Pope Francis made a historic climb-down on Monday as he accepted the resignation of a Nigerian bishop who had long been rejected by his diocesan priests but had been vocally backed by the pontiff.
had warned priests in Nigeria's southern Ahiara diocese that they could
lose their jobs if they did not accept Monsignor Peter Ebere Okpaleke
as their bishop, according to Associated Press.
The priests were given 30 days to confirm their obedience to the
appointment, and the pope told rebellious priests to write a letter of
apology to Okpaleke. Though 200 priests backed Okpaleke, several others
did not, the Vatican said yesterday.
Okpaleke was appointed as bishop of Ahiara, in the Mbaise region, by
Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but had been opposed by local priests who
rejected the leadership of a bishop who hailed from Anambra region,
outside of Mbaise. The opposition was such that Okpaleke had to be
installed as bishop outside the diocese.
The Vatican said it
considered the 'repentance' of Ahiara's bishops' in its decision not to
punish them for the 'grave damage' done to the Church by their rejection
of a papally-elected bishop. It said it hoped that 'in the future they
will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop
legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff'.
In his resignation
letter Okpaleke said his bishopric had been made impossible due to
'violent reaction and resistance'. He said remaining bishop there would
not be beneficial to the Church.
The Pope's acceptance of
Okpaleke's resignation is a major retreat that commentators believe
could have significant implications for other Church conflicts involving
papal authority. This includes Pope Francis's controversial backing of
Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who he appointed as bishop of Osorno in
2015, despite the opposition of local clergy who said Barros had
wilfully ignored allegations of sexual abuse regarding Chile's notorious
Francis stirred further controversy by
continuing to support Barros in his recent trip to Chile, but later said
he was sending the Vatican's top expert on sex abuse to investigate
Barros after 'recently received information' emerged.
Francis has previously rejected Barros' offers of resignation, but the
acceptance of Okpaleke's notice may set a new precedent.