Cardinal Francis Arinze: 50 years as a Bishop
Sept 17, 2015
Yesterday Saturday 29 August 2015, Francis Cardinal Arinze, 82, marked fifty years as a Bishop. In an interview with Vatican Radio’s English Africa Service to mark to the milestone, Cardinal Arinze was in high spirits.
Although now retired and living in the Vatican, Cardinal Arinze is very much sought after and continues to travel, take on speaking engagements and he writes. He has just completed two books, one of which is about Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi.
The Cardinal is also proud and very upbeat about the state of the Church in his country of origin, Nigeria. “How would you explain this faith (of the Nigerian Catholic Church)? The people believe; the clergy is motivated; the religious are quite a number and they serve the people; the lay people are wonderfully committed!” he exclaims. He puts it down to divine providence.
At fifty years as a Bishop in the Catholic Church and as one of its Cardinals what are his sentiments today? “What comes to mind spontaneously is gratitude to God…also gratitude to all the people who have helped me along the way since I was ordained priest in 1958 and Bishop in 1965. No one is a priest or Bishop or Cardinal for himself. It is always for the Church, for others. It is they that we serve and it is with them that we move along. To all these people I remain grateful,” he says.
If he were to name a secret to his illustrious apostolate, what would it be? “I don't have a big secret in the sense of hidden but perhaps big, in the sense of Jesus Christ, himself, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist,” Cardinal Arinze responds.
The Cardinal says that it is the Lord Jesus principally in the Holy Mass that he celebrates every day who motivates him…but also Jesus Christ in, “in the tabernacle…Christ in the Holy Eucharist is my secret. Along with Christ is his (Jesus’) Blessed Mother, Mary, whom he gave us on the cross and who in turn gave us Christ on Christmas day,” he explains.
Cardinal Arinze says that the resurrection and the presence of Christ, “with the Apostles between Ascension day and Pentecost –the first novena,” is a source of great consolation to him. It is a reassurance that Jesus continues to be with us, even to this day. Our Lord Jesus was with the Apostles, “on Pentecost day when the Church was made manifest to the world and was with the early Church after Pentecost. So, Jesus and Mary are my secret, “he finally reveals.
The state of the Catholic Church in Nigeria, his country of origin, is very important to Cardinal Arinze. It fills him with great joy.
“We thank God that he has given strong faith to the Church in Nigeria. How would you explain this faith? The people believe; the clergy is motivated; the religious are quite a number and they serve the people; the lay people are wonderfully committed! The lay apostolate is very well-organised at the provincial, diocesan and parish levels. It is very encouraging, “the Cardinal says.
Asked why this is so when so many Catholics in the world are struggling in their faith? Cardinal Arinze says, “The Strength of the Church in Nigeria can be attributed (first) to divine providence because God is the director general of the work of evangelization. Second, African traditional religions were a providential preparation for Christianity in Nigeria. In other words, the traditional religions of the people, before the arrival of Christianity and before the arrival of Islam (predisposed the people for the kind of evangelization that came afterwards). The people of Africa with traditional religions believed in one God; they honoured the ancestors and honoured good spirits and tried to avoid the evil spirits. The (Africans) had a religion with prayer, with sacrifice and with a priesthood. When Christianity arrived, especially the Catholic faith, it was like midday Sunshine to a people who were looking for light at 4 O’clock in the morning,” Cardinal Arinze affirms.
He goes on to commend Irish missionaries who were among the earliest in Nigeria. “Another explanation is the good work done by the missionaries especially the Irish missionaries. The Irish were very methodical. They promoted good Catechetical Sacramental preparation and they attended to families,” he emphasises.
Cardinal Arinze also credits his own people, the Nigerians, for the manner in which they received the message of Christ. “We very much thank God for the local people’s response. The first Catechists who were near the missionaries; those who gave missionaries land and helped them with the (local) languages and then the first priests and the religious and the first bishops and the present ones, lay people and families... I believe for all these reasons, the Church in the country is rather strong,” Cardinal Arinze says.
It has often been said that Cardinal Arinze’s life, from the start, was greatly influenced by Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi whom he knew personally. When asked about this, the Cardinal says, “Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi is the first priest that I ever knew. He began our parish in Onitsha, in 1940. He baptised me. My first confession was at his hands; first communion from his hands; he prepared me for confirmation and I was his Mass Server in 1945.” He continues, “The area where Blessed Tansi worked has many vocations to the priesthood and religious life because of the person he was,” the Cardinal says.
According to Cardinal Arinze, Blessed Tansi was a model priest. He promoted the Catholic faith and schooling for children. He championed women’s issues often standing up against entrenched local traditional customs. Blessed Tansi also promoted family life.
“Fr. Tansi was also known for asceticism. He ate very little,” says Cardinal Arinze and tongue-in-cheek adds, “His cook did not have much work.”
Later, Tansi became a Cistercian Monk at Mount Saint Bernard Monastery in Nottingham, England. He joined the Cistercians of the Strict Observance sometimes called the Trappists. Tansi took on the name Cyprian when he became a monk. He was a diocesan priest for 13 years and a Monk for 14 years. He died in 1964 and was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on 22nd March 1998, in Nigeria.
Of the beatification, Cardinal Arinze says, “One million or two million people were at that Mass. We are now looking forward to a miracle so that Tansi can be canonised. I have written a book about him and this book is expected this year.”
Several events are lined up for the celebration of Cardinal Arinze’s golden jubilee as a Bishop. There will be Mass at the ‘Altare della Cattedra’ in St Peter’s Basilica on the evening of 26 October 2015. This will be a day following the closure of the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, scheduled to take place in the Vatican from 4 October to the 25 October. The timing of the golden jubilee Mass in St. Peter’s should provide opportunity for friends of the Cardinal to be present. Priests, the religious, friends and the Nigerian community in Italy will certainly attend.
Apart from other smaller private functions, the big jubilee celebration that should crown all celebrations is probably the one scheduled for Onitsha, Nigeria on 28 November. It is the last day of the liturgical year. Many people in Nigeria will certainly not want to miss that one.
Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect emeritus of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, was born on 1 November 1932 in Eziowelle, a city of the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria. He was ordained priest during a ceremony which took place at the Church of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome on 23 November 1958. On 29 August 1965 he was ordained coadjutor Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese and became the substantive Archbishop two years later. In 1984 Pope St. John Paul II asked him to head, as pro-president, the Secretariat for Non-Christians (now the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue). He was created Cardinal on 25 May 1985.
Since the year 2005, Cardinal Arinze holds the title of Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri-Segni.