Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Pope Francis makes historic retreat by accepting Nigerian Bishop's resignation

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.

Francis 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 paedophile priest.

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.

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