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Ahiara time to heal the Catholic diocese



The crisis-ridden Catholic diocese of Ahiara in Ahiazu-Mbaise local government, Imo State is at it again. Another controversy is rearing its head, following the resignation of Most Rev. Peter Okpalaeke as bishop of the diocese and the appointment of Most Rev Lucius Ugorji as the new administrator of the Diocese.

Okpalaeke, had on February 14, 2018 written to the Vatican, asking that he be relieved of the diocese’ headship and be posted to any other area of assignment, where God and the Holy Father may deem fit, to enable him continue in service.

In the letter entitled: “Resignation from office of Bishop of Ahiara Diocese of Nigeria”, and addressed to the Pope, Okpalaeke, who stated that it was the proper option to facilitate re-evangelisation of the faithful, explained that the crisis over his appointment had threatened his spiritual life.

He said: “Taking the above into consideration, I am convinced, in conscience, that my remaining the Bishop of Ahiara is no longer beneficial to the church. I do not think that my apostolate in a diocese, where a group of priests and lay faithful are ill-disposed to having me in their midst would be effective.

Exercising the ministry in a diocese, where priests who are supposed to be my immediate and closest collaborators, brothers, friends and sons are at war with one another, with the laity and with me as their chief shepherd would be disastrous and a threat to salvation of souls, including my own soul.

“I, therefore, present my resignation from the office of Bishop of Ahiara, which I consider the only proper option now to facilitate re-evangelisation of the faithful of the diocese, especially priests now that you and your collaborators in the Roman Curia can decipher priests, who actually affirmed their loyalty to the Holy Father and those who decided to bow out of the catholic church in disobedience. I hope this will also secure healing for me.”

Pope Francis had on Monday, February 19, accepted his resignation and appointed Ugorji, who is the Bishop of the Umuahia Catholic Diocese as the administrator of Ahiara diocese. With his new assignment, Ugorji will oversee the affairs of Ahiara diocese for as long as the Pope wishes.

Although the crisis that erupted over his appointment as bishop had lingered for years, Okpalaeke’s last minute decision to throw in the towel had to with the stout resistance by the faithful to have him shepherd the diocese, despite interventions from several quarters.

Pope Benedict XVI, posted him to the rural diocese as its second bishop in 2012 after the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe, who was the pioneer bishop of the diocese, created on November 18, 1978. Chikwe died in 2010 and two years later, Okpalaeke was named his successor.

But no sooner was his name announced than some group of priests and laity in the diocese started to oppose it on the ground that certain aspects of the constitution, regarding the election and posting of a bishop were not followed. They said many rules were scuttled or manipulated in favour of Okpalaeke. They, therefore, locked the entrances of the Mater Ecclesia Cathedral, Ahaiara-Mbaise against him and engaged the Vatican with series of protest letters and visits.

Last June, the Supreme Pontiff, in an attempt to resolve the crisis, had invited some leaders in the diocese to a meeting in the Vatican City.

A source close to Okpalaeke told The Guardian: “If in six years, a certain group in a diocese belonging to the same faith refused to bend over an issue, it would be foolhardy for one to continue to cling to an office. He has been prevented from performing his episcopal obligations.

The Bishop has no personal issue with diocese members. He did not send himself there. He was called and posted there like every other bishop. But instead of accepting him, they rejected him and nobody has ever accused him of any wrongdoing as reason for the opposition. Yet they had jettisoned every advice to have him as their bishop. I think there is more to it.”

Impact Of The Resignation On The Diocese

Majority of the faithful insist that Okpalaeke’s resignation was not victory for those that opposed his appointment in the first place. Rather, it has provided a leeway to address certain anomalies that fuelled the resistance to build a stronger faith in the Catholic Church.

The question on many lips is how to address the challenges that have been thrown on the diocese over his appointment and sudden resignation, especially among the faithful, who are now divided.

A day after his resignation was made public and Ugorji named as the administrator, some youths that opposed him had engaged in a peaceful demonstration around the diocese to support the resignation. Others, however, felt the Pope did not act well in accepting the resignation.

A laity, George Chukwu said: “Pope Francis has partially resolved the matter. But I don’t think it will end the internal wrangling in the diocese.

“Bishop Peter Okpalaeke faced serious opposition in the last six years over his appointment. But his continued stay as the bishop had disintegrated catholic faithful in the area. It would breed more rancour in the system than solve it.”

In his view, there were members who believed in the estranged bishop and such would feel sidelined and fight back.

He said: “His resignation was borne out of the resistance by the people and though he has resigned, the problem is still there. Ordinarily, a bishop should command respect, but in our case, we have one that has been intimidated out of office.

It is setting a bad precedence to say it is no longer the church of God, but a few individuals who now decide what the priest will preach and do. It is the easiest way to mortgage people’s salvation and I pity those who began this war.

It was learnt that Ugorji hails from Naze in Owerri north local government of Imo State.

A member of the diocese Laity Council, Dr. Nguma Festus, told
The Guardian that Okpalaeke’s resignation would open the road towards addressing the injustices that had long been raised by the diocese over certain issues in the church.

“I am elated and thankful to God that we are finally getting close to resolving the diocese problems. I want to say that we welcome the new administrator. He is an experienced person and knows about Ahiara diocese.

He will help bring us together and we will work with him to promote the diocese and recover those things that have eluded us these past years.

The people are happy that after all these years of struggle; there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

What we did was not a personal attack on the person of Bishop Okpalaeke. It was to say that we were not happy with certain practices and thank God the church is reasoning with us. So, we will continue to pray that we get to the final resolution that will strengthen the faith of the believers in this diocese”, he said.

As Bishop Ugorji steps in, all eyes will be on him to see how he intends to bring lasting peace and progress to the diocese, especially with claims that the people have always had their differences and carry same to the church.

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