The Holy Father has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, presented by H.E. Msgr. Peter Ebere Okpaleke, and at the same time has appointed as apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis of the same diocese H.E. Msgr. Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, bishop of Umuahia.

What does this mean?It means many things, all at once. It means that Most Rev. (Dr) Peter Ebere Okpaleke, second bishop of Ahiara, has removed himself from the crisis in that diocese arising from his appointment on 7 December 2012. For the Emeritus Bishop of Ahiara, an inconvenience in the life of his vocation has been terminated and he can now focus on the exercise of the immense gifts that he and his vocation are to the Body of Christ. Just thinking about it, one may conclude that the events of the past five years, two months and thirteen days must have contributed greatly to  the development of the man of God. Nothing in his priestly formation, his pastoral life, or his studies could have prepared him for his recent experience.

A positive take-away from all of these is that Bishop Okpaleke is now a much more experienced person. At 54, he has many years ahead of him during which he would bring his experience to bear on his service for the good of the Church. Bishop Okpaleke may have paid a heavy personal price for his experience; the lessons learned, the growth attained, the ultimate resolution and all can only leave the Body of Christ stronger than ever. The Church owes Bishop Okpaleke a debt of gratitude for his vocation, his acceptance of the bishopric of Ahiara, his dignity and  comportment throughout the period and, the measured tone of his utterances and his decision to resign from that office as a path to finding a lasting solution to the agony in the local Church.

The hierarchy of the Church in Nigeria has clearly come out of the Bishop Okpaleke issue with commendable tact and maturity and with near unanimity in approach. For, aside the publicly stated stand of Bishop Bagobiri, all Nigerian bishops are united as one on the way out of the situation. Their efforts, interventions, representations and management of the issue, thus far, have saved the local Church from a worsening  case. As Bishop Bagobiri sought to portray, there is no perfect approach to conflicts. Success, rather than appropriateness, sometimes recommends an approach over others. That an approach does not lead to success does not necessarily make it faulty. What is right should not give way to what succeeds.

Pope Francis who had to intervene directly at a stage by calling a meeting of both sides of the dispute would seem to have decided to move on from personalising the issue as one solely centred on Bishop Okpaleke. A continuation of the impasse at Ahiara is unhealthy for the Church, local and universal. It is unfortunate that the Pope’s appointee to head a diocese has been rejected, forcefully, and prevented from the exercise of his pastoral office. Sad as that may seem, it is not the end of the world, or of the Church. There is no doubt that the Church must have learned one or two lessons from the case of Bishop Okpaleke and it is hoped that mistakes made will be avoided in future. It is time for the Church to map the way forward for the faithful of Ahiara; one which will pursue healing and promote harmony.

Our prayers are with Most Rev. Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, Bishop of Umahia, who has been appointed Administrator of Ahiara. Bishop Ugorji is not the first Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara since the death of Bishop Chikwe and appointment of Bishop Okpaleke. Cardinal Archbishop of Abuja, His Eminence John Onaiyekan, was in that role for a while. Like Cardinal Onaiyekan before him, Bishop Ugorji was ordained to the priesthood at the age of 25 and named a bishop at 38. He has been a priest for forty years and a bishop for 27 years. Between his functions in Umuahia and the task of restoring Ahiara to her rightful enviable place within the Church, he has his work cut out for him. He can use all the good wishes and cooperation available.

For the faithful of Ahiara, the opportunity is now here to remake the diocese in the mold of her enviable status as the home of abundant vocation, a fruit of the richness of the faith in that land, the abode of a people whose faith is not only manifestly lived across their land but exported in sacrificial service to other lands. Ordinations, sacrament of confirmation, gathering of the presbytery under the local ordinary, canonical visitations etc. shall soon flourish in Ahiara with abundance as it ought to.Those in support and those opposed to Bishop Okpaleke now have a chance to come together again to work for the progress of their diocese. It can be done, it shall be done.

The priests of Ahiara have a herculean task in this regard. They are the leaders of the Church in the various parishes and among the families of God. From them will come forth the good news of reconciliation and of love. Their vocation is more important than which side of the Okpaleke saga they stood. The success of Bishop Ugorji and the speed with which the entire saga is finally resolved rests very heavily on the priests of Ahiara. It is needless at this point to continue to apportion blame or assign culpability.

It must be kept clearly in view that Bishop Okpaleke may be gone from Ahiara but the issue of a Bishop for Ahiara is not gone.The vacancy in Aba following the death of Bishop Vincent   Ezeonyia(first and only Bishop of Aba) entered its fourth year early this month. With the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke, Owerri province currently has two bishop vacancies.

May the Lord continue to abide with His Church.

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