In what is perhaps the most strongly worded address of the Francis pontificate, the Pope blasted a group of Nigerian priests who have rejected the papal appointment of their bishop to the diocese of Ahiara, comparing them to the “murderous tenants” spoken of by Jesus in the gospel.
The Pope goes on to describe the priests’ offense against the Church as a “mortal sin,” demanding that each one write a personal letter of apology manifesting “total obedience to the Pope.”
This act of rebellion goes beyond “tribalism,” Francis said, and is rather “an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.”
The Ahiara diocese has been embroiled in controversy ever since 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Peter Okpaleke as its bishop, an appointment that was reportedly opposed by “lay people and priests of the diocese.”
Members of the local church have demanded a bishop from the Mbaise region, like their former bishop, the late Victor Adibe Chikwe, who came from Mbaise and was accepted as a “son of the soil.”
In 2013, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal John Onaiyekan as apostolic administrator of the diocese but no resolution to the crisis has been found.
Now, Pope Francis has issued an ultimatum to the priests of the Diocese of Ahiara, giving them 30 days to write a letter promising absolute obedience to him along with the acceptance of their appointed bishop. Priests who do not write a personal letter imploring the Pope’s forgiveness will be suspended from the priesthood.
On Wednesday, Pope Francis received a delegation from the Diocese of Ahiara, which included the Archbishop of Abuja and the apostolic administrator of Ahiara, Cardinal John O. Onaiyekan, along with a number of other Nigerian prelates and diocesan staff.
In the text of his address, released on Saturday by the Vatican, Pope Francis says that the behavior of the Ahiara clergy reminds him of “the parable of the murderous tenants, of which the Gospel speaks, that want to grasp the inheritance.”
“Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church,” Francis said. “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.”
In his speech, the Pope praised the “holy patience” demonstrated by the bishop during these four years. He also states that he had considered “suppressing the Diocese,” but then thought that “the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children.”
Francis also suggests that the priests of the diocese “are being manipulated even from abroad and from outside the Diocese.”
“The Church is a mother and whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious,” Francis said, before laying out his ultimatum to the priests.
Every priest or ecclesiastic of the Diocese of Ahiara, Francis said, must “write a letter addressed to me in which he asks for forgiveness; all must write individually and personally. We all must share this common sorrow.”
In the letter, he continued, the priests “must clearly manifest total obedience to the Pope,” and “must be willing to accept the Bishop whom the Pope sends and has appointed.”
“The letter must be sent within 30 days, from today to July 9th, 2017. Whoever does not do this will be ipso facto suspended a divinis and will lose his current office,” Francis said.
“This seems very hard, but why must the Pope do this?” he continued. “Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences.”