Six Nigerian bishops have appealed to priests, religious and laity of the Diocese of Ahiara to abide by the directive of Pope Francis and prepare for the installation of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke.
The appeal came after bishops from the Church’s Owerri province met in Aba earlier this month. The province includes the Archdiocese of Owerri and the dioceses of Aba, Ahiara, Okigwe, Orlu and Umuahia.
Nigerian Church leaders had met Pope Francis in June to discuss the situation of Bishop Okpaleke, who was appointed Bishop of Ahiara by Benedict XVI in 2012, but who has been unable to take control of the diocese because of protests, apparently by the majority of priests.
On June 10, the Pope gave priests in the Ahiara diocese 30 days to write a letter promising obedience to him and accepting the bishop appointed for their diocese, or they would be suspended.
Fr Kingsley Anyanwu, editor of The Guide, the Ahiara diocesan newspaper, said he could not confirm if priests had decided to heed the bishops’ appeal.
“All I know is that the priests are being respectful and showing their obedience to the Holy Father, Pope Francis. We cannot disobey the Holy Father, and we are also praying that the will of God be done in Ahiara Diocese,” Fr Anyanwu said.
“I cannot say that everybody, that is including the priests, religious and laity, have heeded the appeal from the provincial bishops to accept Bishop Okpaleke as their bishop and prepare for his installation,” he added. “But we are praying for peace to reign in the diocese.”
Emeka Nwachukwu, vice chairman of the Ahiara Diocesan Pastoral Council, urged clergy and the laity in the diocese to accept Bishop Okpaleke as their bishop.
“My brothers and sisters, everything possible was done to appoint a priest from Ahiara diocese as the second bishop of the diocese by those whose duty it was to recommend to the Pope for his kind approval, confirmation or rejection,” he said.
He suggested that because the priests of Ahiara “could not put their house in order for over two years,” they blamed others for their troubles, “even Rome”. “It is unfortunate,” he said.
“Meanwhile, Mgr Okpaleke was not in the picture. He was brought as a last resort. He was appointed when these Ahiara priests frustrated all efforts the Church made to appoint one of them as the successor to late Bishop [Victor] Chikwe,” Nwachukwu said. “Mgr Okpaleke came into the picture as a neutral person, possibly to give the Diocese of Ahiara a new lease of spiritual life, clean the mess and help the growth of genuine priestly vocation and faith of the people.”
Bishop Okpaleke’s appointment was met by protests and petitions calling for the appointment of a bishop from among the local clergy. Nevertheless, he was ordained a bishop in May 2013, although the ordination took place not in the Ahiara diocese, but at a seminary in the Owerri archdiocese. His formal installation has yet to occur.
Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo state in southern Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke is from Anambra state, which borders Imo to the north.