By Fr Stan Chu Ilo, STL, PhD, D.ED.
This short theological reflection is my humble and imperfect effort to give a theological account of what I consider the key issues in the situation in Ahiara Diocese; how the Holy Father’s wishes for Ahiara diocese could be realized, and finally I offer a Marian spiritual reflection which could guide the renewal of the priestly and episcopal ministries in Nigeria. I have organized this theological discourse into five broad sections, namely: (i) Lord, why Did you allow this to Happen? (ii) Why did this happen? (iii) A Time to Cry; (iv) A Time to Pray; (v) A Time to Heal.
There has been a ‘sacred silence’ among the theological community in Nigeria and Africa on this extraordinary papal decree and its bigger implications for the church in Nigeria. I wish to break this theological silence in my own humble effort in his discourse.
So, my first proposition is that the resolution of the situation in Ahiara diocese will not come about simply by a papal decree or reinforcement of any claims other than that which emerges from our faith and obedience to God whose will is represented even in imperfect ways through our legitimate pastors and superiors. But the appeal has to be made first to God, and then to church authorities in the ordination of all obedience both in the leaders and the led to God.
But I have one concern: I worry about any obedience secured through the threat of punishment. I pray for a Church that relies less on the threat of punishment and suspension, and more on prayer, patience, and holiness which models moral behavior. The Church should make appeals more to the compelling beauty of the truth/wisdom from God, and from the Gospel to convince the mind, encourage the heart, and enable others to act, and convict and compel the conscience.
I have seen many dioceses and parishes where dialogue, prayer and patience and the force of truth and the compelling testimony of good examples have led Catholics who were opposed to certain fundamental decisions to embrace tough and challenging decisions. We might claim that the Church is not a democracy, but the Church has a lot to learn from democratic institutions, and best practices in leadership and conflict management on how to deal with a lot of issues in our churches without constantly reverting to the threat of punishment or excommunication in order to secure obedience.
Why Did this Situation Emerge? The situation in Ahiara diocese emerged because of three reasons which the leaders of the church in our land and the entire people of God—priests, laity, bishops, and religious—must be conscious of in the restoration of authentic Christianity in a Nigerian church which is in dire need of reform, especially in the life of her priests, bishops, and religious.
The first, this situation shows that there are now new and widening cracks in the process of bishop-making in our country. These cracks should move all those who are involved in the process of bishop-making, starting from the Pope’s representative in Nigeria and the bishops who help him in making the selection to ask themselves how they can better refine the process so that choices made of candidates for the bishopric will be less contentious. The Vatican does give episcopal conferences the leeway to come up with local approaches to bishop-making which can address local needs.
In the first place, the bishops can no longer choose their successor in the diocese; they may secretly recommend a priest or two from their diocese to the pool of priests who have been screened for the position of bishop, but they cannot decide who will succeed them in their own diocese. It reduces sycophancy and rivalry among ambitious priests who see the bishopric as destiny. Such ambitious clerics, rather than working hard to succeed their bishops, will be forced to work hard to be successful in their priestly ministry through a committed servant leadership after the mind of Jesus.
The second reason why this situation emerged is the changing face of the office of the bishop particularly in Igboland. It is also reflected in the way the priesthood is being perceived in our area. We priests and bishops in Igbo land need to ask ourselves if we have not become part of the problem in the country rather than solutions if we are eaten up by the same tendencies we find in the world around us: materialism, secularism, nepotism, tribalism, authoritarianism, sexual promiscuity, embezzlement of church funds, lack of decency and honesty in dealings with people, abuse and misuse of spiritual authority among other cankerworms eating deep into the fabric of our ecclesial life. This is a very worrying tendency which the church must confront with honesty, courage, and deep spiritual discernment. But I am particularly interested in looking at why the office of the bishop has become such a big deal in Igboland that it is generating so much war every time there is a vacant see in our land.
The typical Igbo Catholic bishop acts like those bishops and cardinals whom Pope Francis refers as those with ‘a mentality of princes’; they act sometimes like Medieval bishops, running a highly centralized and top-down command and control chain in which the wishes and desires of the bishop are given free rein without any internal control mechanism. As Pope Francis wrote in the Joy of the Gospel (no. 32) “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church life and missionary outreach.” In many cases, the diocesan bishop controls all the external and internal finances coming into the diocese; he can impose all kinds of levies on parishes, priests—both at home and abroad; and no one questions his management of the finances of the diocese.
This is why I am not aware of any diocese in Igboland where there are publicly audited accounts of finances which are available to priests and laity. How can we expect transparency and accountability of public office holders when ours is steeped in secrecy? If we give accounts to the Nuncio and foreign donors for the money we receive from them, why can’t we give account to our people? But what we have are bishops who are not held accountable by their priests and people. He is a great dispenser of positions and privileges; those who obey and toe the party line are rewarded with positions of ‘power’ in the diocese; while those who may have different opinions than that of bishops are treated as rebels and punished by all forms of exclusionary measures meant to sideline them or put them out of circulation.
What this has done is that the entire diocese revolves around the whims and caprices of one man and the pastoral plans and practices of the diocese are often determined by the bishops without a significant input from the rank and file Catholics. Indeed, it is hard to give a healthy and helpful feedback to bishops in this kind of environment. What obtains is a transactional leadership model rather than a transformational leadership structure where everyone is holding everyone accountable and supporting each other to flourish so as to promote the common good and the mission of God in the diocese. In this kind of setting, even the advisors to the bishop might be rumbling inside their hearts over certain decisions he makes, but they will be too afraid to say so because they do not wish to lose their position of influence or be punished by the bishop in question. There is little transparency in terms of appointment and minimal consultation in the most decisive pastoral policies and programs undertaken in the diocese even in matters like construction work which lies outside the competence of most bishops. This is a general feature which I see in Igboland today but there are instances where things might be different from this picture, but it will be more an exception than the norm.
Given this scenario, where the bishop controls a lot of power and money, and has at least in practice power to set the direction of a diocese for over 30 or more years, there is a genuine anxiety among priests when a bishop is appointed especially if he is considered a stranger to the people. Automatically, the adrenaline goes up following such an appointment and all kinds of conspiracy theories and false assumptions flood the fearful hearts of many. In addition, if the bishopric is thus perceived at least in the way it is being carried out as such a highly privileged position of authority and influence similar to the positions occupied by politicians, people will covet it for themselves and their kinsmen, reducing the position from a spiritual office of love (according to St Augustine) to a mere political and secular office.
In a sense, the Ahiara situation is not a crisis but an opportunity for the church in Nigeria especially in Igbo land to ask herself why bishop-making has become such a CONTENTIOUS issue in our churches. Has the position of a bishop become such a highly coveted one that it is now a trophy or rather a piece of the church’s cake which must be parceled out without due consideration to the mind of the Lord Jesus and the intention of the church in instituting these offices? It is so easy to blame the Ahiara clergy, religious and laity, but the leadership of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, especially in Igboland must take their own fair share of the blame for making such a decision which has proven contentious, divisive and a heavy burden on the conscience and faith of the people of Mbaise. Starving the people of the sacraments in the diocese has not been a good pastoral strategy in bringing about the kind of spiritual nourishment that can touch the soul and heal the wounds of alienation, isolation, and inner war with one’s conscience.
We are far from the ideals of the Gospel. The shaping of a true sense of Catholicism through openness to embracing all as being made one is still at a very primary level. This kind of mature faith and new consciousness of the ideals of Catholicism as one family where everyone from every tribe, language and nation is a first born son cannot come about through any papal decree.
We Africans and more so in Igboland must confront the demons of ethnocentricism and clannishness; it is worse than racism. Indeed, it is a beautiful gift for us as a people if we harnessed our ethnic and clan-based identities. Sadly, like all human reality which is open to distortion, we have abused the beautiful diversity of ethnicity, language, dialect, clan etc in our land. We have constructed a sense of identity and exclusionary practices which have tainted our unique identities and which make it impossible in present Nigerian and particularly Igbo context for us to see any commonalities among ourselves. Everything in our land is all about my clan, my people etc. Everyone wants all the positions even in the church to go to the people from their own area, without minding the injustice and harm it may cause to others. We have lost a sense of beauty; a sense of goodness; and a sense of God as Trinity who operates in the diversity of expressions in the unity of love. It is a source of deep pain and anguish to me and a wound in my soul as a Catholic that I am highly respected in many settings outside Nigeria, but among my own people — country or ethnic group — I am simply seen through the narrow lens of ethnicity, state, my family, local government….
I have always said that Bishop Okpaleke is, no doubt, a brave man to accept to enter into the eye of the storm, especially in this kind of atmosphere. Many of us lesser mortals if we found ourselves in similar situation will actually have handed to the Pope our resignation. I believe that there are more to priestly or episcopal ministry than being yoked to any parish or diocese where there is so much toxin and bad blood. Those biblical words still guide me when I face similar situation, ‘it is better that one man dies than the whole people.’ But God’s grace is stronger than our human fears and weaknesses; and God’s love and mercy is more faithful than our human imperfections, doubts and desire for self-preservation. I am sure that Bishop Okpaleke is counting on God’s grace to help him become part of this healing process. He should be commended and not condemned.
Ilo is a priest of Awgu diocese and a research professor of Catholic Studies and African Catholicism, at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, USA.