Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, of Ahiara Diocese in Imo State, Nigeria, resigned recently after priests and laity rejected his appointment as bishop. In his resignation letter Okpaleke said remaining bishop in Ahiara would not be beneficial to the Church. Fr Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu takes a look at this case and wonders whether it is time for a Pontifical Commission for Africa to be established.
When Pope Benedict XVI appointed Fr Peter Ebere Okpaleke to be the new bishop of the diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria in 2012, he was doing what he had done all the time when there was a need for a bishop to lead any diocese in the world. He had not prepared himself for what would become an outright rejection of the bishop-elect by the clergy and people of the diocese of Ahiara. Although there has in the past been dissatisfaction with some appointments in some places, the authority of the Petrine ministry always triumphed because as the Code of Canon Law (CIC) puts it, “by virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them. Moreover, this primacy strengthens and protects the proper, ordinary, and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care.” (CIC Canon 333 §1) The clergy and the faithful of Ahiara refused to accept or swear their allegiance to Okpaleke so much so that the episcopal ordination of Okpaleke took place in another diocese because he was denied entry into his own cathedral.
The main issue that was raised by the clergy and faithful is that Okpaleke was not from Mbaise, which is a majority Catholic region (90%) in Southwest Nigeria comprising of over 1 million people. Mbaise consists of five clans: the Agbaja, Ahiara, Ekwereazu, Ezi na Ihite and Oke Ovoro. The people of Mbaise are Igbo. For close to 5 years the stand-off between the clergy and faithful of Ahiara against Okpaleke was unrelenting, until, in June 2017, when Pope Francis intervened, and demanded that all priests in the diocese should write a letter to him within 30 days, pledging their obedience to him and accepting Okpaleke as their bishop.
By February 2018 Pope Francis received, according to Fides, 200 letters from priests of the diocese of Ahiara. They all pledged their allegiance to the pope with some priests raising their reservations about the appointment of Okpaleke. Bishop Okpaleke submitted his resignation to the Holy Father citing the fact that he has not been able to take possession of his diocese or live in its territory due to violence and resistance. The Holy Father accepted his resignation and ultimately changed his mind about suspending all priests who refused to accept bishop Okpaleke. What is interesting about this case, is that this hostile response was somehow not expected. The problem could be the one-size-fits-all process that is employed in the selection of a bishop.
The selection and appointment of bishops
The CIC stipulates that for a person to be a suitable candidate for the episcopacy, he must be firstly, “a person of outstanding faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence and human virtues and endowed with other talents which make him fit to fulfil the office in question.” In addition the canon states that he must be at least 35 years old (although the norm in recent memory has been anyone above 45), must have been a priest ordained for at least five years, and must be in possession of a doctorate or licentiate in scripture, theology or Canon Law (CIC Canon 378).
The process of identifying and selecting and appointing a bishop (in accordance with Canon 377) can be broken down into four stages. Firstly, the diocesan bishop submits a list of priests to the metropolitan archbishop whom he thinks are suitable to be bishops. The archbishop, at least every three years, submits that list together with the priests CVs to the bishop’s conference. Secondly, after discussions have been held among the bishops, the names are forwarded to the apostolic nuncio (the ambassador of the Holy See). The nuncio gathers facts and does an extensive confidential consultation about the priests whose names have been forwarded to him. He consults with other members of the clergy and other individuals. The nuncio then narrows the list down to 3 names (a terna). Thirdly the terna is sent to Rome where the Congregation of Bishops, or in the case of South Africa and Nigeria which are still classified as ‘Mission Territories’, and therefore fall under the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propaganda Fide), deliberates further on the names in order to find the most preferred candidate. The last step is when the Prefect of the Congregation meets with the Holy Father, normally on a Saturday morning, in order to present to him all the information on the candidates. The Holy Father then appoints a bishop after having taken into consideration all the advice and recommendations (CIC Canon 377).
Human dynamics: The threat of ambition
Although the process seems comprehensive and has many checks and balances, it can be partially blind to the movements on the ground and the relentless lobbying and power that some players, especially clerics, have. It is no secret, like in all human institutions where a leadership vacancy appears, that there will always be those who feel that they are best-suited for the job. Such periods of vacancy (sede vacante) unleash a period of intense lobbying and strategic positioning, in some cases to the point of complete comical theatrics. In every corner there are groups whispering, people are talking about who they think is a front-runner and who they themselves prefer. These voices can also be very loud, and have the ability to influence the thoughts of many within a diocese. These groups can also be very negative towards each other. However if both groups do not win, and an outsider is selected, they can unite and work together against the outsider. Although the nuances of the Diocese of Ahiara are not very clear, this type of scenario could also have been very much at work.
A failure in succession planning
Another area that should not be overlooked, is the fact that there is often a failure in succession planning. Succession planning in the case of the church does not mean a “name the heir” kind of arrangement. It means that the diocesan bishop, and the bishop’s conference, has the duty to equip, through study and exposure, clergy in their diocese. The bishop does not have to be selective in doing this and he could routinely see to it that more and more of his clergy have some opportunity to lead some sections in the work of the diocese, thereby exposing them to the inner workings of a diocesan curia. This should not be done at the expense of pastoral ministry which is the bedrock of the vocation to the priesthood and religious life. The CIC, as examined above, has already spelled out what the key areas are that should be considered for someone to become a candidate for the episcopacy. It is surprising therefore, that in some cases, there is just absolutely very little work done by the diocesan bishop in this regard. It is for this reason that when the time comes to find a new bishop there is great difficulty to even identify the eligible candidates.
The case of Ahiara has never really been a challenge to papal authority. It would seem that it is also not about the leadership qualities of Bishop Okpaleke. It is a case of not paying sufficient attention to the specificity of the particular place and community. The issues of culture and tribalism are no footnote in African society, nor are they in the world generally. The church takes into consideration these kinds of nuances by having the consultations done on the ground and by working through nunciatures based in particular countries. However, it takes a certain effort in assimilation for someone from outside to really settle into an area. Tied to this conversation is also the problem of xenophobia. One can only imagine if here in South Africa (with our own xenophobic tendencies) a non-South African was appointed bishop. It would not be easy. Having said that, it must also be noted that the manner through which the rejection of the bishop was done in Ahiara displayed a lack of Christian virtue. This was, in my opinion, a case of hatred, and an obvious compromise to the message of the Gospel. I am not sure how some of our brother priests and the faithful in that diocese will ever be able to preach about the welcoming of strangers without themselves being viewed as compromised in this area.
Time for a Pontifical Commission for Africa?
The Holy Father did well to accept the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke because this kind of stand-off would have compromised the health of the church in the Diocese of Ahiara even further. This experience has also shown, I believe, that there is a need for the universal church to prioritise and engage with Africa more extensively and more formally. It is unbelievable that there is no Pontifical Commission for Africa similar to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. In 1958 Pope Pius XII established the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and charged it with providing assistance to, and examining matters pertaining to, the church in Latin America. That commission operates under the auspices of the Congregation for Bishops. It is also unbelievable that in this day and age in Africa, where the church is growing, bishops are not appointed by the Congregation for Bishops, because it is still considered a ‘mission territory’. If the case of the Diocese of Ahiara does not convince the church for the need to have such a commission for Africa, and the attention of the Congregation for Bishops, then nothing else will. As the Pope’s cardinal advisors, also called the 'Council of Cardinals', prepare to conclude their work on the reform of the Roman Curia, I hope that they have taken these issues into account.
Photo: News Agency of Nigeria