Massive jubilation across the length and breadth of Mbaise over the sudden resignation of Peter Ebele Okpaleke, whose appointment as Bishop of Ahiara Mbaise Diocese sparked off huge crises that nearly rocked the Catholic Church.
There were wide jubilations all over Mbaise on February 10, when news of the resignation of Peter Ebele Okpaleke who they rejected as their Bishop, filtered in. Gunshots were heard from all corners of the town as individuals, and even non Catholics paid for canon shots while others made do with their double barrel guns. This is outside the songs by both women and youths who sang praises to God for a prayer answered.
This development has ended the crisis that rocked the Diocese for about 6 years now since the death of Victor Adibe Chikwe, an indigene who was the first Bishop of the diocese. The Catholics of Ahiara Mbaise diocese had refused to accept Okpaleke as their Bishop for the past six years insisting that his appointment did not follow the right process. They argued that the appointment was wrong as Okpaleke, they claimed, does not belong to the Ahiara Presbitorium which is a basic canonical requirement for Bishopric appointment. They described it as a plot to marginalize and colonize them, which they say is unacceptable.
They indicted Cardinals John Onaiyekan of the Abuja Archdiocese and Francis Arinze of the Vatican as the brains behind the entire crises. Onaiyekan was before now serving as the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese, an appointment he got from the Vatican to oversee affairs of the Diocese pending the appointment of a Bishop.
The Mbaises further argued that Mbaise has over 500 priests who are all qualified for Bishopric and wondered why none of them was considered for the office, even when the Pope has directed that “people should be given pastors close to them”.
Another reason they cited for rejecting Okpaleke is that consultation for his appointment was not done in Mbaise as required but rather in the Awka Diocese where he hails from which they saw as an insolence. They also argued that it is the height of injustice that the Awka Diocese where Okpaleke comes from has over seven bishops scattered both in the Onitsha province and other Dioceses in the eastern part of Nigeria, describing this as a grand plot by Arinze who also hails from the Awka Diocese to dominate and colonize the Catholic Church in the east and Nigeria by extension using his office at the Vatican.
They also wondered why there is no non-indigene serving as a Bishop or even an auxiliary in the entire Onitsha province and condemned the impunity with which Okpaleke was appointed.
As a result of their position, very stiff punitive measures were extended to them. These include the refusal to give them the sacrament of confirmation and also the refusal to ordain their sons as deacons and priests for the six years that the crises raged in what appears to be a move to break their resolve and push them to submission.
Verbatim was told that about 56 seminarians who should have been ordained priests within the crises period are still awaiting ordination as deacons. It was revealed to Verbatim that the Catholics of the Diocese wrote several memos to Pope asking him to intervene and save them while at the same time implored the Holy Spirit to take control.
Few months ago, the Bishop of Kafanchan Diocese in Kaduna, Bishop Bagobiri opened a can of worms and accused the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, CBCN, for complicity in the crises in Ahiara. Bagobiri said the people of Mbaise are fighting a just cause and should be obliged, insisting that the CBCN has derailed from initial plans and methods for peacefully resolving the Ahiara issue.
His outburst attracted a lot of reactions which is believed prompted the interest of Rome in the Ahiasa issue as the unity of the CBCN was at stake as a result of Bagobiri’s position.
Verbatim also learnt that Okpaleke was compelled by the Vatican to resign and Lucius Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia Diocese appointed the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara to replace Onaiyekan who appears to have lost favour in Rome.
Reacting to the development, Austin Benadine Ekechukwu, President of Mbaise Priests Association told this magazine that God has answered the prayers of the Mbaise who he said, stood for the cause of righteousness, justice and fair play. Ekechukwu said that by the development, God has vindicated the people of Ahiara especially the clergy who he said have been demonized and labeled rebels.
He said the people of the diocese will welcome Bishop Ugorji who he referred to as a personal friend when he resumes as the new Apostolic Administrator and advised him to be good and listen to the voice of the people, adding that he is expected to give the sacrament of confirmation to the laity of the diocese, ordain their children deacons and priests and also prepare the minds of the people for the ordination of a new bishop for the diocese.