On 90th Birthday, Nigerian Cardinal Who Participated in Vatican II Hailed as Legend, Icon

Francis Cardinal Arinze with Catholic Bishops, Priests, and other dignitaries after Holy Mass marking his 90th Anniversary. Credit: Courtesy Photo

Francis Cardinal Arinze, the Vatican-based Nigerian Catholic Church leader, has been hailed as a legend and icon of the universal Church.

In his homily during the Eucharistic celebration to mark the 90th birthday anniversary of Cardinal Arinze at Holy Trinity Basilica of the Archdiocese of Onitsha, John Cardinal Onaiyekan said, “We have here before us an outstanding legend and icon of the universal Catholic Church.”

“It was in this capacity as Archbishop that he participated in the last session of the Second Vatican Council in September to December 1965, as the youngest Council Father,” Cardinal Onaiyekan said about Cardinal Arinze who previously served as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Cardinal Arinze, he said during the December 8 event in reference to Vatican II sessions, “is today the only surviving Council Father among the few who went from Nigeria to that great event, and he is in fact one of the very few in that hallowed category of ecclesiastical ancestors in the entire Catholic world.”

The Nigerian Cardinal recognized his compatriot’s “extraordinary intellectual prowess”, saying that was a contributing factor to his appointment as the Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese at a young age of 34 in June 1967.


The Nigerian Cardinal who retired from his Episcopal Ministry as Archbishop of Abuja in November 2019 said that Cardinal Arinze also played a vital role in promoting the Church and interreligious dialogue in the West African nation.

Pope John Paul II "had absolute confidence" in Cardinal Arinze on matters regarding interreligious dialogue, "which was why he was kept in that office for so long”, Cardinal Onaiyekan said about the Nigerian Catholic Church leader who started his Episcopal Ministry in August 1965 as Coadjutor Bishop of Nigeria’s Onitsha Diocese.

“The bulk of the work for this was taking place in the offices of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which His Eminence presided over for over 18 years,” Cardinal Onaiyekan added.

The 78-year-old Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja highlighted the Assisi Annual Gathering of World Religious Leaders as one of the achievements of Cardinal Arinze in interreligious dialogue initiatives. 

Cardinal Onaiyekan who started his Episcopal Ministry in January 1983 as Auxiliary Bishop of Nigeria’s Ilorin Diocese also spoke about Cardinal Arinze’s contribution at the Congregation for Divine Worship where he served as Prefect until his retirement in December 2008.

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“In his relatively few years in that office, he made a strong and lasting impact in insisting on maintaining the dignity and due solemnity of divine worship in the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Onaiyekan said about his compatriot who turned 90 on November 1.

He said that “the clear rules Cardinal Arinze put in place have remained after he left office, because they were good rules.”

Cardinal Onaiyekan went on to laud the Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri-Segni for the role he played in the beatification of Blessed Cyprian Iwene Tansi.

“The relatively quick process for the beatification, which brought the Holy Father (to) Nigeria in 1998, did not happen just by chance,” he said, adding that Cardinal Arinze played a great role "through his dogged hard work in the relevant offices of the Holy See and above all with his tremendous influence with the Holy Father, who was happy to approve the process without any unnecessary delay."

He prayed that Cardinal Arinze would be alive to the canonization of Blessed Tansi "in the not-too-distant future."


Born in November 1932 at Eziowelle in the Archdiocese of Onitsha, Cardinal Arinze was ordained a Priest in 1958. 

After serving as Coadjutor Bishop of Onitsha for some two years, he was appointed Archbishop of Onitsha Archdiocese; he was in this role from 1967 till March 1985 when he resigned.

He was elevated to the rank of a Cardinal in May 1985, making him one of the highest-ranking African Catholic Church leaders at the time.

The Nigerian-born Cardinal was appointed as the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in October 2002.

Silas Mwale Isenjia is a Kenyan journalist with a great zeal and interest for Catholic Church related communication. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communication from Moi University in Kenya. Silas has vast experience in the Media production industry. He currently works as a Journalist for ACI Africa.