The opposition from some Catholic priests in Mbaise, Imo State, following the appointment of a priest from Awka Catholic Diocese, Rev Monsignor Peter Okpaleke, by Pope Benedict XVI as the bishop-elect of Ahiara (Mbaise) Diocese has indeed jolted the Church.
Eight priests from Mbaise land, known to habour the largest concentration of Catholics in Nigeria, had, on January 12, staged a peaceful demonstration in the area to drive home their opposition to the appointment of the Anambra State -born priest as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
Incidentally, one of the books authored by Monsignor Okpaleke is entitled, "Conflict prevention, management and resolution in the Church", and observers are optimistic that, with his experience in this area, the opposition he is facing from those who will constitute his flock in Mbaise would be resolved amicably.
In Mbaise, it is common to find two or more children of the same parents as Catholic priests and many of them are either carrying out their evangelization in many parts of the world, or are teaching in tertiary educational institutions. Indeed, they have the highest number of Catholic priests in Nigeria.
Since the demise of the late Bishop Chikwe of Ahiara Diocese some years ago, the position had remained vacant and many indigenous priests from the area have been jostling to fill the vacancy. In the past two years, Reverend Monsignor Theophilous Nwalor has been overseeing the diocese and some even thought he was going to be elevated. However, they were disappointed when the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in December, last year, announced the appointment of the Awka -based priest, Okpaleke, as the bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese.
It was shortly after the appointment that some Mbaise priests began to meet to deliberate on the development which later culminated in the demonstration, led by eight priests from the diocese, expressing their opposition to the appointment.
While they argued that they had nothing against the person of Okpaleke to be made a bishop, they insisted that they have credible priests from Mbaise to be elevated to that position, especially in these days of indegenization of the church.
They also argued that despite the high quality priests produced by Mbaise Diocese, none had been made a bishop in any diocese in Anambra State.
The action attracted condemnation from a cross section of the society, while others said the irate priests had the right to express their view over any matter. Professor Kanayo Onyiliora, who retired from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, told Sunday Vanguard in Awka that the argument of the priests was absurd because of the universality of the Catholic Church.
He said: "In my opinion, the powers that chose Monsignor Okpaleke, including the Holy Father, have made the best choice out of the over 2,000 priests that traced their origin to Anambra and Imo soils. Mbaise priests, by this action, have revolted against the Pope. By their puerile, myopic and very illogical actions, one wonders why and how they qualified to be men of God acceptable in the Catholic Church.
"The motives of this rebellion against the Pontiff are political and Anambraphobic and, without doubt, they are asserting their religious chauvinism. They have clearly demonstrated that they do not believe and accept the universality of the Catholic Church and they are now poised to crystallize and establish their own form of Mbaise Catholicism in Nigeria and worldwide. Pope Benedict should direct that they be defrocked completely because they have shown that they are enemies of the Church."
A laity, Sir Godwin Oforma, who also reacted on the matter, said it was strange that priests, who are expected to work in any part of the world, should lead a revolution against the pronouncement of the Holy Father, adding that it was an indication that they had other motives for choosing to become Reverend Fathers.
According to him, with the controversy generated by the appointment of Okpaleke, there is need to give the priests an orientation that would drum it into their ears that the place of birth of a priest was immaterial to where he found himself in the course of his work.
Like Mbaise, Awka Diocese has a large concentration of Catholic priests and none was prepared to dabble into the matter. However, some people at Okpaleke's parish at Umubele, Awka said while they were happy that the cleric had been elevated to the position of a bishop, they regretted that they would surely miss him in view of his fatherly disposition towards members of the parish. "If the people of Ahiara Diocese in Mbaise know the kind of person Monsignor Okpaleke is, they would be thanking God and the Holy Father for naming him their bishop," one of them stated.
However, some people observed that Anambra has been favoured in the appointment of bishops.