For the first time since 2010, the troubled diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria celebrated the traditional Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, led by a papal representative appointed to oversee a period of transition after the previous bishop, who had been rejected for years by some among the clergy and laity, presented his resignation last month.
In 2012 Bishop Peter Okpaleke was appointed to Ahiara by Pope Benedict XVI, but due to protests was never allowed to set foot in the diocese. He’s not accused of any wrongdoing, but he’s from a different linguistic and cultural group than the majority of people in the area.
The prelate resigned last month, after several twists and turns in the saga, which included the entire clergy of the diocese being forced to write a letter of apology to Pope Francis under threat of suspension last year.
Taking his place temporarily is Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of the diocese of Umuahia, who was appointed by Francis as Apostolic Administrator until a new permanent bishop is named.
The Chrism Mass is traditionally celebrated at the local cathedral by the bishop, and it’s often the largest annual gathering of clergy, and during it the priests and deacons renew the promises made during their ordination, and the laity attending the liturgy renew their baptismal promise. In addition, it’s in this Mass that the holy oils used in the sacraments throughout the year are blessed.
Without a bishop, Ahiara hadn’t had this Mass, nor any priestly ordinations or confirmations, since the death of Bishop Victor Adibe Chikwe in September 2010.
According to reports from those present at the Mass, in his homily Ugorji emphasized that no true Catholic should discriminate based on language or tribe, “as we are one family.”
He also promised that priests will soon be assigned new posts, and he urged those who will be reassigned to work cheerfully.
According to Nigeria’s Daily Post, the prelate also advised the faithful to leave themselves open to the will of God, and warned against lawlessness in the Church.
Ugorji reportedly commended the priests for their many sacrifices and urged them to follow proper procedures in all their actions.
Father David Iheanacho, who attended the Chrism Mass, told Crux that it was “absolutely wonderful,” with a crowd gathered at the Mater Ecclesiae Cathedral in Ahiara being “apocalyptic in size.”
He believes an estimated 400 priests attended the celebration, with many coming from neighboring dioceses.
Of Ugorji, Iheanacho said that he has “proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the healing of Ahiara diocese. He has been hitting all the right notes, and the people are ecstatic about the new situation.”
“What is happening in Ahiara diocese is nothing short of a miracle,” he said. “The problems of the past are gone for good. No division or discrimination whatsoever. All have melded into one family.”
According to the priest, the diocese has “been living on another planet” since the announcement of Okpaleke was announced.
Speaking about the homily, he said that it wasn’t written but delivered spontaneously, much of it centered on the meaning of the Chrism Mass and the oils blessed during it.
Yet, Iheanacho said, the bishop also “charged the priests to work in obedience to the Church led by the Holy Father,” and urged priests who are running “parallel ministries in the dioceses” to put an end to them.
Finally, Ugorji also reportedly promised the laity that he would soon begin visiting parishes throughout Ahiara to administer the sacrament of Confirmation, which also hasn’t been available for the past seven years.