Justified! Shocking! Disgraceful! Shameful! These are some of the mixed reactions in response to the protest over the weekend, which greeted the unveiling of the new Catholic Bishop to head the Diocese of Makeni. And it would seem Catholics in other Dioceses and observers across the country were taken by surprise by the event. But regardless of where one stands in the brouhaha, the incident has, no doubt, brought to the fore a number of issues that have far-reaching ramifications for Catholics and the country as a whole.
For Catholics in the Diocese of Makeni and elsewhere, the incident has probably undermined the doctrine of the universality of the Church. Catholics the world over are taught about the universality of the Church; hence the creed: “the one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”. And that explains why among other things, a priest, like a soldier, is expected to be called upon at anytime for transfer to another Parish to serve. This means, the Catholic Church everywhere is considered one and the same irrespective of race, nationality or ethnic background. For the Catholic Church in Makeni to therefore call one of their own “an outsider” is indeed, troubling for many.
Moreover, the revolt by the laity, with the apparent active support of some priests, should be considered an act of rebellion against the Church and a violation of the oath of obedience taken by the concerned priests during their ordination. The Catholic Church teaches its congregation the act of obedience, patience, tenacity and love, among other virtues. For these priests to announce that they don’t recognize the Bishop-elect –an appointment made by the Vatican – is by extension, a demonstration of their disobedience to the Papacy as well as questioning the authority of the Pope. And let’s not forget that these same men of God have preached to their congregations times without number that power comes from God.
In addition, the revolt in Makeni perhaps, reveals the Church’s spiritually moribund nature, coupled with the belief that it has probably lost its moral high ground to perform its moral teachings in society. While the Church is indeed, an integral part of society, which some have used as justification for such a reaction, it is nonetheless seen by many as the moral voice to speak truth to power. And like the media, the Church and society have a symbiotic relationship, but when it comes to the prime mover, the Church in my judgment, should rise above the society and influence it. In this case, it is the other way round; the Church in Makeni has allowed itself to be influenced by the society, a hallmark of authoritarianism. And when the Church, which is supposed to provide spiritual guidance for its adherents becomes embroiled in an apparent secular struggle for material things under the guise of regional representation, one begins to wonder whether the Church has not lost sight of its mission.
Suffice it to point out that the Church in Makeni may have a legitimate concern. After all, it is the hope of every local Christian community that promotion should come from within; that the laity would be comfortable with someone they trust and are familiar with. So while the frustrations of the priests and laity in Makeni could be understood from that standpoint of their desire for local elevation, it is unacceptable for them to resort to violent protest and rebellion as a means of exhibiting their disappointment. After all, the selection or appointment of Bishops takes into account other factors and not those of “Geo-politics” as explained by the Archbishop of Freetown on Monday’s edition of the BBC Network Africa programme. A case in point is the appointment of
the Archbishop himself. The Vatican appointed Fr. Edward Tamba Charles – a Kono from the Diocese of Kenema – to head the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo (now Archdiocese of Freetown) but the laity in this Archdiocese didn’t climb on rooftops to protest. So, when the Church, which is supposed to heal wounds and preach unity in an already divided society degenerates into such pettiness and becomes an actor to perpetuate division in society, hopes for sanity on earth and salvation in heaven become pale.
But while not exhausting the religious implications of the Catholic rebellion in Makeni, one is inclined to delve into the secular ramifications of this act of revolt, an uncomfortable subject that many would prefer not to talk about. What this schism within the Church portrays is a dangerous regional polarization and deep-seated mistrust between northerners and south-easterners. The appointment of a priest from the east of the country to become Bishop in the north puts to a serious test our level of tolerance as people of the same country. Calling a spade a spade the Church rebellion in Makeni is just a symptom of the animosity which Mendes and Temnes hold for each other. And one is even inclined to believe that the anger behind the revolt is a reflection of the mood of not just the disgruntled priests and the laity but also of many senior citizens in that region.
As a post-conflict leader, former President Tejan Kabbah made tremendous strides to heal the tribal and regional division plaguing our politics, albeit without the support or approval of many of his party members. The same cannot be said for President Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC. Many observers believe his tenure has been a missed opportunity to cement that legacy of his predecessor, and if for anything, the APC preferred to make peace with itself while relations with its rival party deteriorated. At no point in the recent history of Sierra Leone has the country been so polarized along the lines of party politics. It is my hope that should the people decide to give a second
mandate to President Koroma, he will focus his energies to reconciling our divided country.
With unscrupulous politicians across the political divide having little or no patience to encourage other people with divergent views outside their tribal cocoons, let’s hope that the Makeni church revolt is just a storm in a tea cup and not an early warning sign of frightening things to come. But a friend told me in a conversation that if Catholics in Makeni can revolt in such a violent manner over a decision taken in Rome, what would be the reaction of Makeni as a whole if the National Electoral Commission declares someone other than President Koroma winner of the 2012 presidential elections. Without sounding alarmist, the writing is certainly on the wall, and those who have eyes to see, let them see.