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May 27, 2006

How not to Tackle the Da Vinci Code

by Okumephuna Chukwunwike (Rome, Italy) ---- After much expectation and of course anxiety over the effect it will have on the faith, belief and thinking of its viewers, the controversial film The Da Vinci Code finally debuted at the commencement of the 59th Edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

The Da Vinci Code which is actually the film version of a novel of the same name by Dan Brown is quite interesting from two angles in the sense that even though it is a very controversial film bordering on the faith of over 2 billion world Christians and about 1 billion Roman Catholics, it is at the same time a lesson on how to handle a very sensitive issue that borders on the faith of the people. This becomes very important against the background of the recent controversy surrounding the publication and republications of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, which some Muslims claimed was offensive to them, their faith and the person of the prophet.

In fact The Da Vinci Code due to what has been described as its sacrilegious and scandalous tone is also attracting same criticism from different quarters of the Christian world with the loudest noise coming from the Vatican and the Opus Dei, the two main characters or hinges upon which the door of the film revolves. But the fact is that unlike what happened with the Prophet Mohammed carton controversy, the Vatican and the Opus Dei are being diplomatic in their protests and criticisms. And I must add that it is exactly what is expected from whoever feels that his faith has been insulted or offended. I believe that two wrongs can never make a right. We cannot right a wrong by committing another wrong. What happened in Nigeria during the cartoon controversy is a good example on why violence cannot and should not be used to send a message on how aggrieved we are over certain issues. In fact the killing of Christians and burning of both their houses and churches met with reprisal attack in the South especially in the Southeast of the country. A friend from the Southeast justifying the reprisal attack noted that nobody or religion has the monopoly of killing others. Is that not senseless and stupid of us all?

Even though I began by eulogising the Vatican and the Opus Dei on the diplomatic way they have been handling matters arising from the film, I honestly still have my reservations on certain moves I see as barbaric in that diplomacy which reminds one of the almighty Roman Catholic Church of the middle ages when men and women were wantonly burnt at stakes over flimsy excuses and cheer ignorance. The brutal murder of Galileo and lots of others who suffered the same fate in the hands of the church is still fresh in the mind of the people. While the hullabaloo surrounding the film is still going on some high ranking clergy of the Roman Catholic church threw caution to the wind by insinuating violence covertly by either asking the Roman Catholics to boycott the film or take a legal action. In fact one of the highest-ranking cardinals asked Dan Brown the author of the novel to do such a film on the Prophet Mohammed and see how the Muslims would welcome it. This is a statement I considered as carrying the issue too far. I am just trying to figure out what this high-ranking cardinal had in mind in making that reference. But whatever, the Cardinal should be openly denounced for taking that issue to that far. With due respect to all, am just wondering when we began to compare Christianity with other religions.

As a Christian we are not taught to fight for God for he said very clearly in the bible that vengeance is His and we should not suddenly learn how to be violent simply because Dan Brown wrote a novel which was eventually put into film and is already nearly making history as the most sold film in the history of Hollywood. All that glitters may not be gold!

The novel whose film version which featured some famous artists including Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Sir Ian Mckellen, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina and Jean Reno, has sold more than 36 million copies in 44 languages. The story line had it that Jesus Christ did not actually die on the cross but married Mary Magdalene and lived happily ever after in the present day France where his descendents eventually became king and spawned a royal line. Also the Opus Dei, a famous religious organization in the Roman Catholic Church was depicted in both the film and the novel as a very influential controversial murderous organisation taking lives wantonly in order to conceal the ‘fact’. The Opus Dei has a special status of a personal prelature in the Catholic Church meaning that even though they could be present in a diocese, they do not necessarily owe allegiance to the local bishop but to their own bishop who reports directly to the Vatican. This has caused a very complicated situation in the church because most often the Opus Dei do not consult the local bishops before taking actions the local bishops should ordinarily be aware of simply because the Opus Dei and its members have been structured by the Vatican not to owe allegiance to them. This no doubt could be embarrassing and insulting to these local bishops.

The Opus Dei itself is also not helping the matter. It is no secret that in this age of globalisation and information technology the Opus Dei still prefers to keep most of its activities secret thereby opening up room for suspicion. To give a picture of what Opus Dei looks like to some Roman Catholics I would like to quote extensively from a letter that appeared on page 19 of an English Roman Catholic weekly, the Tablet of October 15, 2005. The letter was written by a Jesuit priest, Father James Martin SJ as a reaction to an article earlier published in that weekly. The letter is titled; ‘Opus Dei Secrecy’ and I quote,

May I offer a brief but substantive correction to Christopher Howse’s review of John Allen’s book on Opus Dei (Books, 1 October)? In his review, Mr Howse recounts the story of my research for a 1995 article on Opus Dei for America. Mr Howse notes that although I reported that Opus Dei’s statutes were secret, in reality they are-and were at the time-readily available. But as John Allen accurately recounts in his new book, the truth is more complex and more revelatory of Opus Dei. When I first asked the group for a copy of their statutes, they said that they were not permitted to distribute them to non-members. After I spoke with a canon lawyer who disputed this claim, Opus Dei then replied that the statutes had not been translated into English and besides were in “church Latin”, whatever that meant. Eventually I obtained them from outside Opus Dei. (As for Mr Howse’s comment that Opus Dei’s statues were easily retrieved from the internet in 1995, I note for the record that Google, for example, started operations in 1998). The main point is how odd it was for a catholic organization, time and again, to withhold something as simple as their statutes from a Catholic writer interested in learning more about the group. It is this kind of secrecy, which Opus Dei now says it is trying to change, which has long frustrated and even angered so many Catholics.

It is quite interesting and coincidental that this film is coming out at this time of history. As I have pointed out earlier, couple of months back there was a little air of panic round the globe as a result of controversy generated by the publication of the cartoon of Prophet Mohammed by the media. The dust generated by that panic is yet to settle down before this controversial film made its debut last week.

As a Christian am also affected by this film because the main gist of the story touches my faith as a Christian. It has to do with the God I believe in as a Christian. We have held this faith for over 2000 years but then The Da Vinci Code should not be a reason for Christians to react as people who have no solid faith in Christ. Though the film has all to do with my faith and my God, I do not consider myself fit to pick up arm and fight for Him because He said that vengeance is His. It makes little sense fighting for God when you are still a sinner and the only one worthy to fight for Him is one without sin and who is that. And by the way I wonder the type of God that would sanction killing, punishment or vengeance in his name. Catholics who are asked to take legal action against the film should rather think of helping the poor and those in need with that money. Christ would obviously not be happy seeing them wasting that money on useless and senseless venture in His name. The Vatican and the Opus Dei, the two main characters in the film have been fighting tooth and nail to ensure that Christians especially Roman Catholics do not patronise the film. This is a reaction, which I think may end up causing more harm than doing any good to the Church. I think we should rather face Dan Brown and those behind the film with prayer as our only weapon. Our collective prayers may touch their hearts and eventually make them to turn around and say we are sorry. That will make more sense to God than asking us to boycott the film or take legal action against them.

I feel at home with the condemnation of both the novel and film as the right thing to do but going a step further to ask us to boycott the film and take a legal action would tantamount to reminding us the era of the Holy Roman Empire when the Vatican has the almighty power to dictate which books to be read and which not to be read by either issuing imprimatur or nihil obstat in case of books to be read or listing in Index of Forbidden Books the ones not to be read. As a catholic I would not want my church to take such a stand because it seems very primitive. Dan Brown has the right to write whatever he wants to write so far he does not insult the person of Christ and I have the right to read the ones I want to read. Dan Brown by writing The Da Vinci Code is exercising his fundamental human right and myself refusing to read the book is also exercising my own right just like the Vatican has also the right to criticise the film. But going a step further to cow the Catholics into boycotting the film and taking of legal action could be interpreted as crossing the boundary. It could be as well interpreted as a deliberate violation of my fundamental human right to conscience and to make a choice. The world of today is too globalised to the extent that so many things cannot just work as a punitive measure. What have we done to pornographic features flying here and there in different media of communication?

I do not believe that Dan Brown has insulted the person of Christ. If Christ really married Mary Magdalene what’s about it. Marriage is not a sin likewise sex. The church teaching is that premarital sex is a sin and if Christ really had children with Mary Magdalene it was within marriage according to the gospel of Dan Brown. I strongly believe that the role of the Vatican here should be to inform the Catholics of dangers inherent in watching the film or reading the novel but by going a step further to ask for boycott and legal action against the film probably under the pain of moral obligation would not only be a violation of the fundamental human right of Dan Brown to his business and the conscious of Catholics but also could be interpreted as a sign of a church that is not in tune with the thinking of his faithful. I do not want to believe that my beloved Roman Catholic Church is not in tune with my thinking.

The reaction of both the Vatican and the Opus Dei of recent has not really helped the issue. They only succeeded in making themselves marketing media for the novel and the film. In fact I was forced to buy the novel with three other of Dan Brown’s work after reading so much about the reactions of both the Vatican and the Opus Dei and am quite sure that many others got to know about this film and the book through this way. In fact what gave impetus to my desire to buy the novels was when the Vatican directed the removal of a banner advertising the film in one of the churches in Rome.

This may not be a good time for us Christians but am definitely sure it is a better chance for us to express what we believe in. Just like every other Christian I believe that Jesus Christ born of the Blessed Virgin Mary is my God. He is the same today, yesterday and forever. I believe that He came down from heaven in the form of man to save mankind from sin. I believe that he was crucified, died and buried and rose again on the third day. These I believe with faith as truth and they are evident in my bible but I never saw where it was written that he married Mary Magdalene and had some kids with her and therefore I do not believe in that story, the film and even the novel. I do not expect Dan Brown to believe what I believe in but I owe him a duty to preach about the risen Christ to him. Buying and reading the book should not be interpreted as believing in Dan Brown. That is his own personal opinion as far as am concerned and he has every right in the world to express it and I as a Christian has also the right to buy either the film or the book without believing the content.

Our response as Christians matters a lot at this time. Do we kill him? Do we excommunicate him? Do we burn him at the stake? Do we murder him? All these are obviously going to the extreme and clearly contrary to the teaching of the Christ who is the source of our faith and hope. Am not in doubt that some Christians have thought of doing that but the simple truth is that there is no room for these thoughts in Christianity. What I remembered the Bible said is that we should forgive, love and pray for our enemies and for one to infer that it is because of this passage of the bible that many people have had the audacity to insult Christ and Christianity and go free would be interpreted as knowing more than Christ.

Our response therefore as Christians should be to take up not swords but love and prayer for time will surely come when all shall beat their swords into ploughshares and nations shall learn war no more.

Okumephuna Chukwunwike
Roma, Italia

Posted by Administrator at 09:09 PM | Comments (0)

The Theology of Condom and the Choice of Life and Death

by Okumephuna Chukwunwike (Rome, Italy) ---- As a Roman Catholic and an African, am already worried about what would be the outcome of the instruction being prepared by the Pontifical Council for Health on the use of condom by married couples in the fight against HIV and AIDS which are already causing havoc in different parts of the world but especially in Africa which unfortunately is bearing the highest brunt of these epidemics today.

I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the instruction but am very much afraid and worried that once again a very important issue bordering on human life would further be complicated by a many-paged academic locubrations from the Vatican. I am also afraid that the outcome may not be very far from the traditional views of the Roman Catholic Church. The instruction is likely at the end of the day to repeat the Vatican cliché and familiar tune of procreation being the essence of marital sex and therefore whatever goes against this would be considered obstruction to the Will of God and therefore not just a sin but a mortal one that can only be absolved by bishops. That in itself is a plausible argument and quite understandable because it makes every sense. But we have to take a holistic view of this argument from the theory of lesser evil to grasp the reason the Roman Catholic Church should for once be liberal on issues like this, after all we are talking now not about contraception but saving of life.

I am just wondering what would have been the response of Our Lord Jesus Christ if He were still present physically with us here on earth. But before then recall that instead of outright condemnation He told an adulterous woman to go and sin no more. Recall again that when accused of breaking the Sabbath day by healing a diseased man He asked his accusers which is lesser evil to heal a diseased man on the Sabbath day or to abandon him in his suffering and sorrow. Bearing these in mind then, I have no doubt that Christ would have sanctioned the use of condom by married couples in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. He would probably have asked which is lesser evil to contact a disease and die or to prevent a disease and live.

A conservative Roman Catholic may not appreciate the tone of this argument, if he has not been to Africa or other parts of the world similar to Africa. Still he is not likely to read further if he has not been privileged to know what it means to be poor or ignorant. An Italian friend once told me a story of his poverty, which at the end of the day left me, confused on what poverty is. I was very much confused because this is a young man like myself who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Rome with a nice small car and of course has been touring the world in the last four years each summer on vacation. He is just 26, has a degree in Architecture and still has more brighter future ahead of him and he told me he is poor. I was a little offended because that statement was made in a midst of a very serious conversation. Well at the end of the day I concluded that this young man should take a vacation to Africa to see what the other side of the world is all about. This is his idea of being poor and am sure that this apply also to other Europeans and Americans who have not been to Africa. In fact if that is what poverty is all about I pray the Lord to bless Africa with more poverty in Jesus name, Amen.

My argument is not actually that Africa is poor as such. Africa has a lot of natural, manmade and intellectual resources to lead the world but as a result of injustice being condoned by the west, Africa may not enjoy in the next one thousand years what Europeans and Americans are taking for granted today. For instance all the money looted from my country Nigeria by our corrupt politicians past and present including the current President Olusegun Obasanjo and his fellow compatriots are either in Swiss banks or inform of assets in other European and American cities. As a result Africa today has an unenviable record of being the world poorest continent and having a huge population of the poorest of the poor and illiterates. From this picture it could be appreciated how African problems including health issues, terrorism, wars, conflicts and the likes are intertwined with poverty and illiteracy. It can only take a visit to understand this scenario well.

Therefore the proposed instruction if not taken into consideration the African background may end up being offensive to Africans especially bearing in mind that most Vatican polices in the past have been Ameri-Eurocentric with little or less contribution from Africa which has if not the highest population of active Roman Catholics, the second largest in the world. It seems the Vatican has also this attitude that nothing good comes out of Africa and therefore consulting them for their contributions may not be important. As it is well known the present Vatican stand on the reason condom should not be used as lesser evil in the fight against the virus is based on the 1968 document ‘Humanae Vitae’ issued by the papacy of Pope Paul VI though the document had no HIV and AIDS in mind in the first place before its debut.

The summary of the document is that the essence of marital sex is procreation and therefore any use of sexual device within marriage, which impedes that plan, is immoral and therefore a sin. Good! But we are today talking about saving and prolonging that life. I have no doubt that when the document was issued, there has not been reported any case of HIV and AIDS. Am sure also that little or no African consultation was deemed necessary before the issuance of the document. They would have advised on the over technicality of the documents and why it may not work in Africa. I have not also stopped wondering if that highly academic document is meant to instruct my illiterate parents, brothers and sisters back home in my poor small village in Nigeria. Having lived in Europe for quite sometime, I have no doubt that most Europeans are not just ignorant of what happens in Africa but lacks even the simplest basic fact about the continent.

Nigeria may be an exception to this argument because we are fortunate to have a reasonable number of educated people and families who live a little above average of poverty level. In fact about 60% of our about 120 million population live below poverty level. But then the twin issue of HIV and AIDS have not been very fair to us as a country. Today with about 3.5 million people living with the virus out of that population of about 120 million, we have the third highest rate of the burden after South Africa and India. These three countries have also noticed in the last few years the continuous depletion of its active population especially those between the ages of 18 and 45 and consequently the leaving behind of huge army of orphans with the virus as clearly witnessed in countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Botswana and of course Nigeria and India. In these countries, it is now a case of grandparents taking care of their HIV and AIDS infected grandchildren.

That is actually not the most pathetic part of the story. The most pathetic side is that these grandparents do not have the strength and the money to feed their hungry grandchildren who die daily as a result of hunger and complications associated with these viruses. Let us not talk about the life saving Antiretroviral Therapy because it will expose a lot of corruption in the African health system. Before leaving Nigeria in October 13, 2005 out of 3.5 million Nigerians who are living with the virus, it was only about less than 10,000 that were benefiting from the Federal Government sponsored Antiretroviral Therapy Programme. The Government actually had an ambition to raise it to 150,000 by June of this year but the fact is that it is only the rich and those connected with the rich that have access to this programme thereby leaving thousands of the poor suffering masses to their fate. Due to the ignorance and illiteracy level of the poor masses the cycle of transmission continues spreading sparing nobody not even the riches who depend on the poor for their sexual gratifications in exchange for money, employment and other gratifications.

And therefore for one to stay in the Vatican and issue a highly academic instruction to poor dying souls in remote villages in Africa living under this condition would not only be considered funny but highly offensive to Africans. It would not only tantamount to not appreciating our sufferings and plights but also ridiculing and scorning us while we suffer and die. Christ who refused to endorse the stoning to death of a woman, Mary Magdalene caught in adultery and forgave those who killed Him would certainly have not kept Africans in a very difficult situation like this if He were still alive. I have the impression that the Vatican at the moment is busy circumlocuting and debating over a cup of coffee while people are dying elsewhere. It could be very dangerous placing the faithful on a very high moral pedestal. May be it was because of this that Christ forewarned that we should first remove the log of wood in our eyes before looking for a speck in that of our neighbour.

Being a former health journalist with the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria, I was opportuned to have almost a two year interaction with people living with the virus especially women and children. Most women I met and spoke with told me that they contacted the virus from their husbands. Africa is a very patriarchical society and therefore women have little or no say in the family not even on issues that is about them like sex negotiation with their husbands. To refuse your husband sex is considered highly offensive. In most African cultures, men do not sin and therefore a man having extra-marital affair is considered normal while a woman could be publicly disgraced or even stoned to death for the same offence. This is just a little picture on how most women get the virus from their husbands in Africa on daily basis. It is also how some women infect their husbands. But it should also be noted that even though these women know that their husbands are already infected and that this situation could endanger their own lives and that of their children, due to societal pressure and culture they are forced to continue to fulfil their marital obligation by ensuring that their husbands are supplied with sex whenever and wherever he needs it.

Under this difficult situation the stand of the church is that they should not use condom under the pain of mortal sin. This has left them under a very difficult situation. They are left with no option at all and for them to remain good and loyal Roman Catholics they must remain subject to their infected partners.

I have been wondering what manner of love would make a woman to subject herself to her infected husband to the detriment of their children. I personally believe and think that what would be the right thing to do under this circumstance is for the partners to enter into an agreement that will put an end to sex within that marriage. Simply put a sexless marriage. But since this idea sounds angelic and utopian, I strongly believe that something must be done to save that marriage and protect those lives. It is therefore based on this argument that I strongly believe that the use of condom by the partners justifies itself as lesser evil. Though some quarters are of the opinion that Condom may not be highly effective in the halt of this virus but experts are of the opinion that if well used condom can protect the transmission of HIV and AIDS to a reasonable extent. I think couples should be allowed to make a choice in this case and the Vatican could be of immense help by not placing a very big obstacle to this choice. A man who has never married, I mean a celibate may not be competent to talk on this issue.

Therefore the Vatican while still preparing this document should endeavour to make it have a human face and realistic tone. If it sounds too utopian and angelic, it would put us in a very difficult situation and add to our already heavy burden. It may also force most Roman Catholics in Africa to follow their conscience especially at this difficult and trying time they have only two options of choosing either life or death. And being an African who has seen a lot of brothers and sisters and friends succumb to the virus, I have no doubt that we are likely to choose life if the church refuse us that precious option of life. It may seem unreasonable for us to join in a dance step of a music we do not know its tune.

Am just wondering what the Roman Catholic Church would stand to gain if tomorrow our pastors open the church to see empty pews simply because we have all died of the virus. God forbid we should get to that stage but even if we must get there the church should make hays while the sun shines to place itself under moral obligation to act fast to save our life and the church of tomorrow.

Okumephuna Chukwunwike
Roma, Italia

Posted by Administrator at 05:54 PM | Comments (0)

April 11, 2005

In Defence of Arinze's Candidacy

by Okumephuna Chukwunwike, Abuja ----- My first personal contact with him was in the Jubilee Year, 2000. I was then doing my one year mandatory Students Industrial Work Experience Scheme programme with the Trinitas Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha having finished my Ordinary National Diploma from the Federal Polytechnic at Oko, Anambra State. I was then 21 and you could imagine my excitement to meet him where he normally stays during his yearly leave in Nigeria which comes up every September.

I could still remember the exact date and time. It was September 10, 2000 at about 7:30pm. I was just relaxing in the sitting room waiting for him to come down. My then, Editor, Rev. Fr. Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam, who is now doing his Post Graduate studies in Rome had earlier booked an appointment on my behalf for an interview with him.

And so, there I was in that sitting room alone waiting for my host, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, the then President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican. I was specifically to ask him questions on two main areas. Firstly, on the Silver Jubilee of the Congregation of the Brothers of St. Stephen, a religious order of Roman Catholic brotherhood he founded in 1975, when he was still the Archbishop of Onitsha and secondly, on his work as the President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The third was just my own addition. As a young exuberant journalist, I wanted him to talk on the possibility of him becoming the next pope.

When he came down. I could not believe my eyes. I was expecting to see a pompous fellow but I saw the opposite. I thought he would come in a limousine car escorted by half a dozen other cars with uncountable number of armed policemen and state security officials who will surrounded him from every angle taking orders from him while the rich and highly placed would be busy kissing his golden ring.

His appearance was not too rich, neither was his demeanour proud. He was wearing just a very simple cassock. He had no servants and maids attending to him. He came alone and was more of a proletariat than a bourgeois. To me, he was an epitome of what simplicity and humility is all about. He was just putting on only his Cassock and bathroom slippers.

As soon he saw me, he walked straight to me to greet me and curdled my hairless hair because I normally like to go on skin and asked, ‘Hi young man where are your hairs?’

He eventually answered the first and second aspects of my questions very intelligently, articulatively and marvelously. It was not unexpected people who know Arinze will tell you he is a walking Catholic Encyclopedia. But he could not answer the third one. It was very difficult for him to even utter a word on it. Later he asked me to ask another question saying that he could not answer the third question simply because as a ‘Prince of the Church’ he is forbidden from talking on any issue relating to the succession of a Pope, whether the pope is still alive or dead.

But being too exuberant I was not satisfied with the answer. I felt very bad that this man of God could not answer my question. A very simple question that proved very difficult for him to answer despite his doctorates in philosophy and theology and this and that and erudition in Arabic and Islamic affairs, knowledge of all world religions and cornucopia of others. It was really disgusting.

Since then that number three question has not gone out of my mind. It has always been there. It has always been ‘Can Francis Cardinal Arinze be a Pope? Can he make a history as the first black Pope? And a lot of other questions. But as I grew up in my wealth of knowledge I concluded that if an African man can be a Cardinal, he can as well be a Pope. If Africans can be the Secretary-General of both the Commonwealth and the United Nations, they can as well produce a Pope in this modern time.

If the election of Carol Wojytla from the Communist Poland as Pope John Paul 11 after nearly 500 years of Italian monopoly of the seat could be possible two decades ago, then the next conclave coming in matter of days could prompt an even more startling turn. It may produce a white smoke for a black pope after all the Bible says that God chooses the weak to shame the strong.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, who was until the death of Pope John Paul 11, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worships and a highly placed Vatican official is no doubt today one of the most often-named successor to the deceased Pope. He has all the qualifications to hold the top office in the church. He is very humble, very prayerful, dogmatic, conservative, well-learned in at least eight languages of the world and the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, an expert in world religions and an icon worthy of emulation. He has been described as the link between Christianity and Islam in the modern times. This may play in his favour when the 117 cardinals who are entitled to enter the conclave meets next week to elect a new leader for the world one billion Roman Catholics.

Arinze is a ripe candidate for the papacy but am sure that the Arinze I knew and talked with for about five hours in September, 2000 would be quick to dismiss this idea, at least in public.

Observers say that the increasing prominence of the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, combined with his Interreligious credentials, make him a strong contender.

Catholicism is registering its strongest growth in Africa at the moment. The number of Catholic adherents in Africa increased by 4.5 percent in 2003 says the 2005 Pontifical Year Book, while the number of Catholics in Europe remained constant. In Asia, there was a 2.2 percent increase and in the Americas a 1.2 percent rise. Africa presently accounts for 13.2 percent of the world’s Catholics.

Considering the above advantages, it would therefore tantamount to injustice and unfairness for anyone to posit that Arinze could not be a Pope simply because he is a black and an African. This is a very archaic and uncivilized way of thinking. Many blacks and Africans have done magnificent and unbelievable things in the recent times. I doubt there is still anything the whites have done, Africans have not done too. No doubt, from the above statistic and position, it is obvious that Africa is the strongest of the tripod holding Roman Catholicism today.

Since he left the See of the Archdiocese of Onitsha in 1985, Arinze has headed the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, writing Ramadan Greetings to the Islamic world, traveling extensively around the world and reaching out to members of other faiths.

Whether or not he is elected to succeed John Paul II, Arinze's moment in the spotlight is serving as a reality check for western Catholics, who have been compelled to recognize that the population center of their church has shifted dramatically to Africa and the South America.

In the first few Christian centuries, North Africa produced notable Christian leaders. St. Augustine was from North Africa including his mother St. Monica. So was Pope Gelasius I, who led the church from 492 to 496. He was the third and last pope from Africa. Africa itself experienced a downturn as a major Christian centre after the advance of Islam in the seventh century.

But during the past 30 years, the number of African Catholics has skyrocketed to about 137.5 million. More than 20 million of these are in Nigeria. It is estimated that there are more than 200 million black Catholics around the world, most of them living in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

With two-thirds of the world's one billion Catholics living below the equator, the world's largest Christian denomination is no longer a European institution and therefore talking of a pope from Africa is very significant and could be shouted from the top of the mountains and minarets. No doubt, black Pope has come of age.

Arinze has been a strong proponent of efforts to develop a style of Christianity compatible with African realities, perceptions and cultures rather than the culture of the historically dominant West. This push goes hand in hand with anti-colonial sentiment that dominated the continent during his early years as a young priest.

Frankly speaking, in Africa the growth of the church is very impressive, though it has been going through a lot of hard times. The struggle is going on amidst wars, conflicts, hunger, poverty, refugee problems and diseases like HIV, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which are the three major health risks in the continent. Arinze having been born and brought up under these conditions would definitely have an answer on how to alleviate it.

Arinze's expertise in Islam is highly valued on a continent where Islam is developing swiftly with Christianity. He would later say, “Christians form about 33% of the total world population. Muslims number around 18%. That means that Christians and Muslims are more than a half of humanity. Moreover, theirs are the two religions most widespread geographically.

“It matters very much, not only to Islam and Christianity, but also to the world, how the followers of these two religions relate to one another and how they envisage these relationships at this turning point in the beginning of 21st century”.

Nigeria's nascent democracy is threatened by religious tensions, corruption and instability, reflected in the country's soaring crime rate and recurrent civil conflicts and religious tensions. Optimists say that Arinze's prominence, combined with his emphasis on interreligious respect, could help keep the peace.

From the way things are now in Africa, I have no doubt that Arinze’s former role in the Vatican as President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which ceased on the demise of Pope John Paul 11 helped in bridging the gap of misunderstanding between the Christians and the Muslims on one hand and between the two religions and the African Traditional Religion on the other hand. I think Cardinal Arinze is often proposed as the next pope because he has the skills needed for dialogue, understanding and reconciliation amongst religions. This job, I have no doubt, he will do marvelously well if elected the next Pope.

Arinze learned about coexistence with members of other faiths early in life. Although he was born in Eziowelle in Idemili Local Government Area of Anambra State and ordained and worked as a pastor in Onitsha, a predominantly Catholic city, nearly half of Nigeria's citizens are Muslim. Arinze arranged for Pope John Paul II to meet members of both faiths during the pope's visit to Nigeria in 1982 as well as in 1998.

There is no need pretending not to be aware that Christian-Muslim relations around the world today is like a life-and-death affair but am convinced that religious tolerance and Interreligious dialogue and understanding is going to be one of the most important tool to bring love, tolerance and peaceful co-existence between this two great world religions. I have no doubt that Arinze has a solution to this situation. Before he was appointed the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worships, he has worked as the President of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for 18 years.

Since then, Arinze's name has appeared on virtually every list of possible successors to John Paul II. He has earned a reputation as a forceful and articulate speaker. He is often described as charming and media-savvy, a "diplomat's diplomat." He is uncompromising on doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, a conservative in the mode of John Paul II.

Little wonder that when he heard of the election of Pope John Paul 11 in 1978, he exclaimed: "Now we will have order in the church."

Just like Pope John Paul 11 his mentor, he has been strongly against and strongly opposed to contraception, abortion, married priests, homosexuality, divorce and female ordination. This is a fine quality that will make Arinze a fine product for the papacy.

His conservatism reflects the trend and the current administration in the church. He has never been himself in his job; he is always what the Church wants him to be. A true son and prince of the Church, a quality Roman Catholics would like to see in their Pope.

Born into a pagan Igbo tribe, Arinze became a Christian at the age of 9. He was baptized by his first mentor and teacher in the seminary, the Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi, who will later become the first Nigeria to be beatified by the dead pope and first candidate for the sainthood.

He taught and mentored Arinze and in actual fact opened Arinze's parish in Onitsha in 1939. Arinze would later become his Mass server, followed his encouragement to become a priest, and attended his funeral in England in 1964 when he died eventually as a Cistercian monk in Leicester, England and also participated in his beatification mass in 1998 by Pope John Paul 11.

“He inspired many and we still remember what he preached 50 years ago. To Europeans and Africans, Father Tansi shows how different races can live in harmony and solidarity in recognition of God as our common father”, he said at Tansi's beatification ceremony in Nigeria.

His decision to become a Christian devastated his parents and brethren who were still then practitioners of the African Traditional Religion. But they had made the decision to send him to Catholic schools and therefore accepted his decision to convert. Later, in 1958, after their son was ordained a priest, they, too, became Catholics.

Arinze was ordained at a very tender age of 26. He studied in London and Rome and attended the Second Vatican Council before returning to Nigeria in 1965. He was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Onitsha that same year thereby becoming the church's youngest bishop at 32.

He would be mistaken later as a bishop boy or mass server when he attended the Second Vatican Council due to his physique and age as the youngest bishop and participant in the Council.

Three years later, he was made an archbishop and in fact the first African to head the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha. Previously, that post had been held by Irish missionary priests. It was really a turbulent period for the young bishop as his consecration coincided with the Nigeria-Biafran Civil War. He went through the entire storm unscathed, a move analysts says would enable him face pressure that is associated with papacy if eventually elected.

In 1979, Arinze was elected president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria. A short time later, the pope invited him to Rome to become the head of the newly created Vatican's Secretariat for Non-Christians which was later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

By the time Arinze left the Archdiocese of Onitsha, it has witnessed incredible and immense development especially in vocation to priesthood, brotherhood, nunhood and sisterhood. The Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha which he headed for nearly three decades is today boasting of having the highest number of priests not only in Africa but in the entire Catholic world. It has every feature of the Catholic life and can as well boast of being a miniature Vatican. It has all Vatican has got including one monastery for men and two for women, one of which is an Abbey.

As head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Arinze traveled extensively, met different people, experienced divergent cultures and made a lot of friends for the Roman Catholic Church both from the Christendom and otherwise. He has visited all the continents of the world and more than 112 nations in the world. This is a move analysts say has better equipped him for the task ahead if elected eventually as a Pope.

Often described as a confidant of the pope, Arinze is one of five cardinals chosen to help the pope coordinate millennial-year events. This is another factor contributing to his place in the limelight. No wonder the Holy Father made him the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, a no nonsense department charged with the custody and protection of the Roman Catholic doctrines, dogma and faith which amongst others include issues of priesthood, marriage, divorce, homosexuality and many other controversial areas.

Arinze has been a symbol of interfaith unity and Interreligious dialogue and an ardent advocate of religious peaceful co-existence and tolerance. He once said, "Collaboration between followers of the various religions is necessary for theological and sociological reasons. Theologically, all people come from the same God. There is no Catholic hurricane or Baptist drought. There is no Jewish inflation or Muslim unemployment. There is no Buddhist drug addiction or Hindu AIDS. Indeed, these problems don't respect religious frontiers."

Though he believes in religious freedom, Arinze has always believed in the separation of religion from politics and has spoken vehemently against the manipulation of religion by politicians.

“Christian and Muslim leaders cannot remain indifferent in front of the manipulation of religion by politicians. Religion should be allowed necessary freedom to concentrate on beliefs, ritual and a rule of life. God is at the centre of all genuine religion. Politicians and governments should be impartial towards all religions.

“Religious leaders who succumb to the temptation of allowing their religion to be abused and made an instrument by a political party will have to reflect on the negative consequences, including the probability that religion is likely to become a despised widow when that political party is no longer in power. At times it will be useful for religious and political leaders to meet and discuss such questions”, he once said.

On religious extremism and fanaticism, Arinze who has been described as very courageous in speaking against the two evils said: “Muslims and Christians have no choice but to accept that we are in a world in which religious plurality is a fact. ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ as Qur’an asserts (Q 2,256). Religion is therefore to be proposed, not imposed. Religious unity or compliance arrived at as a result of force-physical, psychological, economic, social or otherwise-is not worthy of the human person. And it is not a fit offering to God. Religious fanatics absolutely need conversion.

“As for those who engage in violence in the name of religion, this is a major insult to God and to religion. ‘No one can consider himself faithful to the great and merciful God who in the name of the same God dares to kill his brother. Religion and peace go together; to wage war in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction’ said Pope John Paul 11 to the World Conference on Religion and Peace.”

Even as he reaches out to other religions, nevertheless, Arinze insists on a strict doctrinal line. "All are redeemed by Jesus Christ," he will always say. This is obviously one of his conservative messages that do not always go down well with leaders of other faiths. Nor is it strongly held by all contemporary Christian theologians. The Vatican, in fact, has been clamping down recently on Catholic theologians thought to waver on that point.

But frankly speaking, all the talks about a black pope do not mean that Arinze actually has a better chance more than other candidates to become a pope. Since it is a Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit decides on who heads the church, the next week conclave may as well turn out to be a white smoke for a white pope. Though many would like him to be the first black pope in the history of the church, some black Catholic leaders say they are enjoying the speculation but aren't holding out a lot of hope.

If not for anything they are in full subscription of the ancient saying that cardinals in the limelight before the papal conclave are rarely the ones elected.

“He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal”, the saying goes.

Okumephuna Chukwunwike

Is with the Abuja Bureau of the

Guardian Newspapers.

Posted by Administrator at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

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