Pope Francis made a decision that seems very different from his usual way of handling issues. In the case of a rebellion of the priests of an African diocese, the Pope is threatening to revoke their priesthood. The priests are refusing to recognize the authority of Peter Okpaleke, who was appointed Bishop by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI over the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria.
Ever since his appointment, priests have been rebelling against the papal choice, refusing to recognize Okpaleke’s office. On June 8, Pope Francis met with a delegation of priests from Ahiara diocese and issued a grave warning that continued refusal to obey the papal appointment will result in the priests losing their office. He called the situation as “very sad,” stressing that complete submission to papal authority was of utmost importance in the Church.
The pope made no hesitation in giving the priests an ultimatum in this case – to either submit to the authority of the pope and the new bishop or to cease their pastoral activities. He justified the legitimacy of his decision by saying he took it “for the good of the people of God.”
The pope’s harsh decision is a very drastic departure from how the pontiff has usually chosen to handle issues. Such a strong statement has rarely been made by recent church leaders. This is indicative that although the pope wants to usher in an era of reformation into the Vatican, he is not hesitant to make use of his office to deal with elements that threaten to challenge the authority of the Vatican whenever such a situation arises.
The pope’s decision is one that may have a lot of practical implications for the Church in Africa. The number of Catholics in the continent is seeing a high growth, and it has never been as necessary before as it is now for the Vatican to remind African Catholics about who is in charge of the Church. The decision by the pope may serve this purpose, clearly establishing the power of the Vatican over the African Catholic Church.
The pope said the rebels “want to destroy the church, which is not permitted,” adding, “the pope can’t be indifferent.” He also revealed he initially wanted to suppress the entire diocese, but suggested each priest submit a personal apology instead, and “clearly manifest total obedience to the pope.”