Vatican City – Pope Francis backed down on Monday and accepted the resignation of Nigerian bishop who had been rejected for years by the priests of his diocese, setting a precedent that could have repercussions elsewhere.
The announcement came after Francis in June issued a harsh ultimatum to the priests of Nigeria’s southern Ahiara diocese that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t obey him and accept Bishop Peter Okpaleke as their bishop. It wasn’t clear how many of them obeyed within the 30-day deadline given by Francis to accept Okpaleke.
“This seems very hard,” the Pope said, but added that he “must” do it because the “people of God are scandalized” and that whoever causes scandal “must suffer the consequences.”
But on Monday, the Vatican announced that Okpaleke was resigning and that Francis had named Monsignor Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji as Ahiara’s temporary administrator.
Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Okpaleke to Ahiara in 2012, but the local clergy rejected him.
Ahiara is a very Catholic diocese of the Mbaise region, and its faithful objected to the appointment of an outsider from the Anambra region being imposed on them. The Mbaise had wanted one of their own and blocked access to the cathedral when Okpaleke was to be formally installed.
Instead, he was installed outside the diocese six months after he was appointed.
The case was a test of papal authority, and has echoes with another divisive bishop appointment in the news concerning Chilean Bishop Juan Barros.
Barros has been rejected by many faithful and priests in southern Osorno, Chile, ever since Francis appointed him in 2015. They cite accusations by sexual abuse victims that Barros witnessed and ignored their abuse at the hands of Chile’s most notorious predator priest.
During his March 21, 2015, installation Mass, protesters stormed the church, carrying signs saying they didn’t want Barros as their bishop.
Bishop Okpaleke, who never took possession of the diocese, said in a pastoral letter published on Ash Wednesday Feb, 14 that he was the target of “unreasonable, violent reactions of some priests and faithful.” He said he was “not in a position” to say how many priests “complied faithfully with the Pope’s demand” but that some priests asked laity to “take over leadership of the dispute.”
He said the attitude of the opposing priests and faithful refused to “give the Holy Spirit a chance,” but that in conscience he felt remaining bishop of the diocese was “no longer beneficial to the Church.” He therefore offered the Pope his resignation “for the good of all the faithful of Ahiara diocese” and in the hope that it would “facilitate re-evangelization of the faithful,” especially of the diocese’s priests.
He added that the priest’s letters will allow the Pope and the Vatican to “decipher” those who are loyal to the Pope and “those who decided to bow out of the Catholic Church in disobedience.” He closed his letter by thanking those who supported him, and inviting dissenting priests to “re-examine their initial motivations for becoming priests.”
“Repentance and reconciliation are urgent,” he said.