ROME – Four months after Pope Francis threatened all the priests of a Nigerian diocese with suspension if they didn’t apologize to him, in writing, for not accepting a new bishop appointed over five years ago by Benedict XVI, he has written back to them, and not everyone is happy.
Ten days after the pope’s embassy in the country distributed Francis’s responses to those letters, all signs suggest the Diocese of Ahiara remains badly divided, with some priests and laity wanting the controversial prelate to take over, and others calling for a continued boycott of his leadership.
Though the situation is highly complicated, the main claim by those boycotting the appointment is that it is part of a longstanding conspiracy to oppress the people of Ahaira, especially its dominant Mbaise linguistic group.
In a nutshell, the crisis began when Pope emeritus Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke to the southern Nigerian diocese, back in 2012.
On June 8, Pope Francis issued a seemingly unprecedented threat, giving the priests of the diocese a 30-day deadline to accept the bishop or be suspended. The request had already been made by Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees missionary territories. His request was sent to the priests in a letter dated June 24, 2014.
Reportedly, most priests from the diocese complied with the pope’s more recent ultimatum, sending their letters to Francis.
However, it’s hard to pin down not only precisely how many priests replied, but even how many priests there are. The Vatican gives one number (110), those who support the bishop another, claiming 157 of some 200 priests sent the required letter, and those who oppose Okpaleke fluctuate between asserting there are between 500 to 700 priests.
As Francis was headed to Colombia on Wednesday, September 6, every priest of the diocese was called to the bishop’s current residence in Owerri, some 20 miles from Ahiara, for a mandatory meeting, where the secretary of the papal representative in the country handed each of them a personal response to their letters to the pope.
A group of priests refused to go to Owerri and gathered at the Ahiara Cathedral, hoping to force the distribution of the letters to be there. However, upon realizing it wasn’t going to happen, they abandoned their insistence and headed to the capital of Imo state.
What the priests wrote, and what they got back
Since the letters were personal, each prelate was asked to sign a form acknowledging receipt. The content of each letter varies, but from what Crux has been able to reconstruct, most have the same core message: Thanks for your apology, now accept the bishop.
Father Ben Ogu from Ahiara shared both his letter of apology and the one he received from the Vatican with Crux.
“In my letter, supposedly written personally to the Pope, I expressed all my honest feelings of disgust about the imposed bishop and my inability to accept, cooperate and work with him in my Christian conscience,” he told Crux.
However, Ogu complained, his letter was taken as support for Okpaleke, and he complained that he’s now being “forced” to accept him. He said over the phone that the priests’ signatures to accept their letters has been taken as acceptance of its content, and that the bishops in Nigeria have now spread “propaganda that we have accepted him” and Okpaleke’s installation will take place soon.
“Others were even intimidated and warned never to put up any more opposition again, or else they will incur suspension a divinis,” he said.
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 faithful in danger of death. In his original threat, Francis had warned the priests that a lack of cooperation would trigger such a suspension.
Ogu’s letter, which is a page long, includes lines such as, “In the dignity of my Christian conscience, may I express my concern for the imposition on me, by an organized conspiracy,” of a bishop whom he calls a “conquer-to-rule maniac.”
“It makes me a robot, an inferior person and a depraved conscience, incapable of rejecting evil, injustice or correcting an obvious anomaly, if I cannot object to the imposition of [an] unfitting Bishop.”
Ogu does apologize to the pope, saying his actions weren’t intended to cause him pain and reaffirms his loyalty to the Vicar of Christ, but he insists that Okpaleke is being appointed through an “unjust conspiracy, malicious propaganda and aggressive financial inducement.
“In good conscience, my cooperation cannot be guaranteed as he [Okpaleke] is morally unsuitable,” he wrote in a letter signed June 27.
In the letter addressed to him, signed by Filoni and written at the pope’s request, the cardinal says Francis appreciated Ogu’s sentiments “by which you ‘re-affirm’ your ‘undoubted total loyalty and obedience.’” [Italics in original].
Filoni also writes that with these expressions, Ogu has accepted Okpaleke as bishop until another decision is taken, and for this reason, did not incur suspension a divinis.
“While respecting your conscience, I may assure you that the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke is not a result of ‘injustice,’ nor ‘privileges’ nor ‘malicious propaganda.’ Who says so is in bad faith and malicious. In this regard, your conscience must remain peaceful,” he wrote.
However, Filoni continues, Ogu is now encouraged not to put forward any opposition to the bishop, and to fulfil the promise made in his priestly ordination to collaborate with the bishop appointed to him.
A second priest, who wrote apologizing to the pope without any commentary regarding his ability to work with Okpaleke also provided his letter to Crux, but requested to remain anonymous, since he saw it as a personal matter.
In the letter, he declared his “total obedience to Your Holiness, Pope Francis,” and also his “willingness to accept the Bishop whom Your Holiness sends and has appointed.”
Fioloni wrote back expressing, on behalf of the pope, “profound appreciation for your letter of apology and obedience.”
There’s no warning against putting forth opposition, but only an encouragement for the priest to “be an instrument of communion in the church and a generous pastor in your mission, living your priesthood according to the heart of Christ.”
What the priests and laity against Okpaleke are saying
There are two versions as to why some local priests, and also laity, are opposing Okpaleke.
Those who oppose him claim they do so because his appointment is corrupt, and part of a wider conspiracy led by Nigerian Cardinals John Onaiyekan, of Abuja and Francis Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and with the help of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to oppress the people of Ahiara.
A Facebook post by a man who signs his name “Comrade Ogugbuaja,” which was sent to Crux through WhatsApp, describes the distributions of the letters as “fraudulent,” and claims that everyone involved in the process is part of a “certified criminal group.”
He writes that the priests were “coerced” into writing an “apology,” and that the pope has no idea this apology request occurred or what he calls subsequent “gimmicks” that have taken place.
In fact, Francis read the apology demand aloud, in his own voice, to representatives from Ahiara who traveled to Rome in June. Those who oppose Okpaleke were invited to send delegates to that meeting too, with their travel expenses paid, but they saw it as part of the alleged conspiracy and refused to do so.
Ogugbuaja even claims that the conspiracy around the appointment is part of the “corruption that sacked” Benedict XVI, and that when Francis urged papal nuncios, meaning representatives around the world who help appoint bishops, to “give the people pastors close to the people,” he was referring exclusively to Ahiara.
The man even says that what the Vatican is doing is “racism,” and tantamount to “slavery,” and warns of a possible violent revolt in the diocese with many priests getting killed — which, if it happens, he said, will be responsibility of the pope.
What the priests and laity in support of Okpaleke are saying
Those who accept the bishop claim the problem is with the priests who oppose him, saying they’re what Francis describes as “careeristas,” meaning that they want to move up the ladder, which is why they’re demanding one of their own be made a bishop.
That’s why the fact that Okpaleke is not a member of the majority Mbaise group has often been described as the reason he’s rejected, although those who support him see that claim as “poisonous,” which should be ignored and not circulated.
A member of the Mbaise Catholic Forum said an article asserting defense of the Mbaise is the issue amounted to a “trashy write-up filled with satanic propaganda and, of course, cannot in any way diminish the truth.” As such, “it doesn’t even deserve a rebuttal.”
Another member of the group called it the “usual idiotic regurgitations from the satanic rebels,” called on them to stop indulging in “silly, childish” pranks, and invited them to leave the Church they have “consistently splattered mud on.
“Of course, this trash that reeks with frustration shows they have reached the end of the road in their evil plans,” the user said.
Father Clement O. Ebii, Vicar General of the diocese, released a statement on Wednesday, responding to an op-ed by a group of laity opposed to the bishop in a local paper.
Ebii wrote that the statement was “sad” and “consequently very worrisome,” particularly after the latest papal pronouncement calling the priests of the diocese to “order and total obedience to his directives.”
He then called on readers of the Vanguard newspaper to ignore the op/ed and take it as fake, since the six signatories are not members of the Ahiara Catholic Laity Council, and that nothing can be written in the diocese’s name without approval of the Vicar General or the diocesan delegate.
A week before, and this time with Ebii’s support, the laity of Ahiara bought add space in a different local paper to express their “unalloyed ‘thank you’” to Francis for his “magnanimity and patience” with the Ahiara crisis. They also apologized for the scandal, pain and embarrassment caused to the Church, the pope, the bishop and Onaiyekan, apostolic administrator.
These days, the group is preparing to join Okpaleke in celebrating the silver jubilee of his priestly ordination, which will take place on Sept. 17 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in Amesi, some 40 miles from Ahiara. The group hopes to move on to preparing the installation of Okpaleke soon.
The only thing both sides seem to agree on is the fact that the other side is a minority, and as such, it should be ignored.
Several questions remain unanswered, from whether the bishop actually will be allowed to set foot in the diocese, to whether or not Francis will go through with his threat of suspending priests who continue to rebel.