Ahiara Diocese, bishops and the Sword of Damocles

By The Rainbow

THE Sword of Damocles was used to describe the danger that faces the one who sits on the throne. Dionysius (II) a 4th century tyrant of Syracuse, a Greek city in Southern Italy, lived in great luxury. He was very rich and comfortable. He even had a court of sycophants whose duty was to fatter and praise him. Damocles was one of the sycophants. One day, after Damocles had showered compliments to King Dionysius about his great wealth and luxurious life, Dionysius turned to Damocles and asked him to try out living his life to have a taste of it. Damocles readily accepted the king's proposal. Dionysius then ordered that the throne be prepared for Damocles to experience the same life he lived. Dionysius also ordered that a sword be suspended from the ceiling over the throne, held only by a single hair of a horse tail. Damocles mounted the throne and was enjoying until suddenly, he noticed the sharp sword dangling over his head. Alarmed, Damocles immediately requested that he be excused to return to his poorer but safer life.

I have used the Sword of Damocles to preface this comment on the unending Ahiara Catholic Diocese. It is unfortunate that the seat of a bishop, which naturally, is tasking in other climes is seen in Nigeria as a luxurious office that makes one rich, wealthy and powerful. Of course the corrupt Nigerian system is to blame. If the seat of a bishop were just there for luxury and enjoyment, Pope Benedict XVI, would not have resigned at the nick of time. He stated that his deteriorating strength due to old age could no longer allow him meet the physical and mental demands of the papacy.

I would not have embarked on another comment on the Ahiara Diocese imbroglio now had it not been some nauseating and totally unchristian actions and decisions being introduced into the saga. Reports indicate that in an attempt to crush the hapless Catholic faithful in Ahiara Diocese, the Catholic hierarchy in Nigeria, working in cahoots with the Catholic bishops of the old Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, has decided to impose severe punishments on the Ahiara faithful for asking that justice be done in the appointment of their bishop.

Reports say the bishops have decided not to ordain any priest of bishop from Ahiara Diocese. Is that part of the ministry of Jesus Christ? The implication is that since December 7, 2012 when the crisis erupted in the diocese over the wrongful appointment of Monsignor Peter Okpaleke as the bishop-elect, there has been no priestly ordination in the diocese. Consequently, the fate of scores of seminarians who have completed their priestly training is hanging in the balance. This decision is typical Nigerian politician's vindictive style, which is visited on opponents. It is not surprising. The bishops are Nigerians, indeed Africans, with a greedy and voracious gene. That gene is behind the misrule across Africa.

Monsignor Peter Okpaleke, was hand-picked from Umubele Parish in far away Awka Diocese in Anambra State. Ahiara Diocese is in Imo State. The controversial bishop-elect has never stepped nor worked in Ahiara Diocese. How can a stranger shepherd a strange flock? This is the crux of the matter. It has become clear that those who smuggled Okpaleke into the bishopric selection list have over the years deliberately embarked on a vicious campaign to plant their brothers, kits and kin in all the bishopric seats across Igbo land and beyond. They have succeeded in doing this before hitting the rocks in Ahiara Diocese.

For instance, all the auxiliary bishops appointed for Issele-Uku, Okigwe, Onithsa since 1990 were from the old Anambra dioceses. And the current bishops of Onitsha Archdiocese, Nnewi, Awka, Enugu and Awgu are all from the same locality in Anambra State. Also, the bishops of Minna, Uromi, Issele-Uku, Benin, Aba, Okigwe and now Ahiara are all from the same old Anambra dioceses. Who is behind this neo-colonialism in religious garb? When did Anambra become the Ireland of Nigeria that sends missionaries to all parts of Nigeria?

When Pope Francis appointed his Eminence, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja as the apostolic administrator of Ahiara Diocese, many heaved a sigh of relief that the Pope's representative would right the wrongs in the diocese. Interestingly, the appointment came shortly after His Holiness Pope Francis addressed all the Catholic nuncios and apostolic delegates at a crucial meeting in Rome. The Pope had emphasized the critical conditions that must be met in the search for candidates for bishop.

Among the requirements is that candidates 'must be pastors who are close to their people'. This is the foundation upon which the search for a new bishop must be laid. Unfortunately, the Nigerian bishops have over the decades blatantly flouted this rule and still want to continue with it. This is why they are jittery, having found themselves in a very tight corner they don't know how to wriggle out. As I said in my previous comment, the fact that the Pope stressed on 'pastors who are close to their people' as the ultimate qualifier, shows that the appointment of Bishop Okpaleke for Ahiara Diocese was completely flawed. Whoever put him forward acted in error.

Back to the issue of ordination. Cardinal John Onaiyekan was appointed to perform pastoral duties in Ahiara until a new bishop is installed. One of such duties is the ordination of members of the clergy. From all indications, it is obvious that the cardinal has relegated those duties and instead joined the fray of the bishops in Onithsa Ecclesiastical Province who are bent on subduing Ahiara. They are sitting on the neck of Ahiara people. The cardinal has not hidden his personal bias against Ahiara. He had lambasted the faithful there during the last Easter celebration before he was appointed the administrator. Evidently, the appointment gave him the opportunity to now accomplish his vendetta. If the cardinal wanted to resolve the crisis in Ahiara, he would have done it since six months he was appointed. Instead, he appears to be weak and unwilling to do the rightful.

I would like to state that the refusal to ordain priests and bishops of Ahiara extraction amounts to spiritual warfare on the people. The entire Catholic Church stands to lose. Whereas the harsh social and economic condition in the country is telling on Nigerians; to add spiritual tyranny to it is in a way diabolical. There is no blessing in doing that. The excuse being offered by Cardinal Onaiyekan that he can't ordain priests he didn't know is flawed. The cardinal does not need to know the candidates for ordination. Catholics worldwide know that bishops ordain priests that are presented to them for that purpose by recognized seminaries of the Church. During his papal visit to Nigeria, Pope John Paul II ordained priests he didn't know. So, what is Cardinal Onaiyekan insinuating?

Last September, the Catholic bishops at their 2013 plenary meeting in Oturkpo, Benue State, expressed concern over the protracted strike by lecturers in public universities Nigeria. While the bishops were worried about the plight of millions of students wasting at home, they failed to tell the world that they were also sitting on the neck of seminarians from Ahiara Diocese who have completed their priestly studies and are due for ordination. That is double standards on the part of the bishops.

It is unfortunate that the Ugandan born Papal Nuncio to Nigeria, Archbishop Augustine Kasujja, who is in a position to resolve the Ahiara crisis, has not helped matters. Archbishop Kasujja is the first black papal Ambassador. He has been priest for over 40 years and bishop for over fifteen years. Apart from Uganda, his home country, he has served in nine other countries as apostolic nuncio and has generally maintained good record. It is unfortunate that his latest appointment to Nigeria may tarnish his reputation in the light of his direct involvement in supporting the injustice done to Ahiara. He should not allow the Nigerian corruption to mar his career.

The bishops are reportedly afraid that reversing their unjust decision on Okpaleke to give Ahiara a bishop close to the people will cause revolt across many dioceses in Nigeria. If that be the case, so be it. The church will gain and not the clique perpetrating the injustice. The bishops know that over the years, they have sown the wind by allowing cronyism and favouritism to dictate who is made bishop. Now that the bubble has burst in Ahiara, let those that have been cheated over the years demand for justice. It is better to right the wrong now than to continue covering up what is a potential threat to the church in Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke should learn the lesson of the Sword of Damocles. It would be better for him to remain what he was peacefully than get embroiled in a crisis that will hunt him forever.