Despite issuing an unprecedented ultimatum last June to priests of Ahiara diocese in Nigeria, demanding they accept a Benedict XVI-appointed bishop, Pope Francis has backed down and accepted the bishop’s resignation.

The Vatican announced on Monday that Bishop Peter Okpaleke, 54, would be stepping down and that Bishop Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji of Umuahia would be in charge of the diocese, acting as an apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis (with the See vacant and at the pleasure of the Holy See).

Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Okpaleke to Ahiara diocese in December 2012, but many local priests and some laity never accepted him for complex reasons but primarily because they saw the appointment as part of a longstanding conspiracy to oppress the people of Ahiara, particularly its dominant Mbaise linguistic group.

Last June, the Pope met with a Church delegation from Ahiara and issued a harsh demand that the diocesan priests write to him asking for forgiveness, expressing “manifest total obedience to the Pope” in accepting the bishop, and to send the letter within 30 days. Failure to write the letter would result in suspension from the priesthood, the Pope told them at the time.

“This seems very hard,” the Pope said, but added that he “must” do it because the “people of God are scandalized” and that whoever causes scandal “must suffer the consequences.”

But in a statement issued Monday by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican said that although priests from the diocese, and some outside, wrote 200 letters to the Pope showing him “obedience and fidelity,” “some priests pointed out psychological difficulty in collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict.”

It added that “taking into account their repentance, the Holy Father decided not to proceed with the canonical sanctions and instructed the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples to respond to each of them.”

The Congregation said it that in its response, it urged each priest “to reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church of Christ and expressed hope that in the future they will never again repeat such unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff.”

The statement added that the Pope was grateful to all those who had expressed support for Bishop Okpaleke and Church leaders who had tried to resolve “the lamentable situation.” It also said that Pope hopes that with the new apostolic administrator, the Church will “recover its vitality and never again suffer such actions that so wound the Body of Christ.”

Bishop Okpaleke, who never took possession of the diocese, said in a pastoral letter published on Ash Wednesday Feb, 14 that he was the target of “unreasonable, violent reactions of some priests and faithful.” He said he was “not in a position” to say how many priests “complied faithfully with the Pope’s demand” but that some priests asked laity to “take over leadership of the dispute.”

He said the attitude of the opposing priests and faithful refused to “give the Holy Spirit a chance,” but that in conscience he felt remaining bishop of the diocese was “no longer beneficial to the Church.” He therefore offered the Pope his resignation “for the good of all the faithful of Ahiara diocese” and in the hope that it would “facilitate re-evangelization of the faithful,” especially of the diocese’s priests. 

He added that the priest’s letters will allow the Pope and the Vatican to “decipher” those who are loyal to the Pope and “those who decided to bow out of the Catholic Church in disobedience.” He closed his letter by thanking those who supported him, and inviting dissenting priests to “re-examine their initial motivations for becoming priests.”

“Repentance and reconciliation are urgent,” he said.


Papal Authority Challenged

Although Bishop Okpaleke was appointed by Benedict, the Ahiara episode is being seen as the latest test of papal authority under Pope Francis, especially concerning bishops.

It follows opposition by faithful and priests to Francis’ 2015 appointment to the Chilean diocese of Osorno of Bishop Juan Barros, accused of covering up clerical sex abuse (the bishop denies it), and the Pope’s handling of clerical sex abuses cases in general. Some believe that now the Pope has accepted Bishop Okpaleke's resignation, he is also more likely to accept that of Bishop Barros, who was first appointed bishop by Pope St. John Paul II and confirmed by Benedict. 

Today's development also comes on the heels of strong criticism of the Vatican’s expected decision to force two “underground” bishops in China to make way for two government-appointed ordinaries.