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Men You Should Know: Francis Arinze


Francis Arinze was born on the 1st of November 1932. He is a Nigerian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments from 2002 to 2008.

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He has been the Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni since 2005. Arinze was one of the principal advisors to Pope John Paul II and was considered papabile before the 2005 papal conclave, which elected Pope Benedict XVI.

Early life

Arinze was born in Eziowelle, Anambra, Nigeria. A convert from an African traditional religion, he was baptized on his ninth birthday (1 November 1941) by Father Michael Tansi, who was beatified by John Paul II in 1998. His parents later converted to Catholicism.

At age 15, he entered All Hallows Seminary of Onitsha from which he graduated and earned a philosophy degree in 1950. His father was initially opposed to his entering the seminary, but after seeing how much Francis enjoyed it, he encouraged him. Arinze stayed at All Hallows until 1953 to teach.

In 1955, he went to Rome to study theology at the Pontifical Urban University, where he ultimately earned a doctorate in sacred theology summa cum laude. On 23 November 1958, at the chapel of the university, Arinze was ordained to the priesthood by Gregorio Pietro Agagianian, pro-prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide).

As Priest

After ordination, Father Arinze remained in Rome, earning a master’s in theology in 1959 and a doctorate in 1960. His doctoral thesis on “Ibo Sacrifice as an Introduction to the Catechesis of Holy Mass” was the basis for his much-used reference work, “Sacrifice in Ibo Religion”, published in 1970.

From 1961 to 1962, Arinze was a professor of liturgy, logic, and basic philosophy at the Bigard Memorial Seminary. From there, he was appointed regional secretary for Catholic education for the eastern part of Nigeria. Eventually, Arinze was transferred to London, where he attended the Institute of Education and graduated in 1964.


Francis Arinze became the youngest Roman Catholic bishop in the world when he was consecrated on 29 August 1965, at the age of 32. He was appointed titular bishop of Fissiana and named Coadjutor to the Archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria.

He attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council that same year. He became Archbishop of Onitsha on 26 June 1967. He was the first native African to head his diocese, succeeding Archbishop Charles Heerey, an Irish missionary.

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As archbishop

The new Archbishop did not have much time to settle into his office before the Nigeria-Biafra War broke out. The entire archdiocese was located in the secessionist Biafran territory during the Nigerian Civil War.

As a result of the war, Archbishop Arinze had to flee his see city of Onitsha and to live as a refugee, first in Adazi and then Amichi, for the three years of the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970.

Despite his own refugee status, Archbishop Arinze worked tirelessly for refugees, displaced persons, the sick and the hungry, offering support to priests and religious, and giving the faithful hope for the future.

With the help of foreign missionaries, he supervised what one international relief worker called one of “the most effective and efficient distributions of relief materials” in history. He also took care to keep the Church separate from the ongoing political conflict, gaining the respect of all factions in the country.

Impressed by Arinze’s many accomplishments as the leader of an archdiocese with few resources and his ability to work side by side with Muslims who represent a strong and not-to-be-ignored minority, Pope John Paul II in 1979 appointed Arinze pro-president of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Non-Christians, later renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Arinze continued as the ordinary of his archdiocese and was elected unanimously as President of the Nigerian Bishops Conference in 1984.

A year later, the people of Onitsha organized a pilgrimage to Rome when they learned that Archbishop Arinze would be named a Cardinal at the Consistory of 25 May 1985. In the same year, he was awarded the chieftaincy title of the Ochudouwa of Eziowelle.


On 8 April 1985, Arinze resigned from his post in Onitsha, and the Pope named him a Cardinal-Deacon of San Giovanni della Pigna in the consistory held on 25 May 1985; he was raised to the rank of cardinal-priest in 1996. Two days following his elevation to a cardinal deacon, Arinze was appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

He served in various related capacities including the president of the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. He also received honours in this capacity: On 24 October 1999, he received a gold medallion from the International Council of Christians and Jews for his outstanding achievements in inter-faith relations.

He travelled extensively and became a popular speaker in the United States.

Arinze was a member of the Committee of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. In that capacity, he worked closely with individual bishops and priests throughout the world in preparation for the rare celebration of the Church.

On 1 October 2002, Pope John Paul named him prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

When Pope John Paul II died on 2 April 2005, all major Vatican officials – including Arinze – automatically lost their positions. He was considered papabile, that is, a candidate for election to the papacy, at the papal conclave that followed, in which he was a cardinal elector.

He returned to his post as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship when confirmed by the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI on 21 April 2005, and on 25 April Benedict named him Cardinal Bishop of Velletri-Segni.

On 9 December 2008, Benedict accepted Arinze’s resignation as prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship.


The Evangelizing Parish (Ignatius Press, 2018)

The Family Catechism on Tape, Apostolate for Family Consecration

Divine Providence: God’s Design in Your Life (2005)

Building Bridges: Interreligious Dialogue on the Path to World Peace (2004)

Cardinal Reflections: Active Participation and the Liturgy (2005)

The Holy Eucharist (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001)

The Church in Dialogue: Walking With Other Believers (1990)

Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue (1998)

Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (2006)

Religions for Peace (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002)

God’s Invisible Hand: The Life and Work of Francis Cardinal Arinze, Ignatius Press, 2006

Great Figures in Salvation History: David and Solomon, an interview with Cardinal Arinze and Roy Schoemann, Ignatius Press, 2006.


Loyn, David (18 April 2005). “Profile: Cardinal Francis Arinze”. BBC News..

God’s Invisible Hand: The Life and Work of Francis Cardinal Arinze, an Interview with Gerard O’Connell, pp. 12–21 (Ignatius Press, 2006)

Falola, T. and Genova, A. (2009), Historical Dictionary of Nigeria.

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Jeremiah is a scholar and a poet. He has a keen eye for studying the world and is passionate about people. He tweets at @jeremiahaluwong.

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