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Friday, 24 May 2013


A Sermon Preached by His Lordship, Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji, Bishop of Umuahia, at the Episcopal Ordination of Rt. Rev. Peter Ebere Okpalaeke, Bishop-elect of Ahiara at the Seat of Wisdom Seminary Owerri on 21st May, 2013 

My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. With deep emotion I greet you all and welcome Your Eminence, my brothers in the Episcopate and Priesthood, Consecrated men and women, civil authorities and our lay faithful. In a special way, I wish to thank our dear Bishops for being present at this episcopal ordination. We appreciate the great sacrifice you have made, travelling long distances on very bad roads to the Seat of Wisdom Seminary Owerri, shortly after  a weeklong retreat in Abuja, which only ended last Friday. Your presence at this episcopal ordination is sacramental. It is a demonstration of solidarity and support, as well a show of care and concern for the Church of God in Ahiara Diocese. It is also a strong expression of the unity and communion in the Episcopate and a manifestation of the universality and diversity of the Church.

I also greet our brothers and sisters of Ahiara Diocese. Ahiara Mbaise is a land hallowed by the footprints of great Irish missionaries such as Rev. Fr. Daniel Walsh, C.S.Sp. and the like, who toiled and moiled to sow the seeds of the Gospel in Mbaise, beginning from 1914. The forbears of the people of Mbaise welcomed the Catholic Church with great enthusiasm, generosity of heart and commitment. They remained loyal and faithful in the face of difficulties, challenges and trials. The fruits of their fidelity are evident in the implantation of the faith in Mbaiseland and its transmission from one generation to the other, until it was handed on to the present generation. Today these fruits are seen in the flourishing of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in Mbaiseland and in the rapid increase in the number of the lay faithful.

How can we forget the great contributions of Most Rev. Victor Adibe Chikwe as the pioneer Bishop of Ahiara Diocese. On this auspicious occasion we pay tribute to him for his strenuous labours to build up the young Church in Ahiara Diocese to an enviable state. This great Pastor of souls worked assiduously with unflagging zeal to ensure the continuous growth of the largely rural Diocese of Ahiara. Under his able and dynamic leadership, Ahiara Diocese now counts 73 parishes as against 18 at its creation in 1987. It pleased the Almighty and merciful Father to call him to his eternal reward on 16th September, 2010. May his gentle and noble soul rest in perfect peace! May his labours in Ahiara Diocese not be in vain!

For over two years after the death of Bishop Chikwe, the faithful of Ahiara Diocese persevered in fervent prayers, imploring God to send them a shepherd after his own heart. On 7th December 2012, Msgr. Peter Ebere Okpalaeke was appointed the Bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese by His Holiness, Benedict XVI. He was not chosen for his own personal aggrandisement but for service of the flock entrusted to him. The past six months have been turbulent as we anxiously waited for the consecration of Msgr. Okpalaeke. Thanks to God it is taking place today.

Through episcopal ordination he will be configured to Christ, the Good Shepherd, and become a member of the College of Bishops. He will also receive the full pastoral powers to teach, sanctify and govern the flock of Christ entrusted to his care. Also by episcopal ordination he will share in the fullness of the priesthood. No one can be more conscious of the awesomeness of sharing in the fullness of Christ’s priesthood than Msgr. Okpalaeke. He knows that by calling him to participate fully in his priesthood, Christ is at the same time calling him to participate fully in his victimhood, fully to share the cross with Him – that is what Christ’s priesthood is.

The heavy responsibility of the episcopal office and ministry can be frightening. But that fear is allayed by the Lord of the vineyard who says: “Do not be afraid”. The source of confidence of St Paul, the great missionary who endured a lot of trials and hardships for the sake of the Gospel can also be a source of our confidence in difficult and trying situations. St. Paul says: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). In this Pentecost week, I implore you dear brothers and sisters to pray for our new Bishop that he be blessed with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with his gifts, especially the gifts of wisdom and fortitude which he needs for his episscopal ministry.

The second reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2: 1-11) recalls the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost day, which is the birthday of the Church. On that day, the Apostles received the gift of tongues. The uniting force of the gift of tongues on the day of Pentecost, which made people “from every nation under heaven” to understand the Apostles in their own languages, was to undo the language confusion and the disunity among men that arose when men, driven by pride, tried to build the Tower of Babel. They were dispersed and could no longer understand each other. At Pentecost human beings were invited to reunite again and form a communion.

Thus the gift of tongues bestowed on the Apostles on Pentecost Day was to portray the true nature of the newly-born Church as a communion not restricted to a people or clan, but one embracing all peoples, irrespective of tongue, nationality or ethnic background. She is a Church that has a universal openness; a Church that speaks every language, understands all tongues; embraces all cultures and thus a Church destined to overcome the division of Babel and break down the walls of hostility that kept people apart (cf. Eph. 2: 14). She is a Church with the mandate to bring God’s love to the world and a mission to unite all people into one family of God. Consequently, Christians who fan the embers of hatred, disaffection, antagonism and intolerance within and between ethnic groups do a great disservice to the Church and her mission of uniting all peoples. Ethnocentrism, clannishness and exclusiveness have no place in the Church of Christ rightly understood as catholic.

The Church is catholic because Christ on which she is founded is catholic. He is fullness and bestows on her the fullness of salvation: complete confession of faith, full sacramental life and pastoral leadership in apostolic succession. Christ is catholic because he is a universal person, who takes to himself every dimension of our existence, so that all things might be reconciled to him. By becoming man, Christ assumed everything about our human life. He was totally open to others and related to the world in an inclusive way. This is why St Paul writing to the Galatians declared: “there is no more distinctions between Jew and Gentle, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:8).

During his earthly sojourn, Jesus called men and women to be his followers and from these he chose Twelve to be with him (Mk 3:14). The mission entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles is to last until the end of time (cf. Mt 28:20); since the Gospel they have been charged to hand down is the life of the Church in every age. It was for this reason that the Apostles were concerned to appoint for themselves successors, who later came to be known as Bishops. Thus, by casting lots Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts, 1:15-26). Early liturgical texts testify to the election and ordination of bishops. The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, of the second century, states: “You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons who are a credit to the Lord, men who are gentle, generous, faithful, and well tried.”

When the Edict of Milan in 313 accorded legal recognition to Christianity, the number of Christians increased rapidly and emperors became Christians. Ambitious men began coveting the office of bishop as a means to power and influence. Recognizing the important role of the bishop, emperors and kings appropriated to themselves the right of nominating candidates to the bishopric. In doing that, they did not always take into consideration the competence and worthiness of the candidates they proposed for episcopal office. 

To cheek the abuses of installing unworthy persons as Bishops through involvement of civil authorities and through simony, the Council of Trent thoroughly considered the wisdom of returning to the ancient tradition of the election of Bishops by the clergy and laity of the diocese. Finally it decided to affirm papal authority over the whole Church and assert the right of the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, to freely appoint Bishops (cf. Twenty-fourth session of the Council of Trent, Decree Concerning Reform, Chapter 1, Norms of Procedure in the Election of Bishops and Cardinals).

In line with this Council, the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983 just as the Code of 1917 asserts the right of the Pope to freely appoint bishops and specifies the roles of the provincial bishops, the papal Legate and the Apostolic See in the process of episcopal appointments (cf. c. 377). The existing norms and procedure guiding the appointment of Bishops to a large extent check politicking, scheming, inbreeding and power struggle in the appointment of Bishops. It is to be noted that the strict confidentiality surrounding the process of episcopal appointments is meant to give those consulted the freedom to express their honest opinions “coram Dei” (before God) about the candidates being proposed for episcopal office without undue external pressure or inducement and also helps to preserve the reputation of candidates who are not appointed after consultations.

The secrecy in the process of electing Bishops may give people the room to suspect or to allege manipulations of the electoral process. Considering the unsubstantiated allegations that are presently tearing some communities apart, it must be said loud and clear that no Cardinal, Archbishop or Bishop; no Episcopal Conference, whether national or provincial, can appoint a Bishop. It is the Holy Father who has the final say in the appointment and posting of Bishops in the Catholic Church. Following the procedures laid down in Church law, he freely appoints a suitable Catholic priest, after proper discernment, mature deliberation and prayer. We should keep in mind that Church Law does not provide for “quota system” or consideration for “place of origin” in the appointment of Bishops. However, given the strong ethnic sensitivities in certain areas, and considering that Church unity, which does not necessarily imply uniformity, gives room for diversity, some respectable persons are of the opinion that a process that takes into consideration the principles of “equity”, “fairness” and “balancing” in episcopal appointments may be a way of giving a sense of belonging to a people in a particular situation and forestalling agitation.

Accepting papal appointments and postings of Bishops is a demonstration of filial respect for the sacred authority of the Holy Father and an expression of loyalty and allegiance to the Vicar of Christ. In contrast, outright rejection of a papal appointment, accompanied by dissemination of offensive write-ups in the media, peddling of malicious rumours and making of inflammatory statements to incite unsuspecting folks to disobedience and public protests is to say the least disrespectful and spiteful of papal authority. Openly flouting the highest ecclesial authority shocks the sensibilities of Catholics and scandalises non-Catholics.

When one contemplates the surprises and disappointments that sometimes trail the appointment of Bishops; when one notes that it is not always that the best and brightest is appointed a Bishop and when one observes that those who have the mitre in your heads never have it on their heads, one is moved to repeat the words of St. Paul: “How rich are the depths of God... how impossible to penetrate his motives or to understand his method”. One thing stands out in the way God makes His choices. He chooses, not as man chooses. “Man looks at appearances but God sees the heart” (I Sam. 16:7). God chooses, not always on the basis of merit, but because of his gratuitous love. As the first reading reminds us, Jeremiah was chosen by God to be a prophet even before his birth (cf. Jer. 1:1).

In his choices God upturns human standards of greatness. Holy Scripture attests to this: God finds favour with Abel in preference to his elder brother Cain (Gen. 4: 4-6). He chooses Jacob in preference to his elder brother Esau (Gen. 25:23 ), and young David in preference to his elder brothers (I Sam. 16:1; 12 ). Despite its smallness (Deut. 7:7), stubbornness (Deut. 9:5) and rebellion (Deut. 9:7), God chose Israel. He did so because of his love for them (Deut. 7:8). God’s manner of choice transcends ours. That is why St Paul states: “No, it was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen...” (I Cor. 1: 27-28).

When all is said and done, God transcends us. He remains a mystery. So is His manner of choosing. We cannot comprehend him nor can we understand his ways. This is why he says: “My ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Is. 55: 8-9). Reflecting on the incomprehensibility and freedom of God, St Augustine says: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus,” (If you understand him, he is not God).

My dear people of Ahiara, you have expressed your reservations on the appointment of your new Bishop and need not impose your will on the Holy Father. You have been heard. You have been angry. Now is the time to get rid of anger (Col 3:8). As good children of God, who is slow to anger, your anger should not go beyond sunset (cf. Eph. 4:26). As faithful Catholics, we urge you to hearken to the appeal of the Holy Father Pope Francis and receive your new Bishop with generous hearts. Recall the injunction given to the Israelites in the Bible: “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:20). We, the Igbo people, are not only in Egypt; we are everywhere in the world and cannot afford rejecting other people, talk less rejecting a fellow Igbo man. We must be ever known as a people that are welcoming and hospitable to strangers.

I  also urge you to recall the words Christ addressed to the Apostles: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Lk. 10:16). Rt. Rev. Peter Okpalaeke has been sent to you. Accept him; listen to him. Cooperate with him to build up God’s kingdom in Ahiara Diocese. If you wish, you can also “imonise” him.

Dear Peter, in the name of all present, I felicitate with you. Elevation to the dignity of the episcopate and insertion into the College of Bishops may be deemed an honour, but it is more an awesome responsibility, and a noble service to Christ, to His Church and His people. Remember when Jesus ascended into heaven, he did not abandon the Apostles to themselves. Even as He promised the Apostles, so does He promise you that He will be with you always. Your inspiration and motivation, your zeal and courage must, therefore, come not so much from your own abilities and talents, your own wisdom and knowledge, not even from fleeting human support but from the power of the Holy Spirit that will be given to you through the imposition of hands today.
Proclaim the message of salvation, whether welcome or unwelcome. Heal festering wounds of division through dialogue. As an ambassador of peace, foster the process of peace and reconciliation. Correct error with unfailing patience and teaching. Pray and offer sacrifice for the flock committed to your care and so draw every kind of grace and blessing for them.
May Mary, Mother of the Church, ever protect and guide you in your new ministry. May she intercede for you with her son Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, now and for ever. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:38 am

    It is very difficult to protest and redress injustice when it is done in the name of God and the Church and the pope... This is very precarious because they people are expected bow down, and obey in reverence and piety... No!!! The Mbaise faithful have courageously said no to injustice and power-play regarding the apointment of bishops in Igboland. 5 bishops from Awka, and none from Mbaise; 15 bishops from Onitsha province and only 4 Owerri province... The injustice and in the appointment of bishops in Igbo land can never be explained away in any homily. The Lord is king on the throne!!!


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