ROME – With the clock ticking on Pope Francis’s threat to suspend the priests of an entire Nigerian diocese, the matter seems far from resolved, with many clerics still insisting on revolting against a bishop appointed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 2012, even calling for the pontiff to resign, while others are supporting the pope’s strong stance.
On June 8, Pope Francis issued a seemingly unprecedented threat, giving the priests of the diocese of Ahiara a 30-day deadline: Either write to him promising “total obedience,” or face suspension.
The crisis began when Benedict appointed Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke to the diocese in southern Nigeria. He doesn’t belong to the majority Mbaise group, and as such, he’s been rejected by members of the clergy and the laity who want to see “one of their own” appointed to a position of leadership.
However, many local observers believe the conflict started much earlier, some going so far as to say the seed was planted when men who “should not have been ordained” became priests.
“The situation in Ahiara is not unique to Ahiara. It is a situation you may find in any diocese where a few priests, who ought not to have been ordained in the first place, escaped detection at the seminaries,” said Doctor Mark Nwoga.
After becoming priests, he argued, these men become “disobedient to their bishops, materialistic and violent.”
Nwoga, a dentist and professor by profession, is one of the lay people on Mbaise who’s in favor of Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese of Ahiara. For him, the decision to support the bishop was an easy one: “I am one of the Catholic laity trying to live and practice our Catholic faith. My involvement with those welcoming and planning the installation of our bishop was a consequence of this basic reality.”
In the case of the Ahiara diocese, he said, the rejection of the papal appointment of Okpaleke was reportedly originated by three “politician” priests who “contaminated the hearts and minds of other priests and laity.”
The priests who’ve revolted claim the Vatican is discriminating against them, never creating a bishop among them despite the many vocations to the priesthood coming from the diocese.
When Francis announced that he expected for them to write a letter apologizing for their behavior and promising loyalty to the pontiff, including in the matter of episcopal appointments, they originally responded saying that the request was false.
They claimed it did not come from the pope but from those supporting the bishop, including Cardinal John Onayekan of Abuja, the national capital, who was appointed by Francis as administrator of the diocese in 2013 in an attempt to resolve the crisis.
When the Vatican posted the papal message on its website, they had no choice but to accept that it came from the pope. Since then, they’ve responded in various ways: there are those who are going to comply, those who are signing a letter promising obedience but rejecting Okpaleke, and those who are calling for Francis’s resignation.
Some have even called on Imo state governor, multimillionaire Owelle Rochas Anayo Okorocha, to help them fend off Vatican sanctions. The politician confirmed this himself, through a press statement. When the crisis began, he had urged the rebelling priests to accept the papal mandate.
Since the crisis began, the diocese has been severely affected, beginning with the fact that for the past five years there have been no confirmations or ordinations, since both are reserved to the bishop.
Last week, Francis welcomed Onayekan, Okpaleke and several other priests and lay people who support the bishop in a Vatican meeting. However, Crux has learned that the side opposing the bishop was invited to select five representatives to take part in the same meeting, but ignored the pope’s invitation.
A letter which circulated via email and WhatsApp and which was sent to Crux, calls the invitation, extended through the papal representative in the country and Onayekan, a “‘nuclear assault’ like the one that ended the Second World War.” Written before the meeting with Francis, the letter calls the trip a “Trojan horse ride to Rome,” since at the time they believed the bishop was going to be installed in Ahiara from Rome.
Crux also obtained a draft letter that is being circulated among the priests in Ahiara, addressed to “Most Holy Father Pope Francis,” and titled “Apology.”
Written in a fill-in-the-blanks style, those who chose to use this letter will in fact, express their fidelity to the pope and the Church, apologize for rejecting the episcopal appointment, and promising to accept whomever he decides should be the bishop of Ahiara.
However, each of those who sign this draft version, will also send a warning to Francis: If he were to insist on the same bishop, “I plead in filial confidence and trust that in conscience, I may not willingly work well with him as my bishop in the diocese. Nevertheless, his personal safety in the diocese may be at stake.”
They argue that the scandal surrounding the appointment has created divisions in parishes, diocesan organizations and the presbytery, while “starving the diocese of sacraments for years.”
This, they say, has produced animosity, hatred, grief and tensions “among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”
Crux has contacted several of the priests and laity who oppose Okpaleke, but attempts to get their reactions to Francis’s request have gone unanswered.
However, a statement signed by Chijike K Ndukwu, who’s been active on several on-line forums on this issue, calls for the pope’s resignation: “I really think that Pope Francis should resign as the successor of St Peter. The reason is that he failed to squarely fit into the position of Peter in this matter.”
Ndukwu writes that they would have a better chance to be heard by the head of the Italian mafia, accuses Francis of scattering the people of the diocese, and calls for the pope to apologize to the diocese as he recently did, in the name of the Church, for the role Catholics had in the Rwandan genocide.
Nwoga, on the other hand, defined the pope’s request as “good news,” welcomed “but long overdue.”
Answering to Crux’s questions via email, he said that this “firm declaration” had been expected three years ago, to help “nip the scandal to the people of God.”
Yet he doesn’t resent the fact that it took so long: “The church being wiser and more experienced preferred to exhaust all the charitable options. We now pray that those led astray during the crisis of disobedience would have a change of heart and return to the Catholic ways of obedience and love for our mother the Church.”
He believes the rebellion began with three priests, who slowly but steadily caused the uproar. As per his recollection, the original response by the diocese to Okpaleke was jubilant. The mood changed at the lobbying of the Association of Diocesan Priests who paid “nocturnal visits” to other priests, to convince them of their cause- having a local priest appointed as bishop.
The fact that Okpaleke is from another region is in keeping with a long-standing Vatican tradition, applied almost exclusively in Africa, to purposely appoint a bishop from another ethnic group or tribe to showcase the universality of the Church. For this reason, some observers believe that one way of solving the issue is to appoint a priest from the region as bishop in another diocese, or as an auxiliary in Ahiara.
It is unclear at this point how many of the estimated 130 priests in the diocese are going to comply with Francis’s request. Nwoga told Crux that some of them have “always been loyal to the Holy Father and his appointee.”
The rest, can be divided between a “small political lobby group of priests who are looking for loopholes in the directive, and determined to continue resisting,” and the majority of the priests in the opposition, who have “been victims of deception from the political group, and made to believe that an indigenous priest would be appointed only if they held out a little longer.”
In this latter group, Nwoga said, “there is progress.”
According to Church law expert Claudia Giampietro, the only similar recent precedent of what is going on in Ahiara happened in Sierra Leone in 2011. On that occasion, Benedict appointed a bishop to the diocese of Makeni, who was rejected for ethnic reasons.
The difference, however, is in that situation Francis didn’t threaten to suspend the priests of the diocese, but entrusted it to an Apostolic Administrator and eventually appointed another person.
Regarding the possibility of the pope going forth with his threat, Giampietro explained that it’s technically possible.
“The Roman Pontiff can suspend a priest a divinis, as he’s the Supreme Legislator and he can ask the priest for an explicit and personal adherence to his disposition in extraordinary cases,” the canon lawyer told Crux.
The suspension, which is a censure intended for the clergy, prohibits the celebration of the sacraments in public, unless it’s to attend to the needs of a faithful in danger of death.
However, Giampietro said, “If the priests defy the suspension and try to have independent authority, they are automatically excommunicated.”