The Catholic pontiff, Pope Francis, is said to be considering the total closure of the 163 parishes that make up the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Imo State, over the protracted crisis generated by the appointment of Peter Okpalaeke, an Anambra indigene, as bishop.
Okpalaeke’s appointment in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, following the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe, has been resisted by priests from Mbaise, and the laity. Ahiara Cathedral, has remained locked since Okpalaeke’s appointment was announced, and the Holy Eucharist, the most important Catholic ritual, has not been administered in the Cathedral in that time.
A source at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, who cannot be named because he does not have permission to speak to the press, said that following his earlier ultimatum to the rebel priests, the Pope would be left with no choice than to end the stalemate by excommunicating all the rebels.
“What is happening in Ahiala is a great affront unheard of in the history of Catholicism in Nigeria and Africa.
“Never has the appointment of a Bishop been this hotly contested. It is a shame and very embarrassing to the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, and the Pope.”
He said since the gladiators have indicated they would not back down, the Pope might have to close down the 163 parishes in the Diocese. Okpaleke was rejected by priests from the area around Ahiara. The rebel priests claimed that the process that led to his selection as bishop was flawed. Till date, five years later, they have failed to provide any evidence to back this claim up.
On June 8, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the Ahiara diocese. Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, reported that the pope gave an unusually harsh order “for the good of the people of God”. He threatened to suspend the priests from the Church if they didn’t pledge in a letter, by July 9, “total obedience” to Pope Francis and accept Bishop Peter Okpaleke’s appointment. While they have all written the letter, they have failed to get the laity to back down.
President of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Men Organisation, Chief Gerald Anyanwu, said that the diocese is not rebelling against the Pope but demanding justice and equity.
“We are not questioning the decision of the Pope but we will not accept Okpalaeke as Bishop,” Anyanwu said. “The process of his appointment did not follow laid down procedures for the appointment of Bishops.
Another lay-member, Sir Sebastian Eke, said, “Our position is justice. We don’t see any reason why somebody from this Diocese or any other Diocese from Imo State cannot be appointed as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese. All we are saying is that we don’t want Okpalaeke and trying to force him on his on us is not justice.”
Vice President of the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) in Ahiara Diocese, Dr Liona Ohanu, said, “We respect the Pope and cannot disobey his directive as our Supreme Head but the issue of Okpalaeke is an exemption and we will not welcome him as the Bishop of this Diocese. Let the Pope appoint any other person from anywhere we will accept but not Okpalaeke.”
Our source at the CSN insisted that the lay people would not be so adamant if they did not have the backing of their priests, and indicated that some of the recalcitrant priests may be excommunicated to serve as a deterrent to others.
“If you consider how much patience the Pope has displayed, you will agree that it won’t be out of place for him to act now,” our source said.
“Any moment from now, he may announce the parishes are no longer under the Vatican. In that instance, they can go to another church.
“The Pope is the final authority of the church and nothing will make him bend to primordial ethnic sentiments.”
Meanwhile, speaking during the 70th birthday of Monsignor John-Bosco Akam in Aguata, Anambra state, Bishop Okpalaeke said that he is unperturbed by opposition to his appointment. He insisted he was awaiting his installation despite the rebellion.
“What they are saying is foreign to my vocation; my vocation comes from God, declared by the church,” Okpalaeke said. “I have been living my life as a fulfilled priest. Wherever I found myself as a priest, surely I will see God on the last day. That is my mission.”
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story said that Holy Communion was not being distributed in Ahiara Diocese. The story has been updated to reflect that this is true only in the cathedral. The error is regretted.