The Catholic Missionaries led by Rev. Fr. Joseph Lutz C.S.Sp landed at Onitsha on the banks of the River Niger, in Eastern Nigeria on 6 December, 1885. The Royal Niger Company, which was administering the area on behalf of the British Government, was friendly to those Holy Ghost missionaries and gave them free hand to preach the Gospel and educate the people. Soon, the missionaries developed an educational system, which penetrated into every nook and corner of the area. By the time Anizoba was born to Joseph and Bernadette Arinze of Umuokpaeche family in Odida village Eziowelle, November 1 1932, the town had already heard, not just about the missionaries, but had also come to appreciate the power of the schools run by them. No wonder the young Anizoba was sent to one of those schools by the parents.
Even though the parents were adherents of the African Traditional Religion, they did not hesitate to send their children to the Mission Schools. Part of the things taught in the school was obviously Christian religious knowledge. So, the young Anizoba joined the others in the class, and in 1941 at the age of 9, he was baptized and took the name Francis. This was in no way exceptional. Even though there was no compulsion, practically all who attended the mission schools in those days also switched over to the Christian religion.
Parents had generally no objection to that. On the contrary, they saw very positive traits in the life of those children who went to school and became Christians. It was therefore not only the young Francis, but also his two senior brothers and his sisters were all baptized.
He completed his primary school at St. Anthony’s Dunukofia. Even at that time, it was clear to both teachers and pupils that he was a specially gifted person. The following year, in 1947 he gained admission into the Junior Seminary, which was then located at Nnewi. In 1952 he graduated from the Junior Seminary, where he achieved excellent results at both the Junior Cambridge and Senior Cambridge examinations. This excellent result won him an exemption from the London Matriculation, which was highly valued at that time.
With this, the road was cleared for his movement to Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu, where he pursued the prescribed three years Philosophical studies on his way to the priesthood from 1953-1955. His performance was so good that the missionaries thought it was better to send him to Rome where he would be more exposed to both learning facilities and eminent professors. So he was admitted to the Urban University in Rome. There, he obtained the Bachelors Degree in Theology in 1957, the masters degree in 1959 and the doctorate degree with Summa Cum Laude in 1960. The first part of his doctoral theses. “Igbo Sacrifice as an introduction to the Catechesis of Holy Mass” was later to become a reference work for so many scholars after it was published by the Ibadan University Press under the title “Sacrifice in Ibo Religion” in 1970.
His ordination to the priesthood took place in Rome on 23 November, 1958. After his doctorate degree, he came back to Nigeria and lectured in philosophy at the Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu (1961-1962). In 1963, he was posted to serve as Education Secretary at Enugu, but left in October the same year to do a post graduate course in education at the Institute of Education of the University of London. Back the following year, he returned to the seat of the Education Secretary and was the representative of the Catholic Church on matters of education with the government of Eastern Nigeria.
In 1965, he was appointed the co-adjutor Bishop of Onitsha. With the death of Archbishop Charles Heerey on 7 February, 1967, he was appointed Archbishop of Onitsha in June the same year, the post which he held till he was called to Vatican to head the Secretariat for Non Christian Religions now called Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, in 1984. A year later, he was made a Cardinal.
The priesthood is a call and a gift. No one merits it. Some respond with relative ease and move up to it with support from all sides. For Francis Arinze, it did not begin very easily. To become a Christian was relatively easy for him. He had the singular privilege of having the Blessed Michael Iwene Tansi who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 22 March 1998 as his Parish priest. Indeed he was the first priest he saw in his life. He baptized him in 1941. He heard his first Confession; it was from his hands that he received first Holy Communion. He prepared him for the sacrament of Confirmation and admitted him as a Mass server. He became both father and friend to him till his death in 1964. Even though Joseph Arinze sent him to the Mission School, and did not object to his converting to Christianity, the idea of his becoming a priest was absolutely out of the question. Young Francis had to struggle specially for that. First, he had to convince his mother. That was in itself not easy, but eventually, she yielded. But before he informed her about it, he had already applied for, passed the examination, and was given admission into the Seminary. When his father heard it, he simply said “No you will not go! Why will you not marry and have your own family? Why should you go into a profession where you will be constantly listening to the evil things that people do?” (he was referring to hearing confessions). Francis rallied his brothers to support him. Even that did not seem to make an impression on him. On the threat that his sons who were in school would be withdrawn if he refuses to allow Francis to enter the Seminary, he retorted that they would all come back home and join him in the farm; they would all live happily together. As for the admission, you can forget it. He then remarked – take some money from me, buy a pencil and send to the Rector of the Seminary, he should use the pencil to strike off your name from the list of the candidates. Francis had to run to his parish priest for help. This time, it was no longer Fr. Tansi, but Rev. Fr. Mark Unegbu, who later became the Bishop of Owerri. His support was certainly of great value to him, so that even till today, the bond of friendship that developed between them is so strong that he never fails to spend a few days with Bishop Mark Unegbu in his retirement home at Owerri whenever he comes to Nigeria on holidays.
As soon as his father conceded a fiat in 1952, the gates of the Junior Seminary at Nnewi were opened to him.
Arinze’s family lived a very simple village life, uncomplicated and unassuming. The children had learnt to work hard, and to get along with little material things. He himself was very brilliant. He brought these qualities with him into the seminary and they followed him up till now. The story is told of how he used to carry his luggage on his head and travel on foot from the seminary at Nnewi to his home village at Eziowelle during the holidays, a distance of about 10km, in order to save the little pocket money he had.
As a priest, he did not have the opportunity to work directly in the parish as parish priest, but he missed no opportunity to be pastorally available to the people, especially for Sunday Masses, and Confessions. Nor did he stay long after his ordination before he became a Bishop – 1958, 1965.
Archbishop Charles Heerey C.S.Sp. was a man of great wisdom and commanded enormous respect among the people of Nigeria, especially among the clergy and the religious. At his time, most priests and religious in the country were missionaries, and his seat, Onitsha, was the Metropolitan See of the Province. When Archbishop Heerey died in 1967, it was big news that his successor was not an Irish missionary, not a Holy Ghost Father, but a young man who was his co-adjutor without right of succession the 35-year-old Francis A. Arinze. He stepped into the office during a huge political crisis in Nigeria, and within a few months, the Nigeria/Biafra war broke out. It was his entire province that was Biafra. He had to run away from his headquarters at Onitsha and became a “refugee” in Adazi, and then to Amichi, for the period of the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970.
It was certainly a difficult period for him. But he had very clear ideas about what he had to do – the pastoral care of the teeming population suffering from the ravages of the war, building the edifice of solidarity among the people, helping the refugees, the displaced, the hungry and the sick, being a support for the clergy and religious, most of whom were missionaries, and being a pillar of hope for the people. With the help of the missionaries, he supervised the most effective and efficient distribution of relief materials since the history of wars and conflicts as it was described by one Caritas official. He meticulously kept the Church away from the political decisions and was all things for all men.
The end of the war signalled other difficulties. The Nigerian military government deported all the foreign missionaries in the Archdiocese of Onitsha. There were very few indigenous priests and religious. The Catholic schools were confiscated by the government. Most of these schools were used as Churches or parish halls. The government adopted many anti-Christian policies. The people of the area sank into deeper poverty as they returned to devastated homes and their currency exchanged for a humiliating pittance in Nigerian currency. The work of reconstruction and rehabilitation faced him squarely. It needed a man like him to manage the very scarce resources, both human and material, to pilot the affairs of the Archdiocese at that time, with such tremendous success. He spent very little on himself and helped the priests to appreciate the value of a simple life style. There was massive vocation drive organized every year in every parish. A good chunk of his time was devoted to pastoral visits to parishes. Committees and Councils were put in place and were sufficiently empowered. The lay faithful, men and women, were encouraged to play their role in Church and society. Careful personnel management he led to adapted, successful coverage of pastoral areas as well as on-going formation of priests. Two minor seminaries were run, and in a short time, the number of aspirants to the priesthood and religious life rose to several hundreds.
The spiritual life of the People of God was very high on the agenda. Every parish organized annual retreats for all the groups in the parish and participation in different Church celebrations, seminars, and rallies was encouraged. The priests had their annual retreats together, and in addition, a monthly day of recollection was introduced. Special attention was given to catechists. Their position in the ministry of the Church was duly recognized. Two monasteries were established, the Benedictines for women and the Cistercians for men. He founded the Religious Congregation of the Brothers of St. Stephen whose special charism is catechesis.
Pastoral letters, especially at the time of Lent became a great source of inspiration to Christian life for both priests, religious and laity, each treating a special aspect relevant at the time. From 1971 to 1983, he helped the People of God in the Archdiocese share his thoughts on the following: The Hour of the Laity (1971), More Justice for the Poor (1972), The Church and Nigerian Culture (1973), The Greatest Investment (1974), Spreading the Good News (1975), Work and the Christian (1976), The Christian as Leader (1977), The Christian and Money (1978), The Child has Rights (1979), The Christian and the Family (1980), The Holy Eucharist our Life (1981), The Christian and Politics (1982), the Christian and Chastity (1983).
These pastoral Letters so inspired the people that a yearly quiz competition developed out of them in the Archdiocese at all levels. In practical terms, it was first studied at the station level and a quiz competition was arranged for each statutory organization – Catholic Men, Catholic Women, Catholic Girls and Catholic Boys. Each group would select 10 best competitors to move up to the parish level. At the end of the parish competition, 40 people (10 from each organization) will be selected to go for the zonal competition (there were 16 zones). The zonal winners of each group will then go for the Archdiocesan competition. This practice ensured that these pastoral letters were thoroughly studied and lived.
Fr. Francis Nnalue Akukwe, in introducing one of his publications in 1983, (In Christ, to Christ and for Christ) said of him: “He is remarkable in being simple, clear, precise and relevant,” but he forgot to add that he is full of humour.
The period in which Francis Cardinal Arinze worked as Archbishop of Onitsha is aptly described by Dominic Cardinal Ekandem in these words: “As a priest and more so as a Bishop, Archbishop Arinze has worked tirelessly for Christ and His Church. His voice eloquent, and his pen versatile have long since been heard and read through the land. His special charism is that of moving and doing. His Grace initiates, leads and gets great things done for Christ. `When Pope Paul VI of happy memory visited Uganda, he envisioned Africans becoming missionaries to Africa and the world. Archbishop Arinze is a noble personification of the high hopes of Pope Paul VI. He is an apostle in the grand tradition of the first Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He is a patriot of great distinction…”
When Cardinal Arinze was called to work for the universal Church in the Vatican, it came as a great shock to the People of God in the Archdiocese. He was a real pastor, a real shepherd, in the Archdiocese of Onitsha for 17 years. People did not think it would come to an end in this way. Yet everybody had agreed that the Pope had made a good choice. As much as the people wanted him to be in Onitsha, so much did they want him to accept the special responsibility for the universal Church.
It was a situation of “mixed feelings” as was frequently voiced out by many at that time. Eventually, the People of God decided not only to accept this as divine providence but also to share with him all hopes and anxieties associated with this appointment. As an outward demonstration of this solidarity, they organized a pilgrimage to Rome to correspond to the time of his taking up the appointment. They prayed with him in Rome, and symbolically handed him over to God, Our Lady, and the Church for the new form of apostolate. A similar pilgrimage was organized to correspond with the consistory in which he was created Cardinal in 1985.
There in the Vatican City, Cardinal Arinze remained every inch himself – simple, hardworking, prayerful, humorous, methodical and precise. He had always loved to pray together with his household. He still keeps to that in the Vatican City where he lives with a priest who is his secretary, and two Brothers of St. Stephen who keep the house and at the same time do some studies. He works as much in the office, as he does at home, but he will not miss his lawn tennis game, at least, once a week.
Cardinal Arinze had been away from Nigeria since 1984, but that has in no way diminished the love, which his former flock has for him. On the contrary, the clergy, the religious and the laity “hunt” for him whenever he is around on holidays. He has not missed coming home for his holidays even for one year. This “so-called holiday” is filled with pastoral activities everyday. In arranging his programme, one has to struggle to keep a day free for him to be able to pack his bag. Before he left for the Vatican City, the People of God proposed to build a rest house for him in his father’s compound so that he can have a permanent place to stay whenever he comes on holidays. His answer was “That is not necessary. Every Presbytery in Onitsha Archdiocese is also my house.” Indeed, that is what they have been for him till today. He would not score up to 14.000 confirmations in a year, as he used to have when he was Archbishop of Onitsha, but even now, he still confirms close to a thousand candidates when he comes on holidays. Then there are priestly ordinations, funerals, marriages and anniversary celebrations; there are Masses in convents and other religious houses and institutions, seminaries, novitiates and monasteries, there are visits to the prison and hospitals. There are lectures to universities and institutions of higher learning, there is the teaching of catechism and there is the game of tennis.
The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, has awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 1986, and that has been followed by others: Catholic University of America, Washington (USA) in 1998, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem (USA) in 1999, Catholic University of Manila (the Philippines) in 2001, Notre Dame University (USA) in 2003, University of St. Mary of the Lake (USA) in 2003, and Seton Hall University (USA) in 2005. He is honorary citizen of Villapiccola, Belluno (Italy), Houston City (USA) and Baltimore (USA). Among his own people of Eziowelle he is given the title of Ọchọ Udo Ụwa (World’s Peace Maker).His dedication as a pastor leads him to visit United States of America constantly to participate in the programmes of the Family Apostolate in the production of series of tapes on Family Catechism, and some Papal documents.
With the retirement and death of Bernardin Cardinal Gantin, Cardinal Arinze is now the only African Cardinal in the Roman Curia.
On 1 October 2002, Pope John Paul II transferred him from the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, one of the three most important offices of the Roman Curia.
He celebrated his 75th birthday on 1 November 2007 and the Golden Jubilee celebration of his priestly ordination on 23 November 2008.