The action of God in salvation history for the liberation of man is at times totally irreconcilable in the life of Jesus Christ. Man sinned in Adam and lost his glory in God. He was appropriately penalized to retrieve his liberation. But the liberation and salvation was not totally achieved in the penalty of curse and ejection of man. Perhaps a more expensive and commensurate victim was needed to exert God’s vengeance effectively enough to procure his liberation. Christ became the perfect victim for Adam as he became the sacrificial lamb and oblation who unjustly bore the sins of the world and carried its infirmities to perfect the salvation. It was only in this total consummation that the perfection of salvation echoed, “it is finished”. But this liberation was wrought with great curse and cost, “curse be the man who hung on the cross” (Gal.3:13-14). Of course no liberation of humanity’s history worth its salt has ever come so cheap and easy without a cost. Think of Christ’s world, the South Africa’s Mandela, the Black America’s Martin Luther King and the rest. Each of these that brought liberation of history from the clutches of oppression went through the crucibles of either misinterpretation, persecution, death or all of the above.
Christ’s liberation of the world and mankind in history was of two dimensional, institutional and ideological. Institutionally he confronted the status quo and organized conservatism of political and religious hierarchy and ideologically he accosted the rigidity and fascism that repulsed reality and openness. It was breaking through this ossified institution that entangled the Messiah with the authority of his time and culminated in and facilitated his predestined victim-hood. He was conspired against, touted, ridiculed, denigrated and caricatured by those who could not tolerate his challenge and audacity.
To be the instrument of change or divine tool of liberation, whether in religious or political set up connotes holocaust for the liberator. This even includes the reality of the fate of Judas in connection with Christ and the process of salvation drama. This is not heretic but factual. Both shared in the similar fate of victim-hood, though one totally innocent and the other circumstantially guilty. But each in himself accomplished a victim’s fate in the predestined and destined course of human salvation and liberation from sin. Somebody and something is always needed as the mediating cause and effect of change. God who writes on a crooked line, in his omniscience knows why he uses certain persons or people, even his own son as victim and cause of liberation of his creation. This is the case of the Igbo Catholic church in Nigeria and its age-long politics of imposition whose bourgeoning mule and head like Absalom’s got caught up and fixed in the oak of Ahiara Diocese which now results in their persecution as the victim of the confrontation of unjust structure.
For a protracted number of months, Ahiara Diocese has been in the saddle and clutches similar to Christ’s in his confrontation of his contemporary world and the hegemonic institution. Like the paradoxical person of Jesus in the teeth of irony, Ahiara has become the child that is destined for the rising and falling of many in the Nigerian and Igbo Church, a sign that is rejected, but whose piercing sword has certainly revealed the secrete thoughts and the bankruptcy of character of many in diversified ways. It has one way, revealed the strength, the solidarity and unity of Mbaise people who are the most handicapped, oppressed, dissipated and marginalized political people of Imo state. It has also revealed her fiercest predators, antagonists, the naïve and the cynics of Mbaise, even among its indigenes and the provincial hierarchies.
It is on record that the selection of the now Bishop Okpaleke was preceded with unprecedented but concealed and carefully managed discord and disagreement among the Bishops and the Nuncio. When the appointment was finally induced and agitation erupted as they forewarned, they started accusing, absolving and blaming each other for the parts played or neglected to play in the bad deal that produced the controversial bishop and admitted that something was wrong. That conflict is enough indication of the blunder and wrongness of their act. The Episcopal ordination of the controversial Bishop caused no less a rumpus and discordance similar to the tower of Babel among the hierarchy. It took the institutional dogmatic conscience of solidarity to whip all the bishops, some grudgingly, to attend the ordination. The Bishop was ordained, as they confessed, to free themselves from his pressure, ease out the prevailing tension and satisfy his burning and endangered ambition since he had already been announced. Although he was designated for Ahiara Diocese with cloudy, guilty and hazy presumption, the Bishops could not confidently take responsibility for his installation in the Diocese given the prevailing tension, the doubt and guilt in the action of the sponsors and the college of Bishops. Given the controversy, self-indictment, suspicion and the glamour of ambition inherent in and generated by the ordination, he was politely left to take the episcopate but abandoned by the Bishops to fight for himself the taking of possession of the diocese. This is because he insisted to be ordained in spite of wise counsel from reasonable quarters, even from Rome to resign honorably.
After the ordination outside Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise went through the paradox of Jesus fate as many were hailing and congratulating them for their rare courage and resilience and for resisting the ordination in their diocese while some others were satirizing and denigrating them as rebels, like in the fate of Jesus whom some said was a good man and others said he was not. But then, came an unusual and unexpected vindication from the vicar of God, Pope Francis, who is not disposed to conventional traditionalism of conservative protectionism. Granted the appointment of the “given” Bishop Okpaleke was approved by the pope, the procedure and selection was unusually defective, unjust, stealthily, too presumptuous and in bad faith. His imposition from an entirely different province and the associated disparities and irregularities were unprecedented and questionable. Yet as a matter of principle and courtesy, Pope Francis was not supposed to withdraw the appointment of his predecessor or impede his Episcopal ordination. However, immediately after the ordination, the Pope invited the Nuncios involved in the selection of bishops and politely chided, harassed and warned them to “choose bishops from pastors close to the people” and to “be careful that the candidates are pastors close to the people, fathers and brothers, that they are gentle, patient and merciful; …that they do not have the psychology of “Princes”. Be careful that they are not ambitious, that they do not seek the episcopate”. His suspicion and warning was in perfect agreement with and justified the contention of the priests and lay faithful of Mbaise prejudicially designated and tagged “rebels” and “dissidents” by opponents. With the Holy Father’s intervention, people started agreeing concerning Ahiara Diocese like in the case of Jesus, that “this man is innocent”. But as Jesus himself would reiterate and doubly re-assert his action when the Jews and the Pharisees felt fastidious and infuriated at his liberation of those they hold in bondage and oppression and would say, “which of these are easier to say, “your sins are forgiven you or to say get up and walk? But to prove to you that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins…I order you: get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home (Lk.5:23-24), the Pope again appointed Cardinal John Onaieyekan the Apostolic administrator to the Diocese. This was disappointing to those expecting their punishment. This unprecedented and unusual papal appointment of direct Pontifical mandate totally disengaged the Nuncio and Nigerian Bishops from any form of arbitration, manipulation, imposition, consultation, interference, intervention or presumed authority over the Episcopal impasse and made it an exclusively papal issue.
Following the appointment, the antagonists of Mbaise people still wishfully maintained in their illusion that the Cardinal was rather sent to prepare the ground for the eventual installation of bishop Okpaleke. But on his interactive section on August 20th, 2013, the Cardinal personally and unequivocally asserted on enquiry, that there was no mandate for installation attached to his appointment. But it was obvious that the bishops were not happy to hear that. Hence, he has been tactfully and diplomatically measuring the pulse of the people to melt their resoluteness and push them to shift ground. Consequently, the Cardinal’s assignment has evidently been curiously burdened with incessant external inducement and pressure by the Nigerian Catholic bishops to prevail on him to install the embattled bishop against the Pope’s caution. The pressure they give him reflects in equivalent to the one he gives to the priests to recant. This has really put the apostolic Administrator’s mission to a dilemma of serving too masters or more, the Pope, the Bishops or the call of justice in Ahiara Diocese.
At the commencement of the Episcopal tussle, the strategic propaganda of the Bishops against the clergy and people of Mbaise was the calumny of disobedience to the Pope. Meanwhile they blockaded any avenue by which the voice of the Diocese could reach the Vatican authority to ascertain the right information in the matter. But when the Pope finally got to know and harangued the Nuncios in a term that unmistakably and explicitly vindicated the Ahiara contention, one expected the bishops to obey the pope. But then, it is no longer for them, the issue of disobedience to the Pope and the church since the Pope spoke in favour of justice, right and propriety as the things to obey. Rather, they reversed to a tripod dimensional battle. One is the battle of supremacy against the perceived dwarf and Lilliputian Mbaise people. The second is the psychological and ideological contest of a father who is wrong conceding defeat to the son, thereby setting the precedence of son superiority over the father. The third is their desperation to install the Bishop to avoid roaming and ensure the continuation of the same way of previously getting to the episcopacy and enthroning their cronies which they fear Ahiara diocese is bent on scuttling to liberate the church from its Nigerian political power kleptomania.
The precept of universality in choosing a bishop was, in the case of Ahiara conspicuously orchestrated and abusively exploited by unbridled ambition and this is not doubted by the hierarchy. The selection was in strict maintenance of a most disturbing and annoying son of the soil syndrome by a person who would not allow other people become bishops in “his territory” but is consistently making his own people bishops in other places. It is insincerity and malicious disruption of contemporaneous history and time to say that the papal cautions against ambition, seeking the episcopate and psychology of princes were not motivated by and directed to Ahiara bishopric case or that his words are ambiguous and needs expertise interpretation. But having removed the burden of condemnation and guilt on the Diocese by this acquittal verdict, the haters of Ahiara Mbaise and the Nigerian hierarchy are burdened with the fear of the superior backing down for the inferior. Like the Pharisees and the Jews against Jesus, they are bent on having Jesus crucified in place of Barabbas for Jesus’ affront on their authority.
The greatest problem for the bishops is how to allow Ahiara to get exactly what they and the Roman pontiff want and merit by the argument of right, propriety and justice and the awful psychology this portends for them. Therefore a delay tactics seem to be on ground as a strategy to fizzle out the priests’ collective resolve, break their solidarity, frustrate and exhaust their patience in order for them to accept a compromise. But an attempt to disintegrate their solidarity and unity has met the rocks and rather strengthened their unity for the worse or best. The Nigerian Bishops have openly expressed their frustration and disappointment in this formidable unity of the priests of Ahiara which they regret is their greatest obstacle to divide and rule their destiny as Nigerian leaders do. What is even embarrassing is that our dear bishops are not happy to hear that there is no crisis in Ahiara Mbaise and that they are solidly united and peaceful. As a way our for a lesser evil, the conspiracy is to give them, not really an indigenous pastor but a pastor nearly close to them from elsewhere if Bishop Okpaleke’s mission becomes impossible and abortive. Could this be the reason perhaps, people suspect that people like Fr. Ralph Madu, the religious and others, posture for the errand of rampaging cynicism and propaganda against Ahiara to shore up favour for accreditation and consideration? But Ahiara Diocese sees anything short of their demand unacceptable cosmetics given the Pope’s injunction and the calumny they have suffered so far.
With all due respect and politeness, the Nigerian bishops lost the capacity to enjoy the audience of intervention, negotiation or resolution of the matter. Yet they are assiduously pressurizing behind the curtains in proxy to direct the action of the Cardinal in favour of Bishop Okpaleke. This is intended to and has actually made the Papal apostolate and the Cardinal stuck in the dance of the political anthem of Pontius Pilate. Would Cardinal Onaieykan actually discredit the trust of the Holy Father who made him the Sole Administrator and does not need consultation or directive from a lower authority? The manner of his appointment makes him the last resort and final arbiter because he is acting in the name of the Roman Pontiff. Would the Cardinal ever rescind and contradict his words and mission to the Ahiara Mbaise people that the Pope did not ask him to install the embattled bishop and that that was not what he came for? Would the demand of the Holy Father to give the people a pastor close to them be glossed over with indifference? Would it give him hounour to do so? If Jesus, the final arbiter and mediator from the father had failed in his mission as last resort for salvation, who would have become another substitute? The Ahiara-Okpaleke has transcended the problem of obedience to be the problem of the greatest puzzle of the dilemma of truth, justice and fairness and maintaining the triumphanlism of institutional power.
The communiqué of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, published in the Guardian on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 has once more heightened suspicion and sours one’s sense of modesty and decency. It derogated Ahiara thus, “We regret and condemn the attitude of those priests in Ahiara Diocese who rejected their new Bishop. We consider their attitude an affront to the Holy Father who has the sole prerogative of appointing Bishops. We call on the priests to review their position, recant and accept in love their Shepherd, Most Rev. Peter Ebelechukwu Okpaleke”. If the highest authority in the province had warned the writer of this article not to write the issues of the bishopric impasse in the public media, why taking the same case to The Guardian news paper, one of the most widely read paper, as part of the persecution to embarrass and intimidate them out of justice when the bishops have their private new letter? Regrettably, this call has been encumbered by pas realities and the statement invalidated, contradicted and overtaken by previous events and makes recanting unfeasible. In the first place, it is evident by the utterances and actions of the Owerri Provincial Archbishop, the Nuncio and most, if not all the provincial bishops in private and public places, that the appointment of the Bishop in question was entirely adulterated by the flagrant commission or omission of their actions prior to the Papal approval, which was why they had discordant voices and now edged out in the intervention programme.
Except in collegial fraternity of bishops, they cannot in total true conscience personally condemn “those Ahiara priests” who rejected the bishop. Secondly, the stand of the Ahiara priests has been justified, vindicated and validated by the Holy Father who they accept has the prerogative of defining what is appropriate, right and just and has already berated the nuncios for their abuse of this process, which the appointment expressed. Before the Episcopal ordination, they propagated that the rejection of now bishop Okpaleke is a conspiracy of few and a handful dissident priests. God vindicating the just, only seven dissenting priests out of nearly six hundred priests of Ahiara origin attended under illusion. Even priests teaching in the venue of the ordination were hardly present and the priests of Owerri, Orlu, Okigwe, Aba and Umuahia boycotted in revolt and rejection. If our dear bishops think that Ahiara priests and laity have turned deaf and dumb spirit to their call, that is because of the truth they already know, the abnormality, the presumptuousness and injustice inherent in the selection and that recanting at this time is complicity and conformity with the process of evil. I hope the Nigerian bishops are not religiously re-enacting again through religious angle, another Nigerian conspiracy clique and incitement against the Igbo in the Biafran war, aided as usual by the Igbos themselves. Are they trying to incite and antagonize them and make the Nigerian church to hate the Ahiara Diocesan church and priests even when they know that they are on the path of justice and equity? Have not many of the bishops said it openly that Ahiara Diocese has really opened the eyes of the Nigerian church? Did I not hear the president of the Nigerian Bishops say to Ahiara priests, “you have made a legitimate point” on their visit to Ahiara before the Episcopal ordination? Do they want them to recant and review the truth or the falsehood and follow the part of illegitimacy and become good priests? Or, do they intend to drive them out of the Roman Catholic Church if they resist recanting? However, we neither blame the Nigerian bishops as Nigerians but as in Jesus’ experience, it was his own Jewish nation that handed him over in his travail and in this case, it is Igbo Cardinal and bishops imposing on the Igbo, and “that is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater guilt” (Jn.!9:11). The onus and burden of obedience to the Holy Father’s prerogative in giving justice to the matter now lies with the Bishops to give the people pastors close to the people. Their slight and interjectory judgment is considered the influencing of the process and a greater affront on the Pope. Recanting by Ahiara is not only dangerously belated but would, not only be condemning the Holy Father but humiliating, contradicting and ridiculing his wisdom by the same people he has defended and justified their cause.
Besides, the shepherd concept of the supreme Shepherd, Jesus Christ, roundly deprecates and depreciates Bishop Okpaleke Shepherdship in Ahiara Diocese because the shepherd is not imposed or forced on the flock if both the sheep and the shepherd never know each other or when the mission of shepherding is already tragically encumbered and defeated pastorally by the shepherd’s postures which scare and scatter the flock prior to arrival. But supposing that God in his foolishness, which surpasses the bishop’s wisdom and interest, has in the person of bishop Okpaleke, chosen to punish and caution the blaze of inordinate ambition for power in order to sanitize his only holy church by sacrificing one person as he sacrificed his own son to liberate mankind? Could the bishops not be fighting the act of God? Ahiara Mbaise should not worry for being the cross bearer and persecuted instrument of liberation and sanitization, while the bishops should not worry too much for the sacrificed victim and associated victims of ambition so long as the church is liberated.
Before the ordination of Bishop Okpaleke, Cardinal John mistakenly castigated the Ahiara priests and laity at Abuja with unascertained information. But like a humble servant, he shuddered remorsefully and surprisingly on visit to Ahiara on Saturday, May 4, 2013 on getting first hand information for the reasons for the rejection of Okpaleke. Confessing he never had the true information, he then opted for a hold on the Episcopal ordination until a dialogue was initiated. This was neglected by the bishops. The rejection of his offer for dialogue caused disaffection, though collegiality and solidarity later prevailed in the attendance of the ordination. It would amount to embarrassing caricature of the Cardinal for the bishops to force their own will now on him or to intrude in the matter vested on a higher authority pending determination, or to lead him to the perversity of justice and truth which they failed to achieve. It however looks ominous that, given the theatrics going on, Ahiara Diocese may be treated to the fate of Christ whose innocence and justice was relegated and sacrificed on the altar of solidarity, “ And though Herod and Pilate had been enemies before, they were reconciled that same day…Pilate then summoned the chief priests and the leading people. He said to them, ‘You brought this man before me as a popular agitator. Now I have gone into the matter myself in your presence and found no grounds in the man for any of the charges you bring against him. Nor has Herod either, since he has sent him back to us. As you can see, the man has done nothing that deserves death, so I shall have him flogged and then let him go. But as one man they howled, away with him! Give us Barabbas!” (Lk. 23:12-19). Ahiara is certainly going the fate of Jesus in the power struggle and balance of interest in which a rather humane and listening Cardinal is coincidentally in the eye of the storm between the truth, justice, innocence and power which Christ was involved thus, “From that moment Pilate was anxious to set him free, but the Jews shouted, ‘if you set him free you are no friend of Caesars; anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar” (Jn. 19:11-12). Ahiara is presently going through the stress of flogging and who knows, if Jesus would be convicted to retain friendship with the Caesars?
There is no doubt that the integrity of the hierarchy of the Nigerian church and those who wish to triumph on the defeat of Mbaise Catholic Church hang precariously and contingently on the case of Ahiara Church, considered the most vibrant, energetic, dynamic and springboard of Nigerian Catholicism even in Vatican. Unarguably, the posture of the present pope, his promptness in sending “a Cardinal” and what is true about the case, do not suggest the Cardinal was sent to salvage the integrity of the college of bishops by gaining their triumph and sustaining their hierarchical awesomeness over the diocese. It rather suggests a radical restitution and restoration of the dynamism, lost justice, fairness and truth which Christ and the church symbolize at all costs even against the hierarchy. But where justice, truth and the hierarchy run in conflict and compete for superior honour, the path of truth, fairness and justice should be honoured against the institution of the hierarchy, because these embody the master’s mission who says, “I am the Way; I am the Truth and Life” (Jn.14: 7) and “I was born for this, I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice (Jn.18:37). That voice of truth is not the voice of power and authority. It is the voice of humble openness to reality which at times violates personal interest and position and liberates the Igbo, Nigerian and African church from the pangs and handcuff of power into the sublime mission of Jesus Christ, who did not come to serve but to be served and give himself as ransom for many.
I would like to say that you are a true scholar and indeed an inspired man of God. I am not sure if any would put this piece more succintly than you have done. May your pen never dry and your inspiration unflickering!
I totally agree with you and your presentation is perfect. The truth must be told.
Your article couldn’t have been better written. Its so sad that Ahaira diocese has to go through this wahala. To come from Ahiara now is to be suspect. Its a shame. I pray God to intervene in a way that only Him knows how.
God bless you Fr.