Pope Francis To Sack Nigerian Priests Over Ahiara Church Crisis
FUNSHO AROGUNDADE with Agency reports
Pope Francis has laid down an ultimatum to defiant Nigerian priests in Ahiara Diocese in Imo state: lose your job if you don’t obey me and your bishop, the Associated Press has reported.
Pope Francis met June 8 at the Vatican with a delegation from the Ahiara diocese, where priests have been refusing to accept Peter Ebere Okpaleke, appointed the local bishop in 2012 by the then Pontiff, Benedict XVI.
Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, reporting the Pope’s unusually harsh order, said Sunday that Francis was acting “for the good of the people of God” by threatening to suspend the priests from the ministry if they didn’t pledge in a letter, by July 9, “total obedience” to Francis and accept Bishop Peter Okpaleke’s appointment.
Francis told the visiting delegation he was “very sad” about the priests’ refusal to obey and ruled out tribal loyalties as explaining the refusal.
Africa has been one of the continents where the Catholic church is growing.
The faithful and clergy there often imbue their practices with local culture in dynamic contrast to more traditional routines in Europe or North America.
Francis’ move to end disobedience to the Vatican aims at ensuring the growing church there will be loyal to the Pontiff.
His remarks to the visiting delegation indicated how dangerous he viewed any rebellion against Papal authority.
Those priests opposing Okpaleke’s taking up of his office “want to destroy the church, which is not permitted,” Francis said in his address to the delegation.
Francis added: “the Pope can’t be indifferent” to the rebellion.
He has often taken a conciliatory tone in resolving disputes, but in this one he was entertaining no diplomacy.
He demanded that each priest in the diocese write to him asking forgiveness and “clearly manifest total obedience to the pope.”
They must also accept the bishop chosen by Rome. If, within a month, each priest doesn’t do so, he will be “ispo facto suspended,” such as from the celebration of the sacraments, and “will lose his current office,” Francis warned.
Francis acknowledged that his move “seems very harsh.”
He added that he had even considered the extraordinary remedy of suppressing the entire diocese but didn’t, so as not to hurt rank-and-file faithful.
He said he thought the rebellious priests might have been manipulated from outside the diocese or even abroad, but named no culprits.
In 2015, the diocese served around 520,000 Catholics, out of a local population of about 675,000, and had 128 diocesan priests and seven other priests.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the priests were involved in the rebellion against the bishop’s appointment.
During the private audience with the delegation of the Diocese of Ahiara, over the ‘painful situation’ in the diocese since 2012, sad Pope said: “We all must share this common sorrow.
“I feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese.
“I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.’’
The Church, he said, was a mother and whoever offended her committed a mortal sin, “it’s very serious’’.
“However, I decided not to suppress the Diocese. Instead, I wish to give some indications that are to be communicated to all: first of all it must be said that the Pope is deeply saddened.
“This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this? Because the people of God are scandalized.
“Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences. Maybe someone has been manipulated without having full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.
“To you brothers and sisters, I would like to express my sincere thanks for your presence; and also to Cardinal Onaiyekan for his patience and to Bishop Okpaleke, whose patience and humility I admire.’’
Bishop Okpaleke, of Anambra origin had been rejected since 2012 when he was posted to the Diocese of Ahiara because he was not a native of Mbaise.
The meeting which was characterized by dialogue and listening, ended with a prayer to Mary and the Pope’s blessing.
“I cordially greet the Delegation and thank you for coming from Nigeria in a spirit of pilgrimage.
“For me, this meeting is a consolation because I am deeply saddened by the events of the Church in Ahiara.
“In fact, the Church (and excuse the wording) is like a widow for having prevented the Bishop from coming to the Diocese. Many times I have thought about the parable of the murderous tenants, of which the Gospel speaks (cf. Mt 21:33-44), that want to grasp the inheritance.
“In this current situation the Diocese of Ahiara is without the bridegroom, has lost her fertility and cannot bear fruit. Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church.
“This is forbidden; perhaps he does not realise it, but the Church is suffering as well as the People of God within her.
“The Pope cannot be indifferent. I know very well the events that have been dragging on for years and I am thankful for the attitude of great patience of the Bishop, indeed the holy patience demonstrated by him.’’
He explained that he listened and reflected much, even about the possibility of suppressing the Diocese, but then “I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children’’.
The members of the delegation were accompanied by His Eminence Cardinal J. O. Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja and Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara, His Excellency A. J. Obinna.
Others are Metropolitan Archbishop of Owerri, I. A. Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos and President of the Episcopal Conference of Nigeria, His Excellency P. E. Okpaleke, Bishop of Ahiara.
Also Cardinal Secretary of State, the Prefect and Superiors of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples were also present as well as Reverend Fathers C. O. Ebii, J. N. Uwalaka and U. I. Olekamma, Sister B. O. Ezeyi and S.A.R.P Iwu, Traditional Head, on behalf of the religious and lay faithful.