A Pastoral Statement Issued by Most Rev. Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia Diocese and Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese on 10th March 2018.
A New Springtime in Ahiara Diocese.
1. With fraternal affection, I greet you my brothers and sisters in Christ of the Diocese of Ahiara and express my deep appreciation for the warmth I have received from many Mbaise sons and daughters, home and abroad, since my appointment as the Apostolic Administrator of your Diocese on 19th February 2018. I feel highly privileged to serve a people known for their remarkable religious and enterprising spirit. I look forward to drawing closer to you during my pastoral visits in your parishes to administer the Sacraments. I extend warm greetings to the seminarians on internship and look forward to meeting with them soon. I cannot wait to share fraternal communion with all the priests of the Diocese of Ahiara at the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, where we shall bless oils for our ministry and together renew our commitment to priestly service.
The Heroic Effort of the Irish Missionaries
2. As I begin my ministry among you, many thoughts go through my mind but a few words come readily to my lips. My heart reaches out to those great Irish Spiritan missionaries who left the comfort of their homes in Europe to come to our land to sow the seeds of the gospel. I feel closely drawn to Bishop Bredan Whelan, Fr. Daniel Walsh, Fr. R. Foreman, Fr. James O’Toole, Fr. J. Duignam, Fr. Anthony Stiegler, Fr. M.J. Gilmore, Fr. F.T. Flanagan, and a host of other Holy Ghost Fathers for their pioneering missionary work in Ahiara, Ekwerazu, Agbaja, Ezinihitte and Oke Ovoro, the five clans that make up Mbaise.
3. I pay fitting tributes to those great men of faith as well as many Holy Rosary sisters, lay catechists and teachers for the incredible sacrifices they made as they toiled and moiled to plant the Catholic Church on Mbaise soil even to the point of surrendering their lives and dying in our midst. As they implanted the Church in very difficult circumstances, they established schools and colleges to provide sound and solid education to the people of Mbaise. We can only marvel at their deep faith, fervent zeal, selflessness and heroism. May their heroic sacrifices not be in vain! We must, therefore, always remember them in our grateful hearts and strive to emulate their inspiring examples. For as Scripture admonishes us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life; and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
4. The early fruits of their missionary endeavours were evident in one of the earliest indigenous priests in Igbo land, Msgr. Edward Ahaji, the saintly Prelate from Umuokirika Mbaise, who was ordained a priest along with Bishop Anthony Gogo Nwedo, C.S.Sp., in 1945 and who mentored many candidates to the priesthood as the pioneer Rector of the Immaculate Conception Seminary, Umuahia. Msgr. Ahaji, who was my Rector in the minor seminary, was a man of deep faith, unassailable integrity and a shinning example of a loyal and faithful priest.
5. Furthermore, the fruits of the missionary efforts of the Irish Holy Ghost Fathers were also evident in the flourishing of the Catholic faith in Mbaise land. The forbears of the people of Mbaise welcomed the Catholic Church with great enthusiasm, generosity of heart and commitment. They remained loyal and faithful in the face of challenges and transmitted the faith from one generation to the other.
Contributions of the Indigenous Clergy
6. With the exit of the Irish missionaries at the end of the civil war in 1970, Bishop Mark Unegbu became the Bishop of Owerri. Through his leadership and the strong support of the indigenous clergy, religious and laity, the Church grew rapidly in the nooks and crannies of Mbaise land, leading to the creation of Ahiara Diocese on 18th November, 1987 with Most Rev. Victor Chikwe, a dynamic and loyal Pastor, as its pioneer Bishop.
7. The glory and splendour of his apostolic efforts as the Bishop of Ahiara, which were strongly supported by the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese, are reflected in a truly admirable way in the vibrant Catholic Church in Mbaise land. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life boomed. The population of the lay faithful grew exponentially. Many new parishes, magnificent Church buildings and beautiful presbyteries sprang up; thanks to the legendary generosity of the good people of Mbaise.
8. After 22 years of fruitful ministry as your Chief Shepherd, Bishop Chikwe was called to his eternal reward on 16th September 2010. May he sleep in peace and rise in glory! Reflecting on the outstanding achievements of the Diocese of Ahiara under his watch, we can rightly state that these are the gifts of God, for no human efforts alone could have achieved these in the course of such a relatively short period of time. This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvellous in our eyes (Psalm 118:23). To Him be all thanksgiving, praise, glory and adoration! How can we ever forget Bishop Chikwe and his pioneering work in Ahiara Diocese! We thank him for his exemplary life of fidelity to the Church and for his laborious efforts to build up the Church in Ahiara Diocese to an enviable height. May his labours not be in vain!
Turning of the Tide
9. It is unfortunate that the process of appointing his successor snowballed into a very destructive crisis that seems to eclipse the noteworthy progress and achievements of the Church in Ahiara Diocese over the years. This horrible crisis has shaken the Church in Ahiara Diocese to its very foundation like an earthquake, inflicted deep wounds of division in this local Church and in the Church in Igbo land and badly damaged the image of the Church in Nigeria and beyond. Intra-ethnic and clannish cleavages that underpinned the crisis have left their ugly marks on the face of the Church. The noble institution of the Catholic priesthood, known and respected for discipline, has been discredited and ridiculed by some unseemly behaviour and utterances of the clergy. The sacred pulpit, where the holy Word of God should be proclaimed in its purity and entirety, has been profaned in some parishes and misused for the dissemination of falsehood, distortions and half-truths by people meant to be God’s oracles (cf. 1 Pet 4:11). During the crisis, so much injuries and hurts were inflicted on innocent people through calumny, detraction and slander. Suffice to say that the damages caused during the crisis are beyond scale and measure.
Efforts to Resolve the Crisis in Ahiara Diocese
10. All attempts to resolve the long crisis by John Cardinal
Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja, and former Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara proved abortive. Similarly, the interventions of the Catholic Bishops of Owerri Province, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria and Peter Cardinal Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, who was sent twice to Ahiara Diocese as a Papal Envoy, did not yield positive results. We thank them profoundly for their care and efforts. At a time when many came to believe that the Church in Ahiara Diocese was passing through an endless dark tunnel, Most Rev. Peter Okpalaeke decided to voluntarily resign his appointment as the Bishop of Ahiara, because he did not see how his ministry in Ahiara Diocese could be effective amidst stiff opposition and rejection by a larger segment of the clergy and lay faithful of the Diocese. His decision to resign has been widely acclaimed as wise, noble and courageous. He deserves our respect and gratitude.
11. On his part, the Holy Father Pope Francis, who was deeply saddened by the protracted crisis in Ahiara Diocese, having received the apology rendered by the priests of Ahiara Diocese last year and their assurance of unalloyed loyalty to him, chose the benign path of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than sanctions. The clergy of Ahiara Diocese are requested by the Holy See to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church by the crisis and never ever oppose a Bishop legitimately appointed by the Holy Father. In appointing me the Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara Diocese, Pope Francis is sending me to you as a messenger of peace and reconciliation with the mandate and mission of initiating the process of healing and renewal in this local Church. At this same time, he reserves to himself the right to evaluate the spiritual and ecclesiastical progress in this Diocese before he makes any other decision regarding governance. We are profoundly grateful to Pope Francis for his compassionate love and fatherly solicitude.
Call for Integral Healing and Renewal
12. In carrying out my mandate, I wish to stress that every authentic healing and renewal begins with reconciliation with God, who gives peace to our souls. We all need interior peace and renewal. It is, therefore, a very happy coincidence that this call for healing and renewal in the Diocese of Ahiara is being made during the holy season of Lent, when the Church urges us to heed the proclamation of Christ: “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15). The word for repent in this Gospel text is the Greek word “metanoia” which does not simply mean to be sorry for our sins, as appropriate as this is. The word means literally to turn around or make a U turn and go in the opposite direction. Thus repentance implies making a 180 degree turn in our lives if the direction in which we are travelling leads us away from God. It also involves turning towards God and embracing His will as manifested in His precepts of love and in the directives of our legitimate superiors. Such an encounter with God gives peace to a repentant soul.
13. Besides repentance, spiritual renewal also involves believing the gospel and ever striving to respond to its radical demands: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Lk 6:31); “Love one another with brotherly affection, outdo one another in showing honour (Rom 12:10); “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16); “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7); “Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me” (Mt:10:40); “He who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16); “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another” (Eph. 4:32).
14. In this process of healing and renewal, it is also imperative for us to reaffirm our faith in the Church, which in the creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic and which the Fathers of the First Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops aptly described as the Family of God, a family made so by one faith, one baptism, one Lord, and sharing a bond on the basis of the blood of Christ into whom we are all baptised. According to the Fathers of the Synod in their Message, “Christ has come to restore the world to unity, a single human Family in the image of the Trinitarian Family. We are the Family of God: this is the Good News! The same blood flows in our veins, and it is the blood of Jesus Christ”. The image of the Church as the Family of God emphasizes fraternity, care for others, warmth in human relationships, acceptance and trust (Ecclesia in Africa, no 63). What counts in the Church is not our place of origin, our gender or social rank, but our ONENESS, namely our brotherhood or sisterhood in Christ. For as St Pauls reminds us: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The Church in Owerri and Onitsha Ecclesiastical Provinces and elsewhere are ONE and nothing can ever separate us, just as “nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus Our Lord” (Rom 8:35 -39).
15. My brother priests, in this process of healing and renewal, we also need to reaffirm our faith in the sacramental brotherhood of the priesthood stressed by the Second Vatican Council(cf. Lumen Gentium, art. 28; Presbyteriorum Ordinis, art 8), a brotherhood that transcends the divisions created by ethnicity, clan and tongue. By accepting and treating every priest as our brother, no matter his colour, status or place of origin, we live out the sacramental brotherhood of the priesthood and challenge our society that is often torn apart by inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic tensions and conflicts. By our priestly fraternal communion that knows no boundaries, we also witness to the Church’s mission of uniting all things in Christ.
16. It is belabouring the obvious to state that we Catholics stand out among other Christians because of our belief in the Papal authority, by which we proclaim Christ’s continued presence and guidance of His Church through the Petrine office. Indeed the Pope, as the visible principle and foundation of unity in the Church in matters of faith, charity and discipline central to the Catholic faith that anyone who overtly or covertly questions, disrespects or disregards papal authority stands the risk of falling out of the Catholic Church or being viewed as a non-Catholic or an unauthentic Catholic.
17. Accordingly, in the process of healing and renewal, it would also be necessary we reaffirm our filial allegiance to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and who as the Pastor of the entire Church possesses supreme, full and universal power over the whole Church. Every authentic Catholic normally submits to the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ and the visible principle and foundation of unity in the Church, not just when he speaks ex cathedra (from the Chair of St. Peter) in his office as shepherd and teacher of the universal Church in matters of faith and morals, but also when he gives directives in matters of governance and discipline. Hence the well-known Latin dictum on papal authority derived from a statement made by St Augustine in the fifth century: “Roma locuta est, causa finita” (Rome has spoken, the matter is decided). This is why the clergy, religious and lay faithful who submit with respectful allegiance to the directives of the Holy Father are to be commended as true sons and daughters of the Church.
18. In the quest for healing and renewal, we should all work together for internal unity and communion in the Church in the spirit of Christ her founder, who prayed that all his followers might be one so that the world may know that it was He who sent them (Jn. 17, 21) . Accordingly, in fostering unity and peace in Ahiara Diocese, we must eschew attitudes and utterances of triumphalism or self-righteousness that can fan the embers of disunity and disaffection. Therefore, there should be no more hate speeches. With Isaiah the prophet, I urge you to beat your swords into ploughshares and your spears into pruning hooks (cf. Is 2:4). Please turn away from the path of belligerence which brings ruin and embrace the path of peace, unity and development.
Steps Towards Unity and Reconciliation
19. The Psalmist was stating the obvious when he said: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity” (Ps 133:1). Indeed how heartening it is to learn of the steps already taken by some priests and lay faithful of this Diocese to foster unity, peace and reconciliation. Given that “to err is human and to forgive divine”, I earnestly plead with all who have suffered personal hurts, humiliation or exclusion to forgive from the depths of their hearts and let those who have offended them find a place once more in their hearts. Mutual suspicion and distrust should now begin to yield place to mutual love and understanding, mutual trust and respect, as well as mutual cooperation and collaboration. All should unite in heart and mind with St Paul when he said: “Forgetting those things which are behind and straining forward towards what lies in front, I race towards the finishing point to win the prize of the heavenly call in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3, 13-14). All should therefore bury the raw and painful memories of the past.
20. In conclusion, I wish to state that a new time has dawned for the Church in Ahiara Diocese. It is a new springtime, the time to restore this Diocese to its past glory. In order to do so, we should fervently strive to deepen, purify and strengthen our faith in line with the authentic teachings of the Church. We should also strive to overcome our differences, heal the wounds of division and unite once more for our common mission of evangelization. Past animosities and misunderstanding should be over and a new communion and friendship among you begun for the sake of the Gospel. Through the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, may God deepen this new communion and friendship among the clergy, religious and lay faithful of Ahiara Diocese and bless it with rich and abiding fruits. May the Church in Ahiara Diocese experience a new Pentecost, a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit! May the clergy, religious and lay faithful of this Diocese be renewed, strengthened and guided by this Spirit of love, unity and peace!