Ahiara Crisis and Forced Apology: What Next?, By Obi Ohanu

Any attempt to forcefully install Bishop Okpalake as the bishop of the diocese will need to be carefully considered. The salvation of souls should be paramount and primary.

The Catholic Church has passed through many phases of conflicts right from the early church up to our present time. Scholars of church history can attest to this. I am not one. But as someone interested in understanding how the church has evolved over the years, this essay is an attempt to link the Ahiara diocese debacle with similar situations in the early church and in present conflicts of Christianity/Catholicism.

The crisis in Ahiara diocese could, therefore, be viewed dispassionately and in similar vein alongside historical church conflicts. Hence, the big issue here is to explore historic and modern murmurings, rebellions, and or conflicts in the church, and how we can we learn from them.

The Bible in the Acts of the Apostles recorded some conflicts in the history of the early church – particularly the disputes arising from the unfair treatment of the Hellenistic widows (Acts 6:1–7). The disagreements were handled well. The end result honoured Christ and His church grew. Issues of neglect in a growing Church, like Ahiara, breed discontent, especially when church leaders become busy with the outward manifestations of office, without regards for the feelings and wellbeing of the laity.

Disagreements are natural. It is important that the disenchanted are engaged so that conflicts with believers are not taken for granted in an effort to pretend that they do not exist. Otherwise, sooner or later these people will feel neglected and their feelings will be hurt. The church has gained nothing in letting the Ahiara problems fester. The church leadership must not bury its head in the sand when serious problems arise.

Wisdom should have let them know that this problem will not die of its own accord as in the Acts of Apostles. The apostles were faced with the Hellenist problem, which they knew was not going to go away by itself, and so acted swiftly. But what can we learn from the apostles in this regard in relation to the current Ahiara crisis?

First and foremost, the apostles avoided blame. They could have tongue-lashed those murmuring. They could have chastised them for being bad examples to other Christians, and for their unwillingness to suffer gladly when discriminated against. They did not tow that line. Secondly, they avoided self-centredness. They didn’t brag about their hard work to attract sympathy. They didn’t boast about their positions as the anointed priests of God, nor did they hide under their power to interpret the word of God. They were rather inclusive in approach.

Clericalism appears to typify the whole struggle in the Ahiara crisis. Pope Francis in 2016, through a follow-up letter to Canadian Cardinal Marc Oullet, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, identified clericalism as the bane of the Church.

Thirdly, the apostles clearly defined the issue. Conflicts cannot be resolved until the root issues are dealt with. Through open discussions, the apostles resolved similar conflicts like those bothering on legalism – e.g. “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). The speakers in the council of the apostles who gathered to discuss the conflict from this legality were prepared to address the issue rather than attack each other.

Ad hominem (against the person) attacks kill responsible dialogue. In the present Ahiara debacle, the Ahiara Presbyterium has been demonised and vilified, while on the other hand name-calling and finger-pointing have been the order of the day by segments of Ahiara priest and Laity.

Finally, the apostles put forward positive solutions. They selected seven deacons from the Hellenistic who were unhappy with how things were going in the early Church to look after the affairs of the widows (Acts 6:5). Because of this resolution, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and many priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). It can be said that this Ahiara debacle might be a way that God wants to bring a positive bearing to His Church, if only the leaders will apply wisdom and stop hiding under the canopy of “Roma locuta est; causa finite est” – i.e. Rome has spoken; the cause is finished.

Another period of Church history, which comes to mind, is the Counter-Reformation period. It started from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) – one of the Church’s most important ecumenical councils, prompted by the Protestant Reformation. It has been described as the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, as it was a period of Catholic revival following the Reformation era that led to several schisms in the Church.

Pope Paul III (1534–1549) considered the first pope of the Counter-Reformation, initiated the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform of the church, addressing contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, sale of indulgences, (simony) and other financial abuses. Counter-Reformation succeeded in diminishing Protestantism in Europe.

Some of the Schisms, associated with this era, occurred because Church leaders failed to either listen or ignored brewing crisis by thinking it would go away. The 14th, 15th and 16th centuries saw a spiritual revival in Europe, in which the question of salvation became central. This period became known as the Catholic Reformation era, were several theologians harkened back to the early days of Christianity and questioned their spirituality. Their debates expanded across the whole of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, whilst secular critics also examined religious practices, clerical behaviours and the Church’s positions.

…this issue can be easily resolved if there is goodwill among the Church leaders, the clerics, and the laity as only a mature engagement of all parties involved in this conflict can resolve this quandary.

Several varied currents of thought were active, but the ideas of reform and renewal were led by the clergy. One of the “most dramatic moments” at that Council was the intervention of Belgian Bishop Emil de Smedt when, during the debate on the nature of the Church, he called for an end to the “triumphalism, clericalism, and legalism” that had typified the Church in the previous centuries.

Clericalism appears to typify the whole struggle in the Ahiara crisis. Pope Francis in 2016, through a follow-up letter to Canadian Cardinal Marc Oullet, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, identified clericalism as the bane of the Church. He said “it’s never the shepherd who tells the laity what they have to do or say [in public life], they know it as well or even better than us”. Clericalism, the pope continued, “nullifies the personality of Christians” and it also “leads to the functionalisation of the laity, treating them as ‘errand boys [or girls]’.

It appears this Ahiara saga is a period of reformation for the Nigerian Church. The Nigerian church leadership may have wished it away for more than five years but it has failed to go away; maybe we now need Counter-Reformation effort to deal with the situation.

Historically, nothing is new with the Ahiara bishopric crisis. There have been several oppositions to bishopric appointments in the Catholic Church over time. The church has been dealt with such situations in ages past, and most recently in the case of the Makeni diocese in Sierra Leone. Therefore, this issue can be easily resolved if there is goodwill among the Church leaders, the clerics, and the laity as only a mature engagement of all parties involved in this conflict can resolve this quandary.

The church should pay heed to history.

Any attempt to forcefully install Bishop Okpalake as the bishop of the diocese will need to be carefully considered. The salvation of souls should be paramount and primary.

Obi Ohanu hails from Mbaise and writes from Enugu Nigeria; Email: o_ohanu@yahoo.com.

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