BY SYLVESTER ROGERS………………………….
The exact percentage of the Catholic Christians in this small West African State of Sierra Leone is not immediately known. The probable excuse perhaps could be that there has not been any official Catholic census under taken by the Catholic authorities for a very, very long time in the country. However other schools of thought have given a conservative figure of 10% of the entire Catholic Christians in the country.
The history of the Catholic Church Sierra Leone Chapter according to Mr. Michael J. Jusu a historian at the Department of Modern History Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone goes back to 1510 during which a church was built in Kroo Bay by the Portuguese religious Crusade Society, “Order of Christ”, through the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator.
From its inception with Father Balthasar Barreira including Bishop Kelly, Bishop Brosnahan, Bishop Azzolini, Bishop O’Riordan, Archbishop emeritus Joseph Henry Ganda and numerous others and even before the retirement of Bishop emeritus George Biguzzi, the Catholic Church in Sierra Leone had been speaking and shouting with one voice across the country loud and clear to Shepherd its Faithful.
The Catholic Church in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone had its beginning in 1952 as an Apostolic Prefecture that became Makeni Diocese in 1962 with an Italian born Monsignor Augustus F. Azzolini as his first Bishop who retired in 1986. He was succeeded by another Italian George Biguzzi who was installed as Bishop of the Makeni Diocese on February 7, 1987 and retired in 2011.
However recent happenings in the Catholic Church in Northern Sierra Leone since the retirement of Bishop emeritus George Biguzzi had left a lot to be desired. Even the much trumpeted religious tolerance in the West Africa sub-region which Sierra Leoneans used to boast of is now a shadow of its former self.
I am told that even though the retiring or outgoing Bishop of a Diocese can make recommendations from among the Priests in the Diocese which is never binding, the appointment of a Bishop is the prerogative of the Pope and the Vatican in Rome after rigorous scrutiny of the considered candidates.
When the Italian born Bishop emeritus George Biguzzi retired in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI in January 2012 appointed Rev. Fr. Henry Aruna whom the Vatican described as a pious, well-prepared Priest known to the local clergy who had him as Professor in the National Seminary as the new Bishop of the Diocese of Makeni.
According to a letter from the Vatican dated 10th July, 2015, parts of which reads “In his decision the Holy Father has painstakingly and carefully taken into consideration all of the human, spiritual, and pastoral qualities that make up a good Priest and, most especially, a good Bishop”. The letter went further to say that Father Aruna was certainly the best candidate among those taken into consideration.
The Catholic Church is a universal church. And one of the beauties of this church is that it embraces all of the diversities that are humanly present among peoples and ethnic groups.
That Rev. Fr. Henry Aruna first Sierra Leonean born to be consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Makeni and was absolutely rejected by his Catholic compatriots in the Northern region on the flimsy excuses that he does not understand their ethnic diversity, customs and their traditions, Suffice it to say that it was uncalled for and a blatant display of disobedience to the Holy Father, regionalism, sectionalism, tribalism and nepotism. Bishop Henry Aruna was trained to preach religious celibacy period.
It will be recalled that the first Catholic Priest of the Makeni Diocese was Rev. Fr. Dr. Joseph Sheku Kanneh from the Southern Province who was ordained on December 17, 1977 and is still serving the Diocese having retired as a Senior Lecturer at the Njala University. One wonders if this should have been possible under this regime.
At a very popular rendezvous recently in Freetown, a Priest of Northern origin told me that what is exactly happening in governance at National level is political polarization on ethnic and regional lines by the powers that be and that is what the Priests, Men, Women and the laity had replicated in the Catholic Church at Makeni Diocese. The likes of Professor Lawrence Kamara former Statistician General and Dr. James D. Rogers former Bank Governor had to lose their jobs because they are not from the North and were also sympathizers of the opposition. The list of Southeasterners that had lost their jobs because of their political affiliation is endless. Even the yet to be proven unconstitutional dismissal of the elected Vice President, the Priest of Northern region went on was done because President Koroma does not want any person from outside the Northern region to succeed him.
What has in fact precipitated this piece of writing is the recent announcement by the Vatican in Rome on July 18, 2015 for the new appointment of the Bishop of the Makeni Diocese Henry Aruna as an Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Kenema and the subsequent elevation of the Apostolic Administrator Rev. Fr. Natale Paganelli as the new bishop of Makeni. In my humble and honest opinion the Vatican may have done the above in the name of peace and reconciliation but I tell you the truth that is far from being achieved.
Since the appointment of the Italian born Rev. Fr. Natale Paganelli as the new Bishop of Makeni over a month or so ago there has been no rancour from the Priests, Men, Women and the Laity over ethnic diversity, customs and traditions. Silence they say means consent, which implies that the Priest, Men Women and Laity prefer a foreigner as Bishop than their compatriot.
There is a growing view among Southeasterners that the absolute rejection of Bishop Henry Aruna by the Priests, Men, Women and laity in Makeni the home town of President Ernest Bai Koroma is being politically motivated. The fact that President Koroma who is himself a Wesleyan Christian and Father of the nation had at no time denounced the action of the Catholic Community in the North clearly underscores the point of political motivation.
It is an open secret that since President Koroma took over the mantle of political leadership in this country eight years ago whether anybody likes it or not every facet of this society had and still remains sharply divided at all fronts with the Catholic Church being the latest victim.
I am a baptized, confirmed and matrimonially a Catholic Christian. I am not a pessimist, but the decision by the Vatican to withdraw Rev. Fr. Henry Aruna as Bishop of Makeni as a so called gesture from Pope Francis is not in any way going to solve the problem, rather than creating a major division amongst the 10% or so Catholic Christians in the country and further widening the political polarization in the Southeast/ North divide.
Many Catholics I have spoke to in the Archdiocese of Freetown, Bo Diocese, Kenema Diocese and some liberal ones in the Makeni Diocese believe that the refusal of Bishop Henry Aruna is a bad precedent that has been set in the Catholic Family and only time will tell whether the Priests, Men, Women and laity of the above named dioceses will ever accept a Priest from the North to be Bishop in their own dioceses. That is why many Catholic Church goers in the country believe that couple with the political division in the country on tribal and regional lines under the Ernest Bai Koroma led administration; the Vatican had no business to withdraw Bishop Aruna from Makeni no matter the blackmail as he would have laid the foundation for genuine peace, reconciliation and foster national cohesion and then narrow the gap of this age old thing– the Southeast/ North divide.