Saturday, 6 June 2009

In Defence Of Arinze’s Candidacy

My first personal contact with him was in the Jubilee Year, 2000. I was then doing my one year mandatory Students Industrial Work Experience Scheme programme with the Trinitas Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha having finished my Ordinary National Diploma from the Federal Polytechnic at Oko, Anambra State. I was then 21 and you could imagine my excitement to meet him where he normally stays during his yearly leave in Nigeria which comes up every September.

I could still remember the exact date and time. It was September 10, 2000 at about 7:30pm. I was just relaxing in the sitting room waiting for him to come down. My then, Editor, Rev. Fr. Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam, who is now doing his Post Graduate studies in Rome had earlier booked an appointment on my behalf for an interview with him.

And so, there I was in that sitting room alone waiting for my host, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, the then President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican. I was specifically to ask him questions on two main areas. Firstly, on the Silver Jubilee of the Congregation of the Brothers of St. Stephen, a religious order of Roman Catholic brotherhood he founded in 1975, when he was still the Archbishop of Onitsha and secondly, on his work as the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The third was just my own addition. As a young exuberant journalist, I wanted him to talk on the possibility of him becoming the next pope.

When he came down. I could not believe my eyes. I was expecting to see a pompous fellow but I saw the opposite. I thought he would come in a limousine car escorted by half a dozen other cars with uncountable number of armed policemen and state security officials who will surrounded him from every angle taking orders from him while the rich and highly placed would be busy kissing his golden ring.

His appearance was not too rich, neither was his demeanour proud. He was wearing just a very simple cassock. He had no servants and maids attending to him. He came alone and was more of a proletariat than a bourgeois. To me, he was an epitome of what simplicity and humility is all about. He was just putting on only his Cassock and bathroom slippers.

As soon he saw me, he walked straight to me to greet me and curdled my hairless hair because I normally like to go on skin and asked, ‘Hi young man where are your hairs?’

He eventually answered the first and second aspects of my questions very intelligently, articulatively and marvelously. It was not unexpected people who know Arinze will tell you he is a walking Catholic Encyclopedia. But he could not answer the third one. It was very difficult for him to even utter a word on it. Later he asked me to ask another question saying that he could not answer the third question simply because as a ‘Prince of the Church’ he is forbidden from talking on any issue relating to the succession of a Pope, whether the pope is still alive or dead.

But being too exuberant I was not satisfied with the answer. I felt very bad that this man of God could not answer my question. A very simple question that proved very difficult for him to answer despite his doctorates in philosophy and theology and this and that and erudition in Arabic and Islamic affairs, knowledge of all world religions and cornucopia of others. It was really disgusting.

Since then that number three question has not gone out of my mind. It has always been there. It has always been ‘Can Francis Cardinal Arinze be a Pope? Can he make a history as the first black Pope? And a lot of other questions. But as I grew up in my wealth of knowledge I concluded that if an African man can be a Cardinal, he can as well be a Pope. If Africans can be the Secretary-General of both the Commonwealth and the United Nations, they can as well produce a Pope in this modern time.

If the election of Carol Wojytla from the Communist Poland as Pope John Paul 11 after nearly 500 years of Italian monopoly of the seat could be possible two decades ago, then  the next conclave coming in matter of days could prompt an even more startling turn. It may produce a white smoke for a black pope after all the Bible says that God chooses the weak to shame the strong.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was until the death of Pope John Paul 11, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worships and a highly placed Vatican official is no doubt today one of the most often-named successor to the deceased Pope. He has all the qualifications to hold the top office in the church. He is very humble, very prayerful, dogmatic, conservative, well-learned in at least eight languages of the world and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, an expert in world religions and an icon worthy of emulation. He has been described as the link between Christianity and Islam in the modern times. This may play in his favour when the 117 cardinals who are entitled to enter the conclave meets next week to elect a new leader for the world one billion Roman Catholics.

Arinze is a ripe candidate for the papacy but am sure that the Arinze I knew and talked with for about five hours in September, 2000 would be quick to dismiss this idea, at least in public.

Observers say that the increasing prominence of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, combined with his Interreligious credentials, make him a strong contender.

Catholicism is registering its strongest growth in Africa at the moment. The number of Catholic adherents in Africa increased by 4.5 percent in 2003 says the 2005 Pontifical Year Book, while the number of Catholics in Europe remained constant. In Asia, there was a 2.2 percent increase and in the Americas a 1.2 percent rise. Africa presently accounts for 13.2 percent of the world’s Catholics.

Considering the above advantages, it would therefore tantamount to injustice and unfairness for anyone to posit that Arinze could not be a Pope simply because he is a black and an African.  This is a very archaic and uncivilized way of thinking. Many blacks and Africans have done magnificent and unbelievable things in the recent times.  I doubt there is still anything the whites have done, Africans have not done too. No doubt, from the above statistic and position, it is obvious that Africa is the strongest of the tripod holding Roman Catholicism today.

Since he left the See of the Archdiocese of Onitsha in 1985, Arinze has headed the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, writing Ramadan Greetings to the Islamic world, traveling extensively around the world and reaching out to members of other faiths.

Whether or not he is elected to succeed John Paul II, Arinze's moment in the spotlight is serving as a reality check for western Catholics, who have been compelled to recognize that the population center of their church has shifted dramatically to Africa and the South America.

In the first few Christian centuries, North Africa produced notable Christian leaders. St. Augustine was from North Africa including his mother St. Monica. So was Pope Gelasius I, who led the church from 492 to 496. He was the third and last pope from Africa. Africa itself experienced a downturn as a major Christian centre after the advance of Islam in the seventh century.

But during the past 30 years, the number of African Catholics has skyrocketed to about 137.5 million. More than 20 million of these are in Nigeria. It is estimated that there are more than 200 million black Catholics around the world, most of them living in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

With two-thirds of the world's one billion Catholics living below the equator, the world's largest Christian denomination is no longer a European institution and therefore talking of a pope from Africa is very significant and could be shouted from the top of the mountains and minarets. No doubt, black Pope has come of age.

Arinze has been a strong proponent of efforts to develop a style of Christianity compatible with African realities, perceptions and cultures rather than the culture of the historically dominant West. This push goes hand in hand with anti-colonial sentiment that dominated the continent during his early years as a young priest.

Frankly speaking, in Africa the growth of the church is very impressive, though it has been going through a lot of hard times. The struggle is going on amidst wars, conflicts, hunger, poverty, refugee problems and diseases like HIV, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which are the three major health risks in the continent. Arinze having been born and brought up under these conditions would definitely have an answer on how to alleviate it.

Arinze's expertise in Islam is highly valued on a continent where Islam is developing swiftly with Christianity. He would later say, “Christians form about 33% of the total world population. Muslims number around 18%. That means that Christians and Muslims are more than a half of humanity. Moreover, theirs are the two religions most widespread geographically.

“It matters very much, not only to Islam and Christianity, but also to the world, how the followers of these two religions relate to one another and how they envisage these relationships at this turning point in the beginning of 21st century”.

Nigeria's nascent democracy is threatened by religious tensions, corruption and instability, reflected in the country's soaring crime rate and recurrent civil conflicts and religious tensions. Optimists say that Arinze's prominence, combined with his emphasis on interreligious respect, could help keep the peace.

From the way things are now in Africa, I have no doubt that Arinze’s former role in the Vatican as President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which ceased on the demise of Pope John Paul 11 helped in bridging the gap of misunderstanding between the Christians and the Muslims on one hand and between the two religions and the African Traditional Religion on the other hand. I think Cardinal Arinze is often proposed as the next pope because he has the skills needed for dialogue, understanding and reconciliation amongst religions. This job, I have no doubt, he will do marvelously well if elected the next Pope.

Arinze learned about coexistence with members of other faiths early in life. Although he was born in Eziowelle in Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State and ordained and worked as a pastor in Onitsha, a predominantly Catholic city, nearly half of Nigeria's citizens are Muslim. Arinze arranged for Pope John Paul II to meet members of both faiths during the pope's visit to Nigeria in 1982 as well as in 1998.

There is no need pretending not to be aware that Christian-Muslim relations around the world today is like a life-and-death affair but am convinced that religious tolerance and Interreligious dialogue and understanding is going to be one of the most important tool to  bring love, tolerance and peaceful co-existence between this two great world religions. I have no doubt that Arinze has a solution to this situation. Before he was appointed the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worships, he has worked as the President of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 18 years.

Since then, Arinze's name has appeared on virtually every list of possible successors to John Paul II. He has earned a reputation as a forceful and articulate speaker. He is often described as charming and media-savvy, a "diplomat's diplomat." He is uncompromising on doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, a conservative in the mode of John Paul II.

Little wonder that when he heard of the election of Pope John Paul 11 in 1978, he exclaimed: "Now we will have order in the church."

Just like Pope John Paul 11 his mentor, he has been strongly against and strongly opposed to contraception, abortion, married priests, homosexuality, divorce and female ordination. This is a fine quality that will make Arinze a fine product for the papacy.

His conservatism reflects the trend and the current administration in the church. He has never been himself in his job; he is always what the Church wants him to be. A true son and prince of the Church, a quality Roman Catholics would like to see in their Pope.

Born into a pagan Igbo tribe, Arinze became a Christian at the age of 9. He was baptized by his first mentor and teacher in the seminary, the Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, who will later become the first Nigeria to be beatified by the dead pope and first candidate for the sainthood.

He taught and mentored Arinze and in actual fact opened Arinze's parish in Onitsha in 1939. Arinze would later become his Mass server, followed his encouragement to become a priest, and attended his funeral in England in 1964 when he died eventually as a Cistercian monk in Leicester, England and also participated in his beatification mass in 1998 by Pope John Paul 11.

“He inspired many and we still remember what he preached 50 years ago. To Europeans and Africans, Father Tansi shows how different races can live in harmony and solidarity in recognition of God as our common father”, he said at Tansi's beatification ceremony in Nigeria.

His decision to become a Christian devastated his parents and brethren who were still then practitioners of the African Traditional Religion. But they had made the decision to send him to Catholic schools and therefore accepted his decision to convert. Later, in 1958, after their son was ordained a priest, they, too, became Catholics.

Arinze was ordained at a very tender age of 26. He studied in London and Rome and attended the Second Vatican Council before returning to Nigeria in 1965. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Onitsha that same year thereby becoming the church's youngest bishop at 32.

He would be mistaken later as a bishop boy or mass server when he attended the Second Vatican Council due to his physique and age as the youngest bishop and participant in the Council.

Three years later, he was made an archbishop and in fact the first African to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha. Previously, that post had been held by Irish missionary priests. It was really a turbulent period for the young bishop as his consecration coincided with the Nigeria-Biafran Civil War. He went through the entire storm unscathed, a move analysts says would enable him face pressure that is associated with papacy if eventually elected.

In 1979, Arinze was elected president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria. A short time later, the pope invited him to Rome to become the head of the newly created Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians which was later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

By the time Arinze left the Archdiocese of Onitsha, it has witnessed incredible and immense development especially in vocation to priesthood, brotherhood, nunhood and sisterhood. The Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha which he headed for nearly three decades is today boasting of having the highest number of priests not only in Africa but in the entire Catholic world. It has every feature of the Catholic life and can as well boast of being a miniature Vatican. It has all Vatican has got including one monastery for men and two for women, one of which is an Abbey.

As head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze traveled extensively, met different people, experienced divergent cultures and made a lot of friends for the Roman Catholic Church both from the Christendom and otherwise. He has visited all the continents of the world and more than 112 nations in the world.  This is a move analysts say has better equipped him for the task ahead if elected eventually as a Pope.

Often described as a confidant of the pope, Arinze is one of five cardinals chosen to help the pope coordinate millennial-year events. This is another factor contributing to his place in the limelight. No wonder the Holy Father made him the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, a no nonsense department charged with the custody and protection of the Roman Catholic doctrines, dogma and faith which amongst others include issues of priesthood, marriage, divorce, homosexuality and many other controversial areas.

Arinze has been a symbol of interfaith unity and Interreligious dialogue and an ardent advocate of religious peaceful co-existence and tolerance. He once said, "Collaboration between followers of the various religions is necessary for theological and sociological reasons. Theologically, all people come from the same God. There is no Catholic hurricane or Baptist drought. There is no Jewish inflation or Muslim unemployment. There is no Buddhist drug addiction or Hindu AIDS. Indeed, these problems don't respect religious frontiers."

Though he believes in religious freedom, Arinze has always believed in the separation of religion from politics and has spoken vehemently against the manipulation of religion by politicians.

“Christian and Muslim leaders cannot remain indifferent in front of the manipulation of religion by politicians. Religion should be allowed necessary freedom to concentrate on beliefs, ritual and a rule of life. God is at the centre of all genuine religion. Politicians and governments should be impartial towards all religions.

“Religious leaders who succumb to the temptation of allowing their religion to be abused and made an instrument by a political party will have to reflect on the negative consequences, including the probability that religion is likely to become a despised widow when that political party is no longer in power. At times it will be useful for religious and political leaders to meet and discuss such questions”, he once said.

On religious extremism and fanaticism, Arinze who has been described as very courageous in speaking against the two evils said: “Muslims and Christians have no choice but to accept that we are in a world in which religious plurality is a fact. ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ as Qur’an asserts (Q 2,256). Religion is therefore to be proposed, not imposed. Religious unity or compliance arrived at as a result of force-physical, psychological, economic, social or otherwise-is not worthy of the human person. And it is not a fit offering to God. Religious fanatics absolutely need conversion.

“As for those who engage in violence in the name of religion, this is a major insult to God and to religion. ‘No one can consider himself faithful to the great and merciful God who in the name of the same God dares to kill his brother. Religion and peace go together; to wage war in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction’ said Pope John Paul 11 to the World Conference on Religion and Peace.”

Even as he reaches out to other religions, nevertheless, Arinze insists on a strict doctrinal line. "All are redeemed by Jesus Christ," he will always say. This is obviously one of his conservative messages that do not always go down well with leaders of other faiths. Nor is it strongly held by all contemporary Christian theologians. The Vatican, in fact, has been clamping down recently on Catholic theologians thought to waver on that point.

But frankly speaking, all the talks about a black pope do not mean that Arinze actually has a better chance more than other candidates to become a pope. Since it is a Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit decides on who heads the church, the next week conclave may as well turn out to be a white smoke for a white pope. Though many would like him to be the first black pope in the history of the church, some black Catholic leaders say they are enjoying the speculation but aren't holding out a lot of hope.

If not for anything they are in full subscription of the ancient saying that cardinals in the limelight before the papal conclave are rarely the ones elected.

“He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal”, the saying goes.








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