WORCESTER — Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze has served as a close confidante of two popes, has met with global leaders to discuss a variety of pressing issues, and is credited with vastly improving the climate between the Roman Catholic Church and members of non-Christian faiths, particularly those living in the Muslim world.
He was so highly regarded by his fellow cardinals that many thought that he would be picked as the successor to Pope John Paul II.
Jackson Mannix, a fifth-grader at St. Bernadette Catholic Elementary School in Northboro, said he believes the cardinals would not have made a mistake had they elevated Cardinal Arinze to the papacy.
“I think he’s really cool,” said the son of Regina and Thomas Mannix of Southboro. “He might be a cardinal but he acts just like a regular, ordinary person.”
Vatican officials have maintained that Cardinal Arinze, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a key posting at the Holy See, has never forgotten his humble roots. Area residents, who have met the prelate during his week-long visit to Central Massachusetts, agree.
“He’s very down to earth,” said Julianne Morin, assistant principal at St. Bernadette, after the cardinal visited with students yesterday morning. “We were a bit concerned (whether there would be a connection) because the cardinal is from a world so removed from that of our students. But he was very accessible to the kids. He didn’t talk down to them.”
Cardinal Arinze is visiting the area at the invitation of Assumption College President Francesco C. Cesareo. He will deliver the final President’s Lecture of the year tomorrow and will be given an honorary degree, a doctorate in sacred theology.
Over the course of his stay, Cardinal Arinze, who has declined interview requests made by the Telegram & Gazette, has made it a point to reach out to local rank-and-file Catholics, church officials said.
For example, he celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at St. George Church and took part in Good Friday services at St. Brigid Church in Millbury. Last night, he met with parishioners at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Worcester, where he had concelebrated Easter Sunday Mass with Bishop Robert J. McManus.
“He’s very understanding” said Mr. Cesareo. “Family and moral values are very important to him.”
Mr. Cesareo got to know Cardinal Arinze after he had invited him to lecture at John Carroll University in Cleveland. At the time, Mr. Cesareo was a member of the college’s History Department and the cardinal was heading what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
He said Cardinal Arinze had a good chance of becoming pope because of his ecumenical work, particularly with Muslims; Nigeria is 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Chrisitan.
The cardinal talked about his interfaith work during the informal gathering yesterday in the Cenacle at St. Paul’s. He said Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and others share values and all can find salvation, as long as they follow their consciences.
“God will not deny them (non-Christians) the grace of salvation,” he said, noting all religions have “good, noble truths.”
The cardinal said it’s good for religious leaders to get together to discuss commonalities and society’s woes. He warned, however, that it’s not a good idea for Catholics to represent their church to other faiths as if they are “problem children.”
Cardinal Arinze was born in a hut in Eziowelle, a small village near the Niger River in southern Nigeria.
His parents were peasant farmers and members of an indigenous religion. He followed the footsteps of a brother and studied at a Catholic mission school, becoming baptized a Catholic at age 9.
Cardinal Arinze was ordained in Rome in 1958 and taught logic, liturgy and basic philosophy at an African seminary before ministering for a time in London.
In 1965, he was consecrated a bishop, the youngest at the time, and 11 years later he was elevated archbishop. He was the first African to head his diocese in Nigeria, succeeding Archbishop Charles Heery, an Irish missionary.
Shortly after assuming the post, however, the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out and he was forced to flee. Despite being a refugee himself, he worked tirelessly on behalf of the displaced.
When things settled down and he had returned to the diocese, he focused on improving the shaky relationship between Nigerian Catholics and Muslims. Pope John Paul II summoned him to Rome in 1984 to handle interreligious affairs.
“His desire was to build bridges to people of all faiths,” said Mr. Cesareo. “He’s a very affable and humble individual.”
In 2002, he was named prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
During his tenure at the Vatican, he was criticized by some for his staunch conservative views on such controversial issues as abortion and contraception. In one interview, he said it was appropriate for priests to deny Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.