BY EMMANUEL MGBEAHURUIKE
…..to head off excommunication from the Catholic Church by Pope Francis, the 163 Ahiara, Mbaise Diocese indigenous priests in Imo State, complied with the Pontiff’s directive on individual letter apology to him and that of allegiance to the Holy See, but still dare the Pope on allowing Bishop Okpaleke they rejected, resume office
hose who wished to see priests from Ahiara Diocese of Mbaise, Imo State, excommunicated from the Catholic Church over the Bishop Peter Okpalaeke’s saga should better
Wish again as the belligerent priests have complied with the Holy Father, Pope Francis’s directives by writing the apology letter he demanded and reaffirming their allegiance to the Holy See.
The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) and Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Jos, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama had made it clear that Ahiara priests risk being excommunicated, as they would “incur what is called suspension adivinis, which means they cannot function any longer as Catholic priests and they cannot administer sacrament and they cannot occupy any ecclesiastical office.”
Allaying the fear of this possibility, the president of Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Priests Association (ADCPA), Ahiara Diocese, Rev Dr Austine Ekechukwu highlighted that all the reverend fathers of Ahiara Diocese origin within and outside the diocese have complied with the Pope’s directives, adding that they are not disobeying the Pope neither are they disrespecting the Catholic doctrines, including the contents of the Canon law.
“This is a private letter Pope asked us to write. The Pope’s directives have been complied. Whatever the Pope asked us to do in line with the constitution of the Catholic Church, we have done them.
It is not for anybody to interpret the Pope’s action.
“We are not disobeying the Pope and we cannot disobey the Pope. What we are saying is that we should not be suppressed. They are subverting the truth. They are shielding the Pope from the truth. Let the right thing be done. If someone says that Catholic priests in Ahiara Diocese are not up to 700 in number, in America alone we have over 70 priests ordained there, we have many of us ordained in other parts of the world. Here in the diocese, over 40 deacons have been denied ordination since the saga started,” he said.
Another priest, Rev Father Joseph Ezeji, said that the Church hierarchy in Nigeria has deceived the Pope that the Ahiara Diocese crisis is a result of ethnic sentiment.
According to him, “The Church hierarchy in Nigeria lied to the Pope that we are rejecting Okpalaeke because of ethnic sentiment. But the truth is that the process of his selection was not transparent. We are still wondering how his name from another state entirely not even from a Diocese within the Ecclesiastical Province was appointed the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
“We are not disobeying the Pope, we have all written the apology letter as he directed but we want to make it clear that the appointment of the Bishop Okpalaeke was a fraud and we are saying that another Bishop should be appointed from the Province if not from Ahiara Diocese”.
Father Ezeji argued further that, “for instance, nine bishops and auxiliaries are already appointed from this same, Awka in Anambra State, so why is it that the bishop of Ahiara Diocese cannot be appointed from the diocese.”
In line with Pope Francis’ directives for letters of allegiance from all the priests from Ahiara Diocese before July 9, the priests said that they have complied with the contents of the Pope’s message, but the issue of allowing Bishop Peter Okpalaeke to assume office in the diocese still remains a mirage, as the entire laity of Ahiara Diocese are in same boat with the indigenous priests.
The laity in Ahiara Diocese, (body of Catholic faithful), in line with the indigenous priests also demands for a bishop who has affinity with the diocese without minding his ethnic background, noting that they would not accept Okpalaeke for the fact that he does not understand the culture and language of the people, especially as he was secretly imposed on the people of the diocese without following due process expected in the selection and appointment of Catholic bishops.
Imo State governor, Rochas Okorocha who led heads of the security agencies in the state as well as his cabinet members and the chairman of the State Council of Traditional Rulers, Eze Samuel Ohiri to the premises of the Maria Mater Ecclesiae Cathedral, Ahiara Mbaise to address the priests and the laity hinged his message on appeal for peace and tasked the people for calm while he studies the matter.The appointment of Bishop Okpalaeke, was rejected by the priests and laity of Ahiara Diocese, resulting in the stalemate that led to the shutdown of the Ahiara Cathedral and the Bishop’s Court.
Last week, hordes of Catholic faithful from the 163 parishes in the embattled diocese, stormed the Ahiara Cathedral to protest the failure of Vatican to appoint another bishop to replace Okpalaeke, saying the embattled bishop would never be welcomed in the diocese.
Meanwhile there was a mild drama when the Church members who were dressed in black attires and traditional Catholic dresses, got to the gate to find it under lock and key with heavy presence of stern looking policemen, who were drafted to stop the planned procession.
After several hours of consultations and phone calls by elders of the Church, the policemen were directed apparently by their superiors to open the cathedral’s gate for the protesters.
In their separate speeches while addressing the congregation after a peaceful Rosary Procession at the cathedral by well over 10,000 laity members made up Catholic Men Organization (CMO), Catholic Women Organization (CWO) and the youths, the president of the Laity Council, Ahiara Diocese, Chief Gerald Anyanwu said that both the priests and laity of the diocese are not disobeying the Pope, but what they demand is justice and fair play.
He wondered why the selection of Okpalaeke was done without recourse to consider the three names listed by the former Bishop Victor Chikwe before he died five years ago as a possible replacement, insisting that Ahiara Mbaise Diocese with over 750 priests of different congregations in the Catholic Church is qualified to have one of their own made a bishop of the diocese.
“We are not disobeying the Pope. We observed that there was a mistake in the selection and appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke, and our mission is to ensure that such mistake is corrected. Therefore, we are still appealing to the Pope to give us the bishop we deserve.
“We are not questioning the decision of the Pope but we will not accept Okpalaeke as bishop. The process of his appointment did not follow laid down procedures for the appointment of bishops. Our priests have written the apology demanded by the Pope to show that we are not disregarding the Pope but nobody can impose a bishop on the people that is not what the Christian faith is all about,” he asserted.
Another member of the laity, Sir Sebastian Ekeanyanwu also insisted that the diocese is not against the Pope, adding that, “we are not disputing the authority of the Pope as the supreme head of the Catholic Church but we want to communicate our position to him as regards the appointment of Okpalaeke. 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.”
He continued that, “we know that if the Pope has heard our position, he would have changed his position. All we are saying is that we don’t want Okpalaeke, and trying to force him on his on us is not justice.”
President of the Diocesan Catholic Men Organisation (CMO), Chief Anthony Njoku, said “We are strongly behind our priests and we cannot be cowed to submission against our faith.”
The vice president of the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) in the diocese, Dr Liona Ohanu, who spoke on behalf of the women, appealed to Vatican to listen to the demand of the people, adding that, “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.”
Meanwhile, Governor Okorocha who came to the Cathedral in the company of security chiefs, quickly went into a closed door meeting with the priests in the diocese, who stayed away from the protesting laity obviously to escape the wrath of the Pope.
At the end of the meeting that lasted for over two hours, the governor, appealed to the priests and laity to accept the directive of the Pope on the matter of the appointment of the bishop to end the lingering crisis.
According to the governor, “I have listened to your pains and complaints, but there is no alternative to peace. Your matter has attracted the attention of the Pope and you know better than me that the position of the Pope is final. So on the matter of the appointment of the bishop, I pray and I plead with you that you allow the directive of the Pope to stand in the interest of the image of the diocese and the state. This is not the end of the Church. It will not be good for us to be known as the people that fight the Pope.”
Responding to the governor’s plea, Rev Father Joseph Ezeji, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues, said that the Church hierarchy in Nigeria has deceived the Pope that the Ahiara Diocese crisis is as a result of ethnic sentiment.
He said, “the Church hierarchy in Nigeria lied to the Pope that we are rejecting Okpalaeke because of ethnic sentiment, But the truth is that the process of his selection was not transparent.
“We are not disobeying the Pope, we have all written the apology letter as he directed but we want to make it clear that the appointment of the Bishop Okpalaeke was a fraud and we are saying that another Bishop should be appointed from Province if not from Ahiara Diocese.”
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