Nigerian could be choice for continuing JPII’s papacy style

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Often included on popular short lists of potential papal candidates, Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze could be a natural choice for a conclave seeking to continue Pope John Paul II's style of papacy.

Francis Arinze of Nigeria leaves St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo from Reuters)

Like Pope John Paul, the 72-year-old cardinal is often described as theologically conservative, yet strongly marked by the Second Vatican Council's positive vision of engaging the world.

Since October 2002 he has headed the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which in 2004 issued an important document that took aim at a wide range of liturgical abuses.

"He'd be like the pope" were he elected, said a former official at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which the cardinal headed from 1985-2002, because "even if you disagreed with him, you would know you were working with a clearly committed Christian."

A charismatic, humorous and down-to-earth speaker, the cardinal vigorously encourages contact and cooperation among different religious believers because he says all people are sons and daughters of one God, and because it is the "best hope" for promoting justice and peace in an increasingly globalized world.

Catholics who oppose dialogue or think it unnecessary, he said during a 1999 Vatican press conference, "are to be helped to come out of their entrenched position."

At the same time, however, Cardinal Arinze has emphasized that the church's primary mission is evangelization and that dialogue should not obscure proclaiming Christ as universal and sole savior.

While most of the cardinal's Vatican career was dedicated to dialogue with followers of other religions, he always insisted that the dialogue was meaningless unless Catholics were firmly Catholic.

In his promotion to the congregation for worship and sacraments, Cardinal Arinze moved to what he described as the heart of the church -- concern for the way in which Catholics celebrate the Mass and the sacraments.

In "God's Invisible Hand," a 2003 book-length interview, Cardinal Arinze said his new job involved plenty of dialogue as the Vatican sought to balance the need to allow local cultural gifts to be expressed in the liturgy and to ensure that the rites were fully Catholic and dignified.

In April 2004 he released "Redemptionis Sacramentum" ("The Sacrament of Redemption"), an instruction emphasizing the obligation to follow the church's liturgical norms, including the requirement that Catholics in a serious state of sin must go to confession before receiving the Eucharist.

At a press conference marking the release of the document, the cardinal refused to answer a question about whether Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, at that time the presumed Democratic nominee for U.S. president and a supporter of legalized abortion, should be denied Communion unless he went to confession and repented for his position.

"The norm of the church is clear," he said. "The church exists in the United States. There are bishops there, let them interpret it."

However, when asked more generally if a priest should refuse Communion to a politician who supports abortion, Cardinal Arinze said, "Yes."

"If the person should not receive Communion, then he should not be given it," the cardinal said.

Cardinal Arinze also weighed in on the controversy of whether or not priests and bishops should give Communion to members of Rainbow Sash, which describes itself as an organization of gay and lesbian Catholics and their families and friends.

The group has criticized church statements on homosexuality, and members sometimes attend Mass and receive Communion wearing the sash.

In a February 2005 statement, the cardinal said, "Rainbow Sash wearers are showing their opposition to church teaching on a major issue of natural law and so disqualify themselves from being given holy Communion."

Although he has said his obligations to attend papal liturgies and to travel around the world made it impossible for him to have the kind of direct pastoral experiences he would have liked in Rome, Cardinal Arinze made it a point to celebrate Mass annually at Rome's Regina Coeli prison.

In "God's Invisible Hand," he insisted he was not unusual and that many Vatican officials had regular pastoral commitments.

Unfortunately, he said, most people think priests and bishops working at the Vatican "are just ecclesiastical bureaucrats."

In his long tenure at the helm of interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Arinze made clear that respect for believers of other faiths should not lead Catholics to downplay their own beliefs.

"Catholics are too shy to show their religion is important," he told a gathering of U.S. black Catholics in 1997. "Too shy to make the sign of the cross in a restaurant. Too shy to pull out their rosary on a bus or to speak to other persons about Jesus Christ."

If Catholics today won souls at the rate that the early Christians did, he said, the pope would soon have to close the interreligious council "because there would be nobody left to talk to."

Cardinal Arinze warned of a "great risk" when Catholics engage in interreligious dialogue without being firmly grounded in their own faith. He has urged believers to choose saints as models suited to their particular walk of life.

The cardinal's own conversion to Catholicism came through his contact with a saintly Nigerian priest.

At the age of 9, Cardinal Arinze was baptized by Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, whom Pope John Paul beatified during a 1998 visit to Nigeria.

The cardinal said Blessed Tansi was the first priest he ever knew and "I wanted to be like him."

Cardinal Arinze was born Nov. 1, 1932, in Eziowelle, a town in the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria. He entered the minor seminary in Nuewi at the age of 15.

After philosophy studies at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, he began studying theology at Rome's Urbanian University in 1955. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1960 on sacrifice in the traditional religion of Nigeria's Ibo people and how their notion of sacrifice could be used by Catholics when explaining the sacrifice of the Mass.

He was ordained a priest in 1958 in Rome, and in the 1961-62 school year taught liturgy and philosophy at Enugu's major seminary. In 1964 he earned a diploma from the University of London's Institute of Pedagogy.

In July 1965 he was named coadjutor archbishop of the Onitsha Archdiocese and became its archbishop two years later.

Cardinal Arinze attended the Second Vatican Council's historic last session, which saw approval of the declarations on interreligious relations and religious freedom and the document charting the church's course in the modern world.

Over the next two decades when he headed the Onitsha Archdiocese, the number of Catholics in his care nearly doubled, growing from roughly 20 percent to 65 percent of Onitsha's population.

During and after Nigeria's 1967-70 civil war -- a conflict that exacerbated interethnic and Muslim-Christian tensions -- Cardinal Arinze was at the forefront of humanitarian and reconciliation efforts.

He was elected president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria in 1979, a post he held until named to head the Vatican's interreligious council.

He was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul May 25, 1985, and served as a delegate president during the 1994 Synod of Bishops for Africa. With the pope in the hospital recovering from a broken thigh bone, Cardinal Arinze presided at the synod's closing Mass, a liturgy enlivened by African drums and swaying dance.

As a convert from a traditional African religion, the cardinal firmly advocates inculturation as a means of making Christianity less foreign to non-Westerners.

But in many disciplinary areas, the cardinal is markedly more traditional.

During a speech to university students in 1999, he said modern youth, though "spiritually hungry," were turned off by liturgical celebrations "that are not according to the books of Rome" and by religious orders that abandon traditional garb and push for a rethinking of celibacy requirements.

These religious "tell us it is Vatican II, but it is not Vatican II, or Vatican III or Vatican VII," he said.

In 1986, the cardinal was called upon to organize an unprecedented gathering of 150 leaders from 15 major world religions to pray for peace in Assisi, Italy. Ever since, participants at Vatican interreligious meetings have invoked the "spirit of Assisi" as a concrete sign that differences can be overcome.

When organizing a 1999 meeting, however, the cardinal said he was "attentive to avoid even the appearance" of communal prayer, which risked appearing to give equal value to each tradition's prayers. Over the years, some had criticized the Assisi gathering for what they saw as an exercise in religious relativism.

In 1991, in collaboration with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Arinze helped prepare a document exploring the relationship between interreligious dialogue and evangelization.

"The church wants both dialogue and conversions," Cardinal Arinze said, and "the Holy Spirit will guide the local church" as it determines its approach in meeting new people and responding to their needs.

In 1998, he signed an agreement forming a joint committee for dialogue with Muslim leaders at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the main center for Islamic scholarship for the world's 1 billion Sunni Muslims.

In 1995, the cardinal began writing an annual letter of greeting to Hindus and Buddhists on their principal religious feasts, as he already was doing with Muslims.

Officials who have worked under Cardinal Arinze say he is well-organized, works long hours and listens well to his staff.

"He's very conscientious, almost too much so, in the sense that he wants to approve every word that goes out of the office," said one former official.

At the same time, Cardinal Arinze has "got a lot of the African egalitarianism, in the sense that he's not a prince-bishop kind of person," he said.

Cardinal Arinze speaks English, Italian, French, German and his own Ibo language, and he understands Spanish and Latin.


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