Pope accepts resignation of bishop after ordering priests to accept him

Pope Francis arrives in procession to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Eight months after ordering priests in a Nigerian diocese to pledge their obedience to the pope and accept the bishop that now-retired Pope Benedict XVI had named for them, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the disputed bishop.

Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who since 2012 has been prevented from exercising his ministry as bishop of Ahiara because most of the priests in the diocese refused to accept him, said in a statement, "I am convinced in conscience that my remaining the bishop of Ahiara Diocese is no longer beneficial to the church."

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Bishop Okpaleke's appointment was met by protests and petitions calling for the appointment of a bishop from among the local clergy. Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo state in southern Nigeria. Bishop Okpaleke is from Anambra state, which borders Imo to the north.

The Vatican announced Feb. 19 that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Bishop Okpaleke, who will turn 55 March 1. The pope named as apostolic administrator of the diocese Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of Umuahia.

"Exercising the ministry in a diocese where priests who are supposed to be my immediate and closest collaborators, brothers, friends and sons are at war with one another, with the laity and with me as their chief shepherd would be disastrous and a threat to the salvation of souls -- including my own soul," Bishop Okpaleke wrote to members of the Nigerian bishops' conference in a letter dated Feb. 14.

Bishop Okpaleke's appointment was met by protests and petitions calling for the appointment of a bishop from among the local clergy.

"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," the bishop wrote in a letter to the diocese also Feb. 14, according to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

In June, Pope Francis had given each priest of the diocese, both those resident in Ahiara and those working outside the diocese, 30 days to write him a letter promising obedience to him and accepting the duly-appointed bishop or face suspension.

According to a statement from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the pope "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," said the congregation's statement Feb. 19.

Therefore, the statement continued, "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."

Bishop Okpaleke, in his letter Feb. 14 to Catholics of his diocese, said his resignation was necessary to facilitate the "re-evangelization of the faithful and, most importantly and urgently, the priests of Ahiara Diocese, especially now that the Holy Father and his collaborators in the Roman Curia can already decipher priests who affirmed their loyalty to the Holy Father and those who decided to bow out of the Catholic Church in disobedience."

Bishop Okpaleke, in his letter Feb. 14 to Catholics of his diocese, said his resignation was necessary to facilitate the "re-evangelization of the faithful".

He urged dissident priests "to re-examine their initial motivations for becoming priests in the Catholic Church. Repentance and reconciliation are urgent."

Cardinal Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, retired archbishop of Lagos, Nigeria, said the bishop's resignation showed "love for the church as well as for the Shepherd himself."

The cardinal recalled that he had a similar experience in 1971, when he was ordained and installed the auxiliary bishop of Oyo Diocese, but the faithful there rejected him.

"I left there and, today, am I not still alive and serving the Holy Roman Catholic Church where God has put me?" the cardinal told Catholic News Service. "When I was transferred from there, there was calm and peace for my person and the church in Oyo Diocese then."

Father Kingsley Anyanwu, editor of The Guide, the Ahiara diocesan newspaper, said most people in the diocese were happy with the development. He said they wished Bishop Okpaleke well in any future position he might have in the church.

"The faithful of Ahiara Diocese did not see the resignation as anybody losing, but they are seeing it as peace being restored to the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara," Father Anyanwu said.

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