apologising.
“As regards the letter signed by Archbishops Kaigama and Akubeze asking for apology on behalf of the CBCN, we must know what I am being asked to apologize for. If my simple request for a review of strategy since the one adopted four years ago has not yielded the desired result amounts to disobedience to the Holy Father, then I am sorry and deeply regret this.”
But he insisted on his demand. “We should change strategy from one that demands unquestionable obedience from a people who feel shortchanged in the process of appointing their Chief Shepherd, to that of constructive engagement.”
The questions that are concentrating the minds of many discerning Catholics are legion; why are Nigerian bishops against dialogue in resolving this matter that is taking unbearable toll on the people? Why would a group vehemently oppose a suggestion by anybody that a five-year-old dispute be resolved “through a dialogue that will allow for a give-and-take spirit?”
Is there more to this crisis than meets the eye? Why all the anger and bitterness? Why are Nigerian bishops punishing the Mbaise Catholic faithful unduely? Why are they portraying victims of their highhandedness as villains?
What informs their hubris? Should arrogance be an attribute of Princes of the Church?
Yes, Nigeria is in a bad shape. Might is right. Leaders have no regards for the led. But shouldn’t the Church of God be different? Surely, a higher standard of conduct is expected of the shepherds of God’s flock. This tyranny of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) is ill-advised. It is self-defeatist. It is time to change course.
Ikechukwu Amaechi is the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, TheNiche on Sunday newspaper, Ikeja, Lagos.