By Fred Nwaozor
The Ahiara Roman Catholic Diocese situated in Mbaise in the Ecclesiastical province of Owerri, Imo State is yet to boast of a substantive Bishop who is meant to serve as the boss of the said territory as the Catholic doctrine demands. It’s not anymore news that the quagmire has lingered for over six years now.
The Papacy had upon the demise of Bishop Victor Chikwe – the immediate past and pioneer bishop of the Ahiara Diocese – appointed a Catholic priest, Rev. Peter Okpalaeke who hails from Awka in Anambra State to serve as the bishop of the diocese.
Amazingly, the named clergy was outrightly rejected by virtually all the Catholic faithful in the diocese, stating that the favoured priest did not possess the required qualities to superintend the communion.
One of their reasons was that Rev. Okpalaeke does not hail from Mbaise. According to them, it was a grievous blunder for the Pope not to find anyone among over seven hundred Catholic priests of Mbaise origin worthy to serve as the bishop of the Ahiara Diocese. They equally lamented that Rev. Okpalaeke does not speak a dialect that could be comprehended by the members of the diocese, thus could not be ordained to lead them.
Notwithstanding, the appointed clergy was eventually ordained amidst the protest. Owing to the unwelcoming attitude of the aggrieved worshippers, the ordination took place outside the Mater Ecclesiae Cathedral of the Ahiara Diocese – Agbala in Owerri North LGA precisely – amid tight security. It was the first time in the history of the Catholic communion a prospective bishop would be ordained at a venue situated outside the diocese he was supposed to oversee.
It’s worth noting that after the ordination, the rebellion became more intense. Since then, the seat has been apparently hot for the innocent Bishop Peter Okpaleke who has mostly been operating from the Diaspora. In spite of the recent order from Pope Francis instructing the Catholic faithful in the diocese to unanimously sheathe their swords, the people remain head- strong towards ensuring that their own becomes the bishop of the diocese.
In a recent communiqué from the Papacy, precisely on June 8 2017, having received a delegation from the Ahiara Diocese, all members of the diocesan clergy – including the priests and deacons – were given 30 days to personally write the Vatican pledging their unflinching obedience to the Pope and accepting Bishop Peter Okpalaeke.
Based on the directive, those who failed to write would be suspended a ‘divinis’, which would prohibit such priest or deacon from administering any of the sacraments save for a clergy hearing the confession of a person in danger of death, and would equally be removed from their posts.
It’s mind-boggling and indeed ridiculous to realize that the ongoing scenario, which could best be described as dramatic and amusing, isn’t only ignited and fueled by the laity council in the diocese but rather has the full support of most of the Catholic priests from the area who are expected to be more informed regarding the Catholic custom.
It’s noteworthy that I’m not here to apportion blames; rather, to cushion the excruciating effects of the uncalled religious extremism. Ever since the melodrama began, I have chosen to be mindful of my utterances in the public domain thereby making my person seem not unlike a mere onlooker, knowing fully well that issues pertaining to religion are highly sensitive and delicate, hence they ought to be handled as such.
My muteness continued not until lately when I thought it wise to wake from slumber having keenly observed that the incident is likely to degenerate into an untold crisis if it failed to receive apt attention.
Lest I forget, two factors have ab initio made me not to be too surprised or shocked about the lingering altercation in Ahiara Diocese. One of the factors remains that I grew up to understand that religion harbours politics. Yes, read my lips. Since the world came into existence, the former has ceased to be dissociated from the latter. Prior to the emergence of Pope Benedict XI (rtd.), what transpired therein made me draw a holistic conclusion that politics is arguably ubiquitous. If you are still in doubt, please feel free to consult your history books for further details. If the above hypothesis as regards politics and religion holds water, then the Ahiara Diocese ought not to be an exception.
Another pertinent factor is the fact that the people of Mbaise have been known for their unison. Mbaise, as a people, are so united that they invariably, or do not hesitate to, act as a body whenever it calls for action. This remains a core feature outsiders envy about them. Needless to assert that what is currently trending in Ahiara Diocese is an epitome of what Mbaise represents.
However, it’s worthy of note that sometimes a cause pursued vigorously in unison could be misleading. In other words, we are required to tread with caution while treating matters that relate to our faith. The Mbaise may have thus far fought a good fight, but they must acknowledge in haste that their collective faith is ironically at stake.
There’s a compelling need for them to comprehend that the ongoing battle has unequivocally made millions of individuals to become sceptical of the genuineness of the Catholic Church as a whole, thereby making those who intend being part of the membership of the Catholic community lose interest.
The bitter truth surrounding the agitation is that several pagans who wished to become Christians, perhaps Catholics, are now fearful of the said communion; it suffices to say that the era of seeing this set of persons jettison their respective shrines for Christendom’s sake could be far-fetched.
I immensely appreciate the Imo State governor, Chief Rochas Okorocha, for wading into the crisis when his attention was needed most. Against this backdrop, I enjoin other well-spirited individuals cum entities to follow suit in ensuring that peace is thoroughly embraced by the warring factions. We are not unaware that some persons from Mbaise have remained neutral in this case, thus we urge such set of people to serve as mediators since silence is no longer the needed recipe.
No one is expected to sit on the fence in the effort to resolve this imbroglio, because we are all, one way or the other, affected by it. It is better late than never.
Nwaozor writes from Owerri