Cardinal Okpaleke And The Indiscretion Of Ahiara Catholics

Cardinal Peter Okpaleke


For about 10 years now, Catholics in Ahiara in the Catholic diocese of Mbaise region have been suffering the consequence of their indiscretion and shameful refusal to submit to the authority of the universal church. In their attempt to politicize the church and bring in their clannish bigotry to bear in the affairs of the church they have shot themselves in the foot and must live with the consequences of their action.

On December 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Peter Ebere Okpaleke Bishop of Ahiara, after the death of Dr. Victor Chikwe. Okpaleke was not consecrated a bishop until May 21, 2013, because some dissident priests and lay faithful of the church objected to his appointment, insisting that an indigene must be appointed instead. His consecration was held outside the Diocese, in the Major Seminary of Ulakwo in the Archdiocese of Owerri.

The Mbaise people had wanted one of their own and blocked access to the cathedral when Bishop Okpaleke was to be formally installed. The case was a test of papal authority.

At the peak of the crisis, Pope Benedict XVI had given the faithful 30 days to accept the cleric or face suspension. But the rejection continued. The Pope’s letter had warned: “Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the church.”

He later directed about 200 priests of the diocese to write letters of apology to the pontiff. He warned: “Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office.

“We urged every priest to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ and expressed hope that in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a Bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

Five years later in February 2018, after he was made Bishop of Ahiara, Okpaleke resigned his appointment by the Vatican. Subsequently, the Pope appointed the Bishop of Umuahia, Dr. Luciuos Ugorji, as the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese.

Okpaleke’s letter of resignation reads: “I am convinced that my remaining the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese is no longer beneficial to the Church.

“I do not think that my apostolate in a diocese, where some of the priests and lay faithful are ill-disposed to have me in their midst, would be effective.”

If it is easy to accept the indiscretion of the congregation, it’s impossible to understand how the priests in this diocese could be caught in this web of bigotry, given that some of these priests would some day travel out of that diocese to hold key positions. Many of these Mbaise priests are currently holding key church positions across the globe as parish priests. Several of them, for instance, act as parish priests in Lagos and other parts of the country.

Many ordinary Catholics have remained aghast by this indigenization struggle for a Bishop or Parish Priest or even as priests. This is unknown and unacceptable in the universal church where any priest can be posted anywhere and the people accept, love and work with him joyously.

Like a concerned Catholic recently posted, should the struggle for indigenization as championed by Mbaise people succeed, Mbaise people will be the worse hit as they unarguably have the highest number of Catholic priests who are comfortably serving in parishes, Dioceses and Catholic institutions outside Mbaise.

On March 5, 2020, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Okpaleke to the newly created Diocese of Ekwulobia. It is a diocese in Anambra State that was formerly under the jurisdiction of Awka Diocese. Ekwulobia Diocese is a suffragan diocese of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Onitsha.

Sadly, many of those who did so much incalculable damage to the image of the church with that act of insubordination and total disrespect to the supremacy of the papacy rather than show remorse and plead forgiveness for what is clearly unacceptable, now seek to rewrite the story of the unfortunate incident thinking as revisionists they can pool the wool over the eyes of the rest Catholics in part and christendom as a whole.

However, they are only smart by half. They must realize that by their actions they are simply sending a wrong signal to others who have Mbaise priests as parish priests and that any attempt to push these indigenization chants would leave them as the greatest losers.

So, the news of the elevation and decoration of the amiable Bishop Okpaleke as Cardinal by the Catholic pontiff remains cheery news and a welcome development for the church and those who mean well for the faith.

And as Cardinal Okpaleke himself puts it, “all things work for good to those who love God.” He said this while recalling the circumstances leading to his coronation as the new prince of the Nigerian Catholic Church.

According to Okpaleke, in spite of the difficult moments and the antagonism that trailed his appointment as Bishop, God granted him peace as he had never experienced before.

He said, “Jesus talks of this type of peace in John 14:27. Now, I know what Jesus meant; that he gives us peace; not the kind of peace that the world gives.

“Ours is a providential God who, in spite of seeming confusion and randomness, directs history to his purpose and invites all to open themselves up and contribute their own God-given energies, insights, and talents to the Divine project of making the face of the Earth to reflect more clearly the Kingdom of God.”

I cannot but agree with Cardinal Okpaleke. The lesson for the Ahiara Catholics is that they cannot fight the church and they must realize that if they insist on not subordinating to the church authority they can walk through the door and allow those who are ready to comply to do so.

As we had argued in the past, if Okpaleke who is from Anambra can be rejected by the people of Imo so vehemently, how would they react if the bishop had been sent from the north or other non-Igbo speaking parts of the country.

The uniqueness of the church which has remained the mainstay and the pillar upon which the church is built is the supremacy of the papacy since after Apostle Peter. Tribalism, nepotism and other such narrow prisms which have defined and stunted the country must not be allowed to find a place in the body of Christ. The sole prerogative of determining leadership and authority of the church remains with the Pope and that is not to be debated and contested.

That is why we love the church, that’s why we have remained and would die as Catholics. If obedience is better than sacrifice then nothing less is expected from those who seek heaven on earth.

Congratulations, your Eminence. Your elevation is well deserved and may God continue to use you to advance the reign of His kingdom on earth.