The Nigerian bishop whom Pope Francis had fiercely defended has resigned after a five-year, sometimes violent, standoff with some priests and worshippers who rejected him as an ethnic outsider, the Vatican said on Monday.
A Vatican press release quoted by its news agency, Agenzia Fides, reads, “Today the Holy Father has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the diocese of Ahiara (Nigeria), presented by his Exc. Msgr. Peter Ebere Okpaleke, and at the same time appointed His Exc. Msgr. Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia as Apostolic Administrator.”
The case of the Vatican versus the people of the diocese of Ahiara in southeastern Nigeria had become a rare battle of wills that tested the Papal authority and could set precedence for future appointments.
A Vatican statement said the Pope had accepted the resignation of Peter Ebere Okpaleke as bishop of the diocese of Ahiara.
The Vatican said the position had been declared vacant and that a Papal administrator would run it for the time being.
Many priests and church members had refused to swear allegiance to Okpaleke because he is not from Mbaise, a heavily Catholic area in southeastern Nigeria made up of an amalgam of indigenous clans connected by intermarriage.
Okpaleke was appointed bishop by then-Pope Benedict in 2012, but the protests prevented him from ever taking over the diocese.
His installation ceremony took place in another area of Nigeria because the doors of the Ahiara cathedral were locked so the bishop could not enter.
The situation came to a head in June 2017 when Pope Francis demanded that all priests in the diocese write him a letter within 30 days pledging their obedience to and accepting Okpaleke as their bishop because he was appointed by a Pope.
“Those who did not write such a letter would face suspension from the priesthood,” the Pope told them at the time.
The Vatican’s missionary news agency, Fides, on Monday published excerpts from Okpaleke’s resignation letter, saying he had not been able to take possession of the diocese or even live within its territory because of continuing “violent reaction and resistance.”
Fides said some 200 priests had written to the Pope, promising their allegiance.
Many had also told the pontiff that they had “psychological difficulty in collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict.”
The agency, which is controlled by the Vatican, said the priests should “reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church” through their “unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”
In his resignation letter, Okpaleke said remaining bishop would not be beneficial to the Church.
The Vatican press release reads in full:
“The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples has today released the following statement.
“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.
“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.
“The Holy Father is grateful to all the faithful: priests, religious and laity, who have shown closeness to His Excellency, Msgr. Okpaleke, and have supported him with their prayers.
“He is also grateful to the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nigeria for the support given to their Brother Bishop, to whom He sends a special Apostolic Blessing.
“The Holy Father thanks His Eminence John Cardinal Onaiyekan for his service as Apostolic Administrator, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, President of the Episcopal Conference, and the Metropolitan Archbishop of Owerri, Msgr. Anthony Obinna, for the efforts made to solve the lamentable situation.
“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, the Most Rev. 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.” – Reuters/NAN/Agenzia Fides.