Pope Summons Priests, Issues Ultimatum
Pope Francis has waded into the crisis surrounding Catholic Bishop Vincent Okpaleke and the priests of Ahiara Diocese (Mbaise) in Imo State.
Bishop Okpaleke, a priest from Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, was appointed the Bishop of Ahiara by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 at Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Ulakwo in Owerri North Local Government Area of the state, but has been unable to take control of the diocese because of protests by the majority of priests. He has since been operating outside the diocese.
The priests argue that Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo State and that Bishop Okpaleke was brought from neighbouring Anambra State.
But after Okpaleke and some top Nigerian Church leaders met Pope Francis over the weekend to discuss the situation, Pope Francis issued the Diocesan priests a 30-day ultimatum, which expires on July 9, to write a letter apologising for their opposition, promising obedience to authority and to accept the bishop appointed for their diocese.
The nine-man delegation who met with the Pope in Rome are; the Archbishop of Abuja Archdiocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan (former CAN President), Anthony Obinna of Owerri and Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos (President of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference). Three priests, a religious Sister and a traditional elder were also part of the team.
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The Nigerian delegation met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Cardinal Fernando Filoni and other top officials from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples to examine the situation.
Consequently, in what the Vatican has described as the “unacceptable and painful situation of the Church in Ahiara,” a terse communiqué was issued which reads:
“The Holy Father, after a careful evaluation, spoke of the unacceptable situation in Ahiara and reserved the right to take appropriate measures.”
Pope was quoted as saying, “I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.” Referring to the parable of the murderous tenants” in Matthew 21:33-44, the Pope warned:
“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church. This is forbidden.”
The Pope said he even had considered “suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.”
He insisted that every priest of the diocese, whether residing in Nigeria or abroad, must write a letter addressed to him asking for forgiveness because “we all must share this common sorrow”.
“Each letter must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope and indicate a willingness to accept the bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed.
“The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9, 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 scandalised. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences,” Pope Francis stated.
However, the Diocesan priests have claimed that the Pope was misinformed about the goings-on in the diocese by the representatives of the Catholic Church in the Vatican City, adding that it was time to correct the injustice meted out to them.
The priests also maintained that they are not against the Pope’s authority, but insisted that they should be given some time to heed to the sudden summons of both the clergy and laity of the Diocese to Rome by the Pope.
They said the diocesan priests had overtime made frantic efforts to make their case known to the Pope, but regretted that those efforts were nipped in the bud by the Nigerian representatives of the church in Rome.
“This is because they don’t want us to uncover their anomalies before His Holiness. The series of letters we have written to the Vatican City through them were treated with ignominy,” the priests alleged.
The President of the Mbaise Indigenous Catholic Priests, Reverend Father Augustine Ekechukwu, argued that the diocese paraded the highest number of priests in Nigeria with high academic degrees in different disciplines and wondered why no priest from the Presbyterium was elected to take over the mantle of leadership of the diocese.
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According to Ekechukwu, the diocese needed a bishop from the Presbyterium, who understood the operational and administrative mode of the diocese.
“Why should a bishop be consecrated outside his diocese with the Papal Bull read there? The bull gives the bishop authority over his diocese.
“With that bull read at Ulakwo, Okpaleke belongs to Ulakwo and not Ahiara and there is nothing like Ulakwo Diocese in Nigeria. What has happened was a well-calculated plot to undermine the priests of the Ahiara Presbyterium,” he lamented.