I have resisted attempts to delve into this matter. I have had reasons not to comment on the rejection of Bishop-Elect of Ahiara Catholic Diocese, Rev Monsignor Peter Okpaleke before his Episcopal consecration.
The fight against Okpaleke’s appointment began last year during the reign Pope Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI. At the death of the pioneer Bishop of Ahiara Diocese, Bishop V.C Chikwe who is an indigenous priest of Mbaise extraction few years ago before his death, there was a lull in succession process as the Cathedral Administrator; Msgr Theo Nwalor took charge pending the appointment of a substantive Bishop. However, the Holy See as the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Rome, where the Pope operates on December 7, 2012, appointed a priest from Awka Diocese, Anambra State, Monsignor Peter Ebere Okpaleke the Bishop-Elect of the Diocese.
Instead of turning to a relief for the numerous Mbaise Clergy and Laity, Okpaleke’s Bishopric appointment has elicited tremendous reaction. Apparently irked by the Holy Order, Mbaise faithful seems to be disenchanted with the Church for not giving them a Bishop from the clan fondly called “Country Five”.
The Catholic Church in Mbaise has never known peace since Okpaleke was appointed by the retired Pope Benedict. Rejection has continued to greet efforts made by the Catholic hierarchy to allow Okpaleke be. Efforts by the church leaders including the Papal Nuncio in Nigeria, (representative of the Pope), Archbishops and Bishops in the country for Okpaleke’s acceptance have proved futile as people of the area remain unshaken in their resolve to protest non appointment of a priest of Mbaise extraction as Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
Adducing reasons for the rejection, the priests and lay faithful of Ahiara Diocese who claimed they have nothing whatsoever against the person of Okpaleke, Bishop-elect of the Catholic Church “but contest his suitability for Ahiara Diocese, given its uniqueness and pastoral realities”.
While denying that it was alleged disunity amongst priests of Ahiara Diocese that led to the appointment of a cleric form Awka Diocese as Bishop-Elect, the priest also challenged anybody to provide any evidence to the contrary, adding that “the appointment of Okpaleke contradicts natural justice. It sends a very reprehensible signal about the status and reputation of the 500 Catholic priests that trace their origin to the soils of Mbaise, a Diocese that has been acclaimed that Ireland of Nigeria.
“In unequivocal terms, we state our resolve to resist any attempt to forcefully impose him on us as the Bishop of our beloved Diocese”.
According to the priests in an email to our newspaper “Our struggle has already provoked a national debate on the equitable appointment of bishops in Nigeria. More so, it has raised eyebrows about the unfair distribution of Episcopal portfolios in Igboland. Hence, the situation will never be the same again” adding that “it is better for us to bear the scar of this struggle for ten years than to bear it for as long as Mbaise is in existence. The reason is, Fr. Peter Okpalaeke will have a tremendous influence on who would succeed him as the bishop of Mbaise. Let us bear in mind that the retirement age for a bishop is SEVENTY FIVE years and he could stay on till his 78th birthday like Bishops Anthony Nwedo (78) and Mark Unegbu (76), Bishop Michael Eneja (77) or Bishop Anthony Gbuji (77). Hence, he has a term of possibly 30 years on the throne. To add salt to injury, he could possibly play Anambra politics and put a coadjutor of his choice in place. So, Mbaise could be in an ad infinitum limbo”.
The pro-Mbaise group stated that “Some people have naively tried to insinuate that ndi Mbaise are in a standoff with the Vatican and that they are disobeying the Pope, the bishop of Rome. This is arrant nonsense. It betrays the poverty of their theology, the deficit of their canon law, and the beggarliness of their ecclesiology. The issue in the Mbaise crisis does not rise to the level of disobedience. The appointment of a bishop is about the promotion or elevation of church clerics. It is administrative and not theological. Hence, people can protest an appointment. Since the Pontiff is the “Chief Justice” of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, what the Mbaise people have done is to register their disagreement with Rome. In other words, they have appealed their case to the Supreme Court of Catholicism. Whether this is the court of first instance or not; whether the petition is entertained or not is something else. So, when people talk about papa locuta est and the Mbaise people, they don’t seem to under-stand what they are talking about. People can express their disagreement with an Episcopal appointment and this is not disobedience”.
On January 12, 2013, eight priests among the lot in Mbaise land in what could either be described as a “patriotic act” or “rebellious moves” staged a peaceful demonstration in the area to drive home their opposition to Okpaleke’s appointment.
Tuesday’s consecration of Bishop-Elect Okpaleke at the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary, Ulakwo is in fulfillment of the resolve of Bishops of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, who made it clear that there is no going back on the Vatican Order. At the end of the Bishops Conference at the Pastoral Centre, Owerri, on the way forward in early March this year, the ranking clerics drew the attention of the Mbaise faithful to a quotation from the Canon Law (the Catholic Church law of the Vatican Council) which states “There is neither appeal nor recourse against the judgments or desire of the Roman Pontiff” (C333 S3). The Bishops therefore requested for a special week of prayer for healing, peace and harmony within Ahiara Diocese from 3rd March to Sunday 10th March 2013. “The intention should be included in the holy masses, adoration, recitation of Holy Rosary and Station of the Cross into the designated weeks of prayer”. The Bishops finally urged the Mbaise Catholics in that Holy Season of Lent when the Holy Mother of Church invites all Christians to a religious of Ahiara Diocese to come together and begin preparation for ordination of Monsignor Okpaleke”
In spite of the Bishops’ appeals and spiritual induced persuasive measures, the Mbaise faithful remains unshaken in their resolve to reject a non indigene as Bishop of Ahiara Diocese few weeks to the scheduled consecration date at the Ahiara Cathedral Church. Stiffer postures were maintained by the aggrieved Mbaise Catholics propelled by the clergy. Anti-Okpaleke demonstrations were staged at the Diocese especially at the ancestral St. Brigid’s Catholic Church. Prayer protests and demonstrations against the imposition of Okpaleke were organized with offensive placards and mock coffin to show resentment against the appointment.
A cursory over view of anti-Okpaleke sentiments indicates that the protesting Mbaise Catholics have litany of complaints that warrant their present disposition. According to some of the protesting clerics who do not want their names in print, they have the right to express their views in matters related to their home diocese stating that the church especially the Vatican where the Pope presides should adopt justice, fair play and equity in appointment of Bishops. The men of God queried the rationale behind the non consideration of a clergy among the high powered priests of Ahiara extraction numbering more than 500 for the Bishopric elevated position. “What are the criteria for appointment of a Bishop which the numerous Mbaise priests do not posses for consideration? What qualification or spiritual gift has Okpaleke you cannot find among Mbaise priests? It is mere injustice not to consider any of the Mbaise priests as Bishop. What is our offence against the church? Despite the number of priests we have, none is a Bishop anywhere in the Catholic Church? The rejection of Mbaise priests as a Bishop of Ahiara Diocese puts a question mark on the credibility and integrity of our numerous clerics both at home and those outside the Diocese”. He is not a priest of Ahiara Diocese even if he is from Anambra, the priest added.
Speaking further, the visibly worried cleric alleged that there is more than the eye can see in the appointment of Okpaleke as no priest from either Owerri Archdiocese or Orlu Diocese in Imo State were considered than Okpaleke from Anambra State with no less than seven Bishops manning difference Dioceses across the country.
For the aggrieved Mbaise Catholics, there is the hand of Esau in the whole arrangement since the Pope Emeritus; Pope Benedict (XVI) who appointed Okpaleke may not have adequate knowledge of Mbaise Diocese and her priests before anointing a new Bishop. “It is based on information supplied the Pope. The Holy Father does not know any priest. It is based on information from the hierarchy of the clerics in the East here, and we have a top shot that is from Anambra State. The Anambra-born cleric who is a ranked person in the order of priesthood is pursuing a hidden agenda: that is making his kinsmen Bishop and giving them elevated positions at any given opportunity”.
In Catholic Christendom, even as there are established rules and regulations for appointment of a Diocesan Bishop, it is at the behest of the Holy Father, the Pope to appoint who heads a Diocese.
However, by kicking against the coming of Okpaleke, the Mbaise Catholics, especially the protesting clerics and lay people have derided the sacred infallibility of the Pope. During my catechism classes while aspiring to be a Knight of St John International, (KSJ), I was taught that the Pope who in Catholic chronology is a descendant of St Peter, the Chief Apostle of Christ and first Pope of the Catholic Church is infallible; that is the Pope is right and cannot be faulted on matters related to the Catholic Church. And that is why the Bishops of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province drew a quotation from the Canon Law that “there is neither appeal nor recourse against the judgment or Decree of the Roman Pontiff (Pope) (C333 S3), to buttress the point on consecration of Bishop-Elect.
As a young Knight of Saint John International (KSJI) (Second Degree), I can confidently quote the Code of Canon Law. Part II of the Hierarchical Constitution of the Church under Section 1, The Supreme Authority of the Church states “By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only has power over the universal Church, but also has pre-eminent ordinary power over all particular churches and their groupings … There is neither appeal nor recourse against a judgment or a decree of the Roman Pontiff”.
There are slated guidelines for appointment of Bishops for a Diocese or old ones where the presiding Bishop is deceased, the Pope freely appoints Bishops or confirms those lawfully elected. The Canon Law states in CAN 377 “At least every three years, the Bishops of an ecclesiastical province or of circumstances suggest it, of a Bishop conference, are to draw up, by common accord and in secret, a list of priests, even of members of institutes of consecrated life, who are suitable for the episcopate: they are to send this to the Apostolic See (Pope in Vatican). This is without prejudice to the right of every Bishop individually to make known to the Apostolic See the names of priests whom he thinks is worthy and suitable for the Episcopal office …”
However, section 5 of the law also states that “for the future, no rights or privileged of election, appointments, presentation or designation of Bishops are conceded to civil authorities”. Apart from being outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues, a priest suitable for the episcopate according to CAN 378 must posses the following gifts which will equip him to fulfill office of the Bishop, “be held in good esteem, be at least 35 years of age, be a priest ordained for at least five years and holds a doctorate or a least licentiate in sacred scripture, Theology or Canon Law, from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least be well versed in these disciples”. The final section reads “the definitive judgment in the suitability of the person to be promoted rests with the Apostolic See”. Nowhere, Diocese of origin was considered or reflected as sine qua non for appointment.
If priests and laity of Ahiara Diocese who are protagonists of the anti-Okpaleke are aware of these facts as state in the law looks of the Church, why involve themselves in the absurdities rocking the Church in Ahiara Diocese?
Incidentally, it won’t be an overstatement if I say I come from Mbaise. I am part of Mbaise clan because my dear mother is a proud daughter of Ogbe Nneisi, in Ahiazu LGA, who had her primary school at the famous St Brigid’s compound before the civil war. At least as an Okele ukwu (son of a daughter) as I am fondly called, I am licensed to tell Nde Nnam oches (my mother’s brothers) the bitter truth by stating that their acts could be misconstrue to be a revolt not only against the Holy father but the church, if the puerile and illogical reactions against Okpaleke are discussed in public domain.
The Mbaise Catholics may have a case to make but consideration should be given to the universality of the church and intricacies therein. Am also aware that in line with the provision stated therein for the appointment of a Bishop, there could have been a disconnection somewhere to the disadvantage of my maternal home people, which could be attributed to an “act of God” There were unconfirmed reports of petitions and counter-petitions within the Ahiara Diocese that allegedly inflicted harmful injuries on the personality and candidacy of the Mbaise front-runners projected for the Episcopal position. It was even alleged that self-destructive tendencies exhibited by the contending priests of Mbaise extraction, forced the Vatican to look elsewhere for a neutral fellow. All that is story, what is real and fact is the consecration of Bishop Okpaleke as substantive Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
I will employ Mbaise Catholics to reconsider the fact that not all Bishops shepherding the various Dioceses are from their areas of operation despite the fact that majority of them are from Anambra State. I also expect them not to showcase a political approach to the appointment of a Bishop as well as be Anambraphobic in their rejection of Okpaleke considering the number of Mbaise born priests serving outside Mbaise Catholic Diocese who though have not been made Bishop of a Diocese.
By extension, the Mbaise Catholics are exhibiting mere religious chauvinism which is in contrast to the universality of the church. A similar incident took place in Benin Diocese. Before the consecration of Bishop Augustine Akubueze, who incidentally hails from Anambra State. The Binis vehemently rejected his appointment some years ago on the grounds of non indigene status. Bishop Akubueze’s rejection caused uproar when concerned laity went to court to stop his Episcopal consecration. The Binis in their submission claimed they have produced enough home-made priests since the creation of Benin Diocese to be given another non indigene as Bishop. It took the intervention of Gov Adams Oshomele and Oba of Benin to calm frayed nerves before Bishop Akubueze was allowed safe landing to function.
I will continue to urge the good people of Mbaise to accept Bishop Okpaleke in good faith as part of our solemn belief in the supremacy of God as Catholic faithful. For instance, in the history of PortHacourt Diocese, a priest of Ikwerre extraction, the dominant ethnic group have not had the opportunity of producing a Bishop in their territory. From Bishop Emeritus Alexius Makozi, a foreigner, it became the incumbent Bishop Camillus Etokudoh from Akwa Ibom. What of Minna, where an Igboman, Bishop Martin Uzoukwu is incharge.
Do we expect Umuahia Catholics to complain that after Late Bishop Nwedo of Oguta, Imo State their Bishop, Lucuis Ugorji is from Naze in Owerri North where ArchBishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri Archdiocese hails from? Do we want to call Orlu Diocese fools who allowed Bishop Emeritus, Gregory Ochiagha from Isiala Mbano to be their maiden Bishop? The list is endless; it only suggests that the church is universal and abhors political, cultural and ethnic boundaries in Episcopal responsibilities.
It is necessary to also remind Mbaise people of the negative impacts of such agitations especially, the socio-political effects in Imo state polity. I don’t expect them to forget an infamous song by one popular highlife star known as Kabaka that had differences with late Mbaise music icon, Dr Sir Warrior of Oriental Brothers fame. I am aware that the harmful contents of that album had derogatory remarks and was used as a campaign weapon against one of the revered politician in the state, Dr Alex Obi, when he battled for the Imo State Governorship election in 1991. The slogan employed as campaign machinery against the Enyiogugu-Mbaise-born medical doctor worked against his electoral fortunes. Okpaleke’s rejection may revisit the sad reminders of that inglorious Kabaka song.
I am also privileged to intimae the good people of Mbaise that their persistent rejection of Okpaleke will institute schisms in the Catholic Church. What if other local parishes, missionaries and diocese decide to offload priests of Mbaise Diocese and origin in their territories? Does the Mbaise Catholic have enough parishes to accommodate the over 500 Mbaise priests scattered across the globe? For the clergy, their rejection of the Pope Order means that each of the parishes has the right to reject a priest posted to them and even officials of the Catholic Men Organization, CMO, Catholic Women Organization, CWO, and the Catholic Youths Organization of Nigeria (CYON) appointed by the priests in their respective parishes shall also be challenged by the laity and the parishioners who are also major stakeholders in the Catholic Christendom.
On a final note, I will continue to urge Nde Umunem (my maternal home people) to take this development as an act of God. Biblical memories indicates that at a time, the people of Israel said that God should not lead them again but they want a king of their own like other nations. God gave them Saul and later accounts disclosed sordid and unwholesome events that followed suit. I rest my case here.