By Anolu Vincent Senior Correspondent, Owerri
Priests and the laity of the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara Mbaise in Imo State, Saturday, rejected the verdict of the Pontiff in the appointment of a new bishop for the diocese.
The diocese has been without a bishop for nearly two years now, since the death of Bishop Victor Chikwe due to the failure of the major zones that make up the diocese to agree on which zone should produce the bishop.
The clergy, who gathered at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in Ahiara, in protest of the appointment of Monsignor Peter Okpalaeke from Anambra State, as the bishop-elect of the diocese, maintained that the imposition of the bishop on the diocese will not “promote the spiritual wellbeing and the precious faith of our people”.
Addressing newsmen, the president of Ahiara Diocesan Priests’ Association, Rev. Fr. Austin Bernadine Ekechukwu, said the outright rejection of the Vatican’s choice (Okpalaeke) was not borne out of disrespect for the Holy See or the hierarchy of the Church, but “we strongly contest his suitability for Ahiara Diocese, given its uniqueness and pastoral realities”.
According to them, his appointment against the wish of the people in the diocese sends a “reprehensible signal about the status and reputation of the about 500 Catholic priests that trace their origins to the soil of Mbaise, a diocese that has been globally acclaimed as the ‘Ireland of Nigeria’”.
Mbaise, which is made up of three local governments – Aboh, Ahiazu and Ezinihitte – boasts of the largest number of Catholic priests and religious among the dioceses in Nigeria. It has produced prominent priests like Prof. Innocent Onyewuenyi who celebrated 50 years of priesthood in 2012.
The protesters added: “Should the appointment of Okpalaeke succeed, half of the Ecclesiastical Province would be controlled by bishops from Onitsha Province,” stressing that, “till date, no priests or bishops from Owerri Province have been assigned as bishops, whether auxiliaries or substantive, in Onitsha.”
Members of the diocese, who were in solidarity protest with the aggrieved priests, noted that the appointment of a bishop outside priests from the diocese would weaken the people’s faith. “Our opposition to the appointment of Okpalaeke draws from our perception of the paramount importance of the salvation of the souls of our people.”
Also speaking, the president of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Women Organisation, Mrs. Felicia Nwogu, noted that their position was not driven by chauvinism, but by equity, justice and fairness.
She added: “We believe we have credible priests who can be made bishop, instead of imposing someone who does not understand the culture of the people and we have an obligation to reject anything that imperils the faith of our people.”
The angry faithful, who barricaded the gate to the big Cathedral, displayed placards with inscriptions like: ‘We don’t want Okpalaeke as Bishop’, ‘The Pope should rescind his decision and appoint one of our priests’, ‘Cardinal Arinze should leave our Diocese alone’.