(GIN) – Nigerian clerics who have refused to accept a bishop appointed by the Vatican for the past four and a half years are facing suspension for disobedience to the Church.
At a recent gathering in Rome, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, observed that Pope Francis seemed very sad about what was happening and he could see “pain in the pointiff’s eyes”.
“He was upset that his children were going in different directions,” the Archbishop said in an interview with the BBC. The Pope has given the rebellious clerics 30 days to ask for forgiveness or be suspended.
Archbishop Kaigama has been part of a group trying to persuade the clergy in Ahiara to accept the appointment of Peter Ebere Okpaleke.
Obedience to the Pope is central to the way the Catholic church works, the Nigerian religious leader said. “That’s not going to change now because (the Ahiara) want someone else from their area.”
The Nigerian bishops from Ahiara state have stonewalled the appointment of Okpaleke by Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, in 2012, complaining that he’s an outsider from another diocese.
The Mbaise of Ahiara are among the most Catholic of Nigerian peoples – 77 percent of the diocese’s population of 670,000 are Catholic. Nearby dioceses range between 19 and 70 percent Catholic.
But the priests of Ahiara have now rebuffed the Church, rejecting its choice of a leader from outside the diocese when they say one of them was just as qualified.
In light of the impasse, Pope Francis met with a delegation from Ahiara on June 8, where he laid down the law. “Whoever is opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church,” he said ominously. “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 feel great sorrow for those priests who are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese,” the Pope stated. “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,” he said. “It’s very serious.”