One-time papabile, youngest surviving Council father and one of Africa’s most famous and well-liked prelates, Francis Cardinal Arinze reached his 80th birthday on 1 November. With this, the number of cardinal electors drops to 115 out of 205 members.
Born in an agrarian town in the Nigerian state of Anambra, located in the Niger delta, Francis Arinze converted from African traditional religion at the age of nine. His family later followed suit. At the age of 15, young Francis entered the seminary in nearby Onitsha, from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1950. He stayed on as a teacher at the seminary until 1953. Two years later, he continued his studies at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. From here, he graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate in sacred theology. Francis Arinze was ordained to the priesthood in 1958, at the chapel of the university.
Father Arinze spent the first years of his priesthood in Rome, earning a master’s degree in theology in 1959, followed a year later by a doctorate. He then went back to Nigeria, to teach at seminary, after which he was appointed as regional secretary for Catholic education in the eastern part of the country. Following that position, he studied at the Institute of Education in London. He graduated from there in 1964.
In 1965 Fr. Arinze became the world’s youngest bishop, when he was appointed as coadjutor archbishop of his native Archdiocese of Onitsha. As such, he also became the youngest Council father of the Second Vatican Council, when he attended its final session. He succeeded Archbishop Charles Heerey upon the latter’s death in 1967. Archbishop Arinze was the first native archbishop of Onitsha.
The start of his episcopate was marked by the outbreak of the three-year Biafra War, with the Archdiocese of Onitsha located completely within the breakaway republic of Biafra. The fighting forced the archbishop to flee from Onitsha, only to return in 1970. During his forced exile, Archbishop Arinze worked for the relief of refugees, as well as his priests and faithful who could not flee. The war’s aftermath was also a challenge, as the region was devastated and deeply impoverished, and the Nigerian government decided to expel all foreign missionaries, leaving only the native clergy, who were still few in number.
In 1979, Archbishop Arinze was appointed as pro-president of the Secretariat for Non-Christians next to his duties as Onitsha’s archbishop. When the secretariat became the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, he resigned as archbishop of Onitsha.
Two months after his resignation, Pope John Paul II created the archbishop a cardinal in the consistory of 1985. He became the first cardinal-deacon of San Giovanni della Pigna. Two days after the consistory, Cardinal Arinze became the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. He performed several other high-profile tasks in that period, as a member of the Committee for the Great Jubilee of 2000, and before that as chairman of the Synod of Bishop’s special assembly on Africa. In 2002, he was appointed as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
An active catechist, Cardinal Arinze promoted faith education across the world, often travelling far and wide. In this period, the final years of the life of Blessed John Paul II, he was considered by many to be a possible future pope. In the end, he was not elected, although continued to be held in high esteem, evidenced by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri-Segni, the titular diocese that the new pope himself had held until his election.
In late 2008, Cardinal Arinze retired as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
Cardinal Arinze was a member of many Curial departments: The Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, Oriental Churches, Causes of the Saints, and Evangelisation of People; the Pontifical Councils for the Laity, Christian Unity, and Culture; the Committee for the International Eucharistic Congresses; and the Ordinary Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.