Francis Arinze was born in Eziowelle, Nigeria on All Saints Day in 1932. Nigeria at that time was a colonial British possession where the Faith was first introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Because of the fruits of the European missionaries, young Francis had the benefit of dedicated missionary priests and nuns teaching him and this inspired in him a vocation to the priesthood for he wanted to help his people. He heard the stories of great priests including Blessed Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi whose faith inspired him. Islam was strongly entrenched in the northern regions of his country and he came to know both the Muslim way and the Catholic way, living, playing and working side by side his Islam brothers. Little did he realize this bond would play an integral part in his life in later years.
After minor and major seminary, he was ordained a priest on November 23, 1958. He was assigned professorial duties at Bigard Memorial Seminary and then appointed Regional Secretary for Catholic Education in Eastern Nigeria during which time he saw Nigeria gain independence from Great Britain in 1960. On August 29, 1965 Pope Paul VI elevated him to the episcopal ranks at the age of 33 and he was ordained Titular Bishop of Fissiana and auxiliary bishop of Onitsha in the coastal fertile delta region of Southern Nigeria.
He became Archbishop of Onitsha, the archdiocese of his birth, in 1967 where he served until 1984. It was a trying time for the young archbishop for that same year Biafra seceded and the country was thrown into civil war. The year before there had been a military coup in which the fear of the Ibo regime that had taken over prompted riots and thousands were killed. In a counter coup the leader of the Ibo General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed in a counter coup. This turmoil continued until 1970 when Biafra surrendered and civil war finally ended. Through all this time Archbishop Arinze was the true shepherd, consoling his flock, being there for them in times of crisis and encouraging them to pray and to love their enemy for that was the answer to all hate and despair - the message of the Gospel. The fruits of his administration have been borne out in the ensuing years as the Catholic population has mushroomed as well as vocations.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II could see the potential in this enterprising Nigerian bishop and asked him to become Pro-President of the Holy See's Secretariat for Non-Christians, an office originally instituted by Pope Paul VI on May 19,1964. Arinze was also unanimously chosen President of the Nigerian Bishops' Conference. Here he worked closely with the bishops and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the process of Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi's beatification.
In the Consistory of May 25, 1985 the Holy Father bestowed the red-hat on him, naming him a Cardinal deacon and bestowed on him the titular church of St. John at della Pigna. With this promotion His Holiness also appointed him the President of the Secretariat for Non-Christians. The name of this curial office was changed to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogueon June 28, 1988 through his Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus. He thus became one of the younger cardinals of the Sacred Conclave at only 53. The Holy FAther named Archbishop Albert K. Obiefuna to succeed him in the Archdiocese of Onitsha.
In his capacity as President, Cardinal Arinze has overseen the promotion of studies and dialogue for the purpose of increasing mutual understanding and respect between Christians and non-Christians. This office also incorporates the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims. In these responsibilities Cardinal Arinze has leaned heavily upon his boyhood experiences, realizing these same friends he grew up with are all God's children and have the same fears, desires and goals as anyone else. With that kind of mutuality it has made it more advantageous for him to open dialogue with the believers of Mohammed. Also Cardinal Arinze has worked closely with various Lay movements within the Church, specifically the Focalare Movement and Chiara Lubich who we featured Wednesday in this feature category as the 37th selection of the TOP 100 CATHOLICS OF THE CENTURY. In fact the cardinal celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption this year by inaugurating the Focolare Center for Dialogue in Hyde Park, New York.
Not only is Cardinal Arinze one of the leading prelates of Africa, but quite possibly one of the more influential in the entire College of Cardinals and his name has been bandied about as papal material, especially in light of the tremendous growth of the Church in Africa. Take into consideration that fellow African colleague Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, from the neighboring country of Benin and ten years Cardinal Arinze's elder, is the Dean of the College of Cardinals. If ever there was the possibility of a black Pope, Cardinal Arinze would fit the bill! Add to this his active participation in the Roman curia with membership in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, and the Committee for the Grand Jubilee of the Holy Year 2000 and his nomination, sometime in the future when God deems to call our current great Holy Father home, is very much a possibility. He wouldn't have to move far since he resides in at the Vatican at Largo del Colonnato 3, 00193 Rome, Italy.
This coming weekend he will host at the Vatican and then Assisi, along with the Pope, the vital Inter-religious Assembly bringing together world leaders of various faiths to seek answers to peace and harmony in a world on the brink of a new millennium. In one week Israel will honor Cardinal Arinze on Reformation Day October 31 when the International Council of Christians and Jews will confer on him the prestigious Gold Medal. The award will be presented in the residence of Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See Aharon Lopez. This same prize has been given in the past to King Gustav of Sweden, Queen Sophia of Spain, and King Hassan II of Morocco to name a few. Cardinal Arinze will receive his for his tireless work in support of dialogue among believers of different religions, especially Muslims.
Despite the fact the hierarchy wasn't established until 1950, Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, leads all Catholic nations in Africa with 12,777,000 Catholics and has shown tremendous growth under the leadership of Cardinal Francis Arinze, adding ten new dioceses within the last five years. Even though political upheaval has continued in Nigeria, particularly in the capitol city of Abuja, the Faith has spread. On January 29, 1996 he was named a Cardinal priest and two years later had the distinct honor of accompanying the Holy Father back to his homeland for the Pope's second Papal Visit to Nigeria (the first had been in 1990) on March 21st to the 23rd in 1998 in which he saw the fulfillment of a life-long dream - the beatification of Blessed Father Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi in Cardinal Arinze's beloved city of Onitsha. It was truly a memorable homecoming!
Today many of those "pagan babies" are seminarians, priests, and nuns or parents raising children with possible vocations in Africa, Bangledesh, and other third world countries who are not only ministering to their own people but reversing the trend by praying for the missions of America where greed, pride and rejection of God have made us the outcast, the prodigal son who needs to return to the fold. We can recall the Maryknoll missionaries speaking in our school and Oblate missionaries bringing back slides of the missions. In the seminary this editor's spiritual director Father Francis Zachman, OMI, whenever a fellow Oblate missionary from the Philippines would visit, would dress in his white cassock - symbolic of the missionary uniform there - and enter the class room with the announcement that he had been reassigned to the missions. Of couse he was just kidding but down deep every priest wants to be a missionary. It goes back to Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua and other great saints who wanted to be missionaries, to join the crusades, to convert the Moors, even to die for their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This spirit permeated the Order of Friars Minor and the Dominicans as well as countless other religious congregations and every one of us owe our lives to their efforts because most of us would not be Catholic today without their fiat to God.
And today God is asking our fiat to help the missionaries of our time in time, talent and treasure. It is no coincidence that World Mission Sunday coincides with that period known as Stewardship Sunday for our stewardship as Catholics is to be missionaries where we are planted. God doesn't expect us to travel to Recife, Brazil, or to Cambodia or to Zimbabwe or any other remote outpost to bring the Faith to unbelievers, but He does expect us to continue praying for the Church's missionary efforts, to contribute what we can to the missions even though they no longer promote the "pagan babies" boxes. But that is not all God expects. In following the directives of the Holy Father and the Church, we are to be missionaries where we are planted; not afraid to stand up for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in the face of Catholic-bashing and prejudices that rival any time in history; not afraid to speak out on behalf of the doctrines of the Church to those who express ignorance or an interest in knowing more; not afraid to live our Faith and preach by example when all others subscribe to the "go-with-the-flow-of-the-world" path. That is what God expects of each and every one of us. Not all can be priests reaching out to others and soothing their souls with compassionate counseling in the Sacrament of Penance and bringing them Christ in the Blessed Sacrament; not all can be nuns treating the physical and psychological hurts of the shell-shocked people of East Timor or the flood victims of Mexico, not all can write theological documents that will better explain the Faith to the people in their language; not all can have publications like Maryknoll Magazine, The World Catholic Report, Our Sunday Visitor or the National Catholic Register to mention just a few; not all can have the presence on the web as the numerous excellent Catholic sites such as EWTN, CatholiCity, the DAILY CATHOLIC, Catholic Answers, the Catholic Pages, or Petersnet to mention just a few of the countless sites that have cropped up for one purpose - and one purpose only - to bring the truths of the Roman Catholic Church to others. But every single baptized Catholic can and must live their faith and in so doing, are fulfilling the mission God asks.
That is our mission as we stand on the brink of a new millennium; that is our mission His Holiness John Paul II has reminded us of in so many of his encyclicals, Apostolic Letters, Constitutions, homilies, and talks throughout his twenty-one year pontificate. We could express great despair at the shortage of priests today and the fact our seminaries are not full, many have been closed down. But rather than looking at the glass as half empty, why not look at it as half full. It is our job to fill that glass with more Catholics - more informed Catholics. But to do that we have to be more informed as well so as not to spread false teaching or fall into traps set by knowledgable Protestants and other sects who love to corner weak Catholics. We need to know our catechism, doctrines, dogmas, and Sacred Scripture so we can combat the false syllogisms thrown at us by those who are thoroughly convinced the Catholic Church is wrong. We also need to know Church history so we can refute accusations that, on the surface would look like the Church erred, but in truth, was totally in accord with Christ's charge. If we are ignorant to any of these, we are ripe not only for being pounced on by zealots eager to convert us away from our Faith, but also for entertaining doubts about our Faith because we don't fully understand the great Deposit of Faith.
Just as the missionaries over the centuries have had to withstand hardships, dangers and persecution so also today we have to put on the armor of God to fend off the barbs and attacks of those modern pagans and zealots, not to mention lukewarmness and the half-lies from the "father of lies." Because of satan's strong presence everywhere we need to be prepared. That is why we strive daily here at the DAILY CATHOLIC to bring you the tenets of the Faith in everything we present from the daily feature APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF THE FAITH to Pat Ludwa's excellent columns VIEW FROM THE PEW twice a week which refute the lies against Holy Mother Church and prove the truths of the Church through Sacred Scripture and Church documents, not to mention common sense. The same for Sister Mary Lucy Astuto's column each Friday and our eye-opening, down-to-earth editorials twice a week in addition to the words of the Pope each Monday and our two series on the Church over the centuries THE HISTORY OF THE MASS AND HOLY MOTHER CHURCH and the abridged version titled 2000 YEAR VOYAGE ON THE BARQUE OF PETER plus our feature on the Church today in WHERE IS HOLY MOTHER CHURCH HEADING AS WE NEAR THE MILLENNIUM? We would encourage all to tell your friends about the DAILY CATHOLIC so they too can learn, but we encourage all to check out the other Catholic web sites as well for we are all working together. Just as the Franciscans encourage the work of the Dominicans, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate pray for the work of the Maryknoll Fathers, so also we pray for the success of all sites and endeavors that promote the one true Faith. We are all in this together. There should be no competition since we're all working toward the same goal and have only souls in mind.
No matter where you are today, embrace the Faith with your whole heart and soul and seek to know more, for the more you learn, the more you will be drawn to the two pillars of the Holy Eucharist and devotion to the Immaculate Heart. There in the harbor of the Two Hearts you will find refuge and be equipped to pull up anchor and sail into the rough waters of the world to bring others safely to the harbor of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We are one billion strong today because those who have gone before us have made it their mission to devote their time, talent and treasure to the missions. This weekend, let us all remember that for the Faith to further flourish we all need to bloom where we are planted!
My story begins in 1988 when a close friend gave me a copy of Wayne Weible's "Miracle at Medjugorje" newspaper story. Six children were reportedly having visits by the Blessed Virgin Mary. These children were receiving messages or secrets for the world. The author, himself a Lutheran, was asked by the Lady to write her story and tell the world.
The article really caught my interest and provoked real thought, even though I was a non-practicing baptized Christian non-denominational. Yet the stage had been set for the Lady's plan for me, for which I was totally unprepared.
This close friend of mine, who gave me the newspaper article, then journeyed to Medjugorje in November 1988. He returned with a rosary for me. My friend, a Catholic, had not been to church in probably 20 years. But he returned from Medjugorje full of enthusiasm. He had gone to confession, attended daily Mass, recited the rosary every day, heard the stories from the visionaries, climbed Mt. Podbrodo and Mt. Krezivic and was truly reborn into Christ. I listened to him go on and on about all this praying, especially the rosary. I looked at him and said: "OK, but prayer doesn't mean anything unless it is from the heart." I stressed that you could do all the rosaries in the world and attend church forever, but unless it was from your heart and not just imitating what you saw, it didn't mean anything. I was adamant and stubborn in my position.
Perhaps a brief account of my own religious upbringing would be in order. When my dad married my stepmother, she made sure we all went to church on Sundays and attended summer church camps. We belonged to a Christian non-denominational church where we sang acappella because we were not allowed to have musical instruments of any kind. The sermons were very literal, strict, and full of fire and brimstone.
I grew up amongst mostly Catholic and Jewish persons. I questioned what they were learning and judged that they couldn't be right, if it didn't come from the Bible.
I had no clue, as to why Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays except some "Church bureaucrat" said they couldn't. And confession! No, no me! I wasn't about to tell anyone my sins, much less someone who was going to make me say something called a Hail Mary. I gave many lectures to my friends over the years about repetitious prayer. I chastised the Catholic faith many times, All the way from the Pope to priests and nuns.
However, as a child, I would go into the Catholic church with my friends on Friday nights, when they would go for confession. Then I felt that I was in the holiest place ever. There were statues on the walls, candles everywhere. There were confessionals with red velvet on them. There was the altar. And, of course, my favorite thing was to light a candle. (Only a nickel then!) As I reflect back on all of this, I find it ironic how I felt such holiness in a place that I had criticized so adamantly.
God bless you, dear reader. More of Kathy's story coming next week!