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Pope backs down, OKs resignation of divisive Nigerian bishop

Pope Francis elevates the host as he leads the Corpus Domini procession at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome on June 18, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Tony Gentile

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis backed down Monday (Feb. 19) and accepted the resignation of a Nigerian bishop who had been rejected for years by the priests of his diocese, setting a precedent that could have repercussions in Chile and elsewhere when papal authority is challenged.

The announcement came after Francis in June issued a harsh ultimatum to the priests of Nigeria’s southern Ahiara Diocese, warning they would lose their jobs if they didn’t obey him and accept Monsignor Peter Okpaleke as their bishop. Francis gave each priest 30 days to pledge obedience.

The Vatican said Monday that 200 priests obeyed, but some still expressed problems in working with Okpaleke.

Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Okpaleke to Ahiara in 2012, but the local clergy rejected him. Ahiara is in the Mbaise region, and its faithful objected to the appointment of an outsider from the Anambra region to lead them. In protest, the Mbaise blocked access to the cathedral when Okpaleke was to be formally installed, and he was installed outside the diocese.

The Vatican’s mission office said Monday the pope took the priests’ “repentance” into account in deciding not to sanction them for “the grave damage” they had inflicted on the church by rejecting Okpaleke. But the Vatican said it hoped “in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

The case could affect another divisive bishop appointment, Chilean Bishop Juan Barros.

Ever since Francis appointed him bishop of Osorno, Chile, in 2015, Barros has been rejected by many faithful and priests. His opponents cite accusations by sexual abuse victims who say Barros witnessed and ignored their abuse by Chile’s most notorious predator priest.

After Francis sparked an outcry during his recent trip to Chile by defending Barros, the pope did an about-face and sent in a Vatican investigator to take testimony about Barros’ behavior. The investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, met with Barros’ main accuser on Saturday.

Many Vatican watchers had cited the Nigerian conflict in explaining Francis’ refusal to remove Barros. Barros had been named a bishop by St. John Paul II and confirmed by Benedict, making it difficult for Francis to sack him without compelling reason.

But Francis’ decision to accept the resignation of the Benedict-appointed Okpaleke due to popular opposition suggests he could do the same for Barros, who has already offered his resignation twice and had it rejected by Francis.

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Nicole Winfield

9 Comments

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  • So the only issue with Monsignor Peter Okpaleke is that he is not from that particular area? Everything else is just fine? Is he a faithful servant of God, respects and fosters right relations with his priests and congregants, is not corrupt or abusive? Then there is a problem with him caving in to their demands. Is this tribalism forcing a validly appointed Bishop out?

  • This is a cultural issue. The appointed bishop was from a different area, not part of the community to which he was assigned. It would be like appointing as bishop to an American diocese someone who was from Brazil or Switzerland or India.

    What I hope is that popes get better information about what the people of a diocese want and who would fit into a diocese. Barros was not the only “bad fit”; think Cordileone’s appointment to San Francisco. Maybe lay people will start speaking up and out – It think they need to. Speaking up would be better than dropping out in disgust. Lay people matter, too.

  • It’s well past time for bishops of Rome, i.e., popes, to get out of appointing and removing bishops of other dioceses.

    Let the people decide as it was during the earliest decades of Christianity.

  • DUI Sal? He at least was installed as archbishop by Benedict. One would hope — but with no certainty attached — that Francis would not appoint a vocal opponent of gay rights and same-sex marriage, in fact an author of Proposition 8, to *San Francisco.*

  • “….warning they would lose their jobs if they didn’t obey him….”
    RCC priests and bishops have allegiance to the sovereign of a foreign nation. The Holy See.
    As such – they should register as foreign agents.

  • “No bishop is to be imposed on an unwilling people. The consent and desires of the clergy and people must be sought out.” The same pope (Celestine I) said that it should be very rare that a bishop is not chosen from among the clergy of the local Church, and that the local clergy had a right to refuse a bishop imposed from without. It was another pope, Leo I, no slouch when it came to defending papal and episcopal power, who made his own an axiom of Roman law: “The one who is to preside over all should be chosen by all.” And he gave a reason: “No bishop is to be ordained for an unwilling people, who have not asked for him. Otherwise the city may either despise or hate the undesired one and may become less religious than it should because they were not permitted to have the one they wanted” (Ep. 14; PL 54, 673).

    Joseph A. Komonchak, 9/18/2012, http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=20741#comments. (COMMONWEAL has since discontinued its blog feature and does not maintain an online archive of readers’ comments.)

    (H/T: jmccrea)

  • B16’s appointment of Cordileone to be The City’s archbishop was the pope’s last chance to essentially “flip the bird” toward LGBTQI Catholics and their supporters. Thank God he resigned or retired or whatever.

  • No, he’s still there. And he’s the chair of the USCCB’s anti-same-sex marriage committee. And he’s relatively young at 61, so not near retirement. Many have called for Francis to replace him but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anytime soon.

  • I know he’s still there and, like you, doubt the pope will assign him to someplace else. I oppose not only his anti-LGBTQI-rights stance, but I also oppose his liturgical initiatives that have played a key role in preserving the clericalism prevalent in the Church of Rome.

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