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For the sake of Pope Francis

By Umaru Fofana

Just back from Easter, the most important event in the Christian calendar, no better time to make this appeal. And coming at a time when Catholicism has got argualy its most progressive leader in living memory, this appeal from an insignificant person - and a Muslim too - could just pierce ears which have been deafened to more relevant voices.

I posted on my Facebook wall the other day that if I were a Christian I would become a Catholic if not for any reason, for the sake of Pope Francis. In this short period of his popacy, he has brought back the umph the faith used to have but had lost. The trappings of power that are so mundane he has eschewed. The vexed issues of the church's role in child abuse he has confronted. With tact, with a heart and with a head.

The Catholic church has always played and continues to play a tremendously significant role in the social framework of Sierra Leone. From schools to hospitals and now to a university.

The catholic university in Sierra Leone is situated in the northern city of Makeni, hence the University of Makeni (UNIMAK). Its impact on the otherwise conservative part of the country is already being felt. Owing to some backward traditional practices such as those that discriminate against educating girls, UNIMAK is opening up the north in a way everyone seems shortsighted to truly appreciate. Immeasurable.

But it is in the Makeni Diocese that the Catholic church is fraught with perhaps one of its most embarassing and intractible internal situations in Africa.

In January 2012, amid a belicose controversy, a new Bishop was named for the diocese. He was Monsignor Henry Aruna. It took a whole year before he could be ordained. To spare you the whole rigmarole suffice it to say that it took place in Freetown in stead of Makeni. It had to be held outside his diocese because most of the priests at the diocese and the laity were opposed to his appointment.

They cited as reason the fact that his name had (been) leaked before it was announced, something they argued meant another name should have been considered.

But at the heart of the opposition to the new Bishop was that one of the northern priests was not named. This was interpreted to mean that because Bishop Aruna hails from the southeast - a Mende - he was not acceptable. Temne/Mende rivalry is a vexed issue in Sierra Leonean politics. But one of the priests told me at the time that even if a Creole had been named the Bishop they would have opposed him as much as they did the Mende man.

Without attemtping to rationalise the grievances of the aggrieved priests of the Makeni Diocese, it is perhaps as easy to decry them for opposing their new leader because of his ethnicity as much as the fact that there is no northerner represented at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sierra Leone.

Again  I state that this is not a piece aimed at siding with either side in this seeming conundrum which seems to be as piercing today as it was over two years ago.

Since then, some of the most senior members of the Holy Sea have visited Makeni to try to resolve the impasse. They left empty-handed. Internal redressing mechanisms have been employed. They have also failed. Rather an Italian Apostolic Administrator, Natalio Paganelli has had to be appointed to act in the stead of the rejected Bishop Aruna.

In truth, the Makeni priests - or the majority of them - and their laypeople have made their points - whether or not one disagrees with them for whatever reason.

The Northern priests having made that point so abundantly clearly, it is highly likely that the new vacancy of bishop at any diocese in Sierra Leone will be one of them who I must add have some very well educated catechists or theologians.

One may argue that the Holy Sea does not seek to please groups and regions. I would say that's in the past. The fact that the popacy has gone to an Argentine is a show of how the church cares about serving all, and all serving. I would not be the least surprised if an African was made the next pope.

At the UNIMAK graduation in February this year, it was a spectacle that I easily noticed - not sure many did - when the Bishop of the Diocese, who is the Chancellor of the University, was conspicuous by his absence. The Apostolic Administrator served as such. This should end, and has to end now. I am sure he himself was not pleased about the fact that he had to function as the Chancellor - not because there is a vacancy at the helm but because the one appointed by the Pope was unacceptable to the priests who are to serve under him.

It is amazing that Government has been loudly silent on this matter. And the fact that President Ernest Bai Koroma hails from Makeni makes this all the more concerning. It will be untrue to say that the reason for his aloof-standing in the matter is because it is faith-related.

For the sake of the living saint tha Pope Francis seems to be, it will be a great gift if the aggrieved priests at the Makeni Diocese were to bury the hatchet and allow Henry Aruna to lead the flock which the Holy Sea asked of him. Imagine if one of them were to be appointed the next Bishop of the Kenema Diocese - the southeast where Aruna hails from...

Your point is well made. Plesase call it off now.