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Last Updated: Monday, 18 April 2005, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
Profile: Cardinal Francis Arinze

By David Loyn
BBC News, Eziowelle, Nigeria

In the history of the Church, there cannot have been many candidates for the papacy who come from as poor a background as Francis Arinze - certainly none who have travelled so far, either in distance or in the journey of their faith.

Francis Arinze
Francis Arinze is an extreme conservative on moral issues
He was born in 1932 in a hut made of coconut matting in the tiny village of Eziowelle, not far from the huge Niger river which marks the border of the Igbo-speaking region of south-eastern Nigeria.

His parents were peasant farmers, and believed in an indigenous village religion. But when a Catholic mission school opened in the village, Francis followed his brother Christopher into it.

Studious boy

Christopher, older than the Cardinal by six years, is still fit and healthy. He recently remarried after his first wife died, and he has young children.

I wouldn't be thinking that he would become Pope, but if he becomes Pope, then it is God's willing
Christopher Arinze, brother
He remembers that his parents did not object when he took on his Catholic name and faith, and Francis followed suit. There were seven brothers and sisters in all in the family, and they all became Catholics.

Christopher Arinze says that as a boy, Francis was obviously intelligent and always liked to study.

"He could play games, but he was very quiet. He didn't like people fighting or making noise. He liked to study all the time at home, he did not want anybody to stop him."

He went to a local seminary and was talent-spotted when he was 21 years old and taken to Rome to complete his education. He was ordained as a priest in Rome.

When he returned to Nigeria, he worked as education secretary for the regional government, and for some time assisted the Bishop of Onitsha, the nearest city to his birthplace. It was not long before he was a bishop himself at the age of 35, then the youngest bishop in the world.


Since 1985, Cardinal Arinze has been in Rome full-time, moving quickly through the Vatican hierarchy.

His most recent job was as head of the body responsible for keeping an eye on Catholic worship. The reforms brought in at the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s transformed the Catholic Church, which until then had insisted on the same Latin Mass being used worldwide.

Now services can be held in any language, and his job in Rome has been to ensure that regional variations do not deviate too much from the central message.

Cardinal Arinze's experiences in the Nigerian Catholic Church, where vibrant noisy services often go on for two hours or more, have given him a liberal background in this area at least.

He also shares another thing with the Nigerian Catholic Church from which he comes: an extreme conservatism on moral issues, including birth control and abortion - this may make him unacceptable to Catholics in North America and Europe.


Friends say that he found his job in charge of worship a little tedious. His previous post, when he was responsible for the Vatican's relations with other faiths, was the one which excited him.

Catholic mourner
Africa's huge Catholic population is the fastest-growing in the world
Pope John Paul II made a historic rapprochement with Judaism; Cardinal Arinze sees opportunities to do the same with Islam.

Again his Nigerian experiences have helped. The 120 million people in Nigeria - the "most religious country in the world" according to a BBC poll - are roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Despite occasional outbursts of extreme violence, relations between the two faiths here are not generally antagonistic.

Cardinal Arinze believes that because of Catholics' adoration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, they can meet Muslims on common ground.

He is fond of reminding people that Mary is mentioned in the Koran, the Muslim holy book, 34 times.

Going home

He returns to Eziowelle once a year, usually in August, and stays at first in the small shabby concrete house now built on the place where his parents' hut once stood.

Other relatives live in houses in the compound, and after a few days talking to members of his family, Cardinal Arinze goes to stay with his oldest brother in a modest house nearby, where he tells tales of his travels and his hopes for better relations with Muslims.

His brother Christopher said: "I wouldn't be thinking that he would become pope, but if he becomes pope, then it is God's willing."

He then paused and remembering that John Paul was once shot, he said that perhaps it would be better if his brother did not become pope.

The chief of the village, Michael Okonkwo, said: "The world may not be ready for a black pope. I have my fear as to whether the world has adjusted itself enough to accept a black pope."

But given the troubled times at the start of the 21st Century, a pope who has new ideas on bridging the divide with Islam may be uniquely qualified to say things to the world outside the Church.

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