Arinze, Francis

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Francis Arinze

The highest-ranking African in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, Nigerian-born Cardinal Francis Arinze (born 1932) has inspired speculation that he might one day become the first non-European pope in modern times.

Arinze is known as a conservative on many issues. His positions on matters of Catholic doctrine have been marked by an uncompromising defense of tradition, especially in connection with the hot-button social issues of homosexuality, priestly celibacy, and abortion. Yet he saw enough of war to emerge as a committed pacifist, and, coming from a country split down the middle between Christianity and Islam, he became an important advocate for interfaith dialogue and for the idea that communication and cooperation among representatives of different faiths might help to defuse religious extremism. Many of Arinze's ideas closely resembled those of the pope who brought him to Rome and nurtured his career: John Paul II.

Raised in Traditional Belief System

In addition to his status as an unusually high-ranking African, Arinze was also notable as a convert to Catholicism who ascended to the church's inner circle. Born in Eziowelle in southeast Nigeria's Onitsha state, Arinze was the son of a farmer, Joseph Nwankwu, and his wife Bernadette Ekwoanya. A member of the Ibo ethnic group, he was raised in the traditional Ibo belief system with its pantheon of gods who take a direct interest in human affairs. Arinze never cut his ties with the culture of his homeland; African masks hung on the walls of his Vatican apartment, and he embraced the characteristically African forms of worship that made their way into services as Catholicism expanded across the continent.

It was a school run by Irish missionaries in his home village that set Arinze on the road to conversion. "The school served in many ways," Arinze told an interviewer quoted in the Irish Times. "It made the children literate, and literacy opened many doors—political, cultural, economic, and religious." Arinze was baptized when he was nine, and he decided that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the local parish priest. His father objected, telling him (according to Arinze's recollections quoted in the Irish Times), "You will not become a priest because if you become a priest, you are not going to marry—number one, and you won't have children. And number two, you'll be hearing all the bad things people do in your two ears, and that's not good."

Nevertheless, Arinze succeeded in winning his father's support and that of others in his village—something that was necessary, he later pointed out, if he was going to proceed. He attended Catholic schools in Nigeria and entered the Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu when he was 13. He received a degree there in 1955, was ordained as a priest three years later after sailing from Nigeria to Liverpool, England, crossing the English channel, taking a train to Rome, and catching a bus to Vatican City as he dragged his luggage along. He went on for postgraduate studies at Urbania University in Rome, writing an anthropologically oriented Ph.D. dissertation on the role of sacrifice in Ibo religion.

Arinze taught logic at the Bigard Seminary for a year and then returned to England, earning a teaching degree in 1964 at the London Institute of Education. With his well-rounded education, wide experience of the Catholic world, and linguistic expertise—he speaks English, Italian, French, German, and Ibo fluently and understands Spanish and Latin—he was named a bishop in 1965 and became archbishop of Onitsha in 1967 at age 34. He was the youngest bishop, and then the youngest metropolitan archbishop, in the entire world. He also attended the Vatican II conference on Catholic reform in Rome.

Lived Through Civil War

The next several years shaped a fundamental part of Arinze's outlook. As a destructive civil war, with both religious and ethnic components, tore Nigeria apart between 1967 and 1970, he emerged as a leading figure in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts. Moving from place to place, he was often forced to take shelter when bombs began to fall in the area. "He concluded that war makes problems more acute, it doesn't solve them," Vaticanwatcher Gerard O'Connell told the Irish Times.

After the war, Arinze became known as a young church leader to watch. His rapid rise was partly due to his success in bringing new converts to Catholicism in a country with strong Islamic and local religious traditions. Nigerians flocked to his services, and the percentage of Christians in the Onitsha archdiocese grew from roughly 20 percent to 65 percent over the nearly two decades of Arinze's leadership. In the 1970s, Arinze also made friends with another rising Catholic leader: Karol Wojtyla, later known as Pope John Paul II. In 1979 he was chosen as president of the Nigerian Council of Bishops.

Despite his rising influence, Arinze had a humble image and enforced discipline among the priests under his responsibility, forbidding them specifically from driving fancy cars. When John Paul II visited Nigeria early in his papacy, he was impressed by the growth of the church under Arinze's leadership. Conscious of the dearth of Catholics in leadership positions with origins among the fast-growing Third World legions of church members, the pope invited Arinze to come to the Vatican as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue—the chief Catholic office responsible for relations with other faiths—in 1984. The following year, John Paul II elevated Arinze to the rank of Cardinal.

Part of Arinze's outreach to the faithful over the years was a prolific body of writing. Ibadan University Press published his dissertation on Ibo religion in Nigeria in 1970, but many of his books were simple tracts aimed at ordinary Catholics. Some of them were published by Optimal Computer Solutions in Nsukka, Nigeria. Arinze's books include The Christian and Politics (1982), Answering God's Call (1983), Africans and Christianity (1990), Work and Pray for Perfection (1990), and Christian-Muslim Relations in the Twenty-First Century (1998), published by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

Organized Interfaith Prayer for Peace

The last-named title grew out of Arinze's responsibilities as the Vatican's liaison to representatives of other faiths. In 1986 he was given the job of organizing a meeting in Assisi, Italy, of 150 leaders from 15 major faiths. The goal of the meeting was to pray for world peace. Arinze took criticism among some Catholics who felt that the group prayer had elevated prayers of other religions to a level equal to those of Catholicism. Arinze wrote letters to Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders on the occasion of major religious holidays. While Arinze, according to The Christian Century, rejected what he called the "relativistic" idea that "all religions are equal," he believed that Catholics should not impose their faith on others.

Arinze sought common ground with Muslim groups by promoting jointly run social projects. He argued that Christians could learn from members of other faiths. "God can speak to us through other believers," he told Erminia Santangelo in an Our Sunday Visitor interview. "From sincere Muslims, Christians can learn, for example, the courage of sincere prayer. They pray five times a day, and no matter where they are—be it the railway station or the airport—they will do it. Whereas many Christians are ashamed of making the Sign of the Cross in a restaurant or pulling out a rosary on a train."

Well-liked not only by John Paul II but also by his chief doctrinal enforcer Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who eventually succeeded John Paul II as pope, Arinze was first designated as papabile, Italian for "suitable for consideration as pope," in 1992. As John Paul's health began to decline after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in the 1990s, speculation began to swirl around Arinze increasingly often. He would not be the first African pope in the history of Catholicism—St. Gelasius I, who reigned from 492 to 496, was a black African, and other early popes, whose personal histories are sketchy, may also have come from Africa—but he would be the first African pope in modern times and only the second from outside Italy (John Paul II being the first).

Arinze discouraged such speculation and at times became mildly annoyed by it, rhetorically asking William R. Macklin of the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, "Why do people appoint themselves the doctor of the pope?" John Paul II lived and remained globally active for more than a decade after Arinze was first mentioned as his potential successor, but Arinze's profile had been permanently raised. He began to speak out around the world on issues not directly connected with his Vatican post, and on these issues, Catholic conservatives liked what they heard.

Backed John Paul II's Positions

On controversial social issues, Arinze steadfastly backed the conservative positions of his mentor, John Paul II. At times, he was even more outspoken than John Paul as he spoke out against what he called (in a Georgetown University speech quoted in the National Catholic Reporter) "an anti-life mentality as seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia." The family, Arinze contended, was "under siege…. 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." Liberal Catholics at Georgetown walked out on the speech, but other Catholics found Arinze an inspiration. African-American Catholic Joseph Butler, after hearing Arinze speak in New York, told Cloe Cabrera of the Tampa Tribune that "He said everything I longed to hear. I felt rejuvenated. I felt a sense of belonging. It was exciting."

In 2004, Arinze inserted himself into the contentious U.S. presidential campaign of that year, telling a Vatican audience (according to the Boston Herald) that "unambiguously pro-abortion" Catholic politicians were "not fit" to receive communion. The comments were widely seen as a slap at pro-choice Democratic candidate John Kerry, although Arinze's statement did not compel any church official to take an particular action, and Arinze himself said that it was the province of American bishops to determine the issue. He likewise said that wearers of the Rainbow Sash, a mark of support for homosexual rights, should not receive communion. Although Arinze was a hard-liner in many respects, his personal charisma won him friends across ideological divides. "He is a popular fellow," an unidentified female diplomat told Roy Carroll of the London Guardian newspaper. "He makes you laugh, he doesn't stand on ceremony, he answers his own phone, and he's comfortable with women."

Arinze's task of promoting dialogue between Christianity and Islam took on new urgency in the early 2000s, especially after the terrorist attacks upon the United States of September 11, 2001. He continued to speak out on interfaith issues, but John Paul II, who in his last years elevated many of his closest associates to new positions, named Arinze as the Vatican's head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in 2002. A fresh round of Arinze speculation arose after John Paul II's death on April 2, 2005. As it turned out, the College of Cardinals selected Germany's Joseph Ratzinger, who had made comments favorable to Arinze's own prospects, as the new pope. The African cardinal, many of whose books had been republished in new editions, still ranked as one of the 20th century's most important religious figures, and as a possible future pope.


Arinze, Francis, Religions for Peace: A Call for Solidarity to the Religions of the World, Doubleday, 2002.


Boston Herald, April 24, 2004.

Christian Century, December 12, 2001.

Guardian (London, England), October 3, 2003.

Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), March 19, 2004.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 17, 1994; August 11, 1999.

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 2003.

Newsweek, April 16, 2001.

Tampa Tribune, April 19, 2005.

Winston-Salem Journal (North Carolina), April 17, 2005.


"In Dialogue with a World of Believers," Our Sunday Visitor, (December 6, 2005).

"Nigerian Could Be Choice for Continuing JPII's Papacy Style," Catholic News Service, (December 6, 2005).