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Ahiara Catholic diocese: ‘Nobody can twist God’s hands’


Anthony Cardinal Okogie

The face-off in Ahiara Diocese of the Catholic Church, Mbaise, Imo State, has refused to go away, because some laity and some priests have bluntly refused to accept the Pope’s recommended leader – Bishop Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke. Have there been instances, when the Pope’s choice for a particular diocese in Nigeria was rejected before? Are there justifications for this kind of strive? Can the Pope be faulted in such things, and what is the way out? Anthony Cardinal Okogie and Monsignor Gabriel Osu gave CHRIS IREKAMBA their perspectives.

‘I Was Rejected In Oyo, But God Prevailed’
(Anthony Cardinal Okogie, Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos)

You said the face-off has refused to go away. My question is: who caused the problem? The person who caused the problem should also resolve it, so that there will be peace in the diocese. Again, I don’t agree with you, when you make a general statement that the laity and priests have refused to accept the Pope’s recommended leader. Please don’t say the laity and priests, because it is not all the laity and priests that are in support of what is happening in Ahiara Diocese. But some laity and some priests have refused to allow peace to reign.

On whether we have witnessed a similar thing in Nigeria before, I, Anthony Olubunmi Okogie is a good example of that question. In 1971, when I was elected as an auxiliary Bishop of Oyo, there was a row and those who were against it rose up to oppose the decision. Then I was in Lagos, just as I am still in Lagos. I belonged to the Ecclesiastical Province of Lagos. The people rose up to the extent that they nearly killed me; in fact, they even came to the Holy Cross Cathedral where I was the Assistant Priest.

I had to table the matter before the Pope and he said I should go and I went. They even said I should stay in Oshogbo. Then Oshogbo was the headquarters and with the substantive Bishop McCoy. When they don’t know what to do again, they said I should stay in Oyo as an auxiliary and not in Osogbo. They thought they were clever, but after some months, the whole agitations fizzled out. And by the grace of God, I turned out to be the faithful bride to so many of them, though not all of them. After some time, the Pope sent me back to Lagos as Auxiliary to the Apostolic Administrator.

I experienced a similar thing and so, what is happening in Ahiara Diocese is not a new thing. Some of them would tell you, ‘yes, we agreed with what the pope said, after all, he is the Vicar of Christ.’ But right inside their heart, they are saying a different thing entirely. If you agree with the Pope, demonstrate it by showing allegiance to him, as the leader of the church. Some will confess their loyalty to the pope, saying they will abide by everything he said, concerning so and so matter, but this man we are not going to have him as our leader. If that is the case, where is your loyalty to the Pope? And when they argue here, they seem to have good logic, but where is the logic there? What is happening in Ahiara, I can’t imagine it my brother! It’s just like a child saying to his father, “I know you are my father, but I can’t obey you.” Who is your father then? Are you following my line of argument? I don’t see any justification in what they are doing. The pope has provided the way out of the problem that they should admit the person sent to them and finally also, they had to write a letter pledging their loyalty to the Pope. So, that is the way out.

My case then, as a priest belonging to ecclesiastical province of Lagos and what Ahiara brethren are saying is that Ahiara belongs to the Owerri ecclesiastical province, that a Bishop should have come from among the 700 priests they have, as I read in the newspapers. They queried why somebody was given to them from Anambra, that is Onitsha ecclesiastical province and imposed the person on them. It is not an imposition, and that is a wrong word. If they really love the people, as I learnt that the people are suffering spiritually, then they should obey the Pope first, then wait and see what he would do afterward. Look at the situation of that lady in one of the newspapers I read, lamenting that she wanted her daughter to be confirmed before going to secondary school. So, she had to travel outside Mbaise to book the confirmation. Does that show you the love of a pastor? Humanly speaking, the thing doesn’t sound well. What I’m saying is that they should obey the Pope, and consider the spiritual life of the people they are guiding. They are priests like me and they are talking about justice. Where is the justice? They said they brought somebody from outside, but I, Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, I am a typical example of that in 1971. Obey first and then complain later.

Same thing happened to me in my second year as reverend father. I was posted to the warfront. I went to my Archbishop, J.K. Aggey, who is now late, and he said ‘do you think you were made a reverend father for nothing? Please go there my friend.’ I had to obey and by the grace of Almighty God, I went and came back successfully. I’m talking about Biafra and Nigerian war. They should look at the spiritual needs of the people, as everybody is complaining there is no confirmation, no ordination and things like that.

During my own case, journalists finished me. A newspaper called Daily Service published it. I don’t know where you were by then. Even my own classmates denounced me in Oyo area and people were saying over their dead body would the ordination hold, and therefore, I shouldn’t bother to come and things like that. God has a way of doing things. You never can tell how the place will be like tomorrow.

People should look at me today that I don’t know how I became a cardinal. I used to tell people that I have done nothing to deserve the goodness of God upon my life. So, they should obey first, because the spiritual state of the people is in jeopardy.

I read about the news in The Guardian, The Nation and one other newspaper with different kinds of reports bordering on the same issue. I’m appealing to my brothers that they should think about the priesthood and people they are leading. They are giving the devil chance to destroy their priesthood. People will be wondering if the people doing this thing are actually priests and if they are, why can’t they allow peace to reign in the place, especially, the women.

For example, look at the level it has reached. They took the matter to the state governor, Rochas Okorocha and he was even repeating what the pope said. I know that his Eminence would be feeling badly, but as a father, what can he do, but to be lenient with his children? Look at the case of Abraham in the Bible, how God commanded him to sacrifice his only son and meanwhile, same God promised that Abraham would be a father of many nations, and the only son He gave to him should be sacrificed. Did he not obey God? Look at how He provided a ram as a substitute in place of his son. Nobody can twist God’s Hand. You may think you’ve succeeded, but it will come back to you.

Then, some people called me ‘aj’okuta ma mu’ mi’ (that I am an Igbo person, not Yoruba) and that I can’t speak the language, but were surprised when they heard me speak Yoruba one day. They were shocked and said: “ah, but they said he can’t speak Yoruba, where did he got this one from.” That is human being for you. They later mellowed down and they were the ones counseling me ‘don’t mind this’ and things like that.

But Ahiara diocese should be different in the sense that the Bishop is a priest, and he is also an Igbo man. What then is the issue? Is it because he is not one of them? Unfortunately, they don’t know the extent of what they are doing. Even Okorocha told them that they should not destroy his state, that they are bringing bad name to the state. I read it in the newspapers that this thing is not just about Catholic Church; that it goes beyond that. They should do what the Pope said, sincerely, genuinely and truly.

Concerning my case, if I had refused to go to Oyo, the Holy See would have been responsible to choose somebody else, but I went and what gave me the courage then was that it wasn’t long I returned from the warfront, where I witnessed terrible situations. I saw both dead and wounded soldiers, had bloodstain on my hands. With all that, I was bold to go. I was a young man then. Do they want the heavens to come down before they mellow down? Who else are they going to see now, because they’ve gone to the governor and probably they will now go to the head of state? I don’t know.

They are just making mockery of the church and their own priesthood. Catholic Church is one, and we are all calling one Jesus Christ. There is nothing like partial obedience and more disturbing is when a reverend father would say ‘over my dead body.’ You begin to wonder if actually they are priests.

‘Papal Envoy To Ireland Is An Igbo Man’
(Monsignor Gabriel Osu, Director, Social Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos)

WHAT is currently happening in Ahiara diocese is an aberration. It is not in the nature of true Catholics to disobey the choice of a Bishop appointed by the Pope, who is the Head of the Church on earth, the Supreme Pontiff.
Those fueling the crisis are either feigning ignorance of the rules guiding the Church, or are just allowing human ego to take the better part of them. You may wonder why I say this. I will explain: The second Vatican council (1962–1965), made it explicitly clear that the right of nominating and appointing bishops belongs per se exclusively to the competent ecclesiastical authority. The buck stops at the table of the Pope and when the Pope speaks, the Church has spoken.

The Church is one, universal. There is no law that states that a bishop must come from a specific tribe or town. There have been many instances of bishops appointed to head places other than their own diocese. Starting from the days of foreign bishops like Heerey, O’Rourke, Leo Taylor, to when we began to have indigenous priests as Bishops, the issue of tribe really never matters. So many Bishops had been transferred from one place to another without fuss. Remember that the late Dominic Ekandem, though hailed from Calabar, was transferred to Abuja. John Cardinal Onaiyekan is from Kabba in Kogi State, yet he is now in Abuja. Bishop Lucius Ugorji is from Naze in Imo State, but he is in Umuahia. Should the natives of these places carry placards? No. The Church is one. Yes, in few instances, there have been minor agitations by some, who felt that the Bishop should be from their land, but the Church has always made it clear that we are all one in Christ. In the end, they have all come to terms that the Church is not a democracy, but hierarchical.

In Ireland, for instance, the papal envoy there is an Igbo man. It does not really matter where you come from, as long as the Holy Spirit finds you suitable. Let me state here that God forbids disobedience in any form. One of the three vows taken by priests and religious leaders during their ordination is that of obedience to their superiors. Priests also should serve as good examples to the laity. A situation where priests appear to be disobeying the same Church they swear to obey and protect is not acceptable. But again, this is the human element at work. Jesus assured us that the gate of hell would never prevail against the Church. So, this too shall pass away.

The Pope has given the priests of Ahiara ample time to make amends. Please note that it is not all the priests that are against Bishop Okpaleke, just a section. But I believe they will all come to terms with the fact that the will of God would prevail at the end of the day. It will surely be a win-win situation for everyone. Our prayer is that God will send the spirit of peace, humility, obedience and unity into the hearts of the aggrieved, so that, like Christ always willed, we shall all continue to be one. This should be our collective prayer. 

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