Arinze, the Cardinal

Arinze, the Scholar

Arinze, the Lecturer

Arinze in his cardinal’s regalia

Arinze’s birthplace



By Yussuf J. Simmonds




“Born in Nigeria and was in line to be the Pope”


Born in Nigeria in the humblest of beginnings, Francis Arinze rose to the highest heights in one of the dominant religions of the world.  His life began in Eziowelle, in Anambra State in Africa’s most populous country in a mud-brick bungalow, a long, long way from the marble halls of the Vatican in Rome, Italy, but Arinze traveled that long and often difficult road and in 2005, he was considered “papabili,” having strong qualities as the successor to Pope John Paul II.


The third of seven children born to Joseph and Bernadette on November 1, 1932 and though his parents first worshipped in the traditional Ibo religion, they sent young Francis to a missionary school where he was baptized a Catholic at the age of nine. That experience set him on the path to priesthood and eventually his parents became Catholics. When he began his secondary studies, his father was initially opposed to him entering the seminary, but after seeing how much young Francis enjoyed it, he encouraged him. At 15, Arinze went to All-Hallowa Seminary of Ognissanti in Nuewi, where he earned a degree in philosophy in 1950 and then taught there for the next three years. He continued his studies in philosophy at Bigard Memorial Seminary at Enugu.


In 1955, Arinze went to Rome to study theology at the Pontifical Urban University and in November 1958, at the chapel of the university, he was ordained a priest by GrŽgoire-Pierre Agagianian, pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and future cardinal. After ordination, Father Arinze remained in Rome where he earned a Master’s degree in Theology in 1959. The following year, he earned his Ph.D in Sacred Theology, summa cum laude; his doctoral thesis on “Ibo Sacrifice as an Introduction to the Catechesis of Holy Mass” was the basis for his much used reference work, “Sacrifice in Ibo Religion”, published in 1970.


From 1961 to 1962, Arinze was professor of liturgy, logic, and basic philosophy at his alma mater, Bigard Memorial Seminary. From there, he was appointed regional secretary for Catholic education for the eastern part of Nigeria. Eventually, Arinze was transferred to London, where he attended the Institute of Education (Pedagogy) and graduated in 1964. His rise in the hierarchy of the church was phenomenal: in 1965, he became the youngest Roman Catholic bishop in the world and two years later, he was appointed titular bishop of Fissiana (a new title) and coadjutor to the Archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria. As bishop, he attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council where he met the future Pope John Paul II. That relationship would eventually play an important part in Arinze’s continued rise in the church’s hierarchy. (The council was an important meeting of the church’s hierarchy, laymen and entire body structure where matters of its doctrine, policies, constitution were discussed over a period of time in relation to the world, renewal, liturgy, other religions, etc. It was chaired by the current Pope (John XXXIII) and continued into the reign of his successor).


After the death of the Archbishop of Onitsha, Bishop Arinze was appointed to that position in June 1967, making him the first African-born archbishop of the diocese. Just as he was settling into his new post, the Nigeria/Biafra War broke out; his entire archdiocese was located in the secessionist Biafran territory, and he had to flee from Onitsha, and live as a refugee for the duration of the conflict. Like most of Africa, Nigeria’s condition was a product of British colonialism and the conflict was the direct result of the economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions that created and exacerbated by that foreign occupation. Arinze was caught in the middle of the conflict not only as a religious leader but also as a fellow Nigerian. And as a Nigerian for three years, he lived like a refugee first in Adazi and then Amichi. Throughout the brutal civil war, Arinze stayed with his (Ibo) people and shouldered the responsibility of being the good shepherd.


Despite his status, Azinze’s responsibilities as a pastor/shepherd/archbishop compelled him to work ceaselessly for his displaced countrymen–the sick, the hungry and the out-of-doors. As archbishop of the region, he was able to call on the church (priests and the faithful) to give and secure support for and from others. Foreign missionaries also played an important role; one international worker described Arinze’s relief efforts as “the most effective and efficient distribution of relief materials in history.” His work was an extension of his doctoral thesis that he had written years before on sacrifice in the Ibo religion. And because of church policy, the Archbishop had to walk a fine line to keep his work separate from the war and politics that were ravaging his country. He survived until the war ended in 1970 but the cost in human lives and suffering was tremendous.


Homes, lives and businesses had been devastated and though the war had ended, the real work of rebuilding the nation and repairing broken lives had only just begun. The prevailing government set about deporting all foreigners–relief workers, missionaries and helpers–leaving only native-born Nigerians to help the rebuilding efforts. (Having just recently won its independence from Britain, Nigeria was justifiably undergoing a xenophobic era). Though he had the option of leaving the country, Arinze chose to stay and help his country. The government also confiscated the Catholic schools; many of them had also served as churches and/or community halls.


He remained the leader of the archdiocese and his ability to accomplish a lot with meager resources gained him many well-placed admirers. Arinze enjoyed a harmonious relationship with Muslims which made up an equal percentage of the nation’s population as the Catholics–though they occupied different regions. And as Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria’s significance, in terms of proselytizing, could not have been ignored by the Vatican. With that as a sign of reality, in 1979, he was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, a position he maintained until 1984 when John Paul summoned him to work in the Curia–the church’s government–and appointed him to head the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. While he was president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, he was also vice president for Africa of the United Bible Society and continued his work as Archbishop of Onitsha. In 1985 at 53, Arinze was elevated to Cardinal by John Paul II, one of the youngest members of the College of Cardinals.


His service on the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue placed the young Cardinal into a position of increased visibility to the world public and it was considered to have made Cardinal Francis Arinze’s career. Apparently he was installed as cardinal just before taking the post to serve in various sensitive capacities including the President of the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. Accordingly, leadership of the Council was seen by some as a career-maker in the global Church.


His official title was Cardinal-Deacon of San Giovanni della Pigna and he was elevated to Cardinal-Priest of San Giovanni in 1996. Attached to that office for 20 years, he developed an already-budding reputation as a seasoned diplomat and an expert on inter-faith relations in the office of the Vatican’s Secretariat of Non-Christians. Arinze was considered philosophically conservative and deftly skilled in relations with other faiths, especially Islam–which may have been a carryover from his native country which has a large concentration of Muslims. His actions demonstrated a progressive tendency to blend African culture with Catholic traditions.


Since he became Cardinal Arinze, he has traveled and lectured throughout the world, and has authored many religious publications. In order to understand him as a religious intellectual, it is necessary to quote some of his remarks and state some of his positions. As one of the chief advisors of the late Pope John Paul II, he was charged with disseminating the pontiff’s words to the “faithful” and the “faithless,” worldwide. His duties included active catechized via Familyland TV to the Americas, the Philippines, Africa, and Europe. In addition, Arinze produced over 1,700 television programs with the Apostolate for Family Consecration. Those programs covered almost all of the Pope’s encyclicals and apostolic letters, Vatican II, and many other topics. A prolific author and a voracious reader, he has written several books along with a complete “Consecration and Truth Catechetical Program” for children and adults.


Within the church, his status rose, and throughout the Vatican and the College of Cardinals, he was known by its members–almost two hundred. In 1999, Arinze received a gold medallion from the International Council of Christians and Jews for his work in interfaith relations. As a member of the Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he worked closely with individual bishops and priests throughout the world and for those efforts, in October 2002, Cardinal Arinze was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This post was the fourth highest position in the Roman Catholic Church and it signaled the Pope’s approval with his work.


When Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Arinze was on the short list of cardinals to succeed him. He was one of the electors who elected the current Pope, Benedict XVI in 2005. Vatican tradition dictated that the incoming Pope appointed all major officials in the curia–much like the President of the United States appoints his cabinet. Arinze was reappointed to his post as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He was subsequently elevated to Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni, which had been vacated by the ascension of the new pope.


rinze resigned as prefect in December 2008 but is still eligible to vote in future conclaves until he is 80 years, November 2012.




On the family:

“In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It 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.”


On liberals:

“If a child refuses to accept its father or mother, that child is not a liberal, that child is a brat. And how much more important is God to us than a parent to a child?”


On music in the church:

“I will not now pronounce and say never guitar; that would be rather severe. But much of guitar music may not be suitable at all for the Mass. Yet, it is possible to think of some guitar music that would be suitable, not as the ordinary one we get every time, [but with] the visit of a special group, etc.”


On Vatican II:

“Vatican II brought many good things but everything has not been positive and the synod recognized that there have been shadows.”

On communion and abortion among American Catholic politicians:

“You don’t need a Cardinal to answer that question. You can ask a seven year old getting ready for first communion and they will say no. Personally opposed! Ok, you tell them, I am personally opposed but if someone wants to come in here and shoot you all, well… It’s pro choice.”


On altar girls:

“Some bishops have asked about this and there is nothing against it and so we said, ‘It’s alright.’ … But if I had my way you know what I would do.”


On abuses in the church:

“Many of the same abuses we see so openly today were going on back then sixty years ago but the people had no idea the priest was doing something wrong because everything he said was in Latin”


His publications include:


 The Family Catechism on Tape, Apostolate for Family Consecration

 Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (2006)

 Divine Providence: God’s Design in Your Life (2005)

 Cardinal Reflections: Active Participation and the Liturgy (2005)

 Building Bridges: Interreligious Dialogue on the Path to World Peace (2004)

 The Holy Eucharist: Our Sunday Visitor (2001)

 Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue (1998)

 The Church in Dialogue: Walking With Other Believers (1990)