nothing' to list of candidates for pope
Francis Arinze has risen in the
church as his nation has.
Nigeria -- Born to pagan parents and raised in a mud house with a thatched
roof, Francis Arinze was introduced to Roman Catholicism at the local
parish school he attended.
It was one thing for Joseph Arinze
Nwankwu, a farmer, to accept his son's conversion at age 9. But when as a
teenager Arinze announced his plan to enter seminary, his father so
opposed Francis' vocation that he plotted to have his name scratched from
"Since that name was not canceled
out," said the Rev. Patrick Ndulue, a parish priest ordained by
Arinze, "Francis went from nothing to become a bishop in the Catholic
Not only a bishop at 32, but a cardinal
at 52 and now, at 72, one of the front-runners for the pontificate. Arinze
rose meteorically to the Vatican's inner circles - a course that has
paralleled Roman Catholicism's remarkable evolution in Nigeria.
He became a Christian in a colonial
nation where the church was largely run by Irish missionaries. The
foreigners moved aside, and the Nigerian indigenous church matured into
one of the most dynamic in the world, claiming 19 million members, a
nearly fivefold increase since 1970.
Catholicism is growing faster in Africa
than on any other continent; its 140 million Catholics account for 12
percent of the church's worldwide membership, up from 4 percent in 1950.
Africa represents one of the great
sources of potential converts: people unaffiliated with organized faiths,
yet very spiritual. Catholicism is all the more attractive because the
church offers the services - schools and health care - that they value.
With much of Catholicism's growth in the
21st century expected to come from the developing world, pressure is
increasing to anoint a pope from outside Europe. If Arinze succeeds John
Paul II, he would become the first African in 1,500 years to sit on the
throne of St. Peter.
At a time when some Catholics also are
calling for the church to meet the challenge posed by Islam, Arinze comes
with impressive credentials.
In 1984, two years after John Paul II's
first visit to Nigeria, the Pope summoned Arinze to Rome to head what now
is the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the body
responsible for the church's relations with faiths other than Christianity
and Judaism. He held the post for 17 years.
Even before then, as a church leader in
Nigeria - where the Muslim and Christian populations are nearly equal - he
was experienced in dealing with clashes, and cooperation, among rival
Mentioned as a potential candidate since
the early 1990s, Arinze has declined to discuss the papacy in the few
interviews he has granted. He has instructed his family not to talk about
Though many Nigerians are hopeful that
he will be selected, some are skeptical that the world is ready to accept
a black African as pope.
"For me, I will be surprised if
that happens," said Chief Michael Okonkwo Etusi, the traditional
chief of Eziowelle, a collection of villages in this flat tropical land
about 300 miles east of Lagos. "It would be regarded here as an act
of God. The odds against it are just too large."
Arinze, the third of seven children,
showed promise at an early age. Baptized by a priest who was later
beatified, he excelled at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu and was sent
to Rome to complete his training. Within two years of becoming a bishop,
he was an archbishop.
After Irish missionaries were expelled
from eastern Nigeria in 1970 for helping Biafran separatists in the civil
war, Arinze was one of the chief architects of a plan to aggressively
incorporate African culture and languages into the church. Catholicism's
popularity increased enormously, especially in eastern Nigeria, dominated
by the Ibo people and sometimes called the Ireland of Nigeria.
So many young Nigerians now desire to
become priests and nuns that the nation's seminaries and convents turn
away thousands - one seminary last year received 3,000 applications for 20
positions. Once dependent upon foreign missionaries, Nigeria now exports
priests to other countries in Africa and Europe, and the United States.
"The boom in vocations in this part
of Nigeria is not unconnected to the life, teachings and missionary work
of Cardinal Francis Arinze," said Valerian M. Okeke, archbishop of
Onitsha, once Arinze's title.
While he was adventurous about
incorporating African traditions into the liturgy - Nigerian Masses can be
raucous celebrations punctuated by drums, dancing and interplay between
clergy and congregation - Arinze is nothing but orthodox in following
There is little discussion in Nigeria
about allowing priests to marry or relaxing restrictions on women and
"The Nigerian church is
conservative," said Father John Okoye, rector of Bigard seminary,
which now boasts more than 1,000 students at three campuses. "You
can't throw out what you have, when that new thing has not been
Arinze, who travels frequently to the
United States, gave Americans a sample of his conservatism in a 2003
graduation speech at Georgetown University that prompted protests from
some academics. In some parts of the world, he said, the family "is
opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion,
infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography,
desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged
by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce."
Though Arinze has worked for the Roman
Curia for more than 20 years, he remains close to his roots. At least once
a year he journeys home, visiting family and delivering lectures.
Disciplined, pious and outgoing - and a
thrice-a-week tennis player - Arinze has a reputation for brevity and
"The cardinal is known for his
brief, down-to-earth homilies, not even 10 minutes," said Ndulue, who
also was once his altar boy. "Even as a parish priest his homilies
were very short. His selective use of English language makes his ideas
As a young bishop, Arinze ordered
priests to lead modest lives and drive humble cars.
"He was very disciplined in
spending and did not want priests to become extravagant," said Ndulue.
"He said all of us must be ready for anticlericalism; it is coming.
It has happened in Europe and it can come here. So he was really alarmed
and was sounding a warning. Be very, very careful. Because if this tide
comes, it won't spare you."
He also instructed his priests to resist
family pressure to put their relatives on the payroll. He forbade his
elder brother, Christopher, from using their relationship to get a job
teaching at the Catholic school.
"He told me not to tell any priests
I was his brother," said Christopher, 79, whose living room is lined
with photographs of Arinze at various stages in his priestly life.
In 2002, the Pope named Arinze prefect
of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, which governs the rites, ceremonies and prayers of the church.
His Nigerian friends say Arinze is
well-suited to the position because he was known for his vigilance
protecting the traditions of the Roman liturgy.
"He lived an exemplary life as a
priest," said Okeke, the Onitsha archbishop. "Because of that,
many young people were able to evaluate properly and see the priesthood as
something worth doing because it calls for heroic living, heroic