The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the Lord has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice in it and be glad.
— Psalm 118:22-24 (NABRE)
For nearly a decade I have followed with great interest the story of the Nigerian bishop who was rejected by the priests and the people of the diocese he was appointed to lead. In a consistory in Rome later this month, Bishop Peter Eberechukwu Okpaleke of the Diocese of Ekwulobia in southeastern Nigeria will be made cardinal by Pope Francis along with 20 other men from all around the world. Who could have imagined, upon his resignation from his first episcopal appointment as Bishop of Ahiara in February 2018, that in 2020 he would be tasked with leading a large, newly-formed diocese in Nigeria, and that in less than five years he would be appointed to the College of Cardinals?
Certainly not Bishop Okpaleke. As he told Crux journalist Ines San Martin in a new interview, “From the time I became conscious as a human being till the announcement was made on May 29, 2022, I never and could never have imagined being created a cardinal.” We will soon see how the formation and life experience of a man whose journey includes eight years spent as a bishop-in-exile has prepared him for his future as a cardinal and the bishop of a large diocese.
Bishop Okpaleke’s period of exile began in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as bishop of another Nigerian diocese, Ahiara in the region of Mbaise in Imo State. Following his appointment, he was immediately opposed — rejected by most of the clergy and the laity of the diocese, who demanded a bishop from their own diocese and from the local Mbaise ethnic group. Crux shared the contents of a letter from a group of diocesan priests sent to the Vatican in 2014, in which they argued, “We are neither rebellious nor disobeying the Pope. On the contrary, we are crying for justice to be done in the Church of the Holy God,” and offered 43 points arguing that the appointment was an act of injustice and that they had a moral responsibility to protest it.
As San Martin reported in 2017, Okpaleke was ordained a bishop in May 2013, but he was never able to take possession of the diocese due to the strong and vocal opposition of many in the local Church.
In her article, San Martin describes a May 2017 letter by an anti-Okpaleke Catholic in the diocese, Professor Amadi Azuogu, to Cardinal John Onaiyekan with the title, “The Unexploded ‘Atom Bomb’ of a Cardinal.” San Martin explained that the impression of the local Catholics was that Cardinal Onaiyekan was guilty of playing key a role in the appointment. According to San Martin, in his letter to the cardinal the professor insisted “that the Mbaise rejected Okpaleke’s ordination in 2013, they reject it now, “and will reject it FOREVER.” [Note: capitalization as found in original.]” She writes that the letter was filled with “war-related terms such as ‘Trojan horse’ and the ‘U.S. atomic bomb that ended World War II,” and says that the anniversary of Bishop Okpaleke’s appointment is one of “’infamy’ and calls it a ‘demonic’ day. He also questions Francis’s mercy, asking if it’s a ‘bumper sticker.’”
Seeking to restore order to the situation, in June 2017 Pope Francis sent a letter to the priests of the diocese demanding that they apologize within 30 days or face suspension. Based on the summary of the letter provided by Cindy Wooden of the Catholic News Service, the pope did not mince words:
“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the church. This is forbidden,” the pope said.
Francis said he even had considered “suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.”
Instead, he said, every priest of the diocese, whether residing in Nigeria or abroad, is to write a letter to him asking for forgiveness because “we all must share this common sorrow.”
Each priest’s letter, he said, “must clearly manifest total obedience to the pope” and indicate a willingness “to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.
“The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended ‘a divinis’ and will lose his current office,” the pope said, according to the posts.
“This seems very hard, but why must the pope do this?” Francis asked. “Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences.”
Finally, in February 2018, after nearly six years of turmoil, Bishop Okpaleke resigned as bishop of the diocese. In his letter of resignation, he wrote that he was stepping down “for the good of all the faithful of Ahiara Diocese, especially those that have remained faithful in a local Church being controlled by some priests.” Based on what I’ve heard, the general sense is that Pope Francis wanted to see a reasonable amount of good-faith support from the local clergy but did not want to leave Bishop Okpaleke in such a precarious and volatile situation. As John Allen put it, “it’s possible to interpret the situation as Okpaleke, with the consent of Francis, simply realizing that the only way for the diocese to move forward was for him to step aside, which would mean, effectively, that he decided to take a hit for the team.”
The reactions of many Nigerians showed that even though the standoff had ended, the fissures remained. The Nigerian Vanguard newspaper accused the Vatican of folding under pressure, writing, “Pope Francis has bowed to the rebels of Ahiara Diocese in Imo state and abandoned Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, after priests and laymen rejected his appointment for six years.”
Some of the reactions from the local Mbaise population were jubilant, including the President of the Diocesan Catholic Men’s Organization, Chief Anthony Njoku, who said, “We are exceedingly happy over the development because God has indeed answered our prayers because He knew that what was done to the diocese was injustice and we know that God is a God of justice.”
Others were glad Bishop Okpaleke was gone, but remained indignant over the entire affair. “Those who recommended him as Bishop of Ahiara Diocese have lived to see their folly and that will be a great lesson to the church,” wrote Luke Onyekakeyah in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. He continued, “Caution should be exercised never to make the same mistake anywhere again. The embarrassment and bad blood occasioned by the grave error have been tremendous.”
In 2020 Pope Francis erected a new diocese in Ekwulobia, less than 100 km away, and appointed Bishop Okpaleke to lead it. Finally, after more than seven years of uncertainty, this bishop had a flock to lead.
The Ahiara Diocese remains without a bishop following the Okpaleke’s 2018 resignation.
I think for most Catholics, especially in the West, it’s difficult to relate to this level of passion and outrage over the appointment of a bishop. Most of us don’t have “homegrown” bishops — at least in the US Church of today. It’s seems we’re often more likely to get a bishop who has never set foot in our diocese than someone like Scranton’s Bishop Joseph Bambera, who can still visit his mother, who is in her 90s, every week. Still, if we can’t see ourselves somewhat in the intransigence of the clergy of Ahiara — this idea that we must have certain things our way, even if we are not truly entitled to them — we aren’t looking deeply enough.
One last observation. The thing that most struck me in the Crux interview with Bishop Okpaleke (and you really should read it all – Ines and the rest of the Crux team’s coverage of this story has been outstanding over the years) was what he hoped to ask Pope Francis:
One of the questions I hope to ask the Holy Father is what he saw in me that made him call me to this new role in the church. I know that if my opinion were sought to nominate someone from among the archbishops and bishops in Nigeria for that role, I would never have thought of myself. I cannot even say that the nomination is a sign of support, as you put it, “after several years of suffering” due to the saga at Ahiara Diocese. Some priests and bishops have suffered and are still suffering worse things.
The question I keep asking myself and which I have not found any adequate answers is ‘why me?’
I don’t have any special insight into the answer, beyond his remarkable story. There’s no question that Pope Francis has totally upended the conventional rules for who gets appointed to the college. Last year, David Lafferty and I did a podcast with papal biographer Austen Ivereigh before the 2020 conclave, and we asked him what he thinks Francis looks for when picking cardinals. He replied, “I think when it comes to appointing bishops, but particularly Cardinals, he’s very conscious of how David was selected in the Old Testament. The older siblings all line up with their qualifications, but it’s actually the little shepherd who isn’t in the lineup who God wants. He’s very aware of that and takes that very seriously.”
The rest of Cardinal-designate Okpaleke’s story remains to be written, but if it is even half as unlikely as it has been for the past decade, there are sure to be many surprises in store.
Image: Diocese of Ekwulobia