Cardinal Arinze in Nigeria: A dialogue of encounter
Dec 05, 2015
The presence of General Yakubu Gowon in Onitsha, Anambra State of Nigeria on 28 November 2015 was very symbolic. Why is it so important to introduce this conversation with General Gowon and not John Cardinal Onaiyekan (Archbishop of Abuja) or many other Church luminaries of Nigeria?
Why singling out General Gowon whereas people from different parts of the world including Catholic Bishops, priests, consecrated persons, traditional rulers, uncountable lay faithful, Christians outside the Catholic Church and people of other religions from different parts of the globe gathered in the Basilica of the Holy Trinity in Onitsha to celebrate the golden jubilee of the episcopal ordination of Francis Cardinal Arinze on 28 November 2015? Your guess is as good as mine.
During the homily, Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic told the congregation that Cardinal Arinze was ordained Bishop on 29 August 1965. He became the local Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Onitsha in 1967 up to 1984.
Among the numerous challenges of the young Bishop Arinze was the Nigeria / Biafra civil war that started on 6 July 1967 and ended on 15 January 1970 under the watch and active participation of General Yakubu Gowon, the then military Head of State. While Cardinal Arinze was the youngest Bishop in the world then, General Gowon was the youngest Head of State in the world. The Biafra civil war displaced so many people including priests and consecrated persons (male and female). Like Jesus Christ, the young Bishop Arinze had no comfortable place to lay his head. After the civil war, he was faced with the task of searching for the flock akin to the Good Shepherd.
Until recently, many people shy away from talking about the genocide of the Nigeria / Biafra civil war for fear of opening fresh wounds. On this day of the golden jubilee celebration of Cardinal Arinze, the ice was broken. After the speeches of Archbishops Augustine Kasujja, Ignatius Ayau Kaigama and Chief Willie Obiano, General Gowon was invited to greet Cardinal Arinze. One could notice a dialogue of encounter in the presentation of General Gowon. Cardinal Arinze in turn called Monsignor Matthew Obiukwu to also greet Gowon. The Cardinal recalled how shortly after the war he and Monsignor Obiukwu went to visit General Gowon in Lagos to beg him not to send away the missionaries. The Cardinal said, “In that visit I realised that the Nigerian Federal Government had already resolved to deport the missionaries, but Gowon received us well.” Turning to Gowon, he concluded, “As you can see, the Church is still alive.” In response, Gowon thanked and congratulated the Cardinal.
Dialogue of encounter was the only means by which God could visit the earth in the incarnation (cf. John 1). This dialogue creates space for the low and the mighty to speak heart to heart. This is illustrated vividly in the visit of Mary to Elizabeth. This visit reveals the openness of the human heart that made the baby in the womb of Elizabeth leap for joy. This visit reveals total humility and submission to God as declared by Mary in the Magnificat (cf. Luke 2). Recalling the memories of the civil war, what can we learn from the encounter between Cardinal Arinze and General Gowon? Is it possible to hope that the broken trust in the unity of Nigeria can be restored? The Church in Nigeria is a symbol of unity. She is alive with the obligation to carry out the mission of building bridges of trust, love and unity across all tribes and ethnic regions in Nigeria. Therefore, the Church must continue to speak out loud and clear on national issues and social justice.
Fr. Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua (email@example.com)