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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Meeting with leaders from Ahiara (Nigeria)

Cardinal John Onaiyekan was part of the delegation that
met today with the Holy Father
Today, the Holy Father, Pope Francis received in a private audience a delegation from the Diocese of Ahiara (Nigeria) accompanied by the Archbishop of Abuja and the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara, His Eminence, John O. Cardinal Onaiyekan.  Also in attendance was the Metropolitan Archbishop of Owerri, His Excellency, Anthony Obinna; the Archbishop of Jos and President of the Episcopal Conference of Nigeria, His Excellency, Ignatius Kaigama; and the Bishop of Ahiara, His Excellency, Peter Ebere Okpaleke.

The delegation also included Reverend Father Clement O. Ebii, Reverend Father Jude N. Uwalaka, Reverend Father Uhuegbu Innocent Olekamma, Reverend Sister Bernadette O. Ezeyi and His Highness, Stnley Pius Iwu, Traditional Leader.

The delegation has been making a pilgrimage ad Limina Apostolorum, visiting the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as the Basilica of Saint Mary Major where they have spent some time in prayer.  Finally this morning, they participated in the private celebration of the Mass with the Supreme Pontiff.

Earlier this week, the delegation met with the Cardinal Secretary of State, the Prefect and the Superiors of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, with whom they have examined the painful situation facing the Church in Ahiara at length.

In today's audience, the Holy Father referred to an ongoing ethnic conflict, sparked by an appointment of a bishop in the diocese unacceptable.

When Pope Benedict XVI appointed His Excellency, Peter Okpaleke as the diocesan bishop in 2012, lay people and priests of the diocese rejected their new bishop because, unlike his predecessor, His Excellency, Victor Chikwe - who is part of the Mbaise ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the diocese - Bishop Okpaleke comes from the Ibero ethnic group, which makes up the majority in the southeast Nigeria.

In 2013, Cardinal Onaiyekan was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara while waiting for a solution.

After a careful evaluation Pope Francis stressed the unacceptable character of the situation at Ahiara and noted that he will take the appropriate measures.


Address of the Holy Father, Pope Francis
to members of the delegation
from the Diocese of Ahiara (Nigeria)

I cordially greet the delegation and thank you for coming from Nigeria in a spirit of pilgrimage.

For me, this meeting is a consolation because I am deeply saddened by the events of the Church in Ahiara.

In fact, the Church (and excuse the wording) is like a widow for having prevented the Bishop from coming to the Diocese. Many times I have thought about the parable of the murderous tenants, of which the Gospel speaks (cf Mt 21:33-44), that want to grasp the inheritance. In this current situation the Diocese of Ahiara is without the bridegroom, has lost her fertility and cannot bear fruit. Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church. This is forbidden; perhaps he does not realize it, but the Church is suffering as well as the People of God within her. The Pope cannot be indifferent.

I know very well the events that have been dragging on for years and I am thankful for the attitude of great patience of the Bishop, indeed the holy patience demonstrated by him. I listened and reflected much, even about the possibility of suppressing the Diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children. I feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese.

I think that, in this case, we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord. The Church is a mother and whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious. However, I decided not to suppress the Diocese. Instead, I wish to give some indications that are to be communicated to all: first of all it must be said that the Pope is deeply saddened. Therefore, I ask that every priest or ecclesiastic incardinated in the Diocese of Ahiara, whether he resides there or works elsewhere, even abroad, write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally. We all must share this common sorrow.

In the letter one must clearly, manifest total obedience to the Pope, and whoever writes must be willing 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. This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this? Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences. Maybe someone has been manipulated without having full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.

To you brothers and sisters, I would like to express my sincere thanks for your presence; and also to Cardinal Onaiyekan for his patience and to Bishop Okpaleke, whose patience and humility I admire. Thank you all.
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