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A Potentially Historic Choice

Cardinal Francis Arinze shares John Paul's conservatism, but he is also a champion of 'inculturation,' or incorporating African culture into Catholic worship.


EZIOWELLE, Nigeria — Every year during his vacation, Cardinal Francis Arinze returns to the tin-roofed house in this farming village of modest buildings and rutted red earth roads that is his ancestral home. The house, made of mud and thatch when he was born there in 1932, has since been rebuilt of cement blocks, but it still lacks electricity and running water.

It is from these humble beginnings that Arinze rose to become one of the highest-ranking officials of the Catholic Church--and someone who many believe has a chance of becoming the modern world's first black pope.

As speculation grows over a successor for the ailing Pope John Paul II, Arinze's name has made the short list. While sharing John Paul's theological conservatism, he is also known for his outspoken defense of the world's poor and a willingness to incorporate African traditions into Roman Catholic worship.

The 68-year-old cardinal may be internationally renowned and a living legend in his home country, but acquaintances say he has not forsaken his heritage or the culture of his Ibo ethnic group.

"Whenever he comes home, he says prayers for the dead and visits the bereaved families," said Igwe Michael Ugorji Okonkwo Etusi, traditional ruler of Eziowelle, a far-flung conglomeration of villages 400 miles east of Lagos.

But the villagers here realize that their native son can never really be just a man of Eziowelle. "He is an international citizen," says Etusi.

The third of seven children born to farmer Joseph Arinze Nwankwu and his wife Bernadette, Arinze's rise in the Catholic hierarchy was meteoric. It began with an education at the local St. Edward's Church parish school, followed by boarding school in the nearby hamlet of Dunukofia.

Arinze's parents were pagans, and the boy wasn't baptized until he was 9. He has said he enjoyed going to church and felt he had a calling.

"But in the final analysis, only God knows how his grace works in us human beings," Arinze, who usually shuns interviews, told the Boston Globe on a visit to the United States last year. "God uses persons, things, places to attract us."

Initially, his parents were displeased by his vocation. "The belief is that once you are a reverend father, you become estranged from your family and keep people away," Arinze's younger sister, Onyekwelu, said through an interpreter. "But with enlightenment and education, they realized that he was not estranged, and they became reconciled to the idea." They later converted to Christianity.

Father John Okoye, deputy rector of Bigard Memorial Seminary in nearby Enugu, where Arinze spent three years as a student, mastering medieval philosophy, remembers him as "what we call a fire-eater. His records show he was on the top, and was a very good student from the beginning."

The cardinal's seminary studies and a short teaching stint were followed by theological study in Rome. He was ordained a priest there in 1958 and earned a master's degree and a doctorate of divinity before returning to Nigeria in 1960.

Arinze lectured at Bigard and served as regional secretary for Catholic education in eastern Nigeria before being named archbishop of Onitsha in 1965 at age 32. He became a cardinal 20 years later.

Arinze is soft-spoken but regarded as an eloquent orator, frequently preaching on poverty, humility, chastity, justice and Christian truth. He urges priests to master the fundamental virtues of sanctity and knowledge.

"If Arinze speaks, even a small child can understand," said Msgr. Obiora Ike, vicar-general of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu and an acquaintance of Arinze. "He is a down-to-earth man. He is very clear in his thoughts and speech."

Ike said some people view Arinze's somewhat blunt approach and seeming lack of emotion as arrogance. But Nigerians, jaded by their long experience with corrupt military regimes, remain proud of him.

He has also made his mark promoting relations with non-Christians as president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. He acknowledges the group's limitations in addressing global trouble spots.

"It is not an international fire extinguisher," he told the Boston Globe. "We don't pretend that, wherever there is a problem, we'll simply go and solve it."

Peaceful Coexistence Is a Priority

Even detractors agree that Arinze understands firsthand the importance of peaceful coexistence among different faiths and ethnic groups. Tens of thousands of his Ibo ethnic group were slaughtered during the tumultuous years of power struggles, military coups and political intrigue that followed Nigeria's independence from Britain in 1960. The Biafran war that followed the Ibos' 1967 declaration of an independent state in their traditional homelands claimed about 1 million lives.

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