Nigerian bishop, rejected by diocesan priests, announces resignation
February 19, 2018
Bishop Peter Okpaleke, whose appointment in 2012 as head of Nigeria’s Ahiara diocese prompted a rebellion among the Catholic faithful there, has resigned “for the good of the Church.”
The Vatican announced on February 19 that the resignation of Bishop Okapaleke had been accepted, less than a year after Pope Francis warned that any priests of the Ahiara diocese who refused to recognize the bishop’s leadership would be suspended from ministry. That threat was never carried out, and with the bishop’s resignation that Vatican has backed away, ending a stalemate that had lasted more than five years.
Pope Francis has named Bishop Lucius Iewjuru Ugorji of Umuahia to act as apostolic administrator of the troubled diocese. And the Congregation for Evangelization has issued a statement calling upon the priests of the rebellious diocese to “reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ” and admonished them to “never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”
Bishop Okpaleke was appointed to the Ahiara see, in southern Nigeria, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. But the appointment immediately encountered stiff resistance. Priests of the diocese complained that Bishop Okpaleke, a member of the Igbo tribe, would not be acceptable to the local Mbaise people. Priests and lay people of the diocese blocked the new bishop from entering the cathedral and chancery offices.
Although the Vatican stood by the appointment, resistance continued, severely damaging the life of the Church in the heavily Catholic region. No new priests have been ordained, confirmations have ceased, and the annual Chrism Mass—celebrating the unity of the local clergy with the diocesan bishop—has not taken place since the new bishop’s appointment.
In July 2013, Pope Francis took the unusual step of appointing Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as apostolic administrator of Ahiara. That move was a tacit recognition that Bishop Okpaleke had been unable to carry out his episcopal ministry, since ordinarly an apostolic administrator is named only when a see is vacant.
Last year Pope Francis took sterner action, warning the priests of Ahiara that they would be suspended if they continued to reject their bishop’s authority. He ordered the rebellious priests to write personal letters to him, seeking forgiveness for their disobedience and promising their fidelity to the bishop. The Pope reportedly received more than 200 such letters, representing roughly half of the priests of the diocese, and responded to each priest personally. However, informed Vatican sources say that many of the priests said that the conflict in their diocese had made it psychologically difficult for them accept Bishop Okpaleke.
Meanwhile many diocesan priests continued to hold out against the bishop. And a statement issued last year by lay leaders of the diocese insisted that Bishop Okpaleke “has no place in the Ahiara diocese.”
In his statement of resignation, Bishop Okpaleke said that “repentance and reconciliation are urgent.” He is now eligible for a new diocesan assignment.
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- Pope Francis accepts the resignation of Nigerian Bishop (Vatican News)
- Press release of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on the Diocese of Ahiara
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