Bishop Peter Okpalaeke - A Titular Bishop

By Professor Edward Oparaoji, USA

On December 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Monsignor Peter Okpalaeke of Awka Diocese in Anambra State, as the Bishop-elect of the Episcopal See of Ahiara Mbaise Diocese. .Fr. Okpalaeke is to replace His Lordship, beloved Late Most Rev. Dr. Victor .A. Chikwe, who passed away on the 16th of September, 2010. The clergy and laity of the Diocese have since rejected this appointment and refused to give His Lordship Peter Okpalaeke, canonical possession of the Ahiara Diocese, while demanding instead, the appointment of a Bishop of Mbaise origin.

Without context, the actions and demands of Ahiara Mbaise Diocese may appear quite unreasonable, daring, and parochial, especially to the opponents of their actions. Some of these opponents continue to confuse busy minded observers, with the so-called “authoritative expert,” but barely factual postulations. They have mostly concluded that the actions and positions of the clergy and laity of Ahiara Diocese are anti-Catholic, devils workshop and/or anti-Igbo. Some have gone to the ignorant length of asking the aggrieved folks to leave the Catholic Church.

To situate Ahiara Mbaise Diocese in the Catholic faith domain, it is important to note that Mbaise is the most Catholic community in Nigeria – 80 percent of the population (of 620,000) is Catholic. Families in this rural diocese foster priestly and religious vocations, spend most of their disposable incomes in support of their Catholic faith; about 750 priests, of which about 20% hold Doctorate degrees, trace their origin to the community. Since the establishment of the Diocese in 1987, there have been at least 167 priestly ordinations for the diocese. The diocese is currently served by 127 priests and 113 religious, according to Vatican source. With such a wealth of priests, the Ahiara diocese has sent more than its share of missionaries around the world, and yes, has contributed to and do understand the Universality of the Catholic Church. .

Perceived or real, Mbaise believes the Nigerian Catholic Church hierarchy is inconsistent; they embrace the concept of universality or “son of the soil” appointments, depending on who is involved. They believe the rules change when it comes to them and sees a manipulative hand of Cardinal Francis Arinze, tampering with the bishopric process. They submit in substantiation that the Old Onittsha diocese has produced 15 Bishops, while only 4 from Old Owerri and none from Mbaise diocese. During a welcome address to the Anambra-Imo-Abia-Enugu-Ebonyi (ANIMAEE) Diocesan Priests Association Conference, on April 11, 2013, the Ahiara Diocesan branch took their colleagues on a historical memory lane, where it all began. They said “The first Mbaise person to be ordained a Catholic priest, that is, the man who opened what became a floodgate of priestly and religious vocations in Mbaise, was the late Msgr. Edward Ahaji of Umuokrika Ekwerazu, in 1945. In his class of 1945, that included Fr. Anthony Gogo Nwedo, CSSP, who would become the first Bishop of Umuahia Diocese, Edward Ahaji was a standout seminarian and later on a great priest, and a foremost canonist in the Catholic Church of Nigeria. The late Bishop Mark Unegbu in his autobiography, My Life, described Msgr. Ahaji as one of the best priests that ever went through our seminary and that he was very methodical….. When the creation of Umuahia Diocese was being dreamed up, Edward Ahaji was thought to be a shoo-in. That would not happen, as he was bypassed and Anthony Gogo Nwedo was preferred. According to Bishop Unegbu, in his autobiography, this appointment of

Fr. Anthony Nwedo raised even more eyebrows than his admission into the Spiritan congregation.”

"There was no cry of anti-Mbaise sentiments or stereotype then, when Ahaji was not selected. What was largely being decried then was what was seen as a suspicious manipulation of the system by the white Holy Ghost Fathers to favour members of their congregation. There was that perception then that the White Holy Ghost Fathers wanted to handover the Igbo Church to their members and the few diocesan priests they were able to convince to join their congregation. As a result, the Holy Ghost Congregation was seen as the sure route to Ecclesiastical office in Igbo land. The trio of Fr. Mark Unegbu, Fr. Anthony Nwedo and Fr. Godfrey Okoye, were sent to Ireland for studies. The Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland descended on them and succeeded in convincing Anthony Nwedo and Godfrey Okoye to join the Holy Ghost Congregation. Mark Unegbu, whom they could not convert, they left stranded in Ireland. When they all eventually returned to Nigeria, Mark Unegbu (finding his own way back), Anthony Nwedo and Godfrey Okoye were quickly made bishops while Mark Unegbu was left out as an agitator".

"Nowhere did these counter-currents play out most poignantly than in the struggles to find a replacement for the late Archbishop Charles Heerey in Onitsha. Following his death in 1967, it was an assumed fact that the late archbishop was going to be succeeded by young Bishop Francis Arinze, who was his auxiliary and co-adjuror. But this was not to be without some pronounced struggles. The Holy Ghost Fathers did not want Francis Arinze to succeed their man, Archbishop Heerey. They wanted one of their own to succeed the late Archbishop Heerey. As a result, they wanted to transfer Bishop Nwedo from Umuahia Diocese to Onitsha. But to counter their move, Bishop Francis Arinze and his allies from Onitsha Archdiocese, together with the support of Bishop Arinze's long-time mentor, Fr. Mark Unegbu, insisted that only a son of the soil from Onitsha was qualified to serve as the archbishop of Onitsha. Bishop Mark Unegbu allegedly sent a petition to the Pro-Nuncio in Lagos and also participated in the delegation that pressured and succeeded in securing the Episcopal See of Onitsha for the young Bishop Francis Arinze. This was more or less seen as laying down a marker on how Episcopal succession was to be carried out in dioceses of the Igbo Church".

"However, the eyes of some Mbaise priests and lay people would be opened a little more when in 1970, another Mbaise priest was bypassed in the choice of a bishop of one of the dioceses in the present-day Owerri Ecclesiastical Province. Some twelve years after Edward Ahaji was not made a bishop, another Mbaise priest was bypassed in what became an apparent “payoff” for the fight to secure the Episcopal See of Onitsha for Archbishop Arinze. It would be recalled that the venerable Bishop Whelan, when he was forced out of Nigeria by the victorious Nigerian armed forces, chose to handover the old Owerri Diocese to an Mbaise young priest, Fr. Ignatius Mmereole Okoroanyanwu. What Bishop Whelan did in the process was to announce to everyone including the Vatican that Fr. Ignatius Okoroanyanwu was the one he had found worthy throughout the entire diocese, to take over the baton from the missionaries".

"But this holy wish of the great missionary was not to be, with Archbishop Arinze as the metropolitan of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province. In a non-subtle maneuver, Archbishop Arinze cornered the Episcopal See of Owerri Diocese to his mentor, Fr. Mark Unegbu, while blocking the will of Bishop Whelan and the missionaries that stated quite clearly, that they wanted Msgr. Ignatius Okoroanyanwu to shepherd the Episcopal See of Owerri Diocese. By so doing, the duo of Archbishop Arinze and Bishop Mark Unegbu deprived the Mbaise people of a bishopric of Owerri Diocese, which the missionaries had arguably willed to them. Archbishop Arinze clearly seized the position given to an Mbaise priest, Msgr. Okoroanyanwu".

Against this background, it will be gross mis-characterization to make this Mbaise 'defiance' anything other than what it truly is - a fight for rectitude and fairness in the Nigerian Catholic Church. It will also be naïve for anyone to make light of the determination and resoluteness of Mbaise, to take this fight to the logical conclusion of reinstating equity, fairness and respect for due process.

Fast forward to the present bishopric impasse. We must be reminded that contrary to what some may want to incorrectly portray, there are laws that govern the processes of the Catholic Church - The Code of Canon Law. When there is a vacant See, The Code of Canon Law, Can. 377 §2, provides guidance thus… “At least every three years, bishops of an ecclesiastical province or, where circumstances suggest it, of a conference of bishops, are in common counsel and in secret to compose a list of presbyters, even including members of institutes of consecrated life, who are more suitable for the episcopate. They are to send it to the Apostolic See, without prejudice to the right of each bishop individually, to make known to the Apostolic See the names of presbyters whom he considers worthy of and suited to the Episcopal function.” Prior to his passing away, His Lordship Bishop Victor A. Chikwe, recommended names of Mbaise priests (secretly as required) from which his preferred successor should emerge. Contrary to expectations, although within the powers of the Holy See, another perceived scion of Cardinal Francis Arinze emerged Bishop-elect, again, from the “left field”.

We have been peddled baseless claims about how this decision was taken, allegedly 'because Mbaise priests were fighting or petitioning against each other', but no one has told us who the finalists were, that were the targets of such petitions. They cannot share this list, because, as per the Code of Canon Law, the process is a secret one. In the event there are random petitions, which are not uncommon in our society today, mostly only members of the Congregations of Bishops sworn to secrecy on this matter would have knowledge of their contents. If and when such become public knowledge or the exercise used to tarnish the character of and decide suitability of qualified members of an entire community to become Bishop, then it is unfair, a violation of due process, and thus must be fully adjudicated.

The clergy and laity of Ahiara Diocese who appear to have studied the Code of Canon Law are now using its provisions to deny Bishop Okpalaeke possession of the Diocese, while demanding explanations. The Catholic Church hierarchy will be well advised to resolve this matter diligently and forthrightly, or risk losing credibility and control, as more communities could apply the Mbaise formula. To become a diocesan Bishop involves two critical but separate steps, hitherto routine and taken for granted. The first step is the Ordination, which is totally controlled by Vatican; the second is Canonical Possession, under the control of a local College of Diocesan Consultors. The relevant Code, Can. 382 §1 prescribes that… “One promoted as bishop cannot assume the exercise of the office entrusted to him before he has taken canonical possession of the diocese….” Can. 382 §3 further prescribes that “A bishop takes canonical possession of a diocese when he personally or through a proxy has shown the apostolic letter in the same diocese to the college of consultors in the presence of the chancellor of the curia, who records the event”

With the instrument of Canonical Possession in their hands, and given their stated historical bishopric snubs and the mishandling of the present impasse by the Nigerian Catholic Hierarchy, Mbaise may likely forever deny Bishop Okpalaeke Possession of Ahiara Diocese, keeping him essentially a Titular Bishop - a bishop without doman.

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