As a July 9 deadline looms, it’s hard to tell how the standoff in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria will end. Pope Francis has threatened to suspend every priest who fails to write him a letter of apology for refusing to accept a new bishop, Peter Ebele Okpaleke, originally appointed in 2012, and who has yet to set foot in the city.
For those new to the story, in a nutshell, what those in Ahiara rejecting the bishop’s appointment argue is that the diocese has a very high number of vocations to the priesthood, who are known for being very educated and good ministers, yet they are skipped over when it comes to appointing a bishop.
They’ve also accused the local hierarchy of corruption, playing favorites and discrimination, with the collusion of some Vatican officials.
As a matter of fact, Crux has received from several sources a message that went as far as calling for Pope Francis’s resignation.
It’s worth noting that not everyone opposes the bishop, and there are people who’ve traveled to a neighboring diocese, where Okpaleke is now, to attend Mass celebrated by him and to show their support.
Many things about the situation are not known for sure: Even the number of priests involved is in dispute. According to the 2017 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican book of statistics, there are 114 secular priests in the diocese, and 14 belonging to religious orders.
However, some of the clergy in Ahiara are claiming the diocese has 700 priests, although this may include priests ordained for other dioceses and belonging to religious orders, but not serving in the diocese.
There are also conflicting reports on how many have sent a letter to the pope: The Mbaise Catholics’ Forum – a pro-Okpaleke website – claims to be keeping a running tally, and reported on July 7 that 157 priests have submitted a letter (the website also states there are 201 priests in the diocese).
A letter obtained by Crux sent by Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of Abuja who currently serves as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara, to the priests of the diocese reminds them the “one month of grace, granted by his Holiness…is fast drawing to a close.”
In the July 3 letter, Onaiyekan tells the clergy he spoke to the pope about the situation in the diocese during the consistory on June 28, and “assured him that with his prayers and God’s grace, all will be well.
“The Pope has offered full forgiveness for all past acts of omission and commission,” the letter reads. “He looks forward to embracing everyone in a new spirit [of] loyalty and communion. We continue our fervent prayers that the Holy Spirit may guide everyone into the path of full communion with the Church cum et sub Petro.” [emphasis in the original].
Onaiyekan directs the priests to send original, signed letters by registered mail or courier service to the Vatican embassy in Abuja.
Father David Ihenacho told Crux he has sent a letter of apology to the pope, but said a “multifaceted” injustice exists in Ahiara. “The diocese is reputed to have the most educated priests in Nigeria. How come none qualifies to be made bishops anywhere?” he wrote.
“The reason is discrimination. And their home diocese Ahiara priests are not considered qualified to run it. This is pure injustice,” Ihenacho said. Despite this, the priest said his letter to the pope expressed his “willingness to accept whomsoever he sends and has appointed as my bishop.”
Ihenacho said every priest in the diocese will comply because “we know the Holy Father does not joke around with threats of sanction.”
Another priest, Father Evaristus Mbata, wrote to Crux stating “our loyalty to [Pope Francis] cannot be compromised in any way.”
Mbata said he, too, had written the requested letter, but insisted the clergy and people of the diocese had made a “discreet appeal” to the Vatican when Okpaleke was appointed, and claimed it was blocked by members of the Nigerian hierarchy.
This is a constant complaint in Ahiara: That certain ethnic groups are controlling the episcopal appointments in the country, and the rural people of Ahiara are looked down upon, despite the large number of vocations.
“The bone of contention is not obedience or disobedience to the Pope, but the struggle against the conspiracy of institutionalized structures of organized corruption and cutting of corners in the Nigerian Church that is extended to the Vatican,” claimed Father Ben Ogu in a message to Crux.
“You can imagine what it looks like and the consequence for a rural diocese considered a pariah to be seen as challenging an institution that has successfully arranged power by whims and caprices unchallenged for years,” he said.
But beyond first-hand sources, not always easy to procure, the local media is unreliable. For example, 3,000 people allegedly took to the streets to protest Okpaleke on Saturday, but one newspaper printed the story before the event supposedly took place, raising suspicions local newspapers just printed a press release issued before the event was scheduled to happen. The Mbaise Catholics’ Forum stated the protest did not take place.
It has also been reported the local governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, has met with the priests and told them to submit to the will of the pope, or else “the church will become an object of mockery.”
Another press report states a protest letter signed by hundreds of clergy and priests from the Ahiara diaspora will be presented to the pope on Saturday, one day before the deadline expires.
No one knows what will really happen when the deadline is reached on Sunday, or if Okpaleke will finally be able to enter the diocese, after being in exile for five years.