ROME – After a crisis that began in late 2012 in the African diocese of Ahiara, which has been without a resident bishop ever since, life is slowly but steadily returning to normal after Pope Francis decided in mid-February to accept the resignation of a shepherd who, for years, was rejected by angry activists among his flock.
“I wish to state that a new time has dawned for the Church in Ahiara Diocese,” said Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of the diocese of Umuahia, recently appointed by Francis as Apostolic Administrator until a new permanent bishop is named.
“It is a new springtime, the time to restore this diocese to its past glory,” he told hundreds of Catholics who gathered on Saturday at the local cathedral for his first Mass since being tapped by the pontiff on Feb. 19, after the resignation of Bishop Peter Okpaleke.
Okpaleke had been appointed by then-Pope Benedict XVI in Dec. 2012, but he was never able to set foot in the diocese. In June 2017 Francis demanded every priest in the diocese write a letter of apology to him promising “total obedience.”
Most clergy complied, but according to a statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the letters often expressed a “psychological difficulty in collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict.”
“Taking into account their repentance,” Francis decided not to proceed with any canonical sanctions such as suspension from priestly ministry and eventually chose to accept Okpaleke’s resignation.
Priests and lay activists who opposed the appointment did so on grounds that Okpaleke is not from the majority linguistic and cultural group in the area, and many members of that group took the appointment as a deliberate slight.
In order to return to glory, Ugorji said on Saturday, “we should fervently strive to deepen, purify and strengthen our faith in line with the authentic teachings of the Church.”
“We should also strive to overcome our differences, heal the wounds of division and unite once more for our common mission of evangelization,” he said. “Past animosities and misunderstanding should be over and a new communion and friendship among you begun for the sake of the Gospel.”
Though fundamentally hopeful, the homily is not free of scolding of the local clergy and faithful. As one of the people who were present on Saturday told Crux, it’s “to the point, poignant and honest.”
Some 3,000-words long, the homily was sent in full to Crux on the day it was read, and is currently being distributed across the diocese as a pastoral message.
Ugorji began by thanking the Irish missionaries who first brought the Catholic faith to Ahiara, and highlighting the contributions of the indigenous clerics, leading to the creation of the diocese in Nov. 1987, with Bishop Victor Chikwe, “a dynamic and loyal pastor,” leading the flock.
Okpaleke was supposed to replace Chikwe, but that didn’t happen: “It’s unfortunate that the process of appointing his successor snowballed into a very destructive crisis that seems to eclipse the noteworthy progress and achievements of the Church in Ahiara Diocese over the years,” Ugorji said.
The “horrible crisis” shook the local church to its “very foundation like an earthquake,” inflicting deep wounds of division throughout the church in Igbo land, and damaging the image of the Church in Nigeria and beyond.
“Intra-ethnic and clannish cleavages that underpinned the crisis have left their ugly marks on the face of the Church,” he said. “The noble institution of the Catholic priesthood, known and respected for discipline, has been discredited and ridiculed by some unseemly behavior and utterances of the clergy.”
The pulpit, Ugorji said, has been profaned in some parishes and misused “for the dissemination of falsehood, distortions and half-truths by people meant to be God’s oracles.”
According to the prelate, who was received with a welcoming attitude by both the detractors and defenders of Okpaleke, the damage caused during the crisis is “beyond scale and measure,” with innocent people being hurt “through calumny, detraction and slander.”
In his homily, Ugorji thanked several people who through the years tried to resolve the crisis, including Cardinal John Onaiyekan, of Abuja, and himself apostolic administrator of the diocese for some years, and Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, who was sent to Ahiara twice, as papal representative in an attempt to diffuse the tensions.
Yet above all, he thanked Okpaleke, for his voluntary resignation, “because he did not see how his ministry in Ahiara Diocese could be effective amidst stiff opposition and rejection by a large segment of the clergy and lay faithful.”
His decision to resign, Ugorji said, “has been widely acclaimed as wise, noble and courageous. He deserves our respect and gratitude.”
Speaking about Francis, the prelate said the pope was “deeply saddened” by the crisis, yet chose to take “the benign path of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.”
“The clergy of Ahiara Diocese are requested by the Holy See to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church by the crisis and never, ever oppose a bishop legitimately appointed by the Holy Father,” he said.
Reminding those present that the crisis is far from over, Ugorji issued a reminder that could be seen as a warning: Pope Francis reserves to himself the right to evaluate the spiritual and ecclesiastical progress in this diocese before he makes any other decision regarding governance.
Local clergy and faithful, he said, need to reaffirm their allegiance to the pope, who “as the Pastor of the entire Church, possesses supreme, full and universal power over the whole Church,” reminding Ahiara of St Augustine’s famous Latin dictum: Roma locuta est, causa finita (“Rome has spoken, the matter is decided.”)
Ugorji said that reconciliation will also require for the people of Ahiara to remember that they’re members of “one, Catholic, and apostolic Church,” and for priests to keep in mind that they’re united by a sacramental brotherhood that “transcends the divisions created by ethnicity, clan and tongue. By accepting and treating every priest as our brother, no matter his color, status or place of origin.”
“We live out the sacramental brotherhood of the priesthood and challenge our society that is often torn apart by inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic tensions and conflicts,”Ugorji said. “By our priestly fraternal communion that knows no boundaries, we also witness to the Church’s mission of uniting all things in Christ.”