Priesthood is a revered calling in the Catholic Church. Some priests have risen through the ranks to the position of cardinals – priests of the highest rank in the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinals elect and advise the Pope. Asides their spiritual leadership positions, they have often lent their voices to societal issues. Blessing Enenaite takes a look at the cardinals in Nigeria and their journey so far.
John Cardinal Onaiyekan
Born on January 29, 1944, John Cardinal Onaiyekan is a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church who was made a cardinal in 2012. He was consecrated the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ilorin, Kwara State in 1984 and elevated to the position of the Archbishop of Abuja in 1994 and served in that capacity till 2019. He served as the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria from 2007 to 2010 and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria in 2000.
He attended St Mary’s Catholic School, Kabba, Kogi State, from 1949 to 1956; Mount St Michael’s Secondary School, Aliade, Benue State, from 1957 to 1962; and Ss Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Bodija, Ibadan, Oyo State, from 1963 until 1965.
After he finished his religious studies in Rome, Italy, in 1969, Bishop Auguste Delisle of Lokoja Diocese, Kogi State, ordained him a priest on August 3, 1969. In November 1980, he joined the International Catholic/Methodist Dialogue Commission. He received his Episcopal consecration on January 6, 1983 by Pope John Paul II.
Onaiyekan has often condemned unscrupulous practices of the government. In December 2022, he complained about the state of insecurity in the country, adding that it seems there was no solution to the menace.
He made these statements in his keynote address delivered during the special citizens’ summit in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the National Association of Seadogs, popularly known as Pyrates Confraternity, in Abuja.
Onaiyekan said, “The state of insecurity is making almost every aspect of our national life problematic. Worst of all is the fact that it appears that the state has no answer to how to keep our nation safe, while to do that is the primary obligation of any government. The situation of our social services that have been running down is affecting almost everyone.
“In particular, social services that are under government control have suffered major neglect, whether in education or health services, roads or sanitation. Often, Nigerians have to fend for themselves. But there is a limit to how much individuals can cater for all their needs.”
Hope for the nation
He also noted that Nigeria was not a failed nation because there were other areas that were working. Also, he recognised the effort of the citizens, who were determined to fill the gaps left by bad governance.
He said, “Basic institutions are still functioning even though not at an optimal level. A bad or weak government is better than no government at all. I do not believe that we have reached a state of total anarchy. We still have a police force and armed forces and other security agents, once in a while performing their duties.
“We must not forget the many Nigerians who are working hard to plug the holes and fill the gaps left by bad governance. Most of them continue to do their duty with little or no recognition or reward. I believe that these are those who are still keeping the rickety system standing.”
In 2012, he was honoured with the Pax Christi International Peace Award – an award aimed at honouring individuals who stand up for peace, justice and nonviolence across the globe.
Peter Cardinal Okpaleke
On August 27, 2022, Bishop Peter Okpaleke was made a cardinal by Pope Francis. Born on March 1, 1963, he is a prelate of the Catholic Church and has been the Bishop of Ekwulobia since April 29, 2020. Education was a priority for him as he attended different seminaries, including Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, to study Philosophy and Theology between 1988 and 1992 before he proceeded to the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, Rivers State, between 1995 and1997. He attended Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, Italy, where he bagged a doctorate degree in Canon Law in 2002.
On August 22, 1992, Okpaleke was ordained a priest. Thereafter, he occupied the position of the Assistant Secretary to the Bishop from 1992 to 1995, and the Financial Administrator of the Awka Diocese, Anambra State, from 1997 to 1999. Between 2002 and 2011, he was the Diocesan Chancellor. He has also occupied other top positions in the Catholic Church.
Inspiration to excel
The road to success has not always been smooth for Okpaleke as he faced some resistance when he was appointed Bishop of Ahiara Diocese in Imo State in December 2012. Some aggrieved clergies and parishioners rejected him as their bishop because he is not an indigene of the area. This made him resign his position and the Pope created the Ekwulobia Diocese in Anambra State and made him the bishop. Rather than being deterred by the situation, he was spurred to attain a greater position in the church.
In an interview with Vatican City News in August 2022, he gave credit to God for enabling him to attain the position of a cardinal. He said, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God. By the grace of God, it has pleased the Holy Spirit working in the Church. Jesus talks of this type of peace in John 14:27. Now, I know what Jesus meant; that he gives us peace; not the kind of peace that the world gives.
“Ours is a providential God who, in spite of seeming confusion and randomness, directs history to his purpose and invites all to open themselves up and contribute their own God-given energies, insights, and talents to the divine project of making the face of the earth to reflect more clearly the kingdom of God.”
Anthony Cardinal Okogie
One of the prelates of the Catholic Church in the country who has made a name for himself is Anthony Cardinal Okogie. He was born into a royal family in Edo State on June 16, 1936. His father, Michael Okogie, was the son of King Ogbidi Okogie of Uromi, Edo State, while his mother, Lucy née Afolabi), was from the Yoruba tribe.
Okogie was made a cardinal on October 21, 2003 by Pope John Paul II. He was ordained a priest on December 11, 1966 and was drafted into the Nigerian Army, where he served as a chaplain. The former President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (1988 to 1995) was also the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria from 1994 to 2000. He became the Archbishop of Lagos in April 1973 at the age of 36 and retired in 2012 having reached the age limit of 75 years. Previously, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Oyo Diocese in 1971 at the age of 34 and Auxiliary Bishop of Lagos in 1972.
Decision to be a priest
Speaking to Sunday PUNCH in July 2017 on why he decided to be a priest, the octogenarian said although he was quite rascally at a young age, he had always been a church person.
He said, “I was already an altar server in the church. I liked the way the priests acted. I continued my secondary education at Saint Theresa Catholic Minor Seminary at Oke Are in Ibadan, Oyo State. I was still very rascally then and they were trying to mould us. They succeeded partially. I later moved to the major seminary in Bodija, Oyo State.
“In 1963, I went to Rome to complete my priestly course. I became a deacon in 1966 and was asked to come back home by Archbishop J. K. Aggey. He said he wanted my ordination to be done by him. Incidentally, my sister also became a reverend sister. People felt that my sister was too beautiful to be a sister. In those days, when one had a girlfriend, one couldn’t kiss or hold her in public. The older women had a special way of rebuking young men that one would not try it.”
Obstacles to priesthood
It wasn’t a rollercoaster ride when he decided to be a priest because he faced opposition from his father, who preferred him to be an engineer or a doctor.
Okogie said, “When I told my father that I wanted to become a priest, he told me I was crazy. Being the first child, my father felt it was a wrong decision. I didn’t blame him. He wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. He was not too pleased with my result at Saint Gregory’s College. He wondered why I was not among the best three in the class. He said, ‘Those with good results, do they have two heads?’ Meanwhile, I had been reiterating my ambition to my mother. She told me to pray.
“In 1953, I bluntly told my father during the mid-term holiday that I had made up my mind to be a priest. He told my mum, ‘You better talk to your son’. Then, when you talk to an elderly man, you would face the ground, as if one was addressing the ground. When he saw I was resolute, he let me go. Many people later talked to him to allow me.”
The cleric also revealed he handles temptations by being disciplined, adding that Jesus also faced temptations. He said, “Even Jesus was tempted. It was after the third time that the devil left him for a time. Discipline is the key. If one can’t discipline one’s urges as a priest, one is finished.”
Love for music
Besides his commitment to the church, Okogie loves music and he is a fan of some musicians. He said, “I like Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti. When I want deep politics, I listen to Fela. At the time Fela died, the British Broadcasting Corporation asked me to give my impression about him. I told them he was a good man. They were surprised that I could say that as a bishop. Fela told people the truth, which they never liked. I like him so much. I also improved my Yoruba with Sunny Ade and Obey’s lyrics. I like ‘Ekilo fo mode’ by KSA.”
Criticisms against the government
He has often criticised the government over its inability to deliver on its promises. In March 2021, he spoke about the state of insecurity in the country, stating, “We must tell ourselves the truth. Nigerians have fallen victims of dirty and wicked politics whose actors engage and arm their militias during the season of electioneering, fail to disarm them and fail to settle debts owed to them after the campaign.
“Could it be the case, as some have been suggesting, that the arms they used to terrify political opponents are what they now use to traumatise Nigerians? Innocent lives are lost every day. There is bloodshed in our land. The psyche of the average Nigerian is subjected to torture. Our children are being abducted at school. Their abduction represents the future of Nigeria. Nigeria is in dire need of responsible, accountable and competent leadership. We need leaders who unite, not those who divide in order to get into power and consolidate power.”
Francis Cardinal Arinze
Since 1985, Francis Cardinal Arinze has held the position of a cardinal. He was born on November 1, 1932 in Anambra State. He has occupied several positions, including leading the Secretariat for Non-Christians (later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue) from 1984 to 2002.
He was one of the principal advisors to Pope John Paul II and was considered papabile (one who is likely to be elected a pope) at the papal conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. In 1950, he graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the All Hallows Seminary in Onitsha, Anambra State. Although his father was not comfortable with his decision to join the seminary, he later encouraged him after he saw his level of dedication.
He bagged a doctorate degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Urban University, Rome, Italy. Then, he was ordained a priest at the chapel of the university by the pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith on November 23, 1958. From 1961 to 1962, he was a professor of liturgy (a form of public worship by a religious group), logic and basic philosophy at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu.
Thereafter, he was appointed the regional secretary for Catholic education for the eastern part of Nigeria. He was then transferred to London, where he attended the Institute of Education and graduated in 1964. On July 6, 1965, Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Onitsha, Anambra State. He was consecrated on August 29, 1965 at the age of 32. This made him the youngest person to occupy that position in the world.
He attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and was made an archbishop on June 26, 1967. Between 1979 and 1984, he was the President of the Nigerian Bishops Conference. In April 1984, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the pro-president of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He resigned from his post in Onitsha on March 9, 1985.
Honours and religious dialogue
Arinze’s works did not go unnoticed as he has received several honours over the years. On October 24, 1999, he received a gold medallion from the International Council of Christians and Jews for his outstanding achievements in inter-faith relations. He was named as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2002, and he resigned in December 2008.
In October 2012, at a public presentation of a book in his honour titled, ‘Cardinal Francis Arinze: The Church pathfinder of dialogue and communion’, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, he spoke on the need for inter-religious dialogue.
According to Arinze, the book will provide an opportunity for students to know what the Catholic Church is doing in the area of religious dialogue. He added that religious dialogue meant “meeting people of other religious convictions; listening to them, (which some find very difficult), and them listening to us.”
He has received honorary degrees from several universities globally, including the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Enugu State, in 1986; Wake Forest University, United States of America, 1999; Catholic University of Manila, Philippines, 2001; and Seton Hall University, United States of America, 2005.
Materialism in the church
In September 2014, he spoke against materialism in the church, adding that the proliferation of religious bodies was not God’s will. According to him, having too many churches will lead to gathering people with various needs.
He said, “Jesus Christ prayed that those who believe in him may be one and instituted only one church, so, there is no doubt that multiplicity of religious bodies is against the will of God.
“Proliferation of churches has not really benefited man, because for some people, it may be capable of gathering those with a particular state of need. People with need for babies, marriage, progress in their business, healing of their sicknesses, may have spiritual problems or they just want to read the Bible and get it interpreted in a way they like. This is because there is another way it is interpreted elsewhere they do not like.”
He added that although the church was very large, Jesus was capable of meeting the needs of his flock, stating, “Jesus Christ recommended one flock and one Shepherd to ensure plenty of attention to people’s problems and needs. The Catholic Church in Japan, England, America and Italy may not be the same but believe in one God.”
The church and corruption
Arinze also complained about the alarming growth rate of churches in the country, yet there is corruption everywhere and lack of love is evident. Besides, he noted that if the citizens loved themselves, the country would be a better place.
He said, “Jesus Christ instituted one church, so having up to 10,000 churches in Nigeria is alarming. However, if that is the case, the 9,999 came out of one church He instituted. If Nigerians are having many churches and they are still corrupt, lack love for God and neighbours, and steal what belongs to the public, then we must conclude that they are not following what God is preaching and the teaching of Jesus Christ.
“If Nigerians love God and their neighbours, the country will become a minor paradise; bribery, corruption, kidnapping and political backstabbing will stop; and people will be content with what they have.”