Pope Francis is seriously considering total shut-down of the 163 parishes in Catholic Diocese of Ahiara in Imo State over the protracted crisis generated by appointment of Peter Okpalaeke as Bishop.
Okpalaeke’s appointment four years ago after the demise of Bishop Victor Chikwe has been vehemently resisted by Reverend Fathers of Mbaise extraction and the Laity, leading to a stalemate.
Ahiara Cathedral and the Bishop’s Court have remained under lock and key with nobody to administer Holy Communion ever since.
A key figure at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria confided in one of our correspondents the Pope would be left with no choice than to wield the big sticks if the stalemate continues.
The source said: “What is happening in Ahiala is a great affront unheard of in the history of Catholicism in Nigeria and Africa.
“Never has the appointment of a Bishop been this hotly contested. It is a shame and very embarrassing to the CSN and the Pope.”
He said since the gladiators have indicated they would not back down, the Pope might have to close down the 163 parishes in the Diocese.
“If you consider how much patience the Pope has displayed, you will agree that it won’t be out of place for him to act now.
“Any moment from now, he may announce the parishes are no longer under the Vatican. In that instance, they can get somewhere else to go.
“The Pope is the final authority of the church and nothing will make him back to primordial ethnic sentiments,” the source, who pleaded for strict anonymity, stated.
He indicated that some of the recalcitrant Priests fuelling opposition to the Bishopric appointment may also be derobed to serve as deterrent to others.
The embattled Okpalaeke however declared yesterday that he is unperturbed by opposition to his appointment.
He declared he was awaiting his installation despite protests from Priest of Ahiara extraction.
He spoke during the 70th birthday ceremony of Monsignor Johnbosco Akam at his Uga country home in Aguata Council of Anambra State.
According to him: “What they are saying is foreign to my vocation; my vocation comes from God, declared by the church.
“I have been living my life as a fulfilled priest. Wherever I found myself as a priest, surely I will see God on the last day. That is my mission.”
He spoke just as investigations revealed the Reverend Fathers have adopted new measures to fight the appointment, which they said was not transparent.
Though they have all written the letter of apology as demanded by Pope Francis as a punishment for resisting the authority of the Church, checks revealed they have decided to operate from the sidelines while urging on Laity leaders to continue with the struggle.
It was gathered they weighed the consequences of disobeying the Vatican and mobilised the laity to defiantly reject Okpalaeke.
President of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Men Organisation, Chief Gerald Anyanwu, told reporters the Diocese is not rebelling against the Pope but demanding justice and equity.
“We are not questioning the decision of the Pope but we will not accept Okpalaeke as Bishop.
“The process of his appointment did not follow laid down procedures for the appointment of Bishops.
Another member of the Laity, Sir Sebastian Eke, said: “Our position is justice. We don’t see any reason why somebody from this Diocese or any other Diocese from Imo State cannot be appointed as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
“All we are saying is that we don’t want Okpalaeke and trying to force him on his on us is not justice”.
Vice President of the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) in the Diocese, Dr Liona Ohanu, who spoke on behalf of the women, appealed to the Vatican to listen to the demand of the people.
She said: “We respect the Pope and cannot disobey his directive as our Supreme Head but the issue of Okpalaeke is an exemption and we will not welcome him as the Bishop of this Diocese. Let the Pope appoint any other person from anywhere we will accept but not Okpalaeke”.
While the Laity was protesting, the Priests converged in one of the buildings in the Cathedral from where they were monitoring the development and issuing directives, apparently operating from the background to avoid further infuriating the Vatican.
But the top Catholic leader in Abuja said the Pope would act any moment to stop “the embarrassment these ethnic jingoists have caused the church.”