ROME – These days, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja is deeply hesitant to be drawn into talking about the troubled Nigerian diocese of Ahiara, saying his role as Apostolic Administrator there ended a year ago when Pope Francis took the situation in his own hands, and not wanting to aggravate what’s already perhaps the most painful, and extraordinary, Catholic storyline in Africa.
Onaiyekan reluctantly agreed to discuss the situation with Crux on Jan. 9, mostly because he believes a core principle is at stake, which is that “the pope appoints bishops and nobody else.”
“We need to handle this seriously because it’s very important, and not only for Ahiara and Nigeria,” he said. “It raises the issue of how we appoint bishops for the whole Church.”
“If you decide to change it because of this case, then get ready” to live with the consequences, warned Onaiyekan, who turns 74 later this month.
Onaiyekan spoke to Crux on the sidelines of a Rome conference on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s “World Religions and World Church” program Jan. 8-10.
To recap, the Diocese of Ahiara in southern Nigeria, with about 400,000 Catholics out of a total population of a half-million, has been in suspended animation since December 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Peter Ebere Okpaleke, 49 at the time and a member of the Ibo ethnic group that’s long been a bulwark of Nigerian Catholicism, as the new bishop.
An uprising among the diocese’s priests ensued, abetted by lay activists, not out of personal opposition to Okpaleke – who, by most accounts, is a gentle and decent individual, and more or less an innocent bystander – but because he comes from outside the Mbaise group that dominates Ahiara, and which feels under-represented in the Nigerian hierarchy. Although Okpaleke was ordained as the bishop in May 2013, he’s never entered the diocese, and many aspects of Church life have ground to a halt. There are seminarians in Ahiara, for instance, who’ve been waiting four years for ordination, with no clear sense when – or if – the big day will ever come.
Flash-forward to June 2017, when Pope Francis took the essentially unprecedented step of demanding that all Ahiara priests write to him pledging loyalty within 30 days, and threatening suspension if they didn’t comply.
Onaiyekan and others believed the endgame was at hand – the hard-core opposition would be identified and marginalized, the ground would be cleared for Okpaleke to take over, and life in Ahiara eventually would go back to normal.
It’s now seven months later, however, and none of that has happened. No one’s been openly suspended or otherwise sanctioned, Okpaleke still hasn’t taken possession of the diocese, and confusion has set in about where things go from here. Some, such as Bishop Joseph Bagobiri of Kafanchan in the central part of the country, are openly suggesting that in the interests of peace, Okpaleke should just step aside so things can start fresh.
Onaiyekan, however, believes that if the opposition to Okpaleke gets its way, a dangerous precedent will be set.
“It won’t stop here, and it’s not only about new bishops, but those who are already bishops. If somebody can create enough problems in such a way that you can no longer rely on his stable episcopacy, then you can force the pope’s hand.”
“That’s especially dangerous in a place like Nigeria, where we have so many differences of tribal positions and so on,” he said. “We believe that we have a system where the pope appoints, and whether you like it or not, you accept [the bishop] and then you leave him to work. He works well or he doesn’t, and that’s the story of the Church.”
Onaiyekan grants that because so much time has passed since the pope’s edict, confidence is beginning to waver, and some are wondering if eventually Francis will be persuaded to back down.
Though Onaiyekan says he’s waiting to see what will happen like everyone else, he believes a reversal of course would be ill-advised.
“I don’t think it would be helpful. It wouldn’t even be a decision met with joy by the vast majority of Nigerians,” he said. “We would rather face the consequences of pushing the matter to wherever it leads, and let Ahiara finally begin to rise.”
The Nigerian cardinal, who’s led the Archdiocese of Abuja, the national capital, since 1994, is equally firm on where the resolution needs to come from: Rome, and specifically, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples headed by Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni.
“Since the decision has been taken here, it should be followed up here,” he said, referring to Rome. “As the bishops of Nigeria, we have actually written to Filoni [to say] that we cannot keep waiting.”
Since last June, Onaiyekan stressed, he’s been out of the picture because Rome took over. Among other things, he said, he no longer makes the roughly 360-mile trip from Abuja to Ahiara, and has tried to stay out of the fray.
“I considered my job as Apostolic Administrator over,” he said. “The pope had spoken, and I cannot improve on what he has said. Since then, I’ve been waiting for Rome to take whatever decision needs to be taken.”
“Personally, I believe time has been lost in these six months we’ve been waiting,” he said. “It’s becoming quite embarrassing.”
“If I were handling it, I would have just taken action right away,” Onayiekan said. “I would have said, these are the people who have written a proper letter according to what the pope has said, the rest of you, consider yourselves suspended until you have written something better. That would have kept things moving.”
What exactly does Onaiyekan think Filoni needs to do?
“The first thing is, we need to have a full list of the priests we can count on to welcome their bishop,” he said, which he argued that Filoni could supply based on the letters sent to the pope.
“If we have a good list of those priests, then we can start organizing them. If we get them organized, then the bishop can start moving ahead,” he said.
Oniayekan disputed the claim that whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, there’s been so much water under the bridge that it’s impossible to expect Okpaleke to function effectively.
“For me, it is sheer hypothesis to say, like some people have said, that with all that has happened, and the amount of bad blood that has been created, there’s no way that Bishop Okpaleke can successfully run the diocese,” he said.
“I don’t know whether anybody can actually say that, because a lot depends on how the bishop himself conducts his mission,” Onaiyekan said. “I personally believe that if he goes there, something will start moving. People will make up their minds.”
He added that during his period as Apostolic Administrator, wherever he went in the diocese he always found a “very good welcome.”
Despite some dire forecasts of resistance and even violence should Okpaleke set foot in Ahiara, Onaiyekan believes much of that is overheated.
“My own feeling is that if a clear decision is taken, and Bishop Okpaleke goes to his diocese, the worst-case scenario is if nobody comes out to see him,” he said. “The idea that they will attack him physically, I don’t believe that.”
“Anyway,” Onaiyekan added wryly, “it won’t be the first time that a bishop enters hostile territory.”
Finally, Onaiyekan rejected the idea that Francis didn’t understand the situation in Ahiara and was poorly informed by others. Those rejecting Okpaleke, he said, actually wrote multiple letters to Rome, “and they all got to the pope.”
“The pope was well aware of the situation, which is why he came out as firmly as he did,” Onaiyekan said. “It’s not true that he didn’t know what was happening. The story being told around Ahiara, ‘Oh, if the pope only heard our story,’ just isn’t true. I told them there’s nothing you’ve said the pope is not aware of.”
Onaiyekan knows that despite the fact he no longer has any role in Ahiara, some Nigerians continue to blame him for the mess, including some fairly hostile commentary in a few local media outlets. However, he says, the criticism isn’t really a source of any anxiety.
“That doesn’t bother me, for the simple reason that I’m not responsible for any mess, neither for the appointment of Okpaleke nor for what the pope said in June,” he said.
“What I’m hoping now is that somebody here [in Rome], somewhere, somehow, will tell us what to do,” he said. “We will do whatever needs to be done.”