When Will Bishop Okpalaeke Apologise to Ahiara?, By Kenneth Amaeshi

There have been injuries on both sides. It is only fair and just to expect apologies from both sides. In the spirit of reconciliation, true healing, and peace, Bishop Okpalaeke may wish to consider sending an apology to the Catholics of Ahiara diocese, as well, and soon – if not today!

The Catholic Church is a very interesting institution in many ways. It is old. Whereas others count time in years and decades, the Catholic Church counts time in centuries. It is also a very powerful institution with significant global reach. Messing with age, power, and reach is too much to ask for. The Catholic diocese of Ahiara of the Owerri Ecclesiastical Province can attest to this.

The current bishopric crisis in the diocese, because many priests there have resisted the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpalaeke from the Awka diocese, in Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, as their bishop, to a large extent, exhibits the characteristics of a typical power struggle, where might can be right, and the end seems to justify the means. In addition, obedience to the end, whether voluntary or forcefully extracted, further justifies the end.

The crisis has been on for almost five years now – still an insignificant length of time for an old institution that counts time in centuries. However, Pope Francis recently stepped into the matter and asked for obedience to the Church. As such, the priests of the Catholic diocese of Ahiara have been forcefully asked to apologise to the Pope for resisting and refusing to accept Bishop Okpalaeke as their bishop. The deadline for the apology was yesterday, July 9, 2017. It is not expected that any priests of the diocese would not comply with this request for apology. They have collectively re-affirmed their obedience and allegiance to Rome.

To an outsider, the overwhelming narrative on this saga seems to suggest that the Ahiara people simply want an indigenous Ahiara person to be their bishop. This ethnocentric interpretation of the saga, which is grossly false, but appears strategically coordinated, has put Ahiara people in bad light as ethnic jingoists. The matter is not helped by those who superimpose some religious and theological views on the saga. The Church is both divine and human. This dual nature of the church is often in a continuous struggle to maintain an equilibrium. From time to time, the balance is disrupted, as in the case of the Ahiara imbroglio – which is normal and expected. However, what is not expected is a collection of individuals who will lose their socio-cultural identity and humanity in the Church, which makes the Ahiara case a matter of human struggle in a divine institution.

A closer engagement with the Ahiara struggle points to some perceived injustices, to which is added nepotism and favouritism. One of the core arguments is that Bishop Okpalaeke is not from the ecclesiastical province, and as such couldn’t be appointed the Bishop of Ahiara. Some people tend to dismiss this, arguing that the Church is universal and can appoint anyone from anywhere as a bishop. Fair enough. Another argument is that the emergence of Bishop Okpalaeke did not completely conform to the established process of appointing bishops in the Catholic Church and therefore was manipulated. Again, some people thwart this argument by pointing to the fact that the appointment of bishops is at the discretion of the Pope, which is true. Therefore, holding on to established processes is to miss the mark. On both counts, the Ahiara struggle is perceived as irrelevant, unwarranted, and unnecessary.

While these views are cogent, they seem to downplay the human side of the Church and overly orchestrate the logic of its divinity – after all, obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). However, these views tend to ignore the required balance between the divine and the human in the Church. As much as the laws and ways of the Church may not always be rationale and predictable, they also have some real life impacts on people. And these people have the freedom to respond to these laws in their own ways and as a function of their beliefs and faith. In addition, the Church can also create expectations through precedents, which over time could be seen as “norms” and normal.

Norms and normality are human projects and are socially constructed realities. As socially constructed, they have the agency to inform and shape behaviours – including beliefs and faith. If there has been a pattern to the appointment of Catholic Bishops in Nigeria, for instance, it is only human to expect such patterns to be maintained, as long as they are not unfair and unjust.

From the look of things, it seems that the “normal” practice when it comes to the selection of Catholic Bishops in Nigeria reflects some sort of established relationship with a diocese. This could have become the general understanding of the rule of the game, even if it is an informal interpretation of how things ought to be. Norms over time become solidified beliefs. As such, if this informal practice of appointing bishops in Nigeria has been recognised over time, it is unfair to expect the Ahiara priests to suddenly have different interpretations and solely rely on the formal interpretation, especially when there was a perceived manipulation of this normalised “informal” practice. One would think that the goal post has been shifted one too many times. It is only reasonable to expect Ahiara people to feel injured. Why must the normalised rule change in their own case? It is based on this that some people have identified with the Ahiara cause.

Although the formal interpretation of the practice of the Catholic Church in appointing bishops seems to be at variance with this informal practice, which has been prevalent in Nigeria so far, it is only human to wonder why a certain clan in the South East of Nigeria has produced 8 bishops and a Cardinal. To put things in context, Nigeria has only 44 suffragan dioceses. This seeming anomaly can be accepted by faith, as the Spirit of God blows at will (John 3:8). However, those appointed and those who appoint them will now need to be at peace with their consciences that they haven’t usurped the function of the Holy Spirit. It is a matter between them and God.

Even if the truth is covered here on earth, it will always be uncovered when we sit in judgement before God. But “for what does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world and forfeit his or her soul?” (Mark 8:36).

In the course of the struggle, some temporal and spiritual injuries have been sustained by the Catholic Church of Ahiara diocese. While the priests of the diocese have apologised to the Pope, it is also human to expect Bishop Okpalaeke and those behind him to apologise to the Catholics of Ahiara diocese for inflicting such untold injuries because they held to their belief of how things ought to be. It is also an opportunity for Bishop Okpalaeke to search his conscience, evaluate his options, and come to terms with his choices. For “if anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

There have been injuries on both sides. It is only fair and just to expect apologies from both sides. In the spirit of reconciliation, true healing, and peace, Bishop Okpalaeke may wish to consider sending an apology to the Catholics of Ahiara diocese, as well, and soon – if not today! The power and efficacy of this gesture shouldn’t be underestimated or lost on anyone.

May the peace Jesus Christ left His Church (John 14:27) continue to abide now and forever.

Kenneth Amaeshi holds a BPhil in Philosophy from Pontifical Urban University Rome, and is a full professor at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He tweets @kenamaeshi

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