Pope Francis met on Thursday with a delegation from a Nigerian diocese which for the last four and a half years has refused to recognize the bishop who was appointed as its shepherd.
He demanded that the clerics of the Diocese of Ahiara accept the bishop appointment that has been made, or face suspension and loss of office.
Fr. Peter Okpaleke was appointed Bishop of Ahiara in December 2012 by Benedict XVI. But the Ahiara diocese is dominated by the Mbaise ethnic group. As an outsider from the nearby Diocese of Awka, Fr. Okpaleke was rejected by much of Ahiara’s clergy and laity, who wanted one of their own to be appointed bishop over them.
The Mbaise are among the most Catholic of Nigerian peoples – 77 percent of the diocese’s population of 670,000 are Catholic. Nearby dioceses range between 19 and 70 percent Catholic.
Families in the rural diocese foster priestly and religious vocations, with at least 167 priestly ordinations for the diocese since its establishment in 1987.
With such a wealth of priests, the Ahiara diocese sends many as missionaries to Western countries, and many Mbaise hoped that one of its own would become their bishop.
In May 2013, an Mbaise emigrant to California and a representative of Mbaise USA, George Awuzie, told CNA that “The Mbaise people wanted their own bishop, who knows what’s going on within the community. They’re sending someone from a different community, a different village, that doesn’t know what we do within our area.”
Mbaise opponents of the appointment blocked access to Ahiara’s cathedral. Due to the strong opposition, Bishop Okpaleke was consecrated and installed outside his new diocese, at Seat of Wisdom Seminary in the Archdiocese of Owerri, May 21, 2013.
In July 2013 Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja was appointed apostolic administrator of Ahiara, but proved unable to solve the problem.
In light of the impasse, Pope Francis met with a delegation from Ahiara June 8 and gave them an ultimatum, saying he is “deeply saddened” by the events there and that the Church “is like a widow for having prevented the Bishop from coming to the Diocese.”
“Many times I have thought about the parable of the murderous tenants … that want to grasp the inheritance. In this current situation the Diocese of Ahiara is without the bridegroom, has lost her fertility and cannot bear fruit.”
“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church,” he charged. “This is forbidden; perhaps he does not realize it, but the Church is suffering as well as the People of God within her. The Pope cannot be indifferent.”
He expressed gratitude for the “holy patience” of Bishop Okpaleke, and said he had “listened and reflected much” on the situation, even considering suppressing the Ahiara diocese.
“I feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese,” the Pope stated.
“I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.”
The Bishop of Rome charged that “the Church is a mother and whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious.”
“I ask that every priest or ecclesiastic incardinated in the Diocese of Ahiara, whether he resides there or works elsewhere, even abroad, write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally,” Pope Francis said.
In their letters asking for forgiveness, the clergy of Ahiara must “clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope” and “be willing to accept the Bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed.”
Moreover, the Pope demanded that each cleric’s letter be sent within 30 days – by July 9.
“Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.”
Acknowledging that this measure “seems very hard,” Pope Francis said he must do this “because the people of God are scandalized.”
“Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences,” he told the delegation. “Maybe someone has been manipulated without having full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.”
At Bishop Okpaleke Mass of episcopal consecration, Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia had said that “acceptance of the papal appointment is a respect for the Pope, while the outright rejection and inflammatory statements and protests are spiteful and disrespectful of papal authority,” according to The Sun of Lagos.
Ahiara’s first ordinary, Bishop Victor Chikwe, served from 1987 until his death in Sept., 2010. The diocese was vacant for 26 months before Bishop Okpaleke was appointed.
Awka, whence Bishop Okpaleke comes, is located in the state of Anambra. Ahiara, meanwhile, is located to the south in Imo state. The Mbaise assert that the Nigerian hierarchy favors Anambra.
The Mbaise, who are proud of their identity and strong Catholicism, resent what they call the “Anambranization” of the Church in southeast Nigeria, believing there to be corruption within the Church in Nigeria and a “recolonization” of the Mbaise.
At the conclusion of the audience on Thursday, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude for the presence of the Mbaise who came to Rome, as well as for the patience of Cardinal Onaiyekan, and for Bishop Okpaleke, “whose patience and humility I admire.”
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is planning to have the Ahiara diocese and its bishop make a pilgrimage to Rome to meet with Pope Francis “at the conclusion of this sequence of events,” the Vatican announced June 11.