BY DOMINIC OGUGUO
The current crisis rocking the Catholic Church in Nigeria especially the selection or appointment of the shepherd (bishop) of the Ahiara diocese has greatly agitated the minds of many concerned Catholics. It is not the first time it is happening and will not be the last.
But the case of Ahiara diocese is a very peculiar one. What beats the imagination was why the pioneer bishop of Ahiara did not consider it expedient to get a co-adjutor or an auxiliary bishop given his age and failing health?
This would have made a succcecsion easy to handle. Another question was why the indigenous local clergy who had ample time at their disposal could not agree on an acceptable candidate amongst themselves? Could it be the situation of the unseen hand which later surfaced that thwarted that effort on consensus or was it greed and infighting within their fold, in which case, it was very regrettable? One would question why the interest on the appointment to the bishopric of Ahiara diocese (comprising Ahiazu – Mbaise, Aboh Mbaise and Ezinihitte LGAs in Imo State). This question should not arise.
As a Catholic and a son of Mbaise, one has a stake in the situation. Also building the church is a joint responsibility of the clergy and laity of the diocese. The church’s teaching of participatory Catholicism makes it imperative for one to take keen interest in the matter.
More so, the concept of the “Domo Ecclesia” (entire community of the clergy and faithful working together in roles , responsibility and rights for the common good to realize the mission of the church on earth); and the priesthood of the faithful make it pertinent for one to take keen interest in the matter. The forced indigenization of the church in Igbo land after the last Nigeria civil war made it possible for the local clergy and faithful to face the arduous task of taking leading role of an “independent” local church, albeit, with the known and acceptable cleavages to Rome and the rest of the Catholic world.
This was keenly taken in its strides; with good number of local clergy and committed laity, later emerged as a rural but remarkable diocese. The greater responsibility implied greater interest in the administration of the local church. So there was a thawing of the hegemonic hold of the old in terms of local administration. But as the church flourished some of the hegemonic tendencies began to prop up again through some ”powerful” clergies. One cannot claim to be privy to all the scenarios that gave rise to certain selections or ordinations of some individuals not indigenous by birth to certain diocese/archdiocese as bishops/archbishops. But suffice it to say that in certain circumstances some ‘grafting’ (my nomenclature) would have taken place resulting in such situations.
Where someone not indigenous by birth to a diocese had been ordained for a diocese other than his native diocese, having been sponsored and trained through the seminary by his new domiciled diocese, this new place becomes his home and is required to perform his priestly duties there; also enjoying the rights and privileges of his acquired diocese. They are thus ‘denizens’ in this new home. In certain situations the paucity of indigenous priest had necessitated such ‘grafting’ in the past.
But I doubt if there is any diocese in Nigeria today that very much lacks good number of local indigenous priests and if any, they must be in the very minority. In some other situation, some diocesan areas have become very cosmopolitan with catholic faithful from diverse parts of the country, if summed up, could outnumber the indigenous catholic population.
Lagos and Abuja could be good examples of that. The peculiar category of such areas may advise some different and radical thinking about who shepherds such mega dioceses. So many other factors come into play. But in the case of Ahiara diocese, the conditions are remarkably different. First the appointee Monsignor Okpaleke, of Awka diocese was not ‘grafted’ into Ahiara from his formative days in the seminary. Second you cannot talk of paucity of indigenous local priests.
I do not have the statistics but I challenge the catholic secretariat of Nigeria to publish the details of indigenous priests in Nigeria indicating their diocese of domicile and the diocese of origin to buttress this position. When you consider the Religious Congregations in Nigeria and apply the same criteria you would be astounded about the number of Ahiara diocese indigenes who are priests. The third factor of urbanization of diocese does not apply to Ahiara.
Ahiara is a rural diocese that is developing fast. It is made up of 100% local indigenous clergy and populated by 99% of indigenous local catholic faithful. Therefore urbanization as a factor affecting choice of the local ordinary (bishop) holds no water here. Again if the statistics of aborigine Nigerian diocesan priests in the Diaspora and those of other religious congregations in those countries are considered it might shock you to discover that another astonishing number of priests of Ahiara origin abound therein.
There could be other factors of being properly lettered in required church critical disciplines like Canon Law, Sacred Theology and other required disciplines. There could be issues of piety (morals), local acceptability and managerial ability. There could also be the ‘nebulous’ concept of ‘acceptability by Rome’ as a critical factor. I term this nebulous because Rome does not reside here and cannot decide in a vacuum.
Whatever Rome does very often is in consultation with the papal nuncio in Nigeria and the Nigeria’s bishops’ conference which still boils down to local Nigerian hierarchy decision. From the foregoing, I am not convinced about the appointment and so for any discerning person, to warrant foistering a ‘foreigner and stranger’ on the priests and faithful.
It is difficult to understand why Ahiara diocese with the sobriquet of “IRELAND OF NIGERIA” due to the great number of indigenous diocesan and Religious priests traceable as sons of Mbaise, could be so treated by the leadership of the same church.
This is sad, shabby, unfortunate, and obviously an obnoxious decision that is bound to have a lot of negative implications for the local church. The church leadership should not preach fairness to us because they have not exhibited it here. The territory of Ahiara diocese is made up of Ahiazu Mbaise, Aboh Mbaise and Ezinihitte LGAs which could be said to be predominantly catholic; it also has a very large number of older protestant denominations.
But in recent times many of the new generation Pentecostals are having great in road in the area especially among the youths. The current decision of the Catholic hierarchy will exasperate this situation with loss of future backbone of the local church.
The younger generation of this area is astound by this brazen position of the leadership of the church and are raising issues. There might be a protest of mass rejection of Catholicism by them to these new Pentecostals. Don’t wave it off. We know the terrain and are telling you what is likely to happen soonest based on this ugly decision. We must not destroy the legacies of our forebears in the quest for spheres of interest and control or playing out who is better placed to be listened to by Rome.
Definitely Monsignor Opkaleke is being foistered on the clergy and catholic faithful of Ahiara. Since this crisis erupted, I had strongly resisted the cry of ‘Anambranization’ of the church in Igbo land as some analysts posit. But on a hindsight one could be persuaded to seriously take a second look at that argument. This situation is likened to a conquest. In the eyes of the Ahiara clergy and discerning laity the appointee is a feudal lord who is coming to do his master’s bidding.
It is likened to Old Judea governed by appointed leaders from Rome, who were to do the bidding of Rome, irrespective of the peoples’ yearnings and aspirations. He would be regarded as the commander of a conquering army whose duty is to ensure obedience and compliance to his master who resides in another land. So where is the freedom of the local church?
If the appointment holds, soonest we may see the ‘grafting’ of seminarians of Anambra origin seeping into Ahiara. Who says that one of these may not grow to replace Okpaleke when another vacancy to the seat exists? It has even bigger implications for larger Owerri ecclesiastical province as argued by some commentators. The metropolitan archbishop is not getting younger.
Soonest the thought of retirement may be knocking at his door, if not already. If Okpaleke (mind you he is said to be 49 years) is foistered on Ahiara today, who says that the same forces at play today and their cronies may not move him to Owerri (think of Uromi to Benin ‘throne’ in recent times).
But the only case that distinguishes this from the Ahiara/Owerri situation is that the Benin Metropolitan was ordained for Issele -Uku diocese, which is part of the Benin ecclesiastical province. So in the case of the former it would be “stooping to conquer”. Is that the game plan? Please someone should provide an answer. Oguguo writes via [email protected]