Ahiara, Nigeria, Feb 19, 2018 / 11:13 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis accepted the resignation Monday of a Nigerian bishop who had been rejected by many of the priests of his diocese since his appointment more than five years ago.
In June 2017 Pope Francis met with clerics of the Diocese of Ahiara and demanded that they accept the bishop appointment that had been made, or face suspension and loss of office.
In accepting Bishop Peter Okpaleke’s resignation Feb. 19, Pope Francis chose not to take action against the clergy of Ahiara, saying they have since expressed repentance.
At the same time, Pope Francis appointed as apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis of Ahiara Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia.
Bishop Okpaleke’s resignation letter was sent to the Vatican Feb. 14.
Okpaleke was appointed Bishop of Ahiara in December 2012 by Benedict XVI. However, the Ahiara diocese is dominated by the Mbaise ethnic group, and as an outsider from the nearby Diocese of Awka, Okpaleke was rejected by much of Ahiara’s clergy and laity, who wanted one of their own to be appointed bishop over them.
The Mbaise are among the most Catholic of Nigerian peoples, with 77 percent of the diocese’s population of 670,000 being Catholic. Nearby dioceses range between 19 and 70 percent Catholic.
However, Awka, Bishop Okpaleke’s home city, is located in the state of Anambra. Ahiara, on the other hand, is located to the south in Imo state. The Mbaise have often asserted that the Nigerian hierarchy favors Anambra.
Many members of the tribe resent what they call the “Anambranization” of the Church in southeast Nigeria, believing there to be corruption within the Church in Nigeria and a “recolonization” of the Mbaise.
The Mbaise also have a high number of priestly and religious vocations, many of whom end up serving as missionaries in Western nations. The diocese has seen at least 167 priestly ordinations since its establishment in 1987. Because of this, many had hoped that one of their own would fill the two-year episcopal vacancy in the Ahiara diocese.
After Bishop Okpaleke’s appointment, his Mbaise opponents blocked access to Ahiara’s cathedral for his episcopal ordination, forcing the prelate to instead be consecrated and installed outside his new diocese, at Seat of Wisdom Seminary in the Archdiocese of Owerri, May 21, 2013.
In July 2013, shortly after his election, Pope Francis named Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja as apostolic administrator of Ahiara in a bid to resolve the problem; however, the effort proved to be unsuccessful.
In his letter of resignation, Bishop Okpaleke remarked that the situation in the Ahiara diocese “unfortunately … to the best of my knowledge has not improved.” He has remained in Awka since his espiscopal consecration.
“Most importantly, this has been threatening my spiritual life,” he wrote. He said that he thus believes that remaining Bishop of Ahiara “is no longer beneficial to the Church,” as his apostolate would not be effective “where a group of priests and lay faithful are very ill disposed to have me in their midst.”
“Exercising the ministry in a diocese where priests who are supposed to be my immediate and closest collaborators, brothers, friends and sons are at war with one another, with the laity and with me as their chief shepherd would be disastrous and a threat to the salvation of souls – including my own soul.”
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples said in a Feb. 19 letter to Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, that Pope Francis had received 200 letters of apology from clerics of the Ahiara diocese. The congregation responded to each priest who wrote.
The congregation added that with the appointment of a new apostolic administrator, Pope Francis “wants to point out that He continues to have a special and particular concern for the Diocese of Ahiara.”
“For the time being, the Pope does not intend to provide normal Governance to Ahiara and reserves the right to evaluate its spiritual and ecclesial progress before He makes another decision.”
In a Feb. 14 pastoral letter, Bishop Okpaleke characterized opposition to his appointment as a “Refusal to give the Holy Spirit a chance” and announced his decision to offer his resignation.
He included a call to repentance, saying he wanted “to invite those who have remained in permanent opposition to have an authentic ‘sensus Ecclesiae‘ (i.e. staying with the Church in love), to renew the spiritual bond and to refrain from being guided by ideologies, motivations and ideas that neither belong to Christ nor to the Church.”
Obedience is central to discernment, the bishop wrote, and “it involves trust that God is leading the Church.”
“I invite any dissenting priests to re-examine their initial motivations for becoming priests in the Catholic Church. Repentance and reconciliation are very urgent!”
In a Feb. 19 statement, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples confirmed that in their letters expressing “obedience and fidelity”, some of the Ahiaran priests who wrote to Pope Francis also said they would have “psychological difficulty” in collaborating with Bishop Okpaleke after years of conflict.
The congregation urged each priest involved to “reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ” and voiced hope that in the future, they would never repeat such “unreasonable actions opposing a Bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”
“The Holy Father, who accompanies with prayer this new phase in the life of the Church in Ahiara, hopes that, with the new Apostolic Administrator, the local Church will recover its vitality and never again suffer such actions that so wound the Body of Christ.”