Last Friday, priests and church members in Makeni held an overnight bonfire in the compound of Our Lady of Fatima Cathedral. They also barricaded the building in protest of the naming of a new bishop, which was to take place on Saturday.
At 11am on Saturday, the metropolitan Bishop of Freetown Reverend Tamba Charles gathered a small group of Catholics at Sacred Heart Cathedral in the capital Freetown and read out a statement e-mailed to him by the papal representative to Sierra Leone Reverend George Antonysamy.
In it, he said, “Today as Apostolic nuncio in Sierra Leone, I have the honor and duty to communicate to all of you that His Holiness Pope Benedict the XVI has appointed Reverend Father Henry Aruna, a priest from the diocese of Kenema and the Secretary General of the Inter-Territorial Catholic Bishops Conference of the Gambia and Sierra Leone, as the Bishop of Makeni.”
At the time of the announcement, church members in Makeni went to the main cathedral with the intent of delaying the naming of the new bishop: they barricaded the doors of the compound, said the rosary and sang songs of praise. But they soon learned the new bishop had been named, instead, in the capital Freetown.
Secretary General Gerald Alex Sesay of the Laity, or church members of the diocese, said defiantly over the phone from Makeni, that they were not going to recognize the new bishop who had been attached to the Kenema diocese in eastern Sierra Leone.
The reason, he says, is that they consider it an insult for the church hierarchy to bring in an outsider to lead them. He says over the years, a good number of priests have been ordained in Makeni and now have the qualifications and experience to hold the position.
Gerald Sesay says tribal affiliation is not important to the laity. What matters, he says, is that the bishop is local.
Journalists in Makeni say protesting youths in the church compound were addressed by senior priest Monsignor John Tarawalli. He reportedly told the youths not to take part in violent acts. He said they will open the church and conduct normal services on Sunday but they will not accept the new bishop.
Meanwhile in Freetown the metropolitan Bishop Reverend Father Charles said, “The appointment of a Bishop is purely a Church matter. It is not done on a political basis, [nor] in recognition of tribal boundaries or geo-political divisions. It is done according to the criteria established by the Church, and that is what has been followed in this particular case.”
On Sunday, the cathedral was opened and mass was held though the priests and laity were still adamant they will not recognize the new bishop.