Before now, I have had some challenges making public comments on the disruptive activities of some Mbaise priests, religious and laity –and surprisingly backed by their traditional leader – over the appointment of Monsignor Peter Ebere Okpaleke, as the bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese in Imo State, for the obvious reason that “I am involved”.
In the first place, Monsignor Okpaleke comes from the same community as I do and I have known him since he was a child. In fact, his elder brother Marcellinus is my age mate, and we address each other as ‘nwa nwa ibem’ (roughly translated as my maternal cousin), because our mothers hail from the same kindred of a neighbouring community.
To that extent too, I have tried very hard to restrain myself from serving the recalcitrant Mbaise ‘Catholics’ with the dose of their own medicine for two reasons. One, I have had many respected Mbaise friends and associates whose clout, integrity, sense of fair play and piety I had respected enormously. I had thought that it would be unfair of me to do a characterization which could lump them together in the same boat as their misguided priests and religious who must be a huge embarrassment to many of these my friends; again one need not create enemies on issues that are bound to be eventually settled through common sense.
My worry, however, is that the ‘normal’ Mbaise people should allow this type of unbecoming behaviour that has been exhibited by their people to get to where it has got, to the extent that the Episcopal installation initially scheduled for the cathedral church in Ahiara for tomorrow has now been shifted to the Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary, Owerri. All efforts by the Catholic Bishops Conference and the Church hierarchy in Rome, led by the Archbishop Ussiju, the Uganda- born papal envoy to Nigeria, have collapsed in face of what intelligence agencies have advised are real threats to life and property, and after many mediatory efforts have collapsed.
Secondly, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola of the blessed memory once said that it is unwise of someone to urinate into a pool from which one hoped to draw his drinking water. In that light, and knowing that the almighty Catholic Church would ultimately prevail, it would be dysfunctional to further muddy the waters for a Bishop Peter Okpaleke in a diocese where he would eventually preside, by speaking very harsh words ‘on his behalf’. For, even though the venue would be different, Monsignor Peter Okpaleke, will still be installed as the next bishop of the Ahiara Diocese, tomorrow, the 21st day of May at Owerri. Let me, however, place certain germane issues in their proper perspectives.
The pope emeritus, Benedict XVI elected Reverend Father Peter Okpaleke to succeed the late Bishop Victor Chikwe of the Ahiara Diocese on December 7th, last year; all hell was let loose. Some Mbaise people from across the segment of the society, led by some members of their clergy, launched very vociferous protests against the papal action, challenging the Church for daring to nominate a bishop who is not the ‘son of the Mbaise soil’.
The basis of the Mbaise angst is two-pronged but clearly misplaced. In the first place, the Pope has no right to appoint a bishop from outside the Mbaise clan, as according to them, they have as many 500 indigenous priests and over 1000 reverend sisters, the majority of whom, are in any case, serving in other dioceses all over the world. Then, they decried what they saw as the ‘Anambranization’ of the Catholic Church in Igboland. Okpaleke is from the Awka Dicoese.
One would have easily mistaken the language of the protesters as coming from the camp of the Niger Delta or Boko Haram militant and not from people who claim to be Catholics, on such a basic doctrinal spiritual issue as the election of a bishop, which every Catholic should believe, has a touch of the Holy Spirit, especially as no living Catholic is allowed to challenge the papal authority.
Yet, Mbaise renegade priests and their cohorts regard the appointment of Okpaleke as an imposition, even when it is as clear as the day that it is only the Vatican that has the right and the authority to nominate a bishop of any diocese of the Catholic Church on earth. In all these, none of the antagonists has found it fit to inform the public that two clear years after the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe, the ‘wise men’ clergy and laity of the Ahiara Diocese had made it impossible for a bishop to be selected from among their 500 indigenous priests because of the damaging mud-slinging and putrid petitions they had levelled against one another.
In his very brilliant contribution to the online publication, Sahara Reporters, on January 11, 2013, Reverend Father Stan Chu Ilo of Enugu Diocese reasoned that like the proverbial lizard that brought ruin to its own mother’s funeral, Mbaise priests had created the situation which made the choice of an indigenous priest impracticable, as all those who the Church had considered suitable had all been rubbished by all manners of dirty accusations through petitions from fellow Mbaise priests.
According to Father Ilo: “the internal wars, petition writing, nocturnal visits, horse-trading, envy and recriminations of Igbo-on-Igbo hatchet-bearing head hunters ate up the heart of Mbaise Catholicism. Why will Mbaise priests wage wars against each other before ‘foreigners’ washing their dirty linens before ‘outsiders’ and ripping each other apart just for the unholy ambition of the winning the prize of lucre?”
But then, something must be understood about ‘demographics’ of these so-called “500 Mbaise priests” which is now being put forward as a major strength – which it has become, in another direction. Mbaise happens to be an area of Africa with the highest population density occasioned by the age-long preference for extremely large families, whereby a woman is rewarded traditionally for producing upward of a dozen of children, as in deed, many of them do.
With very infertile land occasioned by over-cropping, the Mbaise family naturally opts for the education of its children which was not easy, given the relative economic unease of the community. The seminaries where the Catholic Church offers free quality education have become the convenient way out. In other words, most of these troublesome Mbaise priests are there not necessarily out of vocation, but rather as a bread-winning occupation. And it clearly shows.
The priests who are organizing the current rebellion and activism against the Church’s decision on the bishop-elect easily fall into this class of those who see priesthood as an economic venture and as a means for taking care of their extended families and dependants. They, therefore, see the bishopric position as a professional elevation that attracts better economic possibilities, the way a plum ministerial portfolio does, and not that which imposes greater responsibilities as a shepherd on the grazing pastures of Christ. Ditto, for their lay supporters who see themselves as direct beneficiaries from the booty which such a ‘plum promotion’ could provide.
Otherwise, how does one explain that a priest who took the oath of obedience to the Church authority as one of his three vows on ordination, openly rebelling against the authority of the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church? Every priest knows that rebellion or rejection of the instructions of a superior authority of the Church automatically disposes one to excommunication; therefore, then, the recalcitrant Mbaise priests must regard this struggle for the Episcopal position as being more important than priesthood itself. And there must be greater and more promising reasons.
Because Mbaise priests, like all their colleagues all over the world, go through different levels of education and erudition, they must all be conversant with the code of the Cannon Law which provides that, “there is neither appeal nor recourse against the Judgment or decree of the Roman Pontiff” (C.333&3).
It, therefore, beats imagination that these priests and their militant lay supporters should be protesting against the decree of the supreme pontiff over the presence of a non-indigenous bishop in a diocese put in place and owned by the same supreme Catholic authority. Significantly, as a preponderant number of these 500 Mbaise priests are serving at other parts of the country and the world, should common sense not have instructed them to have first demanded for the repatriation of their priests to the Ahiara Diocese?
It is a big surprise that the priests, in spite of their education and hence capacity for introspection, have refused to see a greater future for many of these their 500 priests – most of whom look very sound – that qualify to be made bishops and even cardinals. Definitely, the activist priests do not hope that every Mbaise priest that becomes a bishop must not serve in any other diocese. Such level of myopia by people who are regarded as ‘the wise-men of the East’ is really sickening.
There is no doubt that such self-serving and unexpected recalcitrance gives Mbaise people a worse reputation than they already enjoy amongst most of their fellow Igbo, who had often viewed them with a considerable level of suspicion to the extent that there is a common saying that, ‘if an Mbaise person and a snake enter your house simultaneously, you should kill the Mbaise man first’. How else would one interpret the fact that as Archbishop Obinna and other bishops of the Owerri Ecclesiastical Province are calling for prayers for the installation of Monsignor Okpaleke, Mbaise people from different walks of life, and even their intellectuals and traditional ruler, are beating war drums, threatening all of bodily harm?
All over Nigeria and the world, bishops officiate at different dioceses and archdioceses outside theirs. In his article, Father Stan further recounts how much the Mbaise behaviour has reduced the Igbo Catholics to ridicule. He recounted the comment of a Northern bishop to him, thus: “You Igbo Catholics have an Igbo problem. They send an Igbo man to be bishop of Minna (Uzoukwu), the Minna people accepted him; they send an Igbo man (Akubueze) to be bishop of Uromi and now Benin, the ‘foreigners’ accepted him even though there were complaints here and there; now they send an Igbo man to fellow Igbo people and they are rejecting him.
In the North, they send Kukah from Kaduna to Sokoto, the Hausas of Sokoto accepted him; they send Dodo from Kaduna to Zaria, they accepted him; they send Kaigama from Kafanchan to Jos, they accepted him…and you can look at the Yoruba bishops too, the cases of Atoyebi, Onaiyekan, Badejo, and Okojie…who are all bishops in dioceses different from their place of origin among their own ethnic group.” Sad, very sad, indeed!
The reverend gentleman should have added that after consistently being the pope and Bishop of Rome for over 400 years, the Italians did not reject a Polish who become Pope John II in 1978, neither did they insist on an Italian cardinal in 2005 when a German became Pope Benedict XVI nor when an Argentine became Pope Francis this year. Currently, a least three Nigerian archbishops are serving as the Vatican ambassadors in different countries of the world. The Central African Republic/Chad are not repudiating the posting of Archbishop Jude Okolo as the papal nuncio, nor is Benin Republic rejecting Archbishop Bishop Udaigwe from Orlu Diocese nor is Nicaragua protesting against Archbishop Fortnatus Nwachukwu. Whenever an Mbaise son is elected as a bishop to anywhere in the world, it is hoped that Mbaise people should rise in unison to oppose such an appointment.
Any Catholic, especially a priest who does not respect or accept, without question, the dictates of the Church, which, in any case is not a democracy, has automatically ruled him or herself out as a Catholic. Such a person should no longer have the right to use the institution or premises of the Catholic Church. That vocal and irresponsible Mbaise activists, currently embarrassing the very pious and active Catholics from the diocese, should be known and taken for what they are – rogue Catholics and the constituted authorities of the State should take note of their nuisance factor, especially at this time when the country cannot afford another social blow-out by selfish and self-serving deviants.
As the Universal Church welcomes its newest bishop in Peter Ebere Okpaleke, Nigerian Catholics should neither be dismayed nor embarrassed by this uncouth shenanigan of some selfish priests and their suborned supporters among the misguided members of the laity and the religious. God knows those who are His people in spite of the pretensions of some people as ‘l’habit ne fait pas le moine’ (the soutane does not make the monk), as the French would say.
The Church in its over 2000-year history has seen and weathered greater challenges and this one by the rabble-rousers from the Ahiara Diocese and a few of their supporters is only a storm in the teacup which will be also weathered by the Church.
This is wishing Monsignor Peter Okpaleke the best and hoping that he would see this as another great opportunity to rise above obstacles as he has amply done at his other places of posting. We shall continue to pray for him and his flock.