Catholic Church Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise: Why crisis lingers despite Pope’s intervention

The Cathedral building, Ahiara

The current strife in the Catholic Church of Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise, in Imo State, has refused to abate, but was allowed to fester, to the point that it drew Pope’s intervention.

Ahiara Diocese’s case is not different from that of Catholic faithful in Northern Province of Sierra Leone, where they rejected Pope Benedict XVI’s appointed Rev. Fr. Henry Aruna, as their bishop in 2012 on the account that he was from a distant diocese of Kenema, and that he knew nothing about their culture and traditions.

Similarly in Austria, Fr. Gerhard Maria Wagner, an Auxiliary Bishop, was also opposed by Catholic faithful. What is happening to the Catholic Church? Did it not claim to embrace diverse ethnic groups? One would have thought the Pope’s pronouncement on any matter is sacrosanct.

On Wednesday, June 15, some Priests of the crisis-ridden Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise in Imo State, had converged at the Cathedral. Their mission was to have a glimpse, and probably, discuss the letter from the Holy Father, Pope Francis on the crisis.

Although the full content of the Pope’s three-page letter marked “Urgent” and dated June 9, was shielded from The Guardian, obviously it was a follow up to the earlier meeting held with the Supreme Pontiff at the Vatican, last week.

Rev Fr. David Iheanacho, one of the priests said: “Yes, it was delivered to us yesterday (June 14) and we are receiving our copies this morning. We just gathered to pray, after which some of us decided to stay back to have a glimpse of the letter and decide on the next line of action.”

It was learnt that at a meeting with the Holy Pontiff at the Vatican, he was said to have frowned at the development in the diocese and had ordered that every incardinated priest of Ahiara Diocese, wherever they are in the world, to within the next 30 days, individually address an apology to him, while those who fail would have effectively lost their position from the Church, among others.

Prior to the letter’s arrival from the Vatican, the Diocesan Communications Director, Rev Fr. Dr. Innocent Uwah, had told The Guardian in an interview: “If those things, as we read from the social media are coming from the Pope, we expect a letter to be dispatched to the Diocese and once the letter is received by the priests, it definitely will be discussed to know the way forward. So, for now, the situation is that everybody is aware of what is circulating on social media platforms and are waiting for the official letter from the Vatican.”

And now that the letter, which clearly signposted the intervention of Pope Francis in the vexed, long-standing crisis at Ahiara Diocese of the Church, which has lingered for five years has been received, what is the way forward? Will the Priests accused of mobilising the laity against the Vatican’s decision abide by its contents? What future awaits the rural diocese in the hands of a Bishop reportedly imposed on them?

Ahiara Diocese was created on November 18, 1978. The Guardian gathered that the crisis began in 2012, when the Vatican appointed Bishop Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke as successor to the late Bishop Victor Adibe Chikwe, who it was gathered, hailed from Ihitte Ezinihite Mbaise, as the first bishop of the Diocese. He was ordained on January 6, 1988 at St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope St. John Paul 11 and installed in Ahiara on January 31, 1988. He shepherded the Diocese for 22 years and nine months before his death.

Two years after his death in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI announced the appointment of Peter Okpaleke from Awka Diocese, in Onitsha Ecclesiastical province of Anambra State in 2012, as the new Bishop of the Diocese. However, this appointment did not go down well with Catholic faithful in Ahiara, including indigenous Priests, who had wanted Chikwe’s successor to come from the Diocese or Province, as they reportedly railroaded members into rejecting the new Bishop’s appointment. They had insisted that over 700 priests better qualified for the post of a Bishop exist in the area, than the one picked from Onitsha Ecclesiastical Diocese.

Okpaleke was, therefore, prevented from gaining access into the Diocese to resume duties and perform his Episcopal responsibilities, among others. It got to the point, where the gates of the Mater Ecclesia Cathedral Ahiara-Mbaise, were chained to stop him, while the battle to ensure that the Vatican’s decision was reviewed began. Sources said Archbishop Anthony Obinna, the Owerri Ecclesiastical leader, reportedly denied having a hand or knowledge in the new Bishop’s appointment. While the matter lingered, spiritual, physical and other growths and development in the Diocese suffered.

The Diocesan headquarters, located on a popular junction in Ahiara called “Ama Bishop,” which before now was a beehive of religious activities, hosting meetings and other gatherings of the Diocese, is almost starved of activities.

The Cathedral building, completed and painted midway several years ago, has remained the way the late Bishop left it. Its surroundings are unkempt, as cobwebs have taken over the structure. It was also observed that the clearing of the compound was only done two days earlier, following a burial Mass held for late Rev Fr. Charles Chima Anyanwu, who was buried in the premises.

Going through the Cathedral’s headquarters entrance gate was a problem, as security men had objected, saying “visitors are not allowed for now.” They, however, yielded after being told the visitor came from Enugu and needed to pass an urgent message to any of the Priests living in the quarters or working in the premises.

One of the Priests living in the compound, Rev Fr. Lawrence Opara said: “The situation is quite lamentable. Nobody can be happy seeing younger ones that are due for ordination being denied. At least 50 seminarians have been denied ordination, while young adults have been denied sacrament of confirmation, and no Episcopal presence. If a Priest dies here, no Bishop will attend. Rather, they will attend burials concerning lay people, but when it is Ahiara Diocese, they will all back out. These things are giving us concerns and we are beginning to question whether this is really a church that has conscience.

“What is worrying us most is that in 2013, the Holy Father sent His eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan as the Apostolic Administrator to oversee the diocese, ordinations, and sacraments. But he abandoned all those things, using the Diocese to play politics. That aspect of sacramental starvation is what pains us most and we are not happy about that. Nobody is happy about injustice. We are not happy with what is happening here.”

A female member of Church of St Bridget’s branch, who only gave her name as Mrs. Ngozi, said the young diocese has suffered. “I have three children, who cannot undergo their baptism because there is no Bishop,” she explained. “One of my daughters had to do her confirmation at Owerri diocese, using her school as a cover. Every activity that the Bishop should undertake has been stagnated in this Diocese. But for the fact that we groom members from block rosary, baptism and confirmation to make them strong Catholics, probably some of them would have left the church by now.”

On why Okpalaeke, who was ordained bishop of the diocese on May 21, 2013, was rejected and the crisis that followed, Madam Ngozi, who also runs a shop close nearby, said: “I heard he is too strict and is coming to straighten things. So, they feel his presence may not be in their interest.

“There is this widely-held notion that the new Bishop’s nomination was manipulated by an Anambra indigene serving at the Vatican in against the Priests and choice of people of the Diocese. They feel there are several Anambra Bishops because their brother will always make way for them and so, when this one happened, they decided to fight it head-on.”

On his part, Rev Fr. Lawrence Opara said: “there was a flawed canonical process in the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke. Due process was not followed. According to Canon 377, if a Bishop of a particular Diocese dies, the subsequent successor must come from the Diocese. Whereby no person from that Diocese was found worthy, you go to another diocese within the same ecclesiastical province.

“Here in Ahiara Diocese, we belong to Owerri ecclesiastical province, which is made up of six dioceses – Owerri, Okigwe, Umuahia, Aba, Orlu and Ahiara. So, we expected that as none of us was found worthy to succeed the late Bishop, they should have gone to nearby Diocese within the same province. But they didn’t do that; rather, they went to another Ecclesiastical province, which is Onitsha to appoint somebody. We began to question the choice, because they didn’t exhaust the option in Ahiara, in Owerri province, where you have six dioceses with capable hands; then you went all the way to Onitsha. We felt due process was scuttled. It is not that we are insisting on the son of the soil, as people misunderstood it to be. The problem is that due process was not followed. Bishop Okpalaeke is not a Presbyterium of Ahiara Diocese. So, any person can succeed Bishop, provided he is a member of the presbyterium, whether he is an indigene or not. We are not fighting Bishop Okpalaeke as a person and we are not fighting Anambra. We are simply saying due process was not followed in that appointment.”

Rev Fr. Innocent Uwah lent credence to this, when he added: “We are in the church and know how things work in the appointment of bishops. We are rather raising serious questions regarding justice, fair play and moral probity in sacred roles. Our worry mainly is that we do not see how the name of someone from outside our diocese, our province and our state could have joined the list of those with some kind of proximity to the vacant diocese of Ahiara at the time, ranging from the primary diocese to others within the province. So, the whole issue has to do with the process that produced him – was it reputable at all?

“People’s concern in the entire struggle is to ensure that corruption is not enthroned in the church that preaches against injustice in the world. So, this is what caused the havoc in Ahiara Diocese. Generally, people of Ahiara Diocese are very wonderful Christians and cherish their faith. They do not only take pride in it, but also love to share it with neighbours and friends everywhere. They are at peace with themselves and everybody. The bishopric crisis is not an issue between Ahiara Diocese and the Vatican. No! What the people are signalling is that the trend that produced the candidate is not good to flourish in the church that is holy and sacred. Injustice should not be committed to smear the integrity of the church by any person at all.”

Possible factors that fuelled Okpalaeke’s nomination
IN line with the Catholic tradition, it was gathered that late Bishop Chikwe, during his 22-year-tenure, nominated as many as 22 persons from the Diocese as bishopric candidates (successors) to the Vatican before his death.

When he died, church members were asked to start praying for the nomination of short-listed candidates from the Diocese as his replacement in line with the Vatican’s directive.

However, the process, which ordinarily should be a secret, was said to have been revealed to the clergy and the laity, who began criticising the nominees and sending petitions against some of those who could eventually emerge from the list to the Vatican.

A source stated that the development delayed the process of announcing a new Bishop for the Diocese from 2010, when Bishop Chikwe died to 2012, prompting the Vatican to go to an entirely neutral area for a neutral person for the office.

He added that the development jolted those championing the petitions, especially among the Priests, adding, “Quest for leadership and unhealthy rivalry among the Priests is the problem this Diocese has faced since creation. It has equally affected its development.”

Pope’s order and way out
It is obvious that everybody wants the crisis resolved. A laity, Maxwell Onwuji said a lot of damage has been done to the diocese, since the matter erupted. He stated that Bishop Chikwe never pronounced the Cathedral a parish, until he died, adding, “We mark only special events at the cathedral headquarter. That is why there is no cathedral administrator there like you have in other dioceses. I believe he wanted to strengthen things before doing so. It is a problem.

“Right now, a new Bishop has been named. He remains the Bishop of Ahiara and there is nothing anybody can do to change it, unless he dies. I want to believe we are getting close to the end of the matter. Those fighting have made their points, they have carried the fight so well and the world has heard them. They should do the needful and surrender to enable the church march on.”

Rev Fr. Uwah said: “There have been many missed opportunities that could have prevented us from coming this far, but I think a lot of people did nothing to arrest the situation. The best we can do now is to commit it to God in prayer, as we have ever done, because the church belongs only to Jesus Christ; it is not a personal enterprise. We show loyalty to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on earth and remain open to his leadership and pray that the Holy Spirit will guard the church to bring about the best solution to the problem.”

For Rev Fr. David Iheanacho, Mbaise Priests would at all times remain obedient to the Pope and would do all required of them to ensure peace and progress of the Diocese.

“The Holy father is in charge of the Universal Catholic Church. He represents Jesus Christ. We owe him loyalty, we owe him obedience and he will get that from the Priests of this Diocese, because that was what we vowed, when we were ordained Priests. Since he has pronounced it, he will get it. But that does not solve the problem. He will get all loyalty from this diocese, but then, the elephant is still in the room, which is that we are discriminated against. Injustice must be righted and then some kind of way to placate and appease and relax frayed nerves.

“Whatever the Pope wants as the Universal Shepherd, he must get because we are a very loyal diocese. Everybody reacts to injustice; nobody takes injustice and go to sleep. If you have suffered injustice a number of times, there comes a time, when you will say, you are not going to suffer this injustice anymore. What we are suffering goes as far back as 1958, when it was the turn of an Mbaise man to be elevated in the church. He was sidetracked and the allegation then was that the Holy Spirit did it, but we said the Holy Spirit does not do anything that is wrong. It must be some human beings somewhere, who do not like the face of Mbaise people because the name Mbaise conjures so many things to so many people. Unfortunately, that kind of stigma has spilled over into the church and if we do not address it, we are living a lie,” said Iheanacho, who has served as a Priest for over 30 years.

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