Pope Francis and the Ahiara Question
“I am deeply saddened by the events of the Church in Ahiara.” – Pope Francis (June 8, 2017).
“The Holy Father is well aware that this has not been an easy period for the Church in Ahiara.” – Vatican Secretary of State, Letter to Ahiara (December 9, 2014).
On several occasions, I encounter people, on social media and in real life, who ask me: “Why do you speak out about the Ahiara crisis? Don’t you think it is better to keep silence? Those people are very vicious. They can do anything to harm anyone who publicly disavows their attitude.” When I hear such questioning, I simply smile, and then I ask my questioner: “Who should rather speak out about Ahiara? I am a Catholic priest. I have given up my life for the service of the Church. The Church is all that I live for. Why should I, for fear of what people will say or do, keep quiet in such a time of crisis in my Church? We all have a stake in the welfare of the Church. We all have a duty to protect the interests of the Church, and we should feel a sense of responsibility for whatever happens to her.”
Just to refresh our minds. On September 16, 2010, Victor Adibe Chikwe, the first Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara died at the age of 72. He was appointed Bishop in November 18, 1987, following the creation of Ahiara Diocese by Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul II ordained Msgr. Chikwe a Bishop on January 6, 1988 at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and he governed the affairs of Ahiara Diocese until his death in 2010. Following Chikwe’s death, Ahiara Diocese became a vacant See. After two years of diocesan administration under Msgr. Theophilus Nwalor, and with prayerful intercession to the Holy Spirit for the provision of a new shepherd, Ahiara Diocese was blessed with a new Bishop. On December 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Reverend Father Peter Ebere Okpaleke, a priest of the Diocese of Awka as new Bishop of Ahiara. That was when the crisis began.
A large cross-section of Ahiara priests rejected the papal appointment of Msgr. Okpaleke as their Bishop, and incited the faithful to do the same. They began to write all sorts of petitions to Rome, which were circulated in the media, to the effect that the process of the selection of the new Bishop was flawed, because he did not come from within the Diocese. There is no rule in Canon Law that a Bishop must come from within a diocese to be appointed to head the diocese. Even the entry for Ahiara Diocese in Wikipedia (accessed on June 10, 2017) knows this. It says: “It is important to note that a Bishop must not serve in a local diocese to be appointed Bishop of such a diocese.”
In the meantime, Msgr. Okpaleke was ordained a Bishop in May 2013 at the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary in Owerri, but was unable to take canonical possession of the Diocese on account of the activities of the priests and lay faithful. In other to stave off a more severe crisis and to give the diocese a minimum of Episcopal leadership pending the resolution of the issue, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja as Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese in July 2013. Although Cardinal Onaiyekan made great effort to dialogue with the clergy and faithful of Ahiara Diocese and to convince them to welcome their Bishop with open hearts and generous minds, his efforts were rebuffed. All his appeals and visits and numerous pastoral letters to Ahiara Diocese met with stiff opposition.
The rebel priests and their cohorts outside the Diocese and even outside the Catholic Church turned the situation into an ethnic battle for what they considered the soul of Mbaise nation. They rallied their ethnic sympathisers and started a campaign of calumny against the hierarchy of the Church. They went further to viciously malign the minority group of priests, religious and lay faithful of Ahiara who accepted the decision of the Pope and publicly voiced their assent in favour of Bishop Okpaleke. Like a tender loving mother, the Church continuously sought a peaceful way to resolve the Ahiara crisis in pursuit of the salvation of souls.
On December 9, 2014, Pope Francis sent the Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, currently Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Promoting Integral Human Development, as his emissary to Ahiara Diocese. The Letter of the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the Priests and Lay Faithful of Ahiara, said of Cardinal Turkson: “He will visit you in his [the Pope’s] name, and listen to you and talk with you. I hasten to add that this is a further act of paternal generosity on the part of the Holy Father, who has at heart your life of faith and the pastoral good of the Diocese. I would ask each of you to respond to the initiative with a good and filial docility, that spirit of obedience which is the source of salvation (cf. Heb 5:7-9), so that the Holy Father may more freely exercise his pastoral solicitude for Ahiara.”
In his Letter, Cardinal Parolin expressed his personal affection for the Diocese of Ahiara, noting that he was secretary at the Apostolic Nunciature in Lagos when Ahiara Diocese was created in 1987. He affirmed the Pope’s esteem for Cardinal Onaiyekan whom he said “has generously given of his time and energy to serve as your Apostolic Administrator” in spite of the disappointments and sufferings he endured. Cardinal Parolin also spoke of Bishop Okpaleke as “a fine and highly regarded priest…judged suited to faithfully carry forward the pastoral work of the Diocese…as a Father and Shepherd.”
Sadly, all these efforts to help midwife the restoration of peace and good church order in Ahiara did not yield the expected result, as the priests and people remained headstrong in their rebellion. While this sad and painful situation unfolded, the rebel priests and their cohort peddled falsehood, lies, propaganda and all sorts of machination to discredit the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke, to such an extent that even the most disinterested bystanders would have been prompted to ask: Where is the Christian faith of the Ahiara clergy, who claim to have the largest concentration of priests in any one diocese in Africa? Isn’t there a limit below which Catholics should not descend in such matters? More so, Ahiara priests who claim renown for being great theologians, ecclesiologists and educators of priests.
Since after the death of Bishop Chikwe, priestly ordinations and confirmation – two important sacraments reserved to the Bishop, have not been had in Ahiara. So is the Mass of Holy Chrism, which is normally celebrated by a Diocesan Bishop with all his priests during the Holy Week preceding Easter. In the meantime, a good number of Catholic faithful who cannot bear the shameful situation have migrated to other churches, as priests continue to use the pulpit to further their campaign of calumny, hoodwinking the people to believe that there was something wrong with the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke. It is in light of this that in June 2017 Pope Francis invited a delegation of Ahiara priests, religious and lay faithful to the Vatican for a meeting. Shockingly, the Association of Ahiara Diocesan Priests, which has been spearheading the rebellion, wrote a long petition with frivolous excuses as to why Pope Francis should give them more time before they can honour his invitation, in spite of the early notice they were given about the meeting.
Nevertheless, the meeting took place with the five delegates in support of Bishop Okpaleke, together with Cardinal John Onaiyekan (Archbishop of Abuja and Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara), Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama (President of CBCN), Archbishop Anthony Obinna (Metropolitan of Owerri Province) and Bishop Peter Okpaleke. On the final day of meeting, June 8, 2017, Pope Francis addressed the delegation and proceeded to deliver his paternal message to the Church of Ahiara: “In fact, the Church (and excuse the wording) 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, of which the Gospel speaks (cf. Mt 21:33-44), 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. 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.”
Pope Francis continued: “I know very well the events that have been dragging on for years and I am thankful for the attitude of great patience of the Bishop, indeed the holy patience demonstrated by him. I listened and reflected much, even about the possibility of suppressing the Diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children. I feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese.”
“I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord. The Church is a mother and whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious. However, I decided not to suppress the Diocese. Instead, I wish to give some indications that are to be communicated to all: first of all it must be said that the Pope is deeply saddened. Therefore, 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. We all must share this common sorrow. In the letter: one must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope, and whoever writes must be willing to accept the Bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed. The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.”
“This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this? Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences. Maybe someone has been manipulated without having full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.” He then concluded: “To you brothers and sisters, I would like to express my sincere thanks for your presence; and also to Cardinal Onaiyekan for his patience and to Bishop Okpaleke, whose patience and humility I admire. Thank you all.” In the exchange of greetings at the end of the meeting, Pope Francis warmly embraced Bishop Okpaleke and thanked him for his patient endurance in suffering with the Church in Ahiara.
As he was departing Rome to Abuja, Cardinal Onaiyekan sent this text message to the Catholic faithful of Ahiara: “Dear Sisters and Brothers of Ahiara Diocese, as I am leaving Rome after our one week pilgrimage, I wish you all God’s abundant blessings. The Pope has spoken. As Catholics we believe that Jesus has spoken in Francis. He has told us that he is deeply saddened by the situation of Ahiara Diocese. I saw the pain and anguish of his face as he pronounced those words. This is therefore no time for feelings of either triumph in victory or humiliation in defeat. Rather we must all share the pains of the Pope over the wounds of our Diocese. This is the time for a general repentance, mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. By the grace of God, the Holy Spirit will lead us into the way of peace, unity and restoration of our Diocese to full spiritual health. God bless you all.”
Let us hope and pray that the Catholic faithful of Ahiara Diocese will accept the final decision of the Pope and comply accordingly. This is not about who won or who lost. It is about the salvation of souls. Let us also pray that the Holy Spirit will heal the wounds occasioned by this protracted crisis.
(Ojeifo is an Abuja-based Catholic priest)