Paul Obi in Abuja and Amby Uneze in Owerri
After nearly a decade of protracted crisis over the leadership of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Pope Francis I Monday appointed the Bishop of Umuahia Diocese, Most Rev Lucius Ugorji as the new Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese.
In a statement issued by the Director of Communications, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN), Rev Fr. Chris Anyanwu, he explained that the appointment came on the heels of the resignation by Most Rev Peter Okpaleke.
Anyanwu said: “Following the resignation of Most Rev Peter Okpaleke of as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese, as a result of the crisis that has lingered for nearly six years in that diocese, His Holiness Pope Francis has today appointed Most Rev Lucius Ugorji, the Bishop of Umuahia as the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese. This appointment is with immediate effect.â€
But speaking to THISDAY on the development, outgoing President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) and Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, said despite the resignation of Okpaleke, the Vatican is not in a hurry to appoint a substantive bishop for the Ahiara.
Kaigama explained that: â€œBishop Okpaleke came to the conclusion that he could no longer be a bishop in a diocese where there has been so much tumult, and having resigned means, the diocese is vacant.
â€œBishop Ugorji is to oversee the diocese as Apostolic Administrator, he is not a full-time bishop, he is administering the diocese on behalf of the Pope.
â€œThe Pope will rush to make an appointment. There are steps in the Catholic Church to take, and the Pope will take those steps.
â€œThe first step is to give them an Apostolic Administrator, we hope they would embrace him and work with him.
â€œIf the Pope feels that they are in the right direction and they understand what the Catholic Church stands for, the Pope will know what to do, we donâ€™t give the Pope dateline.â€
On the fate of Bishop Okpaleke, Kaigama said: â€œHe is still a bishop, the Church that appointed him will know what to do, it is the prerogative of the Pope and his team to know what to do.â€
Meanwhile, the bishops are expected to elect new leadership Tuesday after the expiration of Kaigama-led executives.
The election will be conducted to fill in all executive positions will bring to an end the six-year tenure of Kaigama.
The new CBCN president and his executives are to be unveiled on Thursday at the end of the bishops conference.
Meanwhile, history was recorded in the Catholic Church Monday as the eight-year standoff between Catholic priests and faithful of Mbaise extraction erupted in ecstatic jubilation when information filtered in that the embattled Bishop of the Ahiara Catholic Diocese in Imo State, Bishop Peter Okpalaeke, finally resigned his appointment as Bishop of the diocese.
It was also learnt that the Vatican which graciously accepted the resignation subsequently appointed the Bishop of Umuahia in Abia State, Bishop Lucius Ugorji, as Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara diocese until the appointment of a substantive bishop.
Bishop Okpalaeke, who is from Awka Diocese in Anambra State, was appointed Bishop of Ahiara Diocese in 2012 after the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe, the first bishop of the diocese.
Okpalaekeâ€™s appointment was roundly kicked against by Catholic priests and laity from Mbaise, who insisted that the bishop must be appointed from among them, having produced the highest priests in the West African sub-region.
THISDAY gathered that Pope Francis, who was allegedly piqued by the action of the priests and threatened to take disciplinary action against them, later gave them an ultimatum to write a letter of apology to the Vatican, which they complied.
According to a statement issued Mobday by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples published in the National Catholic Register, the Vatican said although priests from the diocese wrote 200 letters to the Pope showing him â€œobedience and fidelity, some priests pointed out the psychological difficulty in collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict”.
The statement added that â€œtaking into account their repentance, the Holy Father decided not to proceed with the canonical sanctions and instructed the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples to respond to each of them.â€
The Congregation also quoted the Pope to have urged each of the priest â€œto 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”.
Meanwhile, the news of the resignation of the bishop was greeted with jubilation in the diocese. President of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Men Organisation, Chief Gerald Anyanwu, described it as â€œvictory for the Catholic faithful in Ahiara dioceseâ€.
He thanked the Pope for yielding to the genuine demands of the people, adding that peace has finally returned to the diocese.
Also thanking the Vatican, the Chairman of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Priests Association, Reverend Father Austin Ekechukwu, said the people are excited about the news.
A member of the laity, Sir Sabastine Ekeanyanwu, expressed gratitude to the Holy Father for giving his ear to the complaints of the priests and laity in the diocese.
He promised that they would support the administrator to reposition the diocese pending the appointment of a substantive bishop.
But other Catholic faithful who reacted to the development criticised the diocese for setting a wrong precedent that will encourage other dioceses to question the authority of the Vatican.
A Knight of St. John International, Sir Andrew Ukachukwu, stated that â€œBishop Okpalaeke maybe out today but nobody knows whose turn it will be tomorrow. Ahiara diocese may have succeeded in intimidating the Vatican but they have set a precedence that is totally alien to the Catholic faith.
â€œNo diocese has ever questioned or resisted the directives of the Pope. The development is really worrisome. They have brought tribalism into the running of the Catholic Church and it should be condemned by all genuine Catholic.â€
In his reaction, the Vice-Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Prof. Joseph Ahaneku, said even though he had not confirmed the news, â€œits implication on the people of the diocese will be a very big dent on them. It will continue to create a negative image of our people. Though this is a religious thing, Bishop Okpalaeke will continue to be a bishop but not of Ahiara dioceseâ€.