Nigerian cardinal's hometown awaits Vatican conclave
Apr 19, 2005
At a fork in the rutted track leading through the lush landscape of southeastern Nigeria, a billboard reads "Eziowelle for Jesus" and an arrow points the way to the sleepy town.
EZIOWELLE, Nigeria (Reuters, April 18, 2005) - With chickens scratching in the red earth, an occasional motorbike putting by and little other action, Eziowelle is about as far removed as possible from the hushed stone hallways and cool frescoed domes of Vatican City.
But this week, Eziowelle residents are not only for Jesus, they are also for local Cardinal Francis Arinze, who is among the 115 Roman Catholic cardinals who entered a conclave on Monday to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II.
Born and raised in the remote farming settlement, Arinze, 72, is fourth in the Vatican hierarchy and is often mentioned among the leading candidates to become head of the world's more than one billion Catholics.
He bears the muted hopes of the world's poorest continent and supporters say Arinze's humble origins mean he would champion the cause of developing nations and of Africa, which boasts the world's fastest growing Catholic population.
"An African Pope would open up Africa to the outside world. He would show the way we are in Africa and in Nigeria, that we are not all thieves, we are not all fraudulent people, we are not all bad," Ifeoma, 35, as she came out of Mass in Lagos.
Like in many African villages, Eziowelle's school is a run-down building with no windows and few materials. Pupils dressed in bright pink uniforms trek long distances to class in rubber sandals or bare feet.
"If he becomes pope, this place will become like a small western country and we could have heaven here on earth," said Veronica Obidike, a woman in her 60s selling spices at the town's central market of wooden stalls and makeshift kiosks.
Obidike said the dirt access road, which becomes an impassable mud bath in the rainy season, should be paved and that water services and other infrastructure the state has failed to provide should finally be extended to Eziowelle.
"We need all of those things. We want everything that is good," Obidike said, voicing the widespread belief that an African pope could bring positive change to Africa in the way Pope John Paul helped end communism's grip on Eastern Europe.
Born into an animist family of the region's Igbo tribe, Arinze was not baptised until the age of 9, when he converted to Catholicism.
"His father was a palm wine tapper and we used to go to his father's house to drink," said an 89-year-old villager who gave his name only as Onyeka.
Arinze's father's compound is now empty and his mother's simple hut next door is home to the family gardener who wears a grubby blue T-shirt with a fading picture of a pizza and the words, "A Slice of Heaven".
Neighbours pointed to a tree in the dusty courtyard, saying Arinze's mother was buried beneath it.
A theological conservative who has spoken out against homosexuality and pornography, Arinze has worked as a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith, the Vatican department that keeps an eye on doctrinal integrity.
Before moving to Rome in 1985, Arinze spent 18 years as bishop of Onitsha, a market town near Eziowelle.
Arinze's conservative legacy lingers at his former parish, the Church of the Holy Trinity, where women are not allowed to enter without wearing a headscarf. A slightly misleading sign at each entrance informs church-goers that "females should not wear male dresses and males should not wear female dresses".
While Catholic conservatism is faced with the challenge of remaining relevant in a modern world, in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, Arinze's views are common.
"He is a good man. Every time he comes he helps us change our bad habits and attitudes," said Christian Ozoemenam, 20, building an extension to Eziowelle's Saint Edward's church.
While many Nigerians openly support Arinze, most appear fatalistic about his chances and wonder whether the world is ready for its first African pope in more than 1,500 years.
"I respect and love him, but I don't think the world is ready for a black pope. It's only a tall dream," said local resident John Bosco George.