Pope Francis gave in to the demands of a Nigerian diocese and accepted the resignation of an unpopular bishop, setting precedent for challenges to papal authority.
Francis officially accepted the resignation of Monsignor Peter Ebere Okpaleke on Monday from the position of bishop to Nigeria’s Ahiara diocese, months after Francis issued an ultimatum to the diocesan clergy to accept Okpaleke or be removed from their positions, The Associated Press reported. Okpaleke’s 2012 appointment as bishop was so divisive that the clergy would not allow him to set foot in the diocese for over five years, according to Crux Now.
“I have taken this step also for the good of all the faithful of Ahiara Diocese, especially those that have remained faithful in a local Church being controlled by some priests,” Okpaleke wrote in his resignation letter.
Francis thanked him for remaining steadfast in his “love for the Church.”
Okpaleke’s appointment as bishop stirred division in the diocese along lines of tribal affiliation. The diocese is situated in the Mbaise region, but Okpaleke is from the Anambra region. The Mbaise faithful resented having their diocese governed by an outsider and so blocked Okpaleke’s entrance to the cathedral on the day of his installment. Okpaleke has remained outside the diocese ever since, even though some 200 priests complied with Francis’ recent ultimatum to accept him.
Francis ultimately did not sanction the diocesan clergy, despite the fact that some priests refused to comply, citing the repentance of the 200 priests as the reason for being merciful. The pontiff simply warned them to “never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff,” according to the AP.
Francis’ acceptance of Okpaleke’s resignation and the lack of any consequence for the clergy of the diocese set precedent for the potential removal of other bishops unpopular with their diocese, like bishop Juan Barros in Chile.
“It won’t stop here,” warned Cardinal John Onaiyekan, archbishop of the Nigerian capital Abuja, according to Crux. “It’s not only about new bishops, but those who are already bishops. If somebody can create enough problems in such a way that you can no longer rely on his stable episcopacy, then you can force the pope’s hand.”
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