By Peter Claver Oparah
When he entered the conclave, in the wake of the historical resignation of Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio), like the nearly 120 Cardinals that made up the conclave, went with his little briefcase containing essentials he may need for the period of time the conclave will last. This was televised live to the entire world. Since he emerged, after two days, as Pope Francis, no one has known or seen him go back to his native Argentina, either to take his personal belongings or check on his father’s heirloom, lands and estates. Recall that Pope Emeritus Benedict had not visited his native Germany since he voluntarily abdicated the Papacy on February 28. He may not even visit Germany again in his life time as he lives in a sequestrated monastery at the Vatican. The late Pope John Paul II lost his last earthly close relative, his father, when he was barely eighteen. This was after the death of his brother Edward but he went on to become a priest and reached the very zenith of priesthood, which is the Papacy. At his death in 2005, he was known not to have left any earthly possession except his private mails, which he instructed his Secretary to burn at his death. He was not known to have gone to his native Poland to inspect or supervise his family estate, lands or businesses.
That is how it is for every Catholic priest. He is ordained for the Church and exists for the Church. By Church, I mean the Holy Catholic Church and not the church where he is born or is raised. By my understanding, a Catholic priest can be called upon to work anywhere his services are needed. He exists and lives his life at the behest of the Church, exercised through the delegated authority of the local ordinary, which is the Bishop of the Diocese where he works. A priest can work for a diocese other than the one he is born into. That becomes his diocese and if he dies, he is buried there. He may be required to work in a different diocese from the one he is born and where duty calls, he moves without question. He belongs to that diocese for life and when he dies, he will be buried in that diocese as his body may not even be laid in state in the diocese of his origin. A priest, on ordination, takes the vow of poverty, obedience and chastity. This forbids him from owning properties, estates, wives, children or heirlooms or to inherit his father’s estates or properties. As it is with priests, so it is with bishops and even the Pope. While a priest, he is expected to live on the goodwill of the Church and the community of the faithful. That is the rule for Bishops and even the Pope.
This is why I find really disturbing the on-going slugfest over who should succeed the late Bishop Victor Adibe Chikwe as the Catholic Bishop of Ahiara (Mbaise) Diocese. Since this battle was kicked off with the announcement of Msgr. Peter Ebele Okpalaeke as the second bishop of Ahiara, and the rejection by a section of the Catholic community in the diocese, I had maintained a studied silence over the issue. I had rather decided to study and perhaps learn more from that issue than interfere but above all, I prayed silently and wished that the combatants will do their best and let the wheel of progress roll on. Since the issue started, I had read extensively the submissions of the section of Mbaise people that rejected the appointment of Okpalaeke and the often engaging, deep and incisive reactions from others, mainly Catholic priests, from outside the diocese. Curiously, as I read, I had not found any opinion or any voice outside Mbaise support the rejection of Okpalaeke.
In all I read, I had been nit picking to see where any egregious infraction that impedes the choice of Okpalaeke could be advertised. I had read deeper to see if there is any impediment that would prevent him from being a Catholic bishop to the faithful of Ahiara diocese. I had searched for any hefty indiscretion that endangers his capacity to be an effective bishop for the people of Ahiara diocese. I believe such indiscretion should be founded on very strong reasons to sustain any strong opposition against his candidacy for the Bishopric as being touted by a section of the Catholic community and the huge number of non Catholics that have tapped into this issue for reasons best known to them. Curiously, I have not seen any such malfeasance. I have not seen any scandal and I have not seen any dent in the tons of paid adverts, features and opinions sent forth by those who have sworn that Okpalaeke will not be Bishop of Ahiara. In fact, in its first noted public statement on the rejection, these combatants made up of some priests and lay faithful have said they were not opposing Msgr. Okpalaeke’s candidacy as an attack against him as they said they found nothing wrong about him as a person. So what is firing the unusual obduracy so far displayed by these people?
They said they will never accept Okpalaeke because he is not from Ahiara, that he is from Anambra and they have gone further to allege what they call a deliberate policy of forcing Anambra priests on many dioceses in and outside the East. They have gone further to say that Okpalaeke is not qualified to shepherd the teeming faithful in Ahiara because, as they put it, he doesn’t speak our language or understand our culture. In a nutshell, these form the corpus of their opposition. I have continued to search for more beefy reasons to tag along them and have found out that the many press statements and features they have brought out on this issue revolve around these issues. Strictly speaking, and in line with Catholic traditions, are these weighty enough to disallow Okpalaeke from being Bishop of Ahiara? I don’t think so. Given historical evidences and with our knowledge of the Catholic priesthood and the general history of the Catholic Church, are these sufficient reasons to withdraw the candidacy of Msgr. Okpalaeke? I don’t think so and I feel that those that are sworn to the opposition of Msgr. Okpalaeke’s candidacy should advance further reasons to ground their positions.
I am a Catholic from Ahiara diocese and I remain in full communion with the Catholic Church. To be fair to it, the Catholic Church has had least considerations for place of origin in deciding where its priests or bishops work. Why should it when it professes one Faith, one Baptism and one Father who is God? A priest once ordained becomes a member of the church. It does not assign roles to its priests on consideration of where one comes from. In other words, when ordained, a Catholic priest is primed to work in any part of the world. It may be true that most bishops particularly in the Eastern parts of the country are from Anambra, as insinuated by those that oppose Msgr. Okpalaeke. It may be true that Msgr. Okpalaeke was favoured over priests from Ahiara, in consideration for who succeeds Bishop Chikwe. It is true that Ahiara has one of the highest density of Catholic priests in Nigeria.
It is true that Ahiara has one of the highest density of Catholics in Nigeria. These facts have been well rehearsed by those that want someone from Ahiara as the next bishop of Ahiara. However, none of these facts dents the suitability of Okpalaeke for the Bishop of Ahiara. None is weighty enough to disqualify him for the position and those opposing him, especially the priests among them, know this fact. Okpalaeke is a priest of the Catholic Church and that qualifies him to be bishop of any diocese in the world. It is trite to insist that it must be ‘our son’ or nobody else as the provocateurs of the succession crisis in Ahiara are insisting. Their position finds no known anchor in the ordinances, practices and authorities of the Catholic Church. It is alien to the Church and that is why Ahiara priests work all over the globe.
Coming nearer home, it is an incontestable fact that more than sixty five per cent of Catholic bishops in Nigeria work in dioceses other their diocese of origin. It is an incontestable fact that more priests from Ahiara’s rich pool of priests work in several dioceses all over the world and in different religious congregations. If these were true, how can those opposed to Okpalaeke justify their position on the flimsy basis of ‘he is from Anambra’ or ‘he does not speak our language’ or ‘he does not understand our culture’? Okpalaeke, on my last check is Igbo, he speaks Igbo and is part of that culture, even when we insists that the Church is not a cultural platform. Igbo is a uniform people, with a single culture and language, albeit with slight dialectical variations so it is an abomination to hurl those charges on Igbo just because you want to strengthen a weak point. So if we must disallow Okpalaeke from Bishop of Ahiara on these flimsy grounds, what happens to the multitude of Ahiara born priests working in various parts of the world? Deport them to come and become parts of the okpulo inheritance syndrome that is firing the present tussle?
I know that the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, as a group and individually, has worked round the clock to solve this issue. I know that respectable Priests and Bishops have made rounds to Mbaise to clear this mess. But after each intervention, all you get is one belly-churning publication or the other, alleging injustice and name calling. I have tried my utmost best to understand the grouse of these agitators beyond the flabby articulation put forth so far. It is just repetition of why it should be ‘one of us of no other person’ and when you press it further, everything is collapsed into the magic word, ‘injustice’ and you begin to wonder if the issue is really about injustice. If it is, why is it that more than 65 per cent of Catholic Bishops in Nigeria work in dioceses outside their diocese of origin? When had justice in the Catholic Church been watered down to restricting priests and bishops to their home dioceses?
As it is, by the appointment of Okpalaeke as Bishop of Ahiara, he automatically becomes a citizen of Ahiara. If and when he dies, he would be buried in Ahiara and this conforms to the practice of the Catholic Church so why are we breaking our heads over nothing? Why have we willingly allowed agent provocateurs, fifth columnists into our barn such that they make rounds vilifying the Catholic Church and treating its traditions and practices to trampling? I ask this because I found out that those who have been most fanatical in this warfare are non-Catholics, self confessed traditionalists, people of doubtful Catholicity and those who have publicly renounced their communion with the Catholic Church. They have been carrying on as if their lives rest on the appointment of an Mbaise man as Bishop of Ahiara and shockingly, they are in cahoots with a section of priests and lay Catholics.
I do not see the protest of a section of Ahiara priests and lay faithful to Okpalaeke’s emergence as out of place. It is natural and should be limited to protests from which some useful lessons should be drawn. But then, they missed the opportunity to press the finest point in their position, which I believe, is asking why Mbaise priests cannot be Bishop of other dioceses. What prevents an Mbaise priest from being the Bishop of Awka or even the Archbishop of Onitsha when these positions become vacant? This was a beautiful ground the agitators for a native Bishop for Ahiara missed in the pent up obduracy to insist they must have their way.
I feel the church however takes note of this salient point and move on. Those who are agitating for a native bishop should rest their war machine and work for the progress of the church. All those who are engaged in this battle should call the truce and embrace peace so that we all will further the ends of development for the diocese and Mbaise land. Equally, those on the other side who are murmuring that ‘they rejected our son’ are misguided because they did not take into consideration the sentiments of a people just coming in contact with such succession reality.
We should put this squabble behind us because it is meaningless. Let us embrace Msgr. Okpalaeke as our brother and put forth our well known Mbaise warmth and conviviality to him. I know my people are capable of this and know when to end a battle. Let the new Bishop start his work, with an urgent mission to pursue reconciliation and peace among the fractious divisions that have developed amongst our people. Let all hands get on the deck and let everybody put the past behind to work for our people. Welcome, Msgr. Peter Ebele Okpalaeke to Ahiara Mbaise and long may your reign be!
•Oparah wrote from Lagos. •E-mail:email@example.com