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The men who could be pope

Globe and Mail Update

Francis Cardinal Arinze
Lagos — The same year Francis Cardinal Arinze was ordained a priest, an older colleague was ... undergoing psychiatric care, deemed mentally unbalanced by his desire to incorporate African rites into the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church.

Years later, after the upheaval that ousted Latin and brought myriad local languages into Catholic churches, Cardinal Arinze still was holding out: he would allow African drums to be played in only two of the many parishes he administered as a bishop.

"There is no dogma that the organ or harmonium can be used in church, but not the drum," he conceded in a 1973 pastoral letter. But such practices would not be introduced under his watch "in a careless or haphazard way."

Through decades of change, Cardinal Arinze, 72, has remained a strong voice of the establishment, leading to his rise to the No. 4 position in the Vatican and, with the death of John Paul, a chance to become the first African pope.

John Paul gave Cardinal Arinze custody of the church's style of worship, sacraments and liturgy. He also helped mediate the church's rapprochement with other religions at a time when fundamentalist Islamic and Protestant sects replaced communism as the biggest challenge to Catholic proselytizing.

In Africa, Catholicism has found perhaps its most fertile ground. While congregations decline and seminaries close in Europe, the African church has grown by one-third in little more than a decade and is exporting priests to places like the United States.

Cardinal Arinze attributed the growth in vocations to strong family traditions, the example of first-generation Nigerian priests and a readiness for sacrifice in the aftermath of civil war.

Cardinal Arinze was born into a family that worshipped the Igbo deities of southeast Nigeria and spent years sheltering refugees from the Biafran war that failed to split the world's most populous black country between a largely Christian southeast and Muslim north.

He shepherded a flock that saw the act of worship transformed from a formal Latin recitation interspersed with equally foreign European chants into a riotous celebration where priests proceed up the aisle surrounded by gyrating, spear-wielding dancers and cathedrals resonate to thump of drums.

"The Catholic faith never changes," Cardinal Arinze said in his 1973 letter. "But the language and mode of manifesting this one faith can change according to peoples, times and places."

His concept of change has limits. A collection of pastoral letters published in 1983 exhort against straying from church dogma on abortion, sex and chastity. As the church was preparing to tell married adherents it was acceptable to enjoy sex, he counselled caution.

"Even among the married, sexual satisfaction must not be sought in a way which disregards man's character as a person and degrades him to the animal level," he wrote.

At a 2003 lecture at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Arinze drew gasps and protests when he lumped homosexuality together with pornography.

The family, he told graduates, "is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."

Perhaps mindful of his native Nigeria — where sectarian violence erupts periodically — Cardinal Arinze has urged "open-minded conversations" among different religions. Muslims and Christians, he says, should realize their faiths share many beliefs.

"Remarkable is the greater openness of the Catholic Church toward people of other religious traditions," he said in 2000. "The development has not been without problems, since some people have resisted it and others have pushed openness beyond the desirable point."

His belief that the church should embrace positive elements of each culture while challenging the negative are reflected in a Vatican office adorned with African masks and a doctoral thesis that explored animal sacrifice in the Igbo animist religion.

Cardinal Arinze was introduced to Catholicism by Irish missionaries at his village of Eziowelle. Baptized at nine, he entered seminary at 15.

He became a favourite of Charles Heerey, the region's archbishop. Archbishop Heerey appointed him auxiliary bishop in 1965 — one of the youngest in the world at 32 — and Bishop Arinze became archbishop when Archbishop Heerey died in 1967.

Archbishop Heerey was so wary of assimilating local culture into the church that in 1957 he sent the first Nigerian priest to advocate that to a psychiatric hospital. Rev. Martin Maduka returned a year later with a doctor's certificate pronouncing him sane, but such priests never matched Cardinal Arinze's rise to power.

Colleagues describe Cardinal Arinze as focused, spiritual and tireless but also flexible and a good listener.

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