Arinze, Francis Cardinal 1932–
Francis Cardinal Arinze 1932–
Roman Catholic cardinal
Francis Cardinal Arinze is part of an inner realm of leading authority figures inside the Roman Catholic Church. His prominence in Vatican administrative circles reflects the Church’s newfound focus on the numerical strength of a large number of relatively recent converts in developing regions of the world. Arinze, the Archbishop of Nigeria, rose to prominence in the 1970s in Africa and was called to serve within the offices of the Vatican in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. He is widely rumored to be one of the most promising cardinals in line to succeed the pope.
Arinze was born in 1932 in Eziowelle, in the Onitsha state of Nigeria. His family of seven, headed by parents Joseph Nwankwu and Bernadette M. Arinze, followed the traditional religious practices of the Onitsha region, but Arinze was baptized into the Roman Catholic religion at the age of 9. “I was very impressed by that parish priest who baptized me, and after watching him for a long time, I felt the desire of becoming myself a priest,” Arinze told Our Sunday Visitor in a 1996 interview. He entered the seminary at the age of 13, and took his priest’s vows in 1958. Seven years later, in 1965, he was consecrated a bishop in the Titular Church of Fissiana, and two years later was named archbishop of Onitsha. At the age of only 34, he became the youngest metropolitan archbishop in the world.
While still working in Africa Arinze served as president of the Nigerian Council of Bishops. After the end of the three-year civil war in Nigeria in 1970, Arinze became one of the key players in a serious effort to bring Roman Catholicism to more Nigerians. His efforts were very successful. Only a few years later, the number of Catholics in the Onitsha area had risen over 65 percent, in comparison to 11 percent in the rest of Nigeria. His efforts were noticed by Pope John Paul II, and Arinze was called to the Vatican—the small state inside the city of Rome that serves as world headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church—in 1984. A year later he was elevated to cardinal and became part of the College of Cardinals, which traditionally elects the popes.
“Nowhere in the world is Catholicism flourishing as it is in Africa,” wrote Paul Wilkes in the New York Times Magazine, who interviewed Arinze and several other
At a Glance…
Born November 1, 1932, in Eziowelle, Onitsha, Nigeria; son of Joseph Nwankwu and Bernadette M. Arinze. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Ordained Roman Catholic priest, 1958; consecrated Bishop in the Titular Church of Fissiana, 1965; made archbishop of Onitsha, 1967; Nigerian Council of Bishops, president; called to Vatican, April, 1984; elevated to Cardinal, 1985; Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, The Vatican, president.
leading cardinals in 1994. Arinze told him that a large part of traditional “African belief is animism, and animism is very, very close to Catholicism, so there is a natural attraction, an affinity. In animism, there is one God, spirits good and evil, worship of ancestors, rituals.” Like many of the other cardinals appointed during John Paul II’s tenure, his views are in line with his superior’s conservative views. For instance, Arinze has spoken publicly on the subject of clerical celibacy, although some Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry and have children.
At the Vatican, Arinze was named by Pope John Paul II to head the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. In this capacity, Arinze served as spokesperson for the world’s 968 million Catholics on issues concerning cooperation and relations—especially of a political nature—with those of other faiths. This is an especially crucial concern in the Middle East, where wars of religion continue in the modern era. It is also a pressing concern in Africa, where Islam is attracting a growing number of converts. Arinze heads a Joint Liaison Committee with his Muslim counterparts, and has made numerous statements regarding the need for increased concord and tolerance between the Muslim and Christian world. Christians in some Muslim-dominated countries, for example, are forbidden to gather in public for worship.
With the declining health of Pope John Paul II, Arinze is widely rumored by Vatican insiders to be one of the most likely candidates among the 166 cardinals to succeed as pontiff. Should that occur, he would become the first African pope in the Roman Catholic Church’s history. For the past five hundred years popes have usually been Italian, but the election of Karol Wojtyla, a Pole who was formerly Archbishop of Krakow, as Pope John Paul II in 1978 marked the beginning of a new, groundbreaking era for the church. When Wojtyla was elected, authorities feared massive unrest in then-Communist Poland. John Paul II’s leadership of the Church, and his outspoken political views, had numerous ramifications in the Eastern European politics, and he has been credited with lighting the fire that became the Solidarity labor movement. That, in turn, sparked other important political events that helped lead to the end of Soviet-style Communism in that region of the world.
Arinze knew Pope John Paul II when he was still Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow. Arinze was in Ireland on a lecture tour when he heard the news of the College of Cardinals’ selection in 1978. “We are going to have order in the Church,” Arinze reportedly told listeners that day in Belfast, according to Jonathan Kwitny’s Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. Kwitny termed it an “accurate insight. Of course, Arinze had no idea that he would soon be whisked from Nigeria to Rome to help create that order, or that the African Church was about to be rendered independent, a marked change from its status as a colony to European missionary societies.”
The election of Arinze to succeed Pope John Paul II “would capture the world’s imagination,” speculated Peter Hebblethwaite in the National Catholic Reporter. “If the future of the world depends on cooperation between the world’s largest religious groups, Christians and Muslims,” wrote Hebblethwaite, “then Arinze would be the man for the post-communist world just as John Paul was the right man to bring the communist world down.” Arinze frequently appears on Catholic television programs in North America, such as the Eternal World Television Network. “To be Catholic by definition is universal—a religious family for all nations,” he said in a speech in Sydney, Australia reported in the Sydney Morning-Herald “If everybody followed what the Catholic Church preached we would have a paradise on Earth.”
Partnership in Education, 1965.
Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, 1970.
Answering God’s Call, 1983.
Alone with God, 1986.
Church in Dialogue, 1990.
Kwitny, Jonathan, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, Henry Holt, 1997.
Christian Century, July 13-20, 1994.
National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1992, pp. 5-7; June 18, 1993.
New York Times, February 28, 1998.
New York Times Book Review, October 19, 1997.
New York Times Magazine, December 11, 1994.
Our Sunday Visitor, August 4, 1996.
Sydney Morning-Herald, July 26, 1997.
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