Last June, Pope Francis threatened the priests of the Ahiara diocese in Nigeria with suspension unless they wrote a letter addressed to him, apologising for refusing to accept their bishop, appointed by Benedict XVI in 2012.
Days after time ran out for the priests to write and apologise for having refused to accept their bishop for the past five years, Pope Francis, through some of his closest advisers, has begun to respond to each of them.
“The pope promised he would write back, and he’s doing so,” said Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.
The prelate, who’s been the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Ahiara, also said that the letters “are not passing though me,” so he doesn’t know their content, and added that he probably won’t until the process of delivering the letters is over.
Speaking over the phone on Friday to Crux, an online Catholic new medium, Onaiyekan also said that he hopes Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, who was appointed to the southern Nigerian diocese of Ahiara by Benedict XVI in 2012, is accepted by the time the process is over.
“I hope that my brothers will recognise him,” he said. “I’m waiting and praying, hoping that this long crisis will come to an end.”
The letters from the Vatican, which address each priest by name, are slowly beginning to arrive, through the Vatican embassy in Nigeria- technically called a nunciature. The new papal representative, Italian Archbishop Antonio Guido Filipazzi, arrived in Nigeria a few days ago.
Several attempts made by Crux to reach the nunciature to confirm if the letters that have already been delivered had been brought into the country by Filipazzi went unanswered.
The situation in Ahiara is a complex one, with some members of both the priesthood and the laity refusing to accept Okpaleke, and many others supporting him. The diocese has produced many vocations to the priesthood, and locals argue that it’s time one of them is appointed as Bishop.
When appointing the current bishop, who hasn’t been allowed in Ahiara for the past five years, the Vatican followed a long-standing tradition of choosing people from another city to lead any given diocese, particularly in Africa. Historically, this is done in an attempt to show that the universality of the Church overcomes tribal and ethnic differences.
On June 8, Pope Francis issued a seemingly unprecedented threat, giving the priests of the diocese a 30-day deadline: Either write to him promising “total obedience,” or face suspension. The request had already been made by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees missionary territories. His request was sent in a letter dated June 24, 2014.
However, the two requests garnered different responses, fueled perhaps by the threat of suspension hanging over the priests who refused to comply.
When Francis announced that he expected them to write a letter apologising for their behavior and promising loyalty to the pontiff, including in the matter of episcopal appointments, the priests who were rebelling, originally responded saying that the request was false.