GEORGE ONYEJIUWA, Owerri
An atmosphere of gaiety and serenity now envelopes the Mater Ecclesia Cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara in the wake of the sudden and unexpected resignation of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke, the erstwhile bishop of the diocese. For six years that the crisis that engulfed the diocese lasted, a dark pall of gloom hung over the cathedral. But is has disappeared and a gentle breeze of fresh air now sway the fronds of the palm trees that line the perimeter wall of the compound.
Equally gone is the hostile disposition of the security guards at the entrance to the cathedral, who used to harangue visitors to the cathedral subjecting them to intense questioning seeking to know their mission to the place. After going through such torturous questioning, the visitor would still be denied access to the cathedral. But all that has suddenly changed. The gate which had previously been permanently locked while the impasse between Bishop Okpalaeke and Mbaise catholics lasted is now open to everyone.
When Sunday Sun visited the Mater Ecclesia last Wednesday, some of the senior priests and executive members of the Laity Council of the diocese, who were in obvious happy mood, were already holding a meeting, apparently to discuss the latest development.
In interactions with the reporter, they described the resignation of the embattled bishop as not only a prayer answered but a miracle. They explained that having been consecrated as the bishop of the diocese by the Catholic Pontiff he remained the bishop of the diocese and could not be removed notwithstanding that he was not accepted by the people. By canonical law, the only way a bishop can be replaced is through retirement, death or resignation.
But when asked to react to the development, President of the Diocesan Priests Association, Reverend Fr. Austin Ekechukwu, declined to comment, stating that he would rather hold back and wait for the arrival of Bishop Lucius Ugorji, the apostolic administrator appointed by the Vatican to oversee the diocese.
With glee, Fr. Innocent Uwah said: “The resignation of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke has once more brought joy and peace back to the diocese and we are grateful that he did the needful by resigning so that the Ahiara Diocese will have a breath of fresh air. I wish him luck in his future endeavour.”
He added: “Both the priests and laity of the diocese are ready to welcome the new apostolic administrator, the Most Reverend Lucius Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia, who has all the powers of the bishop. And we are going to cooperate with him.”
Giving insight into the six-year crisis, Fr. Uwah said that the opposition of the people to the bishopric of Okpalaeke was misconstrued to mean that they wanted an Mbaise person as bishop of the Diocese. He described this as as part of the propaganda carried out to paint the people as being clannish. He explained that their opposition was primarily driven by the manner Okpalaeke was made a bishop having not been a priest of the Catholic Ecclesiastical Province of Owerri, which includes Aba, Umuahia, Orlu, Okigwe, Ahiara and Owerri but rather that of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province.
His words: “Many people misconstrued the opposition of the people to Okpalaeke being the bishop of Ahiara. They thought that we wanted an Mbaise person and therefore falsely branded us as being clannish but the rejection of Bishop Okpalaeke was because of the way he was appointed bishop. He had never been a priest of the Owerri Catholic Ecclesiastical Province. Rather he was Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province and that was the major cause of the problem; it was not because we wanted an Mbaise man to be the bishop of the diocese. So, we are happy with the decision that he took to resign, and end the lingering crisis.”
Speaking in the same vein, Fr. Chris Egege of St. Michael’s Parish, Ihenweorie Ogwuama, said it was good riddance as the erstwhile bishop was neither known to the people nor was he from the province. He also said that by resigning Bishop Okpalaeke had saved the diocese from stagnation.
He noted further that it was indeed a miracle for the bishop to resign his office as it is not usual case in this part of the world.
“First the resignation of bishop is good riddance because we never knew who he was, and secondly, he was not from this province. His coming to Ahiara stalled the physical and spiritual progress of the diocese. So, it was a miracle that he resigned honourably because it is not common in this part of the world. If you know the laws of the Catholic Church you will know that once you have been consecrated a bishop whether rightly or wrongly you will remain a bishop until you attain the canonical retirement age of 75 years. So, for another bishop to be appointed for that diocese when the incumbent has not retired or died, it would only be if he resigned. That is why I said that it is a miracle because our prayer has been answered by God who abhors injustice.”
Fr. Ben Ogu who chipped in his view, pointed out that Bishop Okpalaeke having been impeded ought to have resigned a long time to allow peace to reign in the diocese. He noted the gratitude of the people to him for having the courage to resign after six long years. “I know that we will be vindicated by God and that was what has happened by Bishop Okpalaeke voluntarily resigning his office. I am happy that he has seen reason that he cannot be a bishop where the clergy and laity have rejected him as their shepherd. The manner of appointment breached the canonical laws of the Catholic Church. You can see for yourself that everybody is happy,” Ogu said.
He said further: “The problem lingered because the first apostolic administrator, John Cardinal Onaiyekan refused to tell the authorities in Rome the true position of things that except there is extraordinary reasons that a Bishop is supposed to be selected from the presbyterium which could only mean none qualification and that if that failed the bishop should be selected from the province, but that was not the case.
“None of the bishops in Onitsha Province comes from outside that province because they are not ready to accept those from Owerri Province. Okpalaleke, we learnt, was first rejected by Awka Diocese before he was brought to Ahiara Diocese and recently we learnt that there were plans to appoint him as the auxiliary bishop in Owerri Diocese. The priests allegedly sent petitions to Rome rejecting him but Archbishop Anthony Obinna had asked the priests to withdraw the petitions.
“There has been this unfounded prejudice against the Mbaise people as bad people but it is not true because we have never told anybody not to come to Mbaise to be ordained as priest or bishop. People don’t come here because this place is a rural area unlike Owerri or Aba. The problem we have with the appointment of Okpaleke as bishop is that most qualified priests from Ahiara diocese were overlooked because some people who could influence decisions in Rome want only their relations and people from their Province to continue to dominate the entire South East, but we said it won’t happen in Mbaise and people have tagged us as bad people.
“But nevertheless, now that the man in the eye of the storm has decided to quit on his own volition, you can see that there is now peace and joy in the diocese and we welcome the new apostolic administrator, who has all the powers to administer the diocese and we are eagerly awaiting his arrival.”
President of the Diocesan Catholic Men Organization, Chief Anthony Njoku, said that the people were exceedingly happy over the new development, declaring that God had answered their prayers.
“When I heard the news that Bishop Okpalaleke had resigned as the bishop of Ahiara I thought it was not true until I confirmed it. So, we are exceedingly happy over the development because God has indeed answered our prayers because He knew that what was done to the diocese was injustice and we know that God is a God of justice.
“We had backed our priests over the fight against injustice not because we hated Bishop Okpalaleke but because of the way he was made bishop. Let me tell you since the beginning of the crisis none of our sons who were supposed to be ordained priests were ordained in the last six years which was bad and so we are happy that the crisis is finally over. The diocese will now move forward.”
Former president of the Laity Council, Dr. Festus Nwangumah, agreed with Njoku’s submission and said: “We are grateful to God for the miracle and we are feeling happy about the new development considering the fact that this matter has been on since 2012, which is six years. We are really happy about the situation because it could only be attributed to a miracle from God because he wants peace to return to the diocese and we must equally thank Bishop Peter Okpalaeke for listening to the voice of God.”
Vice President of the Diocesan Catholic Women Organization, Dr (Mrs.) Leona Ohanu, affirmed that the resignation of the erstwhile bishop could be nothing other than a miracle and enthused that the people were very happy with the outcome, which she described as a divine intervention by God.
With the dust raised by the opposition of the people to Okpaleke now beginning to settle, following the appointment of Ugorji as the apostolic administrator, some of the priests were asked if they would be ready to accept a substantive bishop from Owerri Catholic Ecclesiastical Province who is not an Mbaise man given the stiff opposition put up against Okpaleke who was not from the Owerri province, and the major reason they rejected him.
In response, one of the priests who wished not be identified said: “Whether we will be ready to accept a Bishop from the Owerri Province who is not from Mbaise as Bishop of Ahiara, well I can only say that time comes we shall know how to cross the bridge. Till then I cannot say more.”