From mud-brick bungalow to Sistine chapel
Mar 02, 2005
The fourth-ranking cardinal in the Vatican and the African with the best chance of succeeding Pope John Paul II began his stellar Church career as a child of poor pagan parents in a mud-brick bungalow in the forests of southern Nigeria Nigeria.
(AFP, February 25, 2005) EZIOWELLE, Nigeria - As the current pope clings to life in a Roman hospital, Cardinal Francis Arinze, the 72-year-old Prefect of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is seen by many as a credible candidate to replace him and become the first African to rule the Holy See since the death of Gelasius I in 496 AD.
And if the college of cardinals sitting in the Sistine chapel does decide that the Holy Spirit has chosen Arinze to lead the Church, the tiny Nigerian farming village of Eziowelle might well become a place of pilgrimage for the world's hundreds of millions of Catholics.
Pilgrims would be best advised to come in the early months of the year, however, as by the end of April when the rains return the track is all but impassible, explained the village priest Father Philip Chinedu Nwafor as he drove his battered old Mercedes Benz into town.
"The state government has promised to repair the road," he said, as school children and villagers called out "Father" as he passed along the bumpy track the way to the heart of Eziowelle's 6,000-strong community; the Saint Edward Roman Catholic Church.
It might be a while before the road is repaired -- Anambra State is in such crisis that lawmakers meet among the ruins of a state assembly building burned down last year by political thugs -- but Eziowelle has something else to be proud of as the world begins to wonder about the papal succession.
"His name will work magic for us. We cannot say when this will be, but we are hopeful that Arinze's name will soon begin to bring the good things of life to the village," declared Celestina Emecheta, who at 68 was born four years after Eziowelle's most famous son.
The house where he was born is still standing, despite being a somewhat ramshackle bungalow of mud-brick and rusting corrugated iron, painted in faded chocolate brown and framed on one side by a mango and a pawpaw tree.
A newer family home in concrete stands close by, but Arinze's fame has not brought riches to his relatives, as is demonstrated by the simple heap of dark red laterite soil marking the grave of the cardinal's mother.
"He does not want an elaborate grave for his parents and this grave as it is is an ample demonstration of his simplicity and humility, qualities for which he is known," said Father Philip as he showed a reporter around the village.
Once a year, in August, Cardinal Arinze leaves the marble halls of the Vatican, where for two decades he has been a senior officer of the Church, and returns to Eziowelle to stay in the parsonage and celebrate mass in the humble surroundings of Saint Edward's church.
It was here, as an eight-year-old child of parents who worshipped the traditional deities of the Igbo people, that Arinze first heard the teaching of the church from the Reverend Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, the missionary who became his mentor and was in 1998 beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Since those days the village has become a devout and energetic Catholic community, proud to have sent a cardinal, nine priests, 14 reverend sisters and one reverend brother to do the work of the church.
Now, perhaps, Eziowelle could become the first village in sub-Saharan Africa to send a Pope to the Vatican for, unless Italian cardinals decide it is time to wrest back control of the papacy, Arinze could be the perfect candidate.
He was ordained a priest in November 1958 and eight years later became Africa's youngest bishop, leading the Catholics of the swarming market city of Onitsha, a major trading centre on the lowest downstream crossing of the mighty Niger Niger River.
He became an archbishop in 1967 and stayed in Nigeria Nigeria right through its brutal civil war, in which Onitsha and Arinze's Igbo people faced off against the Nigeria Nigeria federal army in a losing battle that saw around a million people die of disease and starvation.
In 1985, the pope summoned him to Rome to work in the Curia -- the church's "government" -- and he won a reputation as an able diplomat and a staunch defender of the conservative values championed by the present pontiff.
Perhaps crucially, he became an expert on Islam and led the Vatican's interfaith dialogue.
If John Paul II's time as pope will be principally remembered for his role in facing down Communism and championing the cause of Eastern Europe, the next 20 years will likely see the church seeking way a way to live alongside an increasingly restive Muslim world.
Whether this record will be enough to land him the top job remains to be seen, but in Eziowelle his neighbours have faith that the Holy Spirit will make the right choice.
"God put Arinze there as number four in the Catholic hierarchy. We are glad at this. We are happy and will accept whatever God has planned for him," said Igwe Michael Okonkwo-Etusi, the traditional ruler of the village.