Pope tells Nigerian priests accept bishop or be suspended

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis is giving priests belonging to the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, 30 days to write a letter
promising obedience to him and accepting the bishop appointed for their diocese or they will be suspended.

The papal text in English was posted June 9 on the blog of Archbishop Ignatius
Kaigama of Jos, president
of the Nigerian bishops’ conference. Cardinal John
Olorunfemi Onaiyekan of Abuja told Catholic News Service
the same day that the text was what Pope Francis said. The Vatican press office released the text June 10.

Nigerian church leaders had met Pope Francis June 8
to discuss the situation of Bishop
Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who was appointed bishop of Ahiara by then-Pope
Benedict XVI in 2012, but who has been unable to take control of the diocese because of
protests, apparently by the majority of priests.

Initially the Vatican issued only a short communique on the
meeting with the pope, describing the situation in the diocese as “unacceptable” and saying the pope “reserved the right to take appropriate measures.”

The protests were motivated by the fact that Bishop Okpaleke is not a local

In the full text posted later, Pope Francis told the Nigerian leaders, “I think that, in this case, we are not
dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the
Lord.” The pope also referred to “the parable of the murderous
tenants” in Matthew 21:33-44.

“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking
possession of the diocese wants to destroy the church. This is forbidden,”
the pope said.

Pope Francis said he even had considered “suppressing
the diocese, but then I thought that the church is a mother and cannot abandon
her many children.”

Instead, he said, every priest of the diocese, whether
residing in Nigeria or abroad, is to write a letter to him asking for
forgiveness because “we all must share this common sorrow.”

Each priest’s letter, he said, “must clearly manifest
total obedience to the pope” and indicate a willingness “to accept
the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.”

“The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to
July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended ‘a
divinis’ and will lose his current office,” the pope said, according to the

“This seems very hard, but why must the pope do this?”
Pope Francis asked. “Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus
reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences.”

Okpaleke, the contested bishop, also met the pope and was joined in Rome
by other Nigerian bishops and a handful of priests making an unusual kind of visit
“ad limina apostolorum” (to the threshold of the apostles) in early

While “ad limina” visits usually are done in
national groups, the Vatican communique described the Ahiara diocesan visit
using the same term. It noted that the nine-person delegation prayed at the
tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul and in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

They also participated in a private celebration of the Mass
June 8 with Pope Francis. The Vatican did not say if the pope gave a homily.

Later in the day, the pope held a private audience with the
group. Members also had met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and with Cardinal Fernando Filoni and
other top officials from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to
examine what the Vatican called the “painful situation of the church in

When Bishop Okpaleke was appointed to the diocese, the
announcement was met by protests and petitions calling for the appointment of a
bishop from among the local clergy.

Nevertheless, he was ordained a bishop in May 2013, although the
ordination took place not in the Ahiara diocese, but at a seminary in the Archdiocese
of Owerri.

Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo state in southern Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke is from Anambra state, which
borders Imo to the north.

A petition to Pope Benedict launched by the “Coalition of Igbo
Catholics” said, “That no priest of Mbaise origin is a bishop
today … is mind boggling. Mbaise has embraced, enhanced the growth of and
sacrificed for the Catholic Church, has more priests per capita than any other diocese
in Nigeria and certainly more than enough pool of priests qualified to become
the next bishop of the episcopal see of Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise.”

According to the Vatican, the diocese has close to 423,000
Catholics and 110 diocesan priests.

Trying to calm the situation, in July 2013 Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Onaiyekan to serve
as apostolic administrator of the diocese, and the following December he sent Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson,
then-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to Ahiara to
listen to the concerns of the diocesan priests and local laity.

Cardinal Onaiyekan
joined Bishop Okpaleke on the “ad limina” visit to Rome, as
did Archbishop Anthony Obinna
of Owerri and Archbishop Kaigama. Three
priests, a religious sister and a traditional elder also made the trip.

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