Pope Francis has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria, presented by Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, and at the same time has appointed as apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis of the same diocese Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, bishop of Umuahia.
“The Holy Father, after having accepted the resignation of His Excellency, the Most Rev. Peter Ebere Okpaleke, has relieved him of the pastoral care of the Diocese of Ahiara, and at the same time has thanked him for his love for the Church,” said a statement released by Agenzia Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
Following the Instructions of His Holiness Pope Francis, during the months of June and July 2017, He received 200 letters from individual priests of the Diocese of Ahiara, in which they manifested to Him obedience and fidelity. Some priests, however, pointed out their psychological difficulty in collaborating with the Bishop after years of conflict. Taking into account their repentance, the Holy Father decided not to proceed with the canonical sanctions and instructed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to respond to each of them. In this line, the Congregation has urged every priest to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ and expressed hope that in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a Bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.
For the time being, the Holy Father does not intend to appoint a new Bishop in Ahiara, but He reserves to Himself the right to continue to have a special and particular concern for this Diocese, assigning a new Apostolic Administrator, Sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis, in the person of His Excellency, Bishop Lucius lwejuru Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia, to whom He grants all the faculties reserved to an Ordinary. The Holy Father, who accompanies with prayer this new phase in the life of the Church in Ahiara, hopes that, with the new Apostolic Administrator, the local Church will recover its vitality and never again suffer such actions that so wound the Body of Christ”
Mgr. Okpaleke was appointed Bishop of Ahiara diocese on December 7, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI. His appointment, however, provoked strong opposition both among diocesan priests and some lay people. As recalled in his letter, in the face of this situation, on 15 February 2013 Mgr. Okpaleke “humbly” requested that the period for his Episcopal Consecration and taking canonical possession of Ahiara diocese be extended for more weeks to see if the situation on ground would improve. “The request was granted”, the Bishop wrote. “The situation did not improve, but eventually was consecrated on May 21, 2013, outside the diocese, at Seat of Wisdom Major Seminary, Ulakwo, Owerri, due to the situation on ground in Ahiara diocese”.
Bishop Okpaleke was forced to reside in Awka “where I have remained till date”. Not even the intervention of Pope Francis, who invited Mgr. Okpaleke to the Vatican in June 2017, unblocked the situation, despite the fact that the Holy Father had confirmed the appointment and asked for a letter of apology from all the priests incardinated in Ahiara, even those who resided outside the diocese.
“Taking the above into consideration, I am convinced, in conscience that my remaining the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese is no longer beneficial to the Church”, said Mgr. Okpaleke. “I do not think that my apostolate in a diocese where some of the priests and lay faithful are ill-disposed to have me in their midst would be effective”. “Therefore, for the good of the Church and the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara in particular, I humbly requested the Holy Father to accept my resignation from the office of the Bishop of Ahiara. I have taken this step also for the good of all the faithful of Ahiara Diocese, especially those that have remained faithful in a local Church being controlled by some priests”, he said.