Wednesday, November 13, 2013

National Black Catholic History Month: Cardinal Francis Arinze

About 20 years ago, my mother and I were in Vatican City when we noticed a black man -- clearly an African -- wearing a bishop's robes.

He was clearly somewhat preoccupied and in a hurry, but did smile and nod at us.

We knew instantly who he was: then-Archbishop, now-Cardinal Francis Arinze, the man who for 20 years was the answer to the question "Who will be the next* black pope (these days, the answer to that question is Cardinal Peter Turkson)?"

Arinze was born in 1932 in Nigeria into a family that practiced a traditional Igbo faith. He converted to Catholicism as a child (and was baptized by Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi). He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1958.

He made headlines in 1965 when he was named a bishop in Nigeria at the age of 32, which made him the youngest bishop in the world. He later was the first black African of the modern era named as archbishop in Africa.

In 1985, Pope John Paul II called him to work in Rome. In 1996, the pope made him a cardinal. He was then the most high-profile black cardinal, so his name was often mentioned when people wondered whether the cardinals would ever choose a non-European pope.

Cardinal Arinze is the former leader of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, which is the small group of cardinals and Vatican functionaries who handle matters related to the Church's liturgical practices.

At age 81, Cardinal Arinze continues to live in Rome, although because of his age, he can no longer participate in any conclaves to choose a pope.

*Sometimes people say "first" black pope, but we already know there have been several.

Follow my National Black Catholic History Month tag for more information on black Catholic notables.

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