ROME – Here’s a papal pop quiz: When’s the last time you can remember a pope openly demanding that all the priests of a specific diocese, whether they currently live there or not, write him a personal letter within 30 days pledging their loyalty, and threatening them with suspension if they don’t comply?
If your answer is “I can’t remember one,” join the club. Yet that’s precisely what Pope Francis has done in the southern Nigerian diocese of Ahiara.
It’s been clear for some time the situation in Ahiara is toxic. Benedict XVI appointed a new bishop in 2012, Peter Ebere Okpaleke, an outsider who doesn’t belong to the Mbaise ethnic group that dominates the diocese. That produced a strong backlash from the clergy in Ahiara, who suspected tribal bias and demanded that one of their own be named.
The Mbaise, legendarily ferocious about their Catholicism, are sometimes called the “Irish of Nigeria” because of their penchant for generating priests and dispatching them as missionaries. Yet they’ve long complained that their fidelity goes unappreciated, charging that the country’s hierarchy is dominated by rival ethnic groups from a neighboring state that forms the ecclesiastical province of Onitsha, which includes Okpaleke’s home diocese.
Many Mbaise say they’ve been subjected to a form of “ecclesiastical colonization,” in this case not by Europeans but by other Nigerians. When the appointment was announced, some 400 priests and laity led a protest march while Mbaise youth locked the doors of the cathedral to prevent the new bishop from entering.
For five years now, Ahiara has essentially been a diocese adrift. Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, the national capital, was appointed the apostolic administrator in July 2013, with the idea that he’d solve the problem by soothing some ruffled feathers, but so far, attempts to get the clergy to back down have proved fruitless.
Having tried the carrot, Francis decided this week to bring out the stick.
Following a meeting with Nigeria’s bishops on Thursday, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, posted a text from Francis on his blog, which was subsequently picked up by Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples that oversees traditional mission territories.
The Vatican eventually released the text of the missive on Saturday.
Francis lays out his demands, accusing the recalcitrant priests of wanting “to destroy the church,” and saying he’d even considered suppressing the diocese. Instead, he’s demanding they all write to “clearly manifest total obedience to the pope,” including their willingness to accept the bishop he appoints.
No matter how you slice it, it’s a dramatic show of papal muscle. Even Francis conceded, “this seems pretty harsh,” but said he was doing it “because the People of God is scandalized, and Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal has to face the consequences.
“Maybe,” he said, “someone was maneuvered without a full awareness of the wound inflicted on ecclesial communion.”
It remains to be seen how the priests will react, although just a few days ago during a Mass staged by the Mbaise Catholic Priests Association, the group’s president, Father Augustin Ben Ekechukwu, described the Okpaleke appointment as an “injustice and malicious conspiracy” against the people of Mbaise.
While we wait to see how things play out, here are three ironies about the situation worth pondering.
First, in other parts of the world, the Vatican quietly often takes the ethnic and linguistic composition of a diocese into account when naming bishops. In Quebec, for instance, there’s been an emphasis on naming bishops from the Francophone majority, especially since the rise of Québécois consciousness in the 1960s. In Belgium, there’s long been a delicate balance between Flemish and Walloon bishops, and so on.
In Africa, however, since the era of Pope Paul VI, the preference often has cut the other way, in favor of naming bishops from outside the dominant ethnic group. The idea has been that the Church in most parts of Africa is still very young, often barely past the first generation, and it’s important to drive home the universality of the faith by showing how it transcends conventional tribal loyalties.
In other words, the practice is designed as a challenge to racial prejudice. Yet the Mbaise clergy clearly don’t see it that way, viewing what’s happening as another chapter in their own suppression.
Assuming Francis gets the show of submission he’s demanded, good Church politics going forward may counsel finding an acceptable Mbaise priest to name to a high-profile gig somewhere else fairly soon, as a way of proving the deck isn’t stacked against them.
Second, it’s become a staple of the Western Catholic view of the world to presume that Africa represents a powerful conservative force in Church affairs. That’s become a core part of the narrative, for instance, surrounding debates over Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s controversial document on the family.
However, if by “conservative” one means always inclined to defer to ecclesiastical authority, the Ahiara standoff clearly shows things aren’t quite that simple. Africans are every bit as capable of being rambunctious and rebellious as, say, German Catholics, or, for that matter, Americans.
Third, the situation also confirms a key insight about Pope Francis.
Popularly, he’s seen as a lovey-dovey man of dialogue and peace, including calling for a more decentralized and collegial Church, always counseling restraint and “tenderness.” Yet beneath the surface still beats the heart of a classic Jesuit superior, and when the time comes for obedience, he fully and completely expects to get it.
If he doesn’t, he’s also prepared to make heads roll. We’ve seen that before, for instance with his interventions in a couple of religious orders and movements, and we’re seeing it again in Nigeria. Francis may consult widely and bide his time, but once a decision has been made, there’s no looking back … and, if necessary, he’ll just steamroll whomever stands in his way.
Time will tell if Francis’s tough love finally unties the knot in Ahiara. However, there’s probably a lesson in all this about the consequences of obstinately resisting a pope’s will, especially when the handwriting is on the wall, and that’s a lesson with implications far broader than one Nigerian diocese.