My Response to the Insulting Letter from Rev. Fr. Fidelis Agwulonu of Ahiara Diocese.
By Ugo Ezeani
I read with disgust and shame the response of one Fr. Fidelis Agwulonu, dated June 22, 2017, to the instructions regarding the Ahiara crisis.
I am not from Ahiara, yet with the kind of invectives the priests from the diocese have been hurling at their bishop, even the most casual observer would realize that something is very, very wrong in Ahiara– and it’s not Bishop Okpalake.
The writings of the priests from Ahiara are lacking in even a drop of charity, but bleed with a kind of hubris that would put the “Non serviam!” (“We will not serve!”) of the fallen angels to shame.
Fr. Agwulonu’s ‘response’ is no different; it looks very much like a modern Martin Luther, proclaiming faithfulness while denying the very faith he claims to profess and insulting his superiors in that faith.
The first thing anyone with a drop of critical thinking would ask on reading this response is: what is the writer’s grouse with the Pope that warrants this screed?
Sure, we all know by now of what is going on in Ahiara. But the question is: what issue does Fr. Agwulonu and the people of Ahiara have with their duly appointed bishop that has earned him their rejection?
Fr. Agwulonu is silent on this matter precisely because Bishop Okpaleke has done nothing. In the last paragraphs of his response, he writes vague accusations about god-fatherism, due process, corruption, malpractice etc. But he never makes any specific allegations against his bishop. Indeed, one would find that the vague allusions to Bishop Okpalake’s sins are purely political.
So the next question is: political or not, in what way is Bishop Okpalake unqualified for his office?
To this question, no priest from Ahiara has ever given a single cogent reason. This leads any impartial observer to the inevitable conclusion that Bishop Okpalake’s rejection is nothing but a case of undiluted bigotry. Any and all subsequent agitations around the issue, such as claims of god-fatherism, due process, corruption, are just a mask to ennoble their true, unchristian motivations. It is at the root– and a variation– of the tired Nigerian victim mentality, which sees anybody seeking to restore Bishop Okpalake to his rightful place as Bishop of Ahiara, as out to do in the people of Ahiara or, in the case of the Holy Father, as a person incapable of arriving at a sensible, practical solution on his own (unless that solution was in their favour). So they come up with the disingenuous argument used by Martin Luther (in the early days of his rebellion) and the ‘Lefrebvrites’: they are obedient to the Pope but cannot obey the Pope.
This response by Fr. Agwulonu is nothing more than an extension of this delusional hubris, that he and his people can simply not be wrong to reject their bishop, but instead it is the whole Church that has fallen into the hands some nefarious people whispering diabolic ideas into the Pope’s ears!
Let’s consider a few of the points raised by Fr. Agwulonu which he claims the Ahiara struggle was aimed at:
“a. Exercising our Prophetic role as priests in condemning corruption and malpractice in the Church in Nigeria”.
In what ways have Fr. Agwulonu et al of Ahiara exercised this role before and outside the issue of appointing a bishop to Ahiara?
If indeed their concern is the purported corruption and malpractice in the Nigeria church (and more particularly that Bishop Okpaleke is a corrupt man), then why are they insisting on a bishop of native extraction and how does that solve the problem? Surely if the problem was merely corruption, they would stop at rejecting their bishop and leave it to the Pope to appoint another one for them?
“b. Allowing due process”:
The assumption of course is that allowing due process would produce a bishop from Ahiara. So let’s ask Fr. Agwulonu this question: what would happen if due process saw the appointment of yet another non-native bishop?
“c. De-emphasizing god-fatherism in the Church and the crave for higher positions in the church which finds its place even in the Seminaries:”
How does he reconcile this with the crave by the same people of Ahiara for higher positions for their children in the church, as demonstrated by this rebellion?
“e. Demand for justice, fairness and equity. We had same problem with MAKENI DIOCESE in Sierra Leone, there’s was settled quickly and justly, while the arms of justice are almost being thwarted in Ahiara case”:
What has justice, fairness and equity to do with this matter? What injustice has been done? That a non-Ahiara man was appointed bishop over the people of Ahiara? Has that not been the case for nearly the entire history of the Catholic Church? And if a man from outside Ahiara is appointed bishop of Ahiara, how and why is it that the people of Ahiara cannot accept the appointment in humility? Do they know what spiritual benefits this outsider bishop has to offer them?
“f. Emphasizing that the case is not that of SON OF THE SOIL SYNDROME, but selecting a Priest from Ahiara Diocesan Presbyterium, a Pastor close to the People (as demanded by Pope Francis - June 21, 2013):”
Can Fr. Agwulonu please define who is this ‘Pastor close to the People’? He has misinterpreted the words of Pope Francis to imply one who shares ancestry with the people. Yet this isn’t necessarily so and we clearly see this when we take into consideration that our priests are often uprooted from one place and sent to another. This is also at the very heart of why a bishop doesn’t have to be a native of his See: we are supposed to be a people free of political and racial attachments. If a priest can serve in a diocese that he is not originally native to, if he can even head a local parish there as a pastor, why then can he not serve as a bishop of the same diocese?
“g. For the Church to investigate possible cases of using money to influence things and people in the Church today. Money has continued exchanging hands in Mbaise in order to garner support for Bishop Okpalaeke and impose him on the people. The Laity in Mbaise made this known to Cardinal Onaiyekan in July 2013 and that has not stopped. Bishop Okpalaeke may not be unaware of these. Such anomalies make people decide against having a Bishop like him who is engaged in bribery and corruption”:
Again, one asks, how long have these things been going on? Why has it only become an issue now at the appointment of a non-native bishop? Fr. Agwulonu claims these things were made known to Cardinal Onaiyekan, who was put in charge of the diocese on the interim. Yet Onaiyakan apparently sees no merit in these accusations, otherwise he would have said so to the Pope.
The simple truth of the matter is that the reasoning of the people of Ahiara goes like this: Since we don’t want Bishop Okpalake, he is a bad man and must have gotten his office illegally, and all those who support him must be using illegal means to do so.
Now Fr. Agwulonu makes a very curious threat:
“(5bviii) Did he consider this question: What if the Ahiara Priests refuse to "write" and comply? There are other means of attaining Heaven outside of "Rome", while remaining Catholic. What if they resign like the 70 Priests of the Indonesian Diocese of Ruteng because of their Bishop? (c.f. Catholic Herald, June 21, 2017).”
In this paragraph, more than anywhere else, we see the true heart of those involved in this crisis: it’s a heart full of pride and vanity. And it is HERESY.
So let’s ask Fr. Agwulonu the question: What would happen if the Ahiara priests refuse to comply? The simple answer is that they would be suspended and it would end at that. But Fr. Agwulonu’s not so subtle threat indicates that it may not, that they may break away from the Catholic Church.
On what grounds does he make this threat? If he is truly Catholic, he should know that those who knowingly leave the Catholic Church cannot be saved. And, if he goes ahead with his threat, he indeed ceases to be Catholic. Does it then mean that he denies this truth (at which point he stands unmasked as a heretic)? If he does in fact hold to the Catholic faith, then where would he be going to?
What we see here may be nothing more than the rebellion of Henry VIII. Fr. Agwulonu and his people may soon declare that the Pope has no authority over Ahiara than ‘any other foreign bishop’. And what manner of protest over a bishop can result in such an action if it wasn’t a simple matter of pride?
The next question is this: who would follow these schismatic priests? The church property in Ahiara certainly won’t go with him. It would remain the property of the Catholic Church. His followers would have no where or means to celebrate the sacraments, except, by their newfound authority, they do so in their own homes, which is certainly a possibility. However, if the faith of the people of Ahiara is truly what it’s been touted to be, it’s more likely than not that they would recognize their celebration of the sacraments to be nothing but fraudulent.
Look at what has become of the Anglican Church, and that church had a lot of resources and political will to hold it together. The ‘Church of Ahiara’ won’t have even a tenth of that at their disposal. Hence, without a doubt, the ‘Church of Ahiara’ would become extinct within two years and the people of Ahiara, if they truly wish to remain Catholics, would leave Fr. Agwulonu and his new church and return to the one, true Catholic Church.
The summary of Fr. Agwulonu’s response and the threat it contains is nothing more than grandstanding from a person who knows that he’s been roundly beaten. It’s grandstanding people who claim that they’re ‘saving face for the Pope’ while in fact they’re saving face for themselves. He wants to pretend to write the letter in protest when in fact he’s doing it to save his own skin.
The actions of Fr. Agwulonu and his fellow priests from Ahiara have created no little scandal in the Church. The Holy Father demonstrated admirable tact and decisiveness in pinpointing the source of the discontent in Ahiara and dealing with it.
Ugo Ezeani is the author of “Anumar’s Fall”. He writes from Lagos, Nigeria.