Sunday, 19 May 2013
Priests and the lay faithful of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Mbaise in Imo State recently protested through the major roads of the Diocese against the appointment of Monsignor Ebere Peter Okpalaeke as the Bishop-elect of the Diocese on the grounds that he is not an indigene.
The bishop-elect, Monsignor Okpalaeke is from the Igbo-speaking area of Delta State, which is in Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province. He was appointed last year by Pope Benedict XVI, to replace the late Rt. Rev. Dr. Victor AdibeChikwe, the pioneer Bishop of Ahiara Diocese who died about three years ago.
When the late bishop passed on, the diocese went into days of fasting, petitioning God for a replacement. And that prayer ‘was answered’ last year when Okpalaeke was appointed. But rather than accept the appointment in good faith, the priests see the appointment as an embarrassment in the sense that of the many priests from Mbaise, none was found worthy to be promoted to the rank of a bishop to shepherd the flock of Jesus Christ in Ahiara Diocese.
Ever since, the Catholic faith which enjoys a monopoly of sanctity and uniqueness appears to have experienced some cracks and apprehension.
On Thursday 16, 2013 the priests numbering over 400 marched through the streets disrupting economic activities. The protesters, who wore black attire, disrupted vehicular and human movement for several hours as they marched through major streets displaying placards and chanting anti Vatican slogans.
Some of the placards displayed by the aggrieved Catholics read: “No ordination of Okpalaeke in Mbaise”, “Awka has five bishops, Mbaise has no bishop”, “Mbaise unequivocally rejects Okpalaeke”, “We reject injustice”, “We want Mbaise son as Mbaise bishop”, among others.
“We, the priests and lay faithful of Ahiara Diocese, having in view the peculiarities of our diocese, state that we categorically reject the appointment of Msgr. Peter Okpalaeke as the bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese”, the priests stated.
They also made it clear that because they are impelled by the pastoral realities of their diocese and being solicitous for the promotion of the Catholic faith among their people, they have the obligation to reject anything that imperils the faith of their people.
“Our opposition of the appointment of Msgr. Okpalaeke draws from our perception of the paramount importance of the salvation of the souls of our people.
The salvation of the souls of our people in Ahiara Diocese commands our primary allegiance before any other consideration”, the priests said.
While stating that the appointment of Okpalaeke contradicts natural justice, the priests equally argued that it sends a very reprehensible signal about the status and reputation of about 500 Catholic priests that trace their origins to the soil of Mbaise, a diocese that has been globally acclaimed as the Ireland of Nigeria.
“To us the priests of Mbaise, who are being maligned and embarrassed by Msgr. Okpalaeke’s appointment, it is an enormous injustice and cannot be allowed to stand”, the angry clerics stated. Continuing, the priests said they have a strong moral obligation to fight injustice in the portrayal of the priests of Mbaise as incompetent, lacking faith and moral probity that the office of the bishop demands.
Monsignor Okpalaeke, the embattled bishop- elect was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI before his abdication. That has been the norm. And the Catholic priests are known to have lived with the practice since St. Peter. By training and practice, the priests are not supposed to show any resentment in such process.
A source close to the Diocese told Sunday Mirror that the fear now being expressed by the Catholic faithful there is what will become of the priests’ loyalty to the Bishop- elect if the Pope remains resolute on the appointment? He said such agitation “is a dangerous precedent because if the authorities succumb to the agitation, other dioceses where indigenes are not appointed would head to the streets to demand for their sons to be appointed.”
Reacting to the impasse, the Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, Archbishop Valentine Obinna, observed that the appointment was from Rome and nobody could change it, and it was the absolute preserve of the Pope to appoint a Bishop. In his words, “the appointment is a Papal one. The Pope appoints whoever he wants, despite our feelings.
So the appointment stands”, he stated. Meanwhile, the body of the Council of Knights of the Ahiara Diocese was said to have initially disagreed with the stand of the priests, but now they have been infiltrated by the protesting priests, who have succeeded in breaking their (Knights’) ranks, as they no longer speak as a group. Sir UdoAnokwu, Knight of St. John of the Diocese, however, condemned the action of the priests. According to him, the rejection of the appointment of the Bishop- elect “is evil.
It’s also un-Catholic and should be condemned by all good Catholic faithful,” he said. He regretted that those who should be looked upon as examples are now trying to change the status quo. He cited the case of a priest from Ngwa in Abia State, Rev Fr. FortunatusNwachukwu, whose mother is from Mbaise and is currently a Papal Nuncio in Nicaragua.
Papal Nuncio is an Ambassador of the Vatican, he disclosed. A reverend father who pleaded not to be mentioned advised the agitating priests to allow the appointment to stand. He explained further that despite the fact that the Vatican is in Rome and the Pope is the Bishop of Diocese of Rome, non Italians have been elected Popes, including the current Pope Francis who is from Argentina.
Also a lecturer at Imo State Polytechnic, Umuagwu, Paddy Njoku, joined the mirage of those who have condemned the ‘unholy’ action. His words: “They say the Pope is infallible, and the Pope appointed the bishop.
If the Pope is infallible, then the bishop should be allowed to stay. And moreover, our own sons could be appointed Bishops in other Dioceses. What happens if that happens?”
A non-Catholic, Mr. Innocent Agwu, said the priests acted as if they have forgotten that every appointment comes from God. “If Okpalaeke’s appointment is not ordained by God, God has a way of removing what is not from Him. The priests should have taken the matter to God.