“…I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”… Matthew 16: 18-19
Ever since Bishop Michael Okoro offered his resignation to Pope Francis early this year after he attained the mandatory 75 years as a Priest, tongues have been wagging over who replaces the Bishop in the Diocese. Many people have taken to the media campaigning for an indigenous Bishop in a manner that even portends a repeat of Ahiara experience. Following the visit of Archbishop Augustine Khalijah, the Papal Pro-Nuncio to Nigeria, to Ebonyi State few weeks ago, there have been speculations that the successor of Bishop Okoro may not come from among the Priests of Abakaliki Diocese thereby raising the issue of Ahiara Diocese where Mgsr Peter Okpaleke was appointed Bishop outside the Diocese of Ahiara and was rejected by a section of priests in the Diocese. While I have argued elsewhere that there is nothing wrong if the Pope would consider appointing one of the priests of Abakaliki Diocese to replace Bishop Michal Okoro, after all, they are many priests of the Diocese who are eminently qualified to be elevated to the office of Bishop; there is however, absolutely nothing wrong too, if the successor is appointed from outside the Diocese.
The foundation of the Catholic faith upon which we stand today as members of the Catholic Church derives from the declaration made by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 15: 18-19. The Catholic Church is a universal Church with its tradition sustained over two thousand years which has distinguished it from any other Christian body or religion.
When it comes to matters of faith and doctrines, the Catholic Church is not a place where people are swayed by sentiments. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. Following from the tradition established by Jesus Christ through His apostles, the Hierarchy in the Catholic Church is led by the Pope who is chosen from among the Bishops with no emphasis on place of birth. The Pope is surrounded by Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, and the Religious and down to the faithful that make up the institution of the Holy church.
The apostles of Christ were sent to different parts of the world to preach the gospel as directed by Christ when he said, “Go into the entire world and preach the gospel to all creation” Mark 16: 15. There was no issue of where any of the apostles came from as Jesus used himself as a good example. The apostles lived and died wherever they went for their apostolic works: Peter and Paul died in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero. Andrew was crucified in Syria. Thomas went to India where he lost his life. Philip went to Carthage in North Africa and later Asia Minor where he was killed after converting the wife of Roman Proconsul to Christianity. Matthew the tax collector went to Ethiopia and was stabbed to death in the course of the gospel message. Bartholomew, James, John, Simon the Zealot and Mathias who replaced Judas all died the same way in different locations of the world. As noted in Pope Benedict’s letter for the year of priests 2009-2010, “A priest first of all is a baptised man who has heard God calling him to a particular role in the Church – that of ministerial priesthood. When a man receives Holy Orders, he is configured to Christ, which means that when he carries out his ministerial work he is acting in the power of Christ, and not in his own power. Like St. Paul: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2:20). He is changed not because of what he can do, but because of what he has become. The priest, therefore, living in the midst of the people, is called to teach, sanctify and lead through service”.
The Bishop in the Catholic Church is an ordained Minister “who holds the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders and is responsible for teaching doctrine, governing Catholics in his jurisdiction, and sanctifying the world and representing the Church” Wikipedia noted that the Bishops are regarded as the Apostles “believed to be endowed with a special charisma by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost”. As Catholics, we believe that this “special charisma has been transmitted through an unbroken succession of bishops by the laying of hands in the sacrament of Holy Orders”. Bishops are appointed by the Pope and are assigned to govern their local region and may hold such positions like Archbishop, Cardinal or Pope. The Catholic Church recognizes only men as Bishops who in line with the provisions of the Canon Law 378 § 1 must be:
- “outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question;
- of good reputation;
- at least thirty-five years old;
- ordained to the presbyterate for at least five years;
- in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines”.
The traditional role of a bishop is to act as head of a diocese and he is by the provision of Canon 401 required to offer resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff after 75 years of age. When this happens, the Supreme Pontiff will appoint a new Bishop to take over from the retired one. There is nothing about Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and the early Christian community that has anything to do with the scramble for “indigenship apostolate” where priests or lay faithful must demand for a particular person to hold a particular office in the church. The theory of inculturation and acculturation is not all about appointing indigenous Bishops to head indigenous Dioceses. If inculturation or acculturation is to limit priests to their areas of birth, the message of salvation would have been limited to only areas where priests are available.
That is why I agree with Peter Claver Oparah in his analogy of the case of Ahiara Diocese using the election of Pope Francis as case study. In any case, how many Italians has become Pope in Rome. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and Rome is in Italy. How come the Italians do not protest against the election of a Pope not from Italy? In Oparah’s analogy “… in the wake of the historical resignation of Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio), like the nearly 120 Cardinals that made up the conclave, went with his little briefcase containing essentials he may need for the period of time the conclave will last. This was televised live to the entire world. Since he emerged, after two days, as Pope Francis, no one has known or seen him go back to his native Argentina, either to take his personal belongings or check on his father’s heirloom, lands and estates. Recall that Pope Emeritus Benedict had not visited his native Germany since he voluntarily abdicated the Papacy on February 28. He may not even visit Germany again in his life time as he lives in a sequestrated monastery at the Vatican. The late Pope John Paul II lost his last earthly close relative, his father, when he was barely eighteen. This was after the death of his brother Edward but he went on to become a priest and reached the very zenith of priesthood, which is the Papacy. At his death in 2005, he was known not to have left any earthly possession except his private mails, which he instructed his Secretary to burn at his death. He was not known to have gone to his native Poland to inspect or supervise his family estate, lands or businesses…That is how it is for every Catholic priest. He is ordained for the Church and exists for the Church…a Catholic priest can be called upon to work anywhere his services are needed. As it is with priests, so it is with bishops and even the Pope. While a priest, he is expected to live on the goodwill of the Church and the community of the faithful. That is the rule for Bishops and even the Pope…”
It should not ordinarily matter whoever the Pope appoints to head Abakaliki Diocese so far as he possesses the requisites qualifications provided in the Canon Law. But it must be emphasized, there are issues Rome must consider or look into in the appointment of Bishops in Nigeria. In the past few years, there seems to be a belief that some leaders of the Church from Nigeria who have the ears of the Supreme Pontiff take the advantage to ensure that new Bishops are appointed from particular areas which gives the impression that only priests from such places are qualified to be Bishops. That was the reasoning that appears to have informed the revolt in Ahiara Diocese. There is no justifiable reason why only priests from Awka and/or Onitsha are qualified to be Bishops wherever such vacancies occur in Nigeria except for a single suspicion that someone who gets the ears of the Pope may be pulling the strings. While I continue to maintain that the Catholic Church is a universal Church and the Pope guided by the Holy Spirit has the capacity to appoint a Bishop for Abakaliki Diocese from among the priests of God, the Church must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to avoid actions that may introduce unhealthy “politics” in the administration of the Holy Mother Church. Ebonyi State is the only state with one Catholic Diocese in East of the Niger and one of the most backward even in the Church. Appointing a priest of the Diocese as a Bishop to take over from retied Bishop Michael Okoro will guarantee the loyalty and peace existing in the Church and further promote the course of evangelism.
I commend the excellent piece written by Jerry Uhuo. I hope and pray that the Holy See appoints a priest indigenous to or incardinated in the Diocese Bishop to succeed Bishop Okoro. My only caution is that priests in that Diocese should avoid what precipitated the Shirts debacle. People now point to an obviously non-existing hidden agenda of Anambranaisation (Onitsha and Awka dioceses) comfortably forgetting that the search beam for a Bishop for Ahiara was focused on priests in the diocese but they embarked on a journey of self destruction: any priest suspected of being under serious consideration was vilified and maligned: damning petitions were profusely generated against such a priests. Most often the damning