• Pope appoints Ugorji as Apostolic Administrator

Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja; Stanley Uzoaru, Owerri 

Embattled Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Most Revd (Dr) Peter Okpalaeke, may have finally bowed to pressure with yesterday’s announcement of his resignation after eight years of protracted crisis with the faithful and priests of the diocese.

However, the Catholic Church did not disclose when Okpalaeke tendered his resignation letter to the Vatican.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis, has appointed Most Revd Lucius Ugorji, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Umuahia, as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese.

The development is contained in a terse statement released by the Director of Social Communications, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Revd Fr Chris Anyanwu, on the sideline of the ongoing first 2018 plenary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria.

Anyanwu said: “Following the resignation of Most Revd Peter Okpalaeke as the Bishop of Ahaira Diocese, as a result of the crisis that has lingered for nearly six years in that diocese, His Holiness, Pope Francis, has, today, appointed Most Rev Lucius Ugorji, the Bishop of Umuahia, as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahaira Diocese.”

Anyanwu added that the appointment of Ugorji is with immediate effect.

Bishop Okpalaeke is from Awka Diocese in Anambra State. He was appointed Bishop of Ahiara Diocese in 2012 after the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe.

Until his appointment to the See of Ahiara, he was a priest of Awka Diocese.

Since 2012, the clergy and laity of the diocese had refused to accept the bishop appointed as their ordinary because he is not of the Mbaise ethnic group or chosen from among the local priests. The priests had insisted that one out of the over 700 priests of Mbaise origin should be chosen as the bishop of Ahiara.

Following the development, on July 3, 2013, Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, was appointed Apostolic Administrator.

And on June 8, 2017, Pope Francis, having received a delegation from the diocese, gave all members of the diocesan clergy (priests and deacons) 30 days to personally write to the Vatican pledging obedience to the Pope and accepting Okpalaeke.

He warned that those who failed to write would be suspended a divinis (which would prohibit a priest or deacon from administering any of the Sacraments, save for a priest hearing the Confession of a person in danger of death), and would be removed from their posts. He had considered suppressing the diocese, but decided against that idea.

On July 8, it was reported that while the letter of apology was sent, the appointment of Bishop Okpalaeke was still rejected by the local priests who insisted that the Vatican was enforcing racial discrimination in the country by hiring outsider priests to become Bishops.

On July 22, 2017, Pope Francis agreed to respond through emissaries to the individual priests protesting Bishop Okpalaeke’s appointment. Two days later, Barr Chizoba Nnagboh, chairman of the Catholic Laity Council of Nigeria (CLCN), described the words and actions of the dissenting clergy as “scandalous and disgraceful.”

According to a statement issued yesterday by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, published in the National Catholic Register, the Vatican said that although Priests from the diocese, wrote 200 letters to the Pope showing him “obedience and fidelity, some priests pointed out psychological difficulty in collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict.”