As absurd as the development appears, it is a reality that the laity and religious of the Ahiara Diocese of the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome has been locked in battle with their Supreme Pontiff, the Pope for five years on. Initially it was with Pope Benedict XVI following his appointment of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke to shepherd the diocese on his behalf following the demise of the late Bishop Victor Adibe Chikere his predecessor. Like it went, though he was ordained bishop on May 21, 2013 in Owerri, Ahiara’s mother diocese, Okpaleke has ever since been prevented from – ‘even stepping his feet on’ – or taking over his bishopric for the simple reason that unlike Chikere he is not a ‘son of the soil’.
Like it goes, the imbroglio has since been inherited by Pope Francis who took over from the former following his retirementon in February 2013. The reigning pope had subsequently appointed Cardinal John O. Onaiyekan the Archbishop of Abuja as the apostolic administrator of the Ahiara Diocese in July, 2013 while looking into the matter. Only recently following the receipt of a delegation from Ahiara accompanied by Onaiyekan in audience, the Supreme Pontiff passed a verdict.
The rest of the delegation included Okpaleke, their substantive bishop; the Metropolitan Archbishop of Owerri, Anthony Obinna; the Archbishop of Jos and President Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), Ignatius Kaigama and others including priests: Clement O. Ebi, Jude N. Uwalaka, Uhuegbu Innocent Olekanma; Sister Bernadette O Ezeyi and Chief of Staff, Stanley Pius Iwu.First, they had met with Cardinal Secretary of State, PietroParolin; Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Fernando Filoni; and other superiors with whom the situation was ‘widely discussed’ according to agency and other reports monitored from here.
What was so reassuring was that the solemnity of the visit cannot be missed. Accordingly, the Pope did not drop his gable till the delegation had paid a pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, visited the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and attended a private Mass celebrated by the Pope.MHinting at the inadmissibility of the situation in speech and entrusting the diocese to the motherly care of Mary, he ordered ‘every incardinated priest of the Ahiara Diocese to, within the next 30 days, individually address an apology letter to him for breaking their vow of obedience or go and start looking for another job’. A tough order from every indication but it stems from the reality that upon ordination every catholic priest takes three vows – of chastity, poverty and obedience. Looked at anyhow, the situation ends up like the seniority battle between the egg and the hen.
There is no doubt that this tension has taken some time in building up. It can be remembered that such had been in the main the reason the late C. C, Onoh of Enugu State rose to prominence.
Then he had been at the head of the campaign for the indigenes of the then fledgling state to be at the head of the Churches and other institutions in their domain. Alleging marginalization by their new Anambra brothers, he was widely acclaimed for his foresight. The situation is no different from the stance taken on the present issue by the fire-eating priest, Rev Fr. Ejike Mbaka of the Enugu Diocese. According to him, dioceses should be manned by sons of the soil so as to among other things help in internalizing the church in the people. Again, not unlike the preponderant calls for enculturation or indigenization that Christianity is embattled with in African cultures. Though this ought to go deeper than a mere change of personnel from ‘foreign to the local’, it has often been seen as its beginning – like in the case of its sister charity.
Admittedly though, the times have changed a lot since the infallibility of the Pope used to be chanted in the Catholic catechism. Yet it still holds true that rules, let alone vows, are meant to be kept and observed respectively. Taking them for granted, we must add, will most notably lead to anarchy; and the church will be the last place to tolerate such.
Therefore, we can only call for caution as however the problem is juxtaposed our brothers and sisters, committed Catholics to the core, in Ahiara may be the grass suffering while the supposed pachyderms at war do battle. Here at The AUTHORITY we think once again, that it is time other ways out of the logjam are considered by those at the helm of the misunderstanding. Waiting on the Papacy to shift ground in the nearest future may amount to a schism which it has seen and survived many of. After all, change as touted by many is easier achieved from within than without in any organization, no less the Catholic Church. We hear that the laity are truly considering shifting grounds. We only hope it is real