Pope Francis in Bishop Okpaleke’s story

Eze Jude Ogechukwu

Eze Jude Ogechukwu

The story of Most Rev. Peter Ebere Okpaleke is familiar among many, no thanks to the censurable hostility people of Mbise Diocese meted against his appointment as their Bishop.

Recall:

On 07 December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Okpaleke Bishop of Ahiara Mbise Diocese Imo state. But he was pointedly rejected by the people (both laity and clergy), on the ground that he was not from their town, being a priest of Awka Diocese in Anambra. So, his episcopal consecration was held on 21 May 2013 outside the Diocese, in the Major Seminary of Ulakwo, Owerri Archdiocese.

Having remonstrated his appointment out of apostatic nepotism, they barricaded the bishop’s court and prevented him from taking possession of the cathedral, amidst death threats. A petition objecting to the fact that Okpaleke was not of Mbaise ethnic origin was sent to Pope Benedict.

On 09 June 2017, Pope Francis gave the clergy in the diocese 30 days to either write a letter promising obedience and accepting Okpaleke as their bishop or be suspended. They sent the letters of apology but continued to protest what they saw as imposition of a ‘stranger’ on them.

After five years of lethal ostracism, Okpaleke resigned from his position as bishop of the diocese, on 19th February 2018.

On 05 March 2020, just over two years after accepting his resignation, the Pope carved a new diocese off Awka, to be called Ekwulobia Diocese, and appointed Okpaleke the Bishop. He was installed on 29 April 2020. I discussed it in an article tagged: “Okpaleke: one bishop two histories” that can still be accessed here:

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=pfbid02q7pXqbd3PBLqQTwdupHwKo69f3uku5gVzvA1U7rN692sdWocNNFM2WNPUmQLUoukl&id=1105625150

And within two years, the Holy Father looked again at the lowliness of this same bishop, and elevated him to the rank of Cardinal.

On Sunday 29th May, 2022, an official statement from the Vatican read: “Pope Francis announced that he will create 21 new cardinals, including Nigerian Bishop, Peter Okpaleke, appointed to Ahiara by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but a group of priests and laity rejected him because he came from a different ethnic group, leading to years-long standoff. He was  later installed as the bishop of the new Ekwulobia diocese, after renouncing his appointment to Ahiara in an effort to resolve the situation.”

It is true that Pope is the head of the world-wide Catholics, but he doesn’t rule like emperors. He takes certain decisions as this, in a consistory (a governing council of Cardinals presided over by him). But this appointment looked every inch a clear indication that Pope Francis had developed a strong filial affection for Bishop Okpaleke after his martyrdom in the Mbise obloquy. Evidently, it was for him that he squeezed out a new diocese in an already saturated ecclesiastical jurisdiction area like Anambra.

Enugu was long overdue for an archdiocese, even before Benin was elevated. It needs one more diocese to be created from within its juridical territory including Ebonyi, to make it a province. So in 2020, not a few analysts had expected an Obollo Diocese off Nsukka, when His Holiness named Ekwulobia.

Well, Okpaleke deserved it. He had suffered untold mental mortification from those who claim to be the Rome of Africa, having produced the largest number of Catholic priests than any other ethnic nationality. He underwent extrinsic desolation in his sacerdotal transition to bishopric. And he never revolted.

And this explains why his current elevation to the Prince-hood of the universal church was well received among the people too.

Since Cardinals Ekandem (Late), Arinze, Onayeinkan and Okojie retired, Nigeria has no active prelate eligible for the next conclave. It was expedient that another be appointed. But many had expected such appointment to come to a high ranking prelate of Metropolitan See status — an archbishop, not one who was barely 10 years in the episcopacy. But the Pope (a Religious, of Jesuit Congregation) thinks otherwise.

He saw Okpaleke as a contemporary suffering servant of Isaiah who shall prosper (Is. 52:13), and prepared a banquet before him in the presence of his ‘enemies’ (Ps. 23:5).

Another important reflection that can be drawn from the Pope Francis/Okpaleke story is the importance of the choice of Papal name. Upon election inside the Sistine chapel, every pope-elect is allowed a few minutes of solitary prayerful meditation in an oratory niched inside one of the recesses of the conclave hall. And when he returns to the electoral college, he will be made to announce what his papal name, (different from his baptismal name) will be.

This is a tradition that dates back to 533 AD (about 1,489 years ago) when a man named Mercury was elected pope. Cardinal electors of the time reasoned that it might constitute public scandal to have a man named after pagan god as pope, since Mercury is the name of Roman pagan god of speed. So he took the name John, and became Pope John II. The last pope who didn’t change his name was in the 1500s. Ever since, no pope has arisen without a novel name for the office.

Without sounding fetish, those names have recently been influencing their respective papacy. For instance, in 1958, the great Cardinal Angelo Roncali took the name John and became Pope John XXIII. His successor, Cardinal Giovani Montini answered Paul and became known as Pope Paul VI. His papacy was also celebrated like his predecessor’s. When he died, a certain quiet Cardinal, Albino Luciani who lasted barely 31 days in office, was elected and his affinity for the illustrious leadership, of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI made him choose a combination of their papal names, and answered Pope John Paul I. His successor Karol Wojtyła followed suite and became Pope John Paul II, and we all know his remarkable accomplishments, in emulation of the three predecessors.

Even Joseph Ratzinger who reigned as Pope Benedict XVI (and who in February 2013, became the first pope to abdicate office in over 600 years) must have modelled his namesake Pope Benedict IX, who resigned from office in 1045 AD.

When the white smoke that announced the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio rose from the chimney of Sistine chapel on the cool Italian evening of March 13, 2013, many people were anxious to know the name he would favour. There were two most popular saints whose names no one has taken as papal name — Louis IX of France and Francis of Assisi. The new pope favoured Francis of Assisi, and became, whom we know today as Pope Francis.

He has since emulated the great saint known for his love for the downtrodden and despised of the society. Bishop Okpaleke enjoys such succor and evangelical fervour from him.

When a pope appoints new cardinals, he’s not only choosing the person who might be his eventual successor, they also serve as key papal advisers, with those under 80 quickly being appointed as members of Vatican offices and councils.

The selection also says a lot about the path a pontiff wants the Church to take.

In this “Francis era,” many new cardinals come from far-flung, often overlooked dioceses where Catholics are a distinct minority, like Mongolia, where there are about 1,400 Catholics in the central Asian country that hosts eight parishes.

This piece will end with most unlikely prediction — Okpaleke might make the papabile (list of likely papal candidates) in the next conclave. The first Nigerian to make that list was Cardinal Arinze in 2005, because he was arguably Pope John Paul II’s favourite, who appointed him head of strategic commissions and congregations within the curia in his 27-years pontificate.

If in the coming days, you see Okpaleke assume leadership of sensitive offices within the Holy See, then expect the likelihood of his becoming influential in the next conclave.

May daylight spare us!

 

© Jude Eze

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