Faced with the possibility of suspension from office by the Catholic Pope, rebellious Mbaise priests of the Ahiara Catholic Diocese in Imo State have sought the help of Imo State governor, Mr. Rochas Okorocha, to stave off sanctions from the Vatican.
The rebellious priests begged Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State to immediately find a solution to avoid them being suspended.
The statement quoted the priests as saying that they were misrepresented before the Pope, who has already threatened them with suspension.
Mr. Okorocha according to a statement obtained by Sahara Reporters told them that the crisis has caused huge reputational injuries for the state, the diocese, the Catholic Church and Mbaise people in particular.
It is yet unclear how the priests want Mr. Okorocha to intervene in the face of the finality of the Pope’s pronouncement.
Although Mr. Okorocha promised the priests he will intervene in the matter, he did not disclose how. The deadline for the letters of apology to the Pope and acceptance of Bishop Okpalaeke is 9 July.
This follows after the Pope Francis, warned priests in Ahiara diocese to accept a 2012 appointment of a bishop, Bishop Peter Ebele Okpaleke or risk being suspended for disobedience.
Since 2012 when he was appointed by the Pope, priests of Mbaise origin have prevented the bishop of the diocese, Bishop Peter Ebele Okpaleke, from assuming office.
A petition to Pope Benedict launched by the "Coalition of Igbo Catholics" said, "That no priest of Mbaise origin is a bishop today ... is mind boggling.
Mbaise has embraced, enhanced the growth of and sacrificed for the Catholic Church, has more priests per capita than any other diocese in Nigeria and certainly more than enough pool of priests qualified to become the next bishop of the episcopal see of Ahiara Diocese, Mbaise."
In a bid to administer the troubled diocese and resolve the crisis, the Pope appointed Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Nigeria’s highest ranking active bishop, to the diocese.
His efforts, however, failed to deliver a resolution, as the rebellious priests and their backers refused to concede any ground.
The Pope later sent several delegations to plead with the priests and laity to respect the Vatican’s decision, but this was to no avail.
Efforts by leaders of the church in Nigeria similarly failed, as the rebellious Mbaise priests continued to insist that one of them rather than Bishop Okpalaeke must be appointed the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese.
The crisis has resulted in a huge disruption of activities in the diocese, as important events such as ordination and confirmation, exclusively reserved for bishops, have not held for five years.
In a last-gasp bid to finally resolve the crisis, the Pope invited the rebellious priests/laity and the party backing Bishop Okpalaeke to nominate five representatives each for a private audience with him. Bishop Okpalaeke’s side complied, but the rebel priests ignored the Pope’s summon.
The refusal of the rebel group to come up with nominees was informed by the realization that their position was unsustainable.
The Pope and the Vatican hierarchy eventually met with priests in support of Bishop Okpalaeke along with the leaders of the church in Nigeria on June 8.
The nine-person delegation which includes Cardinal Onaiyekan, Bishop Okpaleke, Archbishop Anthony Obinna of Owerri and Archbishop Kaigama. Three priests, a religious sister and a traditional elder prayed at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul and in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
At the meeting, the Pope likened the rebellious priests to the wicked tenants in the Bible, saying those refusing to accept the Papal appointment of Bishop Okpalaeke want to destroy the church. Speaking with visible anger, Pope Francis said the Mbaise priests are being manipulated from home and abroad.
He then authorized that, for their acts of rebellion, the priests must individually write a letter of apology to him within 30 days or be suspended. The letter, he said, must include an expression of loyalty to him as well as acceptance of Bishop Okpalaeke.
Pope Francis said he even had considered "suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children."
Instead, he said, every priest of the diocese, whether residing in Nigeria or abroad, is to write a letter to him asking for forgiveness because "we all must share this common sorrow."
Each priest's letter, he said, "must clearly manifest total obedience to the pope" and indicate a willingness "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," the pope said, according to the posts.
"This seems very hard, but why must the pope do this?" Pope Francis asked. "Because the people of God are scandalized. Jesus reminds us that whoever causes scandal must suffer the consequences."
Meanwhile sources in the church have revealed that the Papal pronouncement has left the disloyal priests and their supporters disorientated, limiting them to two inconvenient options: comply or leave the church.
Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo state in southern Nigeria with 423,000 Catholics and 110 diocesan priests. Bishop Okpaleke is from Anambra state, which borders Imo to the north.