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Cardinal Francis Arinze - Xclusive People
Cardinal Francis Arinze, the African man who would have been Pope, the third ranked Cardinal in the Vatican City, had a whistle stop in Dublin on 23 May 2007. After a failed interview, Peter Anny-Nzekwue attempts to capture the encounter, and the events that preceded it, in lyrical prose.
Cardinal Francis Arinze
His Eminence is coming to Dublin. Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri-Segni is coming to Ireland. The African man who is scheduled for a whistle stop in Dublin is the third-ranked Cardinal in the Vatican City. If he had been elected after the death of Pope John Paul 11, Cardinal Arinze would have been the first black Pope in more than 1,500 years: since Pope Gelasius 1, who led the Church between 492 C.E. and 496 C.E. You see, the African man who is coming to Dublin is no small fry.
He is coming! The most important black man in the Vatican City is coming to Ireland, my territory, and I will have a chance to meet him one-on-one. I will have a chance to ask him the entire question that there is: the good questions and the bad ones; the mild questions and the provocative ones; the religious questions and the secular ones. Cardinal Arinze is coming to Ireland next month.
I don’t think I have met Cardinal Arinze in flesh and blood. May be I have. Perhaps I was very, very young to really take notice of him or to be able to match the face that I see all over the newspaper and television with the face I must have seen years ago. Back in Nigeria, as a tot growing up in the dusty and rocky environment of Enugu, the Coal City, perhaps I must have seen Cardinal Arinze then. I am sure he had visited the Holy Ghost Cathedral Enugu from Onitsha at the later stages of his career, as the then Archbishop of Onitsha. He must have conducted mass once or twice or many times in my many mass-attendances at the Holy Ghost Cathedral. And probably was one of the Rev. Fathers who were present when I received my first holy communion. I am sure. It is practically impossible to be the Archbishop of Onitsha Diocese without visiting Enugu, which was then the Capital of the old Anambra State.
There is always something about the name Cardinal Francis Arinze that continues to ring a familiar bell in my ears; that continues to remind me of those days as a staunch Catholic. So when the whole world was agog with the high expectation that a black man, a Nigerian, might become the next Pope, I had identified myself with that high expectation. It was not just because he is a Nigerian nor because he is a black man, it was simply because of that familiarity, because of the unexplainable hunch that he was my former Priest, and that someone who was deeply involved in my spiritual growth was soon to become the most important man in the Catholic Kingdom, the holiest man on earth, as we grew up to believe of every Pope. I took pride in his papabili with spiritual fondness.
However, in thinking of the impending visit, I begin to realize that order than he would have been the Pope; I know nothing else about cardinal Arinze. Come to think of it, if called now and told that the man himself had arrived and that I should go over to meet up with him and conduct this interview what would I ask him? His Eminence, does it sometimes cross your mind that you failed to be elected Pope because you are black? Or because you are a Nigerian? Cardinal, I understand that when a new Pope is elected white smoke rises from the Chimney, if you had been elected would we have seen black smoke? Perhaps, I wouldn’t have gone for the jugular, with such provocative questions. Maybe I would have started with some mild questions in order to put him in the mood first. A common trick most good journalist would employ to get you talking. I would have taken the quiet route: His Eminence, what a glorious journey from the humble root of Eziowelle, to the marble house of Rome! Could you tell us all about this success story? After he had answered this question, then what next? He would expect me to ask another question, and I would have been tongue-tied, speechless because I would know nothing else to ask, because I know nothing about the man I have come to interview order than, if not for Joseph Alois Ratzinger, he would have been the first black pope in more than 1,500 years.
I begin my research: surfing the Internet; ransacking the Library, trying to gather all information available on the black man who would have been Pope. My effort yields results: Cardinal Francis Arinze was born on 1 November 1932 (All Saints Day) in Eziowelle, a village in South-East Nigeria to Pa Joseph Arinze Nwankwo and Benedict Nwankwo. He was the third of seven children. He was baptized at the age of 32…Facts are tumbling out, but am I going to him to recite his biography? I am going to interview him! I start to dig deep. I come up with further findings, something very journalistic: Cardinal Arinze is a conservative and when he takes on the matter of religion he does not throw lightweight punches. In this jet-age when it is unPC to condemn homosexuality, Cardinal Arinze “does not send.” In a speech at Georgetown University USA, he equated homosexuality with pornography, fornication, and adultery. He triggered a massive protest. In another incident somewhere in London he proffered that altar girls should remain immobile during Mass. He is also credited to have said that he was ready to “wash the heads” of gay men with ponytails and earrings with holy water… Bring Cardinal Arinze on, I think now I know my man!
But things are still looking sketchy. No definite date for Cardinal Arinze’s arrival to Dublin. No idea how long he is staying, and where he would be staying. But in a few days the picture gets clearer. There is a definite date: 22 May 2007. He is staying for two days. Would I have a chance for my interview with him? Kelechi Onwumereh, the chairman of the Reception Committee, thinks it will easily be arranged. Fr. Sylvester Onyeachonam does not see why it will be impossible to do so. They are upbeat. I am also upbeat. I call my graphic artist on the phone with only one instruction. “Start work immediately on the cover design for the June issue, use any photo as a dummy, and have it boldly written on the cover: “Cardinal Francis Arinze: Xclusive Interview with the Blackman who would have been Pope.” I go to bed. There is nothing that sends a publisher to a deep and refreshing slumber like a good cover story for the next edition. I slept like a baby.
22 May 2007 is a Tuesday. I have already Schedule a visit to London from 18-20 May in London. Before I heard that Cardinal Arinze is coming to Dublin I had received information that 2face Idibia, the most important musician out of Africa, would be in London that weekend. And I have been working out my arrangement gradually. Anywhere there is a good story that can sell Xclusive Magazine, there you will find me. I will be in London on Friday 18th, meet-up with 2Face on Saturday 19th and fly back to Dublin on Sunday 20th. Then I will have the whole of 21 May to rest and prepare until 22 May. The D-Day. It has been all worked out, perfectly. It’s a done deal.
I’m excited. I’m loving it. With Cardinal Arinze there is still no cause for alarm. His arrival date is still 22 May. The Reception Committee holds its fourth meeting to put finishing touches. I am there. Every arrangement is in top gear. We will welcome him at the airport with music and dance, make all the joyful noise. Then we will hold a large reception for him in the evening. All Africans in Ireland are expected to turn out en masse to welcome their own. It will be a very big occasion. The fifth and last meeting before his arrival will be held on the 19th May. I won’t be there. I will sure be in London, having my xclusive Interview with 2Face. But it’s Ok. The meeting is to put final finishing touches to the whole arrangement made at the fourth meeting. Everything on the other side is still fine. Cardinal Arinze is coming!
I hop into BMI plane to London on Friday night (18 May), 2Face on my mind. On 19 May there is no interview with 2Face because 2Face has not arrived to London as schedule. He missed his flight, so they say. But he would be arriving on Sunday 20 May. Well, it’s still fine with me. My flight could be postponed to Monday 21 May, but not beyond that date. 2Face, you better come! I screamed to myself. But 2Face didn’t come. In short he is not coming to London that weekend, but the next weekend, 26 May, for another gig. I understand that something went wrong between 2Face and the organizers, about payment or no payment or half payment. Nobody would tell me exactly. So now it is either I stay back in London till next weekend for 2Face and forget Cardinal Arinze all together or I fly back to Dublin, interview Cardinal Arinze, check my purse and see if another immediate visit will not off-set my Cash Flow seriously. Then I receive a text message. And the message is simple and straight to the point: reception for Cardinal Arinze will now be on 23rd May. Airport reception has been cancelled.
Another dream looks like it’s going up in smoke!
It is only the visit of Cardinal Arinze that can come in-between me and Champions League. Outside pursuing a good lead, watching football is my greatest passion. But today, while the sporting world is watching Liverpool versus AC Milan, devotees and news hunters like me have gathered at St Mary’s Pro Cathedral in the heart of Dublin city centre. Henry Kesse finds it very hard to swallow: “Can We find a pub around the corner to watch the match?” He asks me, as if he doesn’t know why we are here.
Gathered in the church are important African people: Ben Amobi, Nigeria Chargés d'affaires. Nuhu Bamaili, head of chancery, Nigeria Embassy..Emeka Ezeani, Celia Otubu, Bennie Attoh, Steve Orji, leading the Igbo Cultural group from the front. Many people. Plenty African faces. But one influential face is missing. Where is Yemisi Ojo? She is a member of the Reception committee, and she is supposed to be leading her own cultural group from the front. Perhaps it is still early days. We are still having mass. The reception would come later, after this. And as Africans, we must create room for African time.
The mass went smoothly. Fr Sylvester read our welcome address. The Nigerian Embassy Ireland presents the Cardinal with a gift, diplomatic gift. Now it is blessing time. The Igbo Cultural group enters with pomp and circumstance. Then I overhead Emeka, the lawyer himself, asking Steve, where’s the masquerade? Masquerade in the Church! Cardinal Arinze, get ready to wash the masquerade‘s head with holy water, as you would have done to the London “gay men with ponytails and earrings.”
Bennie comes to whisper to me that the members of Cardinal Francis Arinze’s Reception Committee will be taking photograph with the Cardinal at Sacristy. Sacristy! What does that mean? I’ve not been a Catholic for nearly fifteen years, apart from a brief return for my church wedding in 2000. A few minutes later, Kelechi comes and whispers the same thing to me. Sacristy! Photograph! No one is talking about my interview. I approach Fr. Sylvester. He says it is still possible. But he says it with no conviction in his voice.
Sacristy! Sometimes simple things are decorated with sublime names that can throw the uninitiated minds into utter confusion. Who would have thought that Sacristy is just this space at the corner, beside the altar? This is a simple place, near-empty space. Apart from a few long tables and various objects of worship there is nothing else. But I quite notice that in spite of its ordinariness, the Sacristy has deep spiritual significance. A room where the priest prepares for service is a holy ground. I can feel it. Standing inside the sacristy there is a flush of excitement all over me. A desire for more blessing overwhelms me. Blessing time comes in form of a handshake. We are shaking Cardinal Arinze’s hands, one after the other: Kelechi, Bennie, Chuck, Steve, myself…all the members of the Reception Committee and many other people from all walks of life. The Sacristy has been filled to the brim, spilling over. It must be hard work for one man to shake the hands of hundreds of people in one go. Just like it must be tiring for one man to take photos with one group after the other, endlessly.
Cardinal Arinze looks tired now, exhausted. The man who would have been the first black Pope in 1,500 years is finding it difficult to cope with the sea of people in here. I can tell by his countenance. I can feel his impatience, which is growing gradually. Someone wants his attention, but he asks him to hold it first. His voice is unusually agitated. He is now changing Vestments, removing the gold-plaited Vestment he had during mass into a black one with red lining. Too many people want his attention. Everyone in this room has one request or the other, and we are all joggling for space.
“Your Eminence, could I have a brief interview with you?” I ask him, in central Anambra Igbo.
“Me?” He asks in Igbo, touching his chest.
“Yes Cardinal, just a few words.”
“Not this me, unless you want me to faint here. I’ve been on my feet since morning. I need to go home and rest.”
I am speechless!
I look sideways and notice Chinedu Onyejelem of Metro Eireann standing close by. We exchange a quick knowing look. We are saying, without words, that this job of news hunting is the most difficult one on earth.
By now Cardinal Arinze is walking out of the Sacristy, through the church door to meet another sea of people outside. He would wait for a few minutes to watch the cultural group entertain him. He has done the best he can. He has managed to carry on with today’s rigorous demand as far as his 72-year-old body can go. He may be the black man who would have been Pope, but he is also human and needs a rest.
A black Mercedes Benz S class pulls up a few yards away. Cardinal Arinze waves the congregation and takes a few steps towards the waiting car. I squeeze myself free from the crowd and go towards him. My interview. I know that it is now impossible to have one, I am only telling myself , with each step I take forward, that I have tried. As the Igbo people would say, it is not the fault of a warrior who went to war and killed a dog…
A few days later, I would receive a text message from Henry Kesse. It reads: “Hi man, I am gobsmacked. All the photos at the Cardinal Reception are bad. I don’t know what happened to the camera's setting.” It does not rain; it pours. But who said that you must have an interview to make a story? Who said that bad photos cannot be salvaged?

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