he world is watching Igbo Catholicism as it goes on trial in the brewing crisis over the nomination of Rev Peter Okpaleke as the next bishop of Ahiara Diocese. I have spoken with many Mbaise clergy and laity and other Igbo Catholics on this matter and the issues involved run very deep with so much passion. I did observe during my three weeks stay in Nigeria and conversations with Igbo priests, nuns, bishops, laity, and scholars based on arguments being proffered by both sides in this debate, that the differences among Ndigbo are deep.
Our ethnic identity, the wound of the Civil war, and the endangered existence of Ndigbo in Nigeria have not offered Ndigbo any identifiable ethnic, cultural, political or even religious homogeneity of any kind. What is evident is a nativistic narrative of Igbo identity which has given wings to all forms of particularisms dictated by fear of the other, and a prioritization of local and clannish identity and the protection of specific localized Igbo interests over the overall collective good of the Igbo race.
This realization was frightening to me because I have always thought from a cultural perspective that there are core elements which unite Igbo people. I am now waking up from my innocence to a second naiveté about what it means to be an Igbo man and the concrete reality that a true Igbo man or woman could be considered a stranger among fellow Igbo because he or she comes from a different part of Igbo land.
The arguments of those who reject the nominated candidate could be summarized as follows: Mbaise has more than enough indigenous clergy to occupy the exalted position of bishop, indeed Mbaise clan has more qualified clergy than any other clan in Igbo land, why should an Mbaise son not be chosen? Furthermore, if bishops could be chosen for any Igbo diocese from any part of Igbo land or Nigeria, why is it that it is always clerics from Anambra state who are usually sent to other parts of Igbo land, whereas no non-Anambra Igbo clergy has been considered worthy to be a bishop in either Awka, Nnewi or Onitsha dioceses. There seems to be an orchestrated design to 'anambranize' the Igbo hierarchy. There is also the concern that the 'imposition' of a bishop who does not understand the local culture and history or speak the local dialect directly undermines the process of inculturation, and seems like a spiritual recolonisation of Mbaise people. Given its rich Catholic history, significant cultural heritage and traditions, and its vantage position as the Ireland of Igbo Catholicism, the argument goes, Mbaise Catholicism should be the diocese sending out priests and clerics to other parts of Igbo land, Nigeria and the world; the church in Mbaise land has come of age and does not deserve this distraction.
I wish to make three theological, cultural, and ecclesiological points with regard to this complex situation.
The first is that Igbo Catholicism is on trial today. I was with a very prominent Northern bishop at the recent national event to celebrate the elevation of Archbishop Onaiyekan to the rank of cardinal and the Mbaise situation came up. The Northern bishop in comical fashion said in broken English: 'You Igbo Catholics have an Igbo problem. They send an Igbo man to be bishop of Minna (Uzukwu), the Minna people accepted him; they send an Igbo man (Akubueze) to be bishop of Uromi and now Benin, the 'foreigners' accepted him even though there were complaints here and there; now they send an Igbo man to fellow Igbo people and they are rejecting him. In the North, they send Kukah from Kaduna to Sokoto, the Hausas of Sokoto accepted him; they send Dodo from Kaduna to Zaria, they accepted him; they send Kaigama from Kafanchan to Jos, they accepted him…and you can look at the Yoruba bishops too, the cases of Atoyebi, Onaiyekan, Badejo, and Okojie..who are all bishops in dioceses different from their place of origin among their own ethnic group."
I have always argued rather naively in the views of some of my friends, that an Igbo person should not be considered a foreigner among fellow Igbo. I will not change on this stand and it is a principle which I have lived and propose to every Igbo person. It is not simply an Igbo value that people should be judged on the basis of their character and not on the basis of their place of origin, this is a universal Christian principle found in many other traditions. The Christian is aware of a pilgrim principle which underlies our Christian life that our destiny and future is not tied to enslavement to an indigenous founding cultural and spiritual base. The indigenous principle which is at play in most issues of identity, or son of the soil syndrome refers to natural and cultural ties to ancestry and centres of origin and birth, but the pilgrim principle is the driving force for human existence and is rooted in Christian understanding of identity and history. The pilgrim principle indicates that we are reborn in Christ to a new life which relativizes every other identity because it gives us a new sense of being, it connects us to one and all in Trinitarian communion, and we can call God father and call every person our brother or sister. The pilgrim principle is also eschatological, in the sense that it governs our hearts to realize that the goal of life is not to be pursued solely through attachment to indigenous ties, but that these ties are to be used as instruments for the pursuit of the greater goal of life (eternity), and the grace of greater things defined by an expanded vision of the community, especially the people of God (the Church). The pilgrim principle reminds us that our true home is in God; and that from a very concrete sense that we are constantly on the move, an example of which is the fact that there are many of us Ndigbo who are scattered all over the world, and expect to be given equal rights and privileges everywhere and not be treated as strangers. Unfortunately, Ndigbo who are very migrant as a result of their enterprising nature, and who easily make friends across cultural and religious boundaries, are the ones who find it hardest to break down the boundaries imposed by their own internal ethnic politics of cultural and clannish identities.
We have a real cultural problem as Igbo people because you notice that the first question an Igbo person asks a fellow Igbo is: Ibu onye ebe? (Where do you come from?). Once you answer the question, there are two options: you are either accepted or rejected based on the prejudice and bias associated among Ndigbo with your clan or state of origin. The differences among us as Ndigbo are very essential and deep and I do not wish to minimize them, but after the Civil War and the ongoing marginalization of Ndigbo in Nigeria, I believe that the Igbo people should unite and work together as brothers and sisters for the good of the ethnic nation and the wider Nigerian, African and international community. Igbo Catholicism should be the veritable instrument for bringing unity in our communities, parishes, dioceses and states in Igbo land. However, if the Catholic Church in Igboland cannot help to create this unity within the wider Nigerian and Catholic family, then it becomes part of the problem.
The idea that an Igbo person should be considered a foreigner in any part of Igbo land should be considered a cultural heresy among Ndigbo. The politics of cultural and clannish identity is totally a different kettle of fish and demands greater interrogation in terms of cultural knowledge, cultural behaviors and cultural artifacts which are often particular, dynamic, and open to revision dictated by social changes. This is especially so with the extraneous realities of statecraft and church craft which brought additional divisive narrative and identity overlay over what was already extensively divisible socio-cultural units within the Igbo diverse cultural tapestry.
If as an Igbo from Achi, I am considered a Wawa man in Awka and not accepted as a true Igbo among Ngwa people, should I seek refugee status in Ekiti? Prior to the Biafran war, the Late Ikemba in the face of the pogrom against Igbo people in many parts of Nigeria especially in the North once said and I will paraphrase him here: "We drew a line, that any Igbo son or daughter that crosses the River Niger, should be considered safe and at home." Is this still the case for many Igbo people? Do we feel safe among fellow Igbo? We do have a serious problem as Igbo people with the very shameful and shocking son of the soil syndrome which has dogged our path in both church and state. It is a shame when one part of Igbo land wants to dominate the rest instead of supporting and strengthening each unit.
Why is it that Ndigbo hate each other so much? Why is it that Ndigbo cannot internally resolve their differences and find a way of dealing with the human and cultural complexities involved in our social, clannish and intra-ethnic identity configurations? Why is it that the Igbo hierarchy cannot unite around a common mission on how to realize the divine purposes for Ndigbo through Igbo Catholicism?
What is unfolding in Mbaise Catholicism is regrettable for many reasons. The first is that it was preventable. The internal wars, petition writing, nocturnal visits, horse-trading, envy and recriminations of Igbo-on-Igbo hatchet-bearing head hunters ate up the heart of Mbaise Catholicism. Why will Mbaise priests wage wars against each other before 'foreigners' washing their dirty linens before 'outsiders' and ripping each other apart just for the unholy ambition of the winning the prize of lucre?
The second is that the Igbo Catholic community outside of Mbaise seems to have no clear agenda and refined means of dealing with such internal combustion which has become common in Igbo land whenever there is an Episcopal vacancy. The answer to cultural problems similar to what we have in Mbaise today should not be sought through knee-jerk response similar to what we have now, but a broader dialogue on how to use such opportunities to reinvent Igbo Catholicism to rise to its glorious heights. Igbo Catholicism is now on trial in Mbaise because how this preventable crisis is addressed will determine the future of Igbo Catholicism.
It must be noted in a most obvious way that if Ndigbo cannot accept their own as bishops in any part of Igbo land, then Ndigbo have no right to expect other ethnic groups in Nigeria to accept an Igbo bishop outside of Igboland whether in Lagos or Abuja or any part of Nigeria for that matter. It is similar to what is happening in Nigerian politics, why will other Nigerians accept Igbo political leaders in national positions when most prominent Igbo politicians at the national stage are always hunted down by fellow Igbo. In some cases such Igbo politicians spend their time and energy lording it over their own Igbo brothers and sisters, forgetting the real battle which they need to fight for the Igbo interest nationally.
Just as in Nigerian politics, Igbo Catholicism seems to be losing its inner spiritual and intellectual influence and strength because it is wrecked by internal politics, clannishness, nepotism, mutual animosity and hatred, unhealthy rivalry among Igbo clergy and religious, rancor, envy, bitterness, dictatorial tendencies among church leaders, an empty cult of personality, and a seemingly laughable invention of new titles and effete honors doled out with frightening regularity to deserving and undeserving people just for the sake of money. Our churches have been turned into an ecclesiastical shopping mall populated by fake products masquerading as sycophants, bootlickers, spiritual marabouts, gossips who are spiritually indigent, and whose low moral tenor is reflected in empty spiritual claims, and run-away materialism which are all eviscerating the evangelical callings and challenges of our times. The clearest evidence of this crisis is that no one can answer the question: What is the identity of Igbo Catholicism? Kedu ejiri mara Ndi Igbo na-eje Uka Catholic? What do we call what is going on today in most churches, parishes and dioceses in Igbo land? What is the quality of pastoral leadership in Igbo Catholicism? What is the character and texture of Catholic life in Igbo land? We can point to the crisis of identity in our Catholic schools, the fact that our Catholic schools and universities are the most expensive for ordinary people. We can point to our numerous educated clergy and religious whose only desire is to answer 'professors' and 'Rev Drs' at all cost without any progress through the ranks, no proven scholarship or academic impact of any kind just because our Igbo culture seems to glorify titles without substance. We suffer from a cult adulation for those priests who have become influential either through access to those in political power, or because they have made money abroad or locally or through their connection and control of church's social and educational agencies or through 'spiritual power' or contacts with rich Nigerians.
The point I wish to make here is that we have a serious crisis of leadership and spirituality in Igbo Catholicism and Christianity at large in Igboland. The Mbaise case is only a symptom of a deeper crisis. And this is what leads me to the next point which is that we are losing the sense of what it means to be a bishop or a clergy not only in Igbo Catholicism but generally in Christianity in Nigeria. What does it mean to be a priest or a bishop or a man of God today among Ndigbo? There is no single answer which can be given because here we have a bazaar of options and the boundaries of what is allowed for a priest or bishop continue to change. The image of a bishop as one who is a servant; one who wishes to lay down his life for his brothers and sisters (hence the color bishops wear, red, signifying the intention to die for the faith and to die to self and be given over to God totally in holiness of life) appears to be gone in our cultural imagination. In our times, the office of bishop is now perceived by many as a 'quota' which has to be equally distributed. This exalted office has become a partisan position which priests and their coterie of supporters and acolytes will fight for through all kinds of seamy ways. Many priests spend precious time planning on how to please their local bishops so that they can get their hand on the prize. Today's bishops and clerics are now seen and judged by our people to the extent to which they have become political juggernauts, landlords, real estate gurus, who hobnob with the rich and mighty; they control so much money with little internal control; and they receive numerous cars, millions of naira etc. and peddle their influence one way or another according to the inconsistent titibulation of their hearts. This is why the bishopric is now a highly coveted position especially in a culture where people's worth are now measured in terms of who they know, who they talk with, where they travel to, how much money they control, and how many people prostrate before them. Many people will surely like such a position of influence to come to their own kith and kin, and will see the non-selection of their own as an injustice as the people of Mbaise feel right now. If that is what being a bishop has come to mean for our people in Igbo land then this fight will not end even until the Mbaise quota is filled. If however, being a bishop is a call to die; to serve and to become a ransom to many then we can have a better conversation on the pastoral and ecclesial challenges and opportunities which the new bishop of Mbaise will face. There is no evidence in Igboland that indigenous bishops (read son of the soil) have done better than the so called 'foreign' bishops in those dioceses that have them. If we look into history, we will find out that Igbo Catholicism flourished more in producing good Catholics, good Catholic schools, well run church hospitals and charities under expatriate priests and bishops than what we have now under the charge of we the indigenous clergy and religious.
Finally, it is important to note that the universal church is also under trial in this case. There is a patristic axiom that 'you cannot be obeyed if you have not learned to obey.' Authority within the church comes from God that is why St Benedict at the beginning of his Rule encouraged all to first pray so that whatever work you begin to do will be perfected by God and to be seen to have been done in God. God's will is not easy to discern that is why in the Lord's Prayer we say; "thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven." When God's will is done in our lives there is a heavenly peace which floods our souls; when God's will is done in our lives, we touch the margins of heaven and dance with the angels and saints in a spiritual communion. This is so evident when we come to Mass and participate in it with full attention, reverence, dignity and joy. Catholicism is so real when we gather around the table of the Lord, from every tribe, language, color, sex, social class etc. We come in our diversity and we meet under the communion of love of the Trinity, mutual sharing, mutual indwelling, equality and reciprocity of gifts and talents; mutual respect, autonomy, all under the transformative grace from God. Catholicism is the grace of caritas; and the beauty of differences, the dignity of tension in the search for harmony, but the wonderful reality of unity at the end of the day. The exercise of authority in the Church is aimed at bringing about that unity of faith and morals which draws not from any legislation from the pope, bishop or priest, but from the salvific offer of love which is given through the Eucharist in which the life of Christ is given again and again for the salvation of the world and the divinization of we mere mortals. This theosis (the process of becoming like God) is at the centre of Catholic and Christian spirituality; it is a life lived in total conformity to God's will with a view to realizing God's purposes in our lives by holding in balance the centripetal pull of the pilgrim principle, and the centrifugal pull of the indigenous principle. Authority in the Church is legitimate to the extent it makes people see God's hand in all things even in those moments of confusion when we do not see clearly as in this crisis in Mbaise. Authority in the church collapses if it stems from secondary motives like politics, personal ego, or pride.
This is why the times call for prayers, sober reflection on the words and deeds of Christ, the examples of the early Church, the rich traditions of our ancient faith, and the vision and mission of God for Igbo people especially in Ahiara diocese. We need patient discernment and not inflammatory and threatening petitions and letters, some of which are being written by those who will like to cease this opportunity of grace and turn it into a time of war by yoking Christians with the yeast of unbelievers who see every reality through the prism of unredeemed cultural and nativistic worldviews. But this prayerful reflection is not simply required of Ndi Mbaise but for the universal Catholic Church (especially the Igbo hierarchy who bears responsibility for church leadership in Igbo land) as a whole.
The appointment of bishops should be done in such a way that people see God's will emerging in the process and people are ennobled by the choice. Notwithstanding the various arguments for and against this appointment, some of which I have addressed rather poorly, my primary goal here is to call for prayer, and patient discernment on these questions: Why did God choose Peter Okpaleke as the bishop elect of Ahiara diocese at this point in time? Why is the Igbo hierarchy, clergy, religious and laity so divided on this choice? Should those fighting this appointment be considered faithful or unfaithful Catholics because of the way they are responding to the Pope's choice? On whose side is God in this crisis and what have we learned so far from this about the identity of Igbo Catholicism today….and what is the way forward? The answers which anyone gives to these questions will reveal your judgment about the trial and testing of Igbo Catholicism in Ahiara diocese. Igbo Catholicism, we hope and pray will emerge from this moment renewed in her mission as God's family in a world of pain and uncertainty, but filled with hope beyond the shadows. But it is important to always remember that what people fight over in the Church always reveal the spiritual state of their souls: What does this fight or crisis reveal about the spiritual state of the souls of those who are up in arms because of this appointment?