Many times in life, providence weathers many storms to find those favoured and fated for the rooftops. Some minutes past midday on May 29,2022, news filtered in from the Vatican that the catholic church in Nigeria had received another red hat this time around for Peter Ebere Okpalaeke, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia(CADEK) in Anambra State. The elevation coming ten years after John Onaiyekan, the emeritus of Abuja, received the red hat in 2013 was stunning not least because the choice of Peter Okpaleke was completely unexpected given that it was only two years ago that he took possession of a diocese for the first time in his nine -year-old episcopacy.
Life comes easy for some people, but many others, have to be forged by the storms they weather. Many remember Okpaleke as the man who bore with extraordinary equanimity the utterly farcical furor that erupted in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara in Imo State shortly after he was appointed to be bishop there by Benedict XVI in 2012.
No sooner had Okpaleke been appointed to the episcopal see which had become vacant since the death in 2010 of Victor Chikwe than a storm began to brew. The storm centered around the fact that Okpaleke was not from within the diocese but from neighbouring Anambra State. Some clergy and laity in Ahiara diocese, which is said to have quite a high number of catholic priests, insisted on having one of their own as bishop.
Protests against the choice of Okpaleke forced his episcopal ordination to take place outside the Diocese. Instead, it was held in the Major Seminary of Ulakwo in the Archdiocese of Owerri.
However, it was the nature of the protests that betrayed the catholic community in Ahiara as one full of mercenaries and dangerous hypocrites. People clad in black dresses protested against the choice of the new bishop. Access to the cathedral was blocked and most disgracefully, a mock coffin was made for the new bishop.
It soon emerged that apart from some clergy based within the diocese, some of the tails wagging the dogs of the protests were some renegade catholic priests from the diocese living outside Nigeria. The diocese was soon placed under the administration of Onaiyekan who was then bishop of Abuja and then Lucius Ugorji who was then bishop of Umuahia.
On 9 June 2017, Pope Francis tried to force the issue when he gave the clergy in the diocese 30 days to either write a letter promising obedience and accepting Okpaleke as their bishop or be suspended. Unprecedented intransigence prevailed.
Okpaleke eventually resigned on 19th February 2018. On April 29, 2020, he was made the first bishop of the newly created Catholic Diocese of Ekwulobia. A little over two years later, he is to be made a cardinal. The catholic church in Nigeria has only ever had four cardinals. At the moment, only three are living – Francis Arinze who is 89, Anthony Okogie who is 85 And, John Onaiyekan who is 78. Okpaleke will be the fourth, and at 59, the youngest by far. He will be around for some time and until he is 80, whenever a new pope is to be elected, he will have a vote.
As an institution, the catholic church is big on obedience. At their ordination, catholic priests unfailingly pledge their unconditional obedience and loyalty to their local ordinary and his sucessors. Yet, it was some of them who had taken this vow that instigated and sustained the utterly shameful protests that prevented Okpaleke from succeeding the late Bishop Chikwe. In an institution that holds up ecclesial authority as one of the spines of its spirituality, their disgraceful disobedience jarred the roots of their priesthood.
The catholic church takes diplomacy most seriously. As one of the largest institutions in the world, the church maintains a presence in practically every country of the world. The church has been known to maintain relationships and access to some of the most difficult places and people on earth even when others have been turned away. Such is the irresistibly penetrative power of the church`s diplomacy.
As a result, the church is always at great pains to rebuke or reprimand openly. However, the clergy and laity of Ahiara diocese who rejected Okpaleke for more than five years can consider his choice as cardinal as loud a rebuke as any they can get for their actions which began in 2012 and sfor which they remain without a substantive bishop.
One of the clearest distinguishing marks of the catholic church is its universality and the fact that out of that universality always comes unanimity. It is not a tribal institution. It does not act as one and can never act as one. It is never malleable to the tribal politics and ethnic discrimination Nigeria has become awash in. Its welcoming openness is ancient, it is rooted in the gospel. It cannot be twisted this way or that by those who pay lip service to religion even while clad in priestly robes. A priest from any part of the world can be chosen and sent by the pope to be bishop in a remote diocese in Nigeria.
It is indeed an ominous sign that tribalism and ethnicism which have successfully corroded the communal values of Nigerians have somehow found their way into the catholic church. It reflects gravely on the Nigerian situation that division runs riots in places and spaces where they should be given particularly short shrifts.
As Okpaleke is created a cardinal in August, those whose specialty is sowing division and discord on any basis whatsoever, including religious figures, must be told in no uncertain terms that they have no place in Nigeria.