Welcome to Eziowelle, Home of Cardinal Arinze
Apr 10, 2005
Nothing in Eziowelle suggests that this is the village that may produce the next Pope of the Catholic Church. Its most prominent son is Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is currently rated as one of the top three likely to succeed Pope John Paul II, from this dusty community. Charles Onyekamuo visits the village, speaks with the Cardinal's elder brother, inspects the family house, and reports
This Day, April 8, 2005) Lagos - The road to Eziowelle is not exactly smooth. Right from the Afor-Igwe market junction in Umunachi, Dunukofia council area of the state which shares borders with the town, the three-kilometre stretch to Eziowelle reminds you of the utter neglect by governments, at both the second and the third tiers, of the various feeder roads that dot communities in the in Nigeria. Eziowelle, which literally means 'a good place', is an agrarian community lying about eight kilometres east of Onitsha, Anambra state's commercial nerve centre.
The red-earth road, though wide enough, is dusty, bumpy and erosion-ravaged. A ride to Eziowelle from Afor-Igwe, something that would have ordinarily taken 10 minutes, is an unimaginably stressful and unpleasant experience. On the whole, it takes about 30 minutes or more on a commercial motorcycle, popularly called "Okada", to get to Eziowelle. Commuter buses don't ply the road, and as THISDAY leant from a guide, "the Gala man", a commercial motor-cycle operator in the area, the approach of rainy season will mean as it normally is, that the in-mates of Eziowelle and other communities like Abacha and Abatete would totally be shut out from the rest of the world.
Forget the dusty road. Forget the bumpy details. There is an outside chance that it would not be shut out from the world, at least not physically. This is the road that leads to the village of the man who might become the next Pope, the most influential religious leader in the world who heads the Catholic Church with membership closing in on 1.5 billion. This is the road to the home of 73-year-old Cardinal Francis Arinze, Nigeria's precious gift to the Catholic Church. Eziowelle is indeed a good place, despite the fact that a road leading to the hometown of a world figure like Cardinal Arinze is impassable.
The death and burial of Pope John Paul II, the 84-year-old Pontiff of the Catholic church, mean that a successor would soon be announced by the body of cardinals. Their duty is fill the vacuum, following laid down rules guiding succession to the great office, and in conformity, as the church believes, with the dictates of the Holy Spirit.
Cardinal Arinze is one of the cardinals in the Vatican City, the Pope's abode in Rome, who, given his rich credentials, is being considered as one of the possible successor to the Papacy. This consideration, a possibility as a matter of fact, gained currency following his rich experience as Vatican's head of Lithurgy and its chairman on Inter-Religious Affairs.
Perhaps, this also accounted for the media commentaries around the world, which seem to be agreeing with this possibility which, if it comes to pass, would make Cardinal Arinze, who was ordained a priest of the Catholic church in Rome in 1958, the first black African to become a pope in the history of Catholicism in its over 1,500 years of existence. This may also have accounted for the horde of local and international journalists who have literally shifted their offices to Eziowelle, Cardinal Arinze's home town in the last three days.
Ezi-Owelle is not particularly a spectacular community. Located on an undulating landscape, the rustic town remained in the main agrarian, with bushy farmlands strewing in between settlements. The people are very lively, and from what one can see, highly industrious. The young and the old are seen clearing their land holdings, preparatory to farming activities in anticipation of what Pa Okeke, 69, an indigene of Eziowelle called the "April rains". The Eziowelle town is serviced by a market, Eke Eziowelle, a post office, schools (both secondary and primary) and churches. They are, as it were, a testimonial of the town's contact with modernity.
The industry of the people, many of whom are businessmen, and of other vocations, is attested to by the changing face of Eziowelle through the provision of these infrastructure, provided mainly through self help and the erection of modern houses, (storey-buildings and bungalows alike) which now seem to be replacing some ancient red mud architecture.
The Church Where Arinze was Converted
St. Edward's Catholic Church Parish in the town, built by the missionaries in the 1930s, is the single largest church in the town, and is reputed to be the church where Cardinal Francis Arinze was converted into Christianity and baptised. The church with the ancillary Primary School which goes by the same name has undergone a lot of redesigning and renovations. It is the church where Cardinal Francis first knew Christ.
When Francis was Growing Up
Francis was born 73 years ago into the family of Joseph Arinze Nwankwu and Benedict Arinze. Pa. Arinze Nwankwu who died at about the age of 87 was converted and baptised in the Catholic Church along with his wife, Benedict, now deceased, in about 1957. It was then that he adopted the baptismal name of "Joseph" with his wife, adopting "Benedict", according to Chief Christopher Arinze, 79, the cardinal's eldest brother.
Besides Christopher, a retired primary school teacher, Pa Arinze and Benedict Nwankwu were also blessed with Linus, Cecilia, Francis, Victoria, Justin and Catherine making the Pa Arinze Nwankwu's a nuclear family of seven (four males and three females). Out of this number, however, Linus and Cecilia are now late.
'Our Father was A Farmer'
Pa Christopher said their father was just a farmer and their mother a housewife. He said he was senior to both Linus and Cecilia before Francis was born; and had since started primary school with his immediate younger brother, the Late Linus, before Francis joined them at the age of nine. That time, the family was living together in their family house, a four-bedroom bungalow at Odida-UmuiKwelle, village, Ezi-Owelle where they were all born.
Now, Pa Christopher said he left the family house to a location about 400 metres away where he formed his own nuclear family. Linus and Justin too moved, leaving the family house to distant cousins. The last that occupied the house was called Luke. He is also deceased. A young woman of about 38 who gave her name as Felicia said she was Luke's daughter. But the small compound, which now houses two other small bungalows of about two rooms and a parlour each, was somehow desolate. The doors were under lock and key, and except for the fruits like paw-paw, mango tress and jerry cans of water in front of the buildings, there was nothing to suggest that they were habitable.
Even Felicia could not explain why they too had to abandon the compound. Barely literate, she just pointed to her father's grave, and then picked a young girl of about two whom she strapped with a wrapper to her back and took a bush path besides the building into a distance. From the amount of dirt and perspiration all over her body, it was evident that she was just returning from a farm, given the hoe on her head.
"I don't know what is happening there, I live here now", Pa Christopher said in apparent indifference to what may have become his father's compound from where he relocated to raise his own family. He sat in front of his six-bedroom bungalow with two of his children playing around. The house is painted in a fading white colour while on its front pavement are palm kernels and sprouting yam seedlings being prepared for planting. There are also jerry cans of water as well as disused cushions. The whole compound is enclosed with a red gate with Pa Christopher's rickety Peugeot saloon 504 parked just in front of the gate.
"That car has been giving me problems. I can't even put it in order. It has been parked there for more than two days now", he said, in apparent disgust.
But he found time to further explain that the way he started school at St. Edward's primary school, the only missionary school in the community then was strange and that his father didn't object. According to him, he and other members of Arinze Nwankwu family had gone for an "Ash Wednesday" service at St. Edward's Catholic Church, and thereafter took time to observe some pupils in the classroom.
"There and then, I took interest and started school", he said. Although he failed to say the exact date this incident took place, he was quick to say that Francis joined him and Linus at St. Edward's Catholic School, around 1939 where he did his standard one. He later went to St. Anthony's Primary School in the neighboring Umudioka community in the present Dunukofia local government area where he finished up to standard six.
The school at Umudioka, he explained, was a catholic school, where Rev. Father Michael Iwene Tansi was both a teacher and the Parish Priest of the St. Anthony's Catholic Church there. He added that he was also attending the school then. His explanations gave the impression that the St. Edward's in his native Eziowelle was just a junior primary for only standard one pupils.
'Father Tansi Influenced Cardinal Francis'
"The school at Umudioka Dunukofia was a catholic school and Rev. Father Tansi from Aguleri was living with us in the same compound. He was a Parish Priest as a matter of fact at St. Anthony's Umudioka," he explained.
It was obvious, he said, that it was Rev. Father Tansi, who was later beatified by the late Pope John Paul II at Onitsha in 1998, that influenced his younger brother, Francis, into priesthood.
"I can say it was Father Tansi who influenced him to join the junior seminary at Nnewi then. He did his juniorate there, and later proceeded to Biggard Memorial seminary in Enugu where he did his philosophy for three years. That was when Arch-Bishop Heerey was the metropolitan Bishop at Onitsha", he said.
Pa Christopher said the church sent the young Francis to Rome to study Theology for four yeas after which he was ordained as a Priest in August of 1958.
'Francis, Very Intelligent, Industrious'
In retrospect, he said Francis was very quiet, industrious and exceptionally intelligent and "more intelligent than all of us". He also described him as a very hospitable person who abhors fighting but always wanting to keep the peace, Francis, he said was very good in drama while at school, in much the same way that he was sociable, humble, quiet and respectful, painstaking and studious adding that he never played with his books.
After his ordination as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in 1958, Pa Christopher said his brother; Francis returned to Nigeria that same year and was received by the people of Eziowelle at St. Edward Catholic Church, after which another reception was organised by the members of his immediate family at his father's compound. He recalled one Francis Nwaonyeugbo (late) from Onitsha, who was the Cardinal's teacher in standard three at St. Anthony's Catholic Primary School, Umunachi, Dunukofia, and one Patrick Okeke from Alor community, Idemili South Council Area, who taught him in standard six at St. Anthony's, attended and extolled publicly his intelligence, explaining how he came first in all the classes he attended - a factor he noted easily made Rev. Father Tansi notice him and took interest in him.
Francis, he said, was, upon his return in 1958, ordained as a priest and as Catholic Education Secretary in Enugu from where he was taken to be co-adjustor to late Arch-Bishop Heerey at Onitsha. He was on that position when the civil war broke out in 1967, and thereafter and naturally succeeded Heerey upon his death in 1976 as the Arch-Bishop of Onitsha. It was from this position Pa Christopher further explained that Arch-Bishop Francis Arinze was transferred to Rome by the Pope in 1984, and made a cardinal in 1986.
"Four of our family members attended and spent four days in Rome", he said adding that the cardinal had been in Rome since that time till today, only coming home occasionally on holidays.
'Cardinal Francis Does Not Treat His Family Specially'
Although members of the Arinze family are happy that one of theirs rose to the position of a cardinal in the church, they maintain that it neither adds nor removes anything from them.
"We have become Christians ever before he came back. People look at us as brothers and sisters of the cardinal; but it doesn't add or remove anything from us", he said. Cardinal Francis Arinze, Pa Christopher said, is not a person selective in his relationship with members of his family but threats them as equal members of the human society in his usual humane disposition.
"As a person, he doesn't help the family particularly, but every body no matter where you come from. He helps mostly the poor, the indigent and widows. He doesn't give us any preference. He spends about 15 minutes with me whenever he returns, nothing special.
"There was a particular time he returned home last two years. I begged him for financial help but he brought out long list of those who had written him for financial help. My name was in the list. He told me I was simply one of the people he had to attend to. So, there was no special treatment, but he knows my problems. Whatever he gives me, I take, but I don't look up to him to solve all my problems because he has a lot of people he helps. I depend solely on my pension stipend and what I get from where I supervise a pupil school at Umunachi for the upkeep of my family. We are managing", he said.
Pa Christopher said the position of Cardinal Arinze had tremendously influenced the Christian life of members of the Arinze family in so many ways. One, he said they try to be visible in church activities, stressing that the Cardinal's position had made them to be alert, up and doing putting extra effort in church activities so that we "don't incur the derision of the public".
Eziowelle Now Has 10 Reverend Fathers!
There is no doubt that the pioneering work of Cardinal Arinze in the Christendom has had a profound influence on many young men who took to or are aspiring to the priesthood in Eziowelle. According to Pa. Christopher, Eziowelle now boasts about 10 Reverend fathers. This was corroborated by Reverend father, Philip Nwafor, the Parish Priest at St. Edward's Catholic Church, Eziowelle, who told THISDAY in his office that two more priests of the community's origin would be ordained by July this year, to bring the number to 12. About 12 seminarians from the town, some of whom, at the senior level he also said are aspiring to be priests. The pioneering work of Cardinal Arinze, he said, was a very big inspiration on these youngsters who took to priesthood and or arecaspiring to.
According to the Traditional Ruler of Eziowelle, HRH, Igwe Mike Okonkwo Etusi, Cardinal Francis Arinze has influenced the spiritual life of Eziowelle people through his humility, dedication to the service of God and humanity and through his peaceful approach to issues as well as his love for his fellow humans.
WILL HE BECOME THE POPE?
Those who spoke to THISDAY in Eziowelle and indeed Anambra state were cautious and philosophical in their perception of whether or Arinze would succeed Pope John II who was buried yesterday at the Vatican City in Rome.
They all shared the view that the business of who becomes the next Pope remained that of the cardinals of the church from whom a first among their equals could be chosen "as directed by the Holy Spirit".
Again, Igwe Mike Okonkwo Etusi, who is the custodian of the culture of Eziowelle people and a stanch Catholic said though the cardinal is their son and an illustrious one for that matter, the Eziowelle people mourn with the rest of the world the transition to glory April 2, 2005, of Pope John Paul II, whom he described as a peaceful man and lover of mankind. He remarked that the two trips the Pope made to Nigeria, and Onitsha particularly, afforded the people of Nigeria the opportunity of seeing a Pope first hand, adding that the late Pope was a great communicator, lover of democracy and good governance.
"We miss him greatly", he said.
To the Eziowelle people, the issue of whether Cardinal Arinze becomes the Pope or not, he said, doesn't really bother them much because they are largely Catholics and as Catholics, they believe that it is a spiritual office which anybody who emerges the Pope would be through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
"Every cardinal of the church", he said, "is qualified and on that score our son is qualified. If it is the will of God that he becomes the next pope, we will be happy, but if he falls we are not worried. Anybody who becomes the Pope eventually, we will all be happy because he will be acceptable to us and will get our total, unalloyed support."
But in the event that cardinal Arinze emerges the pope, the people of Eziowelle he stated would continue to as when he was not to be faithful to the faith because "we are worshippers of God and not the Pope. If eventually he becomes the pope, it will, morally speaking, be good for us. We will be happy."
"Eziowelle is proud of all her illustrious citizens, including most importantly the cardinal who has distinguished himself in his calling. He is a role model to the people of the community and we are proud of him, and it makes us more faithful to the tenets of Catholicism and Christianity. The fact that his services are appreciated worldwide makes us feel good and proud. Any community with such a citizen will be proud of him", he said.
To Rev. Father Philip Nwafor, the parish priest of St. Edward's Catholic Church in Eziowelle, it will be abnormal to prompt the Holy Spirit who directs and works in the church. Saying that all the cardinals are qualified to succeed the late Pope John Paul II, Rev. Father Nwafor said they had been praying that God gives the church a man as good as the late Pope so that the church will continue to grow from strength to strength.
Cardinal Arinze, he noted, is a lover of people who in turn love him dearly, explaining that it is the reason every year whenever he is on vacation he comes home to celebrate mass with his people.
"So, after the mass, you see the love because the people will receive him and express their gratitude to God for giving them a son who had been adjudged qualified to work in the Vatican.
"He is a simple, humble man who relates well with everybody, the young and the old. His intellect is God given and he uses it well to serve the church and humanity. He practices what he believes, which is the Catholic Church to the core.
"We will feel as other Nigerians, happy of course if he becomes the next Pope.
"There will be joyful celebration, and his papacy will usher a greater break through in Christianity in Nigeria, Africa and the entire third world whom I feel would be more committed in their Christian practices", he said.
The catholic Arch-Bishop of Onitsha and the metropolitan of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province where cardinal Arinze served last as an Arch-Bishop before leaving for Rome in 1984, Most. Rev. Val Okeke expressed deep sympathy over the death of Pope John Paul II whom he said would be remembered for many reasons, which included his visits to the oppressed people of the world, his fight for elimination of poverty, oppression and inequality, racial discrimination, and promoted religious brotherhood and the cause of humanity.
He noted that Cardinal Arinze whom he praised for elevating the church and the teachings of Christ through his activities shared in these visions of the late Pope but would not be drawn into whether he would be a Pope or not.
"The important thing is to mourn the dead, while the issue of a successor rests with the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church does not hassle over who becomes the Pope, but once God chooses a candidate, there is no petition writing or court litigation as is obtainable in politics", he said.
But Paul Mason, the BBC Business Correspondent in Nigeria, told THISDAY in Eziowelle that the possibility of Cardinal Arinze emerging the next Pope of the Catholic World remained strong.
According to him, Cardinal Arinze's emergence will represent continuity with the teachings of John Paul II, and that he "will probably run the papacy in a very similar way". He said the big challenge is the shift in the central gravity of the church from the rich countries to the poor ones, and a Pope from any developing country will simply symbolise that change.