From George Onyejiuwa, Owerri
Priests of the Ahiara Diocese said they have complied with the directives of the Pope by writing an unreserved apology letter and restating their obedience to the head of the Catholic Church.
President of the Diocesan Priests Association of Ahiara, Rev.Fr. Austine Ekechukwu, who disclosed this, said those who thought they would be ex-communicated from the mother church have failed, as they would not disobey the directives of the Vicar of Christ- the Pope.
On June 8, Pope Francis, in a show of papal authority in Nigeria, had issued a seemingly unprecedented threat, giving the priests of the Diocese of Ahiara a marching order to either write to him within 30 days, promising “total obedience,” or face suspension.
In the letter, the Pope mandated every priest from Mbaise nation, whether residing at home or abroad, to write a personal letter of apology and allegiance pledging their loyalty and promising to accept the bishop he had appointed.
Crisis began with the refusal by priests in the Diocese of Ahiara to accept the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke made by his predecessor in 2012.
Last month, the pontiff had told an audience of Nigerian Catholics in Rome that the “people of God are scandalised” by rejecting the papal appointment.
But ahead of the July 9 deadline, Rev.Fr. Ekechukwu, said they have complied with the Papal order.
He spoke in apparent reaction to the statement credited to the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) and Bishop of Catholic Diocese of Jos, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama in a national newspaper that Ahiara priests risked being excommunicated, as they would “incur what is called suspension a divinis.”
Suspension a divinis means the affected priests could not function any longer as Catholic priest, administer sacrament or occupy any ecclesiastical office.
But Rev. Fr. Ekechukwu said not only have all the Priests of Ahiara complied with the Pope’s directives, but would never disobey the Pope nor disrespect the catholic doctrines including the contents of the Canon law.
“This is a private letter Pope asked us to write. The Pope’s directives have been complied with. Whatever the Pope asked us to do in line with the constitution of the Catholic Church, we have done. It is not for anybody to interpret the Pope’s action.
“We are not disobeying the Pope and we cannot disobey the Pope. What we are saying is that we should not be suppressed. They are subverting the truth. They are shielding the Pope from the truth. Let the right thing be done. If someone says that Catholics priests in Ahiara Diocese are not up to 700, in America alone we have over 70 priests ordained there, we have many of us ordained in other parts of the world. Here in the diocese, over 40 deacons have been denied ordination since the saga started,” he said.
Also, Rev. Father Joseph Ezeji accused the church hierarchy in Nigeria of misleading the Pope.
“The Church hierarchy in Nigeria lied to the Pope that we are rejecting Okpalaeke because of ethnic sentiment. But the truth is that the process of his selection was not transparent. We are still wondering how a person from another state, not even from a Diocese within the Ecclesiastical Province was appointed the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.”