Ahiara Priests and the Echoes of Luther by Valentine Obienyem

We all are witnessing the unfolding unsavoury events at Ahiara Diocese. Since they are the principal party to the conflict, people from that Diocese have neglected to view the matter objectively. But even in their subjectivity, people like me could see some sense amidst the dissonance of their utterances and pens. Indeed, a number of my journalist-friends from that area are in support of their priests, who, in foolish pride, have rejected their bishop.

What do we say of people of Ahiara Diocese -- one of the pillars of Catholicism in Igboland? It is hard to imagine that this resilient people whose Province produced one of the greatest priests in Nigeria, Msgnr. Theophilus Okere, should drag us into the current quagmire. The last time I saw Fr. Okere was at the requiem mass for Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. It was a delight watching him sing the “Dies Irae”, with the cadence pouring mollifying harmony into the soul.

The selection of Bishops or ecclesiastical offices and benefices is not a doctrinal matter; so, when the Pope does so it is not a matter of speaking or acting “Ex Cathedral”.  Such appointments take place within the Church, which is managed by sons of Adam that are vulnerable to making mistakes.

I am among those that saw reason in the protest by our brothers from Ahiara Diocese.  If, indeed, someone is ‘unduly’ influencing appointments this side of Catholicism and elevating those close to him, it is not proper and must be rejected for it is an ecclesiastical co-relate to tribalism and nepotism. May they not remind us the era when the clergy married and how some Popes overly elevated even their children to high posts. These are stages the Church underwent to attain its height today.

My worry is the persistence of the protest. Knowing that the Church has taken notice of their protest and the circumstances that precipitated it, it is wrong for them to remain becalmed in the dissent.

I have known their Bishop, Most Rev. Dr.  Peter Okpaleke for many years.  He was my teacher, and I am convinced he is infinitely qualified for the Bishopric. I have followed his travails, or rather the travails of the Church at Ahiara and am compelled to call Okpaleke the Athanasius of the modern era.  St. Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, led the great debate against Arius. Five times he was sacked from his See, often at great peril to his life. Even when Pope Liberius was tempted to give in to the Arian doctrine, Athanasius stood firm – felling all heresies and answering all objections as St. Augustine did with the Manicheans. Again, after Pope Julius I restored him to his See, a Council of Eastern Bishops at Antioch – who could be distant brothers of Ahiara Presbytery -- denied the Pope’s jurisdiction, and even went on to name Gregory, an Arian, the Bishop of Alexandria.

The Church is not that of Pope Francis, but belongs to all of us; and we feel injured when it is attacked in such a manner as Ahiara people are doing. Their protest was understandable, but taking it this far is an atavistic throw-back to the old, vicious and superseded ways.

What baffles me is that the leaders of this mutiny are the priests themselves. Priests take the vows of Obedience, Chastity and Poverty. To go on this path of perdition is to suggest that they, ab initio, are even unbelievers masquerading as Catholic priests. If they believe in God they will not tow the path they have -- jettisoning all advice and moving on as if under blinkered vision.

One wonders if these priests were taught Church History in the Seminaries. Any person schooled in the subject-matter, especially the Reformation, will not engage in what these priests are doing. The Church has undergone its fair share of crises to attain stability such that it is only the devil or its agents that will try to push it back to Babylon.

Going back to Babylon has to do with the era the Papal seat was taken away from Rome. Throughout the 14th century, the Church suffered political humiliations and moral decay. Philip IV had secured the election of a Frenchman to the Papacy, and persuaded him to move the Holy See to Avignon (in France) on the Rhone. For 68 years the Popes were clearly the prisoners and pawns of France so much so that other nations accorded her  rapidly diminishing reverence.

At that time, the Papacy was using all means possible to raise revenue. On the death of a Cardinal or Archbishop, for instance, his personal wealth reverted to the Papacy. Even the pallium – a band of white wool that served as the confirmation and insignia of his authority -- was sold at a premium.  Also, in the interim between the death of an ecclesiastic and the installation of his successor, the Popes received the net revenues of the benefice; hence, were accused of prolonging this interval.  However, a school of thought believed such actions were justified and the taxation means of financing the central administration of the Church – be it at Avignon or Rome. I have once told the story of an ancient ruler that built urinals all over his realm. When his son protested the base manner of going after revenue, thye scandalised father brought some coins realised from that and placed them to his nose and asked him: “Do they smell?” The situation deteriorated to the extent that even Edward III had to remind Pope Clement VI that “the successor of the apostles was commissioned to lead the Lord’s Sheep to pasture, not to fleece it”.
It was Gregory XI that returned the Papacy to Rome in 1377. Papal schism was one of the saddest chapters in the development of the Church, and the crisis at Ahiara reminds us of the Church’s dark years. At a point in time, there were three Popes, which confusion was resolved by the Council of Constance – ushering in the tenure of Pope Martin V. The way our Ahiara brothers are going, it would be hardly surprising if they descend to the level of ordaining their own bishop.

As if the Papal schism was not enough damage, even many years before Luther and Henry VIII, the wind of nationalism was aflame in many nations. In 1438, France under Charles VII convened an assembly of French prelates, nobles, and lawyers and decided that ecclesiastical offices were thenceforth to be filled through election by the local clergy. A year later, a similar diet at Mainz adopted resolutions aiming at a national Church in Germany. Bohemia (Czech) as it then was, had already separated from the Papacy. The whole edifice of the Catholic Church seemed about to collapse. Today, it is as if the clergy of Ahiara Diocese have received the same instructions. May we not witness the collapse of the Church in Ahiara!

Thus, some two centuries before Martin Luther, the Church was buffeted by all manner of problems. Social revolutions and communistic aspirations, marched along with religious revolts. Erasmus made efforts at peaceful self-reform of the Church, but he preferred it should take place within the Church. Till this day, he is accused of laying the eggs that Luther hatched.

One could imagine how tense the atmosphere was at that time. With Luther and Melanchthon in Germany, Zwaingli and Calvin in Switzerland, Henry VIII in England, Knox in Scotland and Gustavus Vasa in Sweden, the Church was under attack from several fronts.

Leaving those wolves for a while to cast a consolatory glance at the imperilled Church during the Reformation as an experiment in empathy and from the view of modern history, one cannot help admiring the calm audacity with which it weathered the encompassing storm. Has that not been displayed to our Ahiara brethren?  Even when it was obvious that the Vicar of Christ – Pope Francis_ felt wounded, he spoke to Ahiara priests as a father that he is. From his speech, it was not even the disobedience to the Pope that  was his chief worry, but leaving the people of God at Ahiara like a sheep without a shepherd.

The Church continued to call Luther to its side, but when he became certain of being under protection, his rebellion became magnified. In 1517, he wrote his ninety-five theses against the indulgence.  In 1517, Fr. Tetzel, who was the arrow-head of the abuse of indulgence responded in his one hundred and six anti-theses, where he called Luther a heretic.  In 1518, Johann Eck, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt issued a pamphlet, “Obelisci”, which charged Luther with disseminating “Bohemian Poison” (the heresies of Huss). Luther countered in a Latin brochure “Resolutiones”, copies of which he sent to the Pope. Our renegade Ahiara priests boast they had also written to the Pope though they are not sure whether it got to the Holy Father.

Led by John Cardinal Onaiyekan, the priests and some other stakeholders from Ahiara Diocese went to Rome and met with the Pope, but the renegade priests, even when professing obedience to the Pope, insist he was not properly briefed on the matter. The similarity between their conduct and that of Luther is obvious. On sending copies of his book to the Pope, Luther asserted his commitment to orthodoxy and submission. He spoke to Pope Leo professing unwonted humility: “Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. Quicken, slay, call, recall, approve, reprove, as may seem to you good. I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you. If I have deserved death I will not refuse to die”.

The harassed Pontiff who initially took the fracas as a minor disagreement among Monks summoned Luther to Rome. Fearing what would happen to him, Luther refused, but merely wrote to George Spalatin, the Chaplain to Elector Frederick, suggesting Germany should protect her citizens against forceful extradition to Rome. Seeing Luther as a possible card in the diplomatic game of the time, Emperor Maximillian advised the Elector to “take good care of that monk”.

Following Maximillian’s letter to Pope Leo, he was compelled to leniency toward Luther. Have we not seen the Ahiara priests looking for their own version of Maximillian? I heard they met Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha, the Maximillian of our time, the other day and begged him to intervene. Rochas, a man versed in drama, even agreed to do something when he knew his incapability in that regard.

Writing about the Reformation years later, a protestant Historian had ascribed the triumph of the Reformation to the moderation of the Pope. Rather than force Luther to appear in Rome, he allowed him to appear at Augsburg before his Legate, Cardinal Cajetan and answer charges of indiscipline and heresy. Cajetan saw the issue as purely a question of ecclesiastical discipline and order: should a monk be allowed to criticize publicly his superiors -- to whom he had vowed obedience -- and to advocate views condemned by the Church? This is precisely the question many informed commentators throw up about the Ahiara crisis. One of their priests is said to have even granted an interview to a national newspaper offering lame reasons for their actions against the Bishop.

Surreptitiously assured of protection, Luther became further emboldened and started describing Rome as the seat of the Anti-Christ. At this point, the Monk had excommunicated the Pope. Some Ahiara priests seem bent to go that far.

It should be noted that some of the issues Luther raised where real. For instance, he compelled the Pope to issue a Bull explaining indulgence against the misrepresentation of Fr. Tetzel. Because the Pope had opted to treat him with leniency, Luther was at many times confused. On March 3, 1519, he wrote a letter to the Pope professing his complete submission. Leo replied in a friendly spirit inviting him to Rome, even offering him money for the journey, but he refused.  During the debate at Pleissenburg Castle, Luther repudiated the authority of the Pope whereupon his Legate, Johann Eck advised his excommunication, but Pope Leo still would not treat him as a renegade.

Heartened by the support of Melanchthon and Carlstadt, Hutten and Sickingen, Luther -- accustomed to a caustic pen -- wrote to Spalatin (June 11, 1520): “I have cast the die. I now despise the rage of the Romans as much as I do their favour. I will not reconcile myself to them for all eternity ... Let them condemn and burn all that belong to me; in return, I will do as much for them … Now I no longer fear, and I am publishing a book in German tongue about Christian reform, directed against the Pope,  in language as violent as I  were addressing Anti-Christ”.  With the way they are going, some renegade Ahiara priests are inexorably headed in a similar direction.

In June 15, 1520, Pope Leo issued a Bull, Exsurge Domine, condemning Luther.  Soon after, Luther wrote a second Manifesto he entitled: “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” where he decried so many things beyond the indulgence. He even substituted consubstantiation for transubstantiation and apologized for so many times he had crucified Christ on the Cross through the Holy Mass. He further pronounced that no man could be saved unless he renounced the rule of the Papacy. After facing the Diet of Worms, in 1521, he finally denounced the Church.

The lunacy of Luther was not the only crisis the Church faced. Adding the Council of Jerusalem, the Catholic Church has had 23 Councils, the last being the 2nd Vatican Council. Most of these Councils were convoked as responses to particular heresies. Indeed, the Church has experienced trials and tribulations, and matched through rough paths to reach where she is today. Due to the buffeting it has received, most of the Church’s actions are now properly defined in various documents.

The modalities for appointments into ecclesiastical offices are outlined in the canon law of the Church. The priests of Ahiara are aware of this and know that the prescriptions of the canon law have been followed. What really is their problem and what do they want to achieve?
Beyond ecclesiastical issues involved, are they not worried that what they are doing seem to be an imprimatur to the belief in many quarters of the class character ascribed to the people from that axis? Why are the people from Ahiara Diocese inflicting so much destruction on themselves?

In the final analysis, no one is wishing a return to Luther; that is why the entire Church is praying earnestly for the Diocese restoration to stability and growth.

If I were the Pope, I would allow the Bishop to go to Ahiara and stay for some months and another Bishop appointed. We hear the rumour of planned creation of more dioceses. Actually, he could be send to one of them. The fact is that even if Bishop Okpaleke resumes in his See, his security is no longer guaranteed.

To Catholics, let the events in Ahiara not discourage any one a bit. We take consolation that Christ pledged to be with his Church till the end of time and,  as such, let us not allow our hearts to be troubled. The gale at Ahiara will surely pass by.
Ahiara Priests and the Echoes of Luther by Valentine Obienyem Ahiara Priests and the Echoes of Luther by Valentine Obienyem Reviewed by Odogwu Emeka Odogwu on Monday, June 26, 2017 Rating: 5

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