Last week, Mbaise, a key community in Imo State came onto the global news stage, following a meeting which a delegation of Nigerian Catholic personalities, led by John Cardinal Onaiyekan, the archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Abuja, held with the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, His Holiness, Pope Francis, at the Vatican. The meeting, at the instance of the pope was convoked to put to rest and hopefully final setlement, the vexed long-standing crisis that has festered at Ahiara Diocese of the Catholic Church for the past five years, following the appointment of Monsignor Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke as the new bishop to replace the late bishop of the diocese, Bishop Chikwe.
In a move very uncharacteristic of the Catholic Church, immediately the priest from Awka Diocese of Anambra State was named, some members of the clergy mobilized a large population of the laity of the Ahiara Diocese in Mbaise to rise up in rebellion against the decision of the Mother Church, by rejecting the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke as their new bishop by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. The rejection turned so violent that Bishop Okpaleke was restrained from setting his feet at his episcopal base, not to talk of entering the premises of the headquarters of the diocese to take office.
The grouse of the recalcitrance priests which they made their congregation to accept was that the pope had erred by not appointing one of the indigenous priests as the new bishop, as, according to them, the diocese had more than 500 incardinated priests from Mbaise, and that most of them were more qualified than the man the pope picked from as far as Anambra State to preside over their affairs.
To say that the Catholic community in the country was shocked about this untoward and unprecedented development was an understatement. The action which has defied several efforts at resolution through different attempts at different levels to mediate and settle, as the Mbaise priests dug their heels even deeper in their recalcitrance. The situation progressively assumed a political hue as even non Catholics in the community got sucked in the crises. The Catholic Church hierarchy, even as a stage, dispatched the respected Cardinal Onaiyekan of the Abuja Archdiocese to administer the diocese and at the same time, try to mediate and iron out the issues at play.
Onaiyekan failed, so also did every other efforts of the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria. Even the letter which the pope wrote directly to the clergy and laity of Ahiara Diocese and delivered by a cardinal from Ghana was staunchly rebuffed by the Mbaise faithful. In the meantime, stands hardened on the side of the Mbaise Catholics on one side and on the side of the Catholic faithful from all the 60 other dioceses in Nigeria hardened.
Under such a situation, the spiritual life of the Catholic faithful in the area suffered. For the last five years, there has been no functions over which the bishop presides in the diocese. No confirmation took place; there were no ordinations of new priests. Recently, when a very charismatic priest - Reverend Father Anyanwu died, there was no bishop to preside over his funeral rites. Of course, no other bishop can ever step his feet in that diocese as long as there is one that the Church had formally appointed.
Obviously frustrated by this lingering state of affairs, Pope Francis, last week, invited some prominent members of the Catholic Church in Nigeria who were directly involved to the Vatican in Rome last week. They were led by Cardinal John Onaiyekan, who had been prominently involved in the efforts to settle the matter. Other members of the powerful delegation included Bishop Peter Okpaleke, the man in the eye of the storm; the president of the Nigerian Catholic bishops, Archbishop Obinna of the Owerri Archdiocese from where Ahiara Diocese was carved out, the papal nuncio in Nigeria, as well as some members of the laity of the Ahiara Diocese, including the traditional leader of the community.
At the meeting, the holy pontiff ordering that every incardinated priest of Ahiara diocese, wherever they are in the world, to within the next 30 days, individually address an apology to him, while accepting the apology of Bishop Okpaleke.
It is expected that by July 9th, this long drawn crisis would have come to a definitive resolution, one way or the other. By then, every priest that still wants to remain in the Catholic Church would have forwarded an apology letter to the Pope through his bishop, while those who fail would have effectively opted to severe from the Church. For, on ordination, every priest takes the vow of obedience, of poverty and of chastity. All the priests who have rebelled against the pope by rejecting the bishop appointed by him, have ipso facto, broken their vow of obedience to the constituted papal authority, the highest in the church.
As the saying goes: Roma locutor, causa finite est (Rome has spoken, case is closed). This should mark a fitting closure of this lingering and irritating chapter in the story of the Catholic Church in Nigeria.