Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 17, 2005

'From nothing' to list of candidates for pope
Francis Arinze has risen in the church as his nation has.

EZIOWELLE, 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 the enrollment.

"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 Church."

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 religions.

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 it.

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 Catholic dogma.

There is little discussion in Nigeria about allowing priests to marry or relaxing restrictions on women and gays.

"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 tried."

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 clarity.

"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 very understandable."

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 service." home page   
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