The Holy Spirit, Clan Spirit, and Biafran Spirit (Again?): Making Sense of The Mbaise Catholic Bishop Impasse

Posted by Factnews | 7 years ago | 2,689 times

Most Roman Catholics in the South East of Nigeria know that the people of Mbaise rejected a priest appointed by the Vatican to preside over the Bishopric of Mbaise, For this act of defiance, much condemnation has been heaped on the good people of Mbaise. I think that we must unpack the issues before we rush to condemn the people of Mbaise for their refusal to accept an Onitsha indigene as their Bishop. Here are a few disclaimers from me before I add my 100 naira worth of opinion on the issue. I am NOT a Roman Catholic. In fact, I don't even attend church on Sundays anyway. I am NOT from Mbaise.

But I know one or two things about churches, historically and of their contemporary politics. My intervention is purely intellectual with the hope that understanding the salient issues could make for a better Igboland and Nigeria. There are historical antecedents to the impasse in Mbaise. But first, we need to understand that the church is also a POLITICAL entity. There is politics in every church. Whether the Holy Spirit guides the affairs of churches in their choice/selection/appointment of officers can be debated until the cows come home. But what I know is that the church is political. Every church has its own politics. Churches too can be clannish. If in doubt, check the appointees to the leadership of the Redeemed Church.

Now, to the roots of the Mbaise Bishopric impasse and its implications for Biafra and Ndigbo. The crux of the matter is that Francis Cardinal Arinze, once in the running for the Papacy, has been accused of trying to foist a fellow Onitsha indigene and protege on the Bishopric of Mbaise. Cardinal Arinze is a giant in the Vatican. I respect his intellectual, episcopal and scholarly qualities. Indeed, I have read and digested a lot of his books and articles. But Cardinal Arinze, like most of us, is a political man, especially, in the church where he has had the most rapid and lightning-fast rise in the church hierarchy.

We may have been created equal, but in real life, we are not always equal in attainments. Cardinal Arinze towers above most Catholic priests in his achievements. It was 1965 in Onitsha. The most senior Igbo priest in the running for the vacant bishopric of Onitsha was Rev. Father Anthony Gogo Nwedo, from Umuahia. Born in 1921, Father Nwedo was ordained priest in 1945 and appointed Bishop in 1959. By seniority, he was expected to assume the episcopacy of Onitsha. As at that time, Onitsha diocese was the wealthiest diocese east of the Niger. Onitsha people are no push-overs. No chance. But there was a problem. The lawyers, merchants, and influential people of Onitsha did not want a non-indigene as their Bishop.

They wanted "their son", Rev. Father Francis Arinze. Father Arinze, born in 1932 and ordained priest in 1958 was just 32 years old and much junior to Bishop Nwedo. The people of Onitsha did not care about his youth. They lobbied hard in the Vatican and eventually, Father Arinze in 1965, became the world's youngest Bishop at the age of 32. Bishop Arinze, a suave, charming priest quickly climbed the greasy pole of church hierarchy and became a Cardinal, a prince of the church, and was seriously considered as the successor to Pope John Paul 2. For many years, Francis Cardinal Arinze was the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. In the past 60 plus years, the respected Cardinal has groomed and mentored a large number of priests, including the newly appointed Bishop of Mbaise Diocese.

50 years after the Onitsha debacle, it is interesting that the people of Mbaise, whether by divine providence or sheer mischief of the clan spirits, have reached for the same medicine dished out to Father Nwedo and are bent on administering same to the bishop sent from Onitsha. And this brings me to the teachable lessons of the drama and politics of identity in these parts. I am sure that the people of Umuahia have not forgotten what happened to "their son" Father Nwedo in 1965. Recall that Bishop Nwedo died a Bishop in 2000 and was stuck in that seat for 40 years, 7 months. He watched his junior colleague elevated to the Vatican as Cardinal. And bear in mind that both Onitsha and Umuahia peoples are ALL Igbos, soon to fight a brutal civil war barely two years after Onitsha stopped Umuahia from producing a Bishop for Onitsha. Someone said that what goes around. comes around. It may well be that the clan spirit is mightier than the Biafran spirit. Just a passing thought, no more than that. Think about it. -Ikechi Mgbeoji

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