BusinessDay

Francis Arinze: Youngest living bishop that witnessed a defining Catholic moment

“The Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time, she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world,” said Pope John XXIII, in his Opening Speech to the Second Vatican Council in St Peter’s, Vatican, October 11 1962.

Fifty-eight years ago, marked the largest reform the Catholic church had experienced in centuries. Years after the second Vatican council was conducted, the Catholic mass changed from Latin to English, lay people led scripture readings, and Catholics strengthened their relationships with protestants and other religions.

The goal was to update the structure of the Catholic church to blend with the new changes that emerged post-World War II.

Out of about 2,500 council fathers that took part in the second Vatican council, only six are still alive, including one Nigerian, Francis Arinze.

Arinze is a 90-year-old Nigerian Cardinal, born November 1, 1932, in Eziowelle, Onitsha, Nigeria. He was the youngest bishop to attend the second ecumenical council. Ecumenical councils are meetings of all the bishops, which happen every 100 years. They are also called to respond to a crisis or a change in society.

He became the youngest Roman Catholic bishop in the world when Archbishop Charles Heerey consecrated him on August 29 1965, at the age of 32.

During that period, the council fathers in attendance represented 79 countries: 38 percent were from Europe, 31 percent from the Americas, 20 percent from Asia and Oceania, and 10 percent from Africa.

“When Vatican II was announced in 1959, many African countries were in their first years of independence and the Churches were still for the most part led by the missionary bishops who had founded them,” Father Faeren Yateghtegh, Associate Priest at St Charles Lwanga Military Catholic Church, Ikeja Cantonment, Lagos told BusinessDay via chat. Of the 260 bishops in Africa, only about 60 were native to the continent.”

According to a statement by Cardinal Arinze during an interview with Crux news, he said that during Vatican II, the African bishops were few in number. “Most of the bishops working in Africa were missionary bishops who brought their faith to countries in Africa,” Arinze said.

“God enabled me to take part in the last session of the second Vatican council in 1965. I was made bishop two weeks before the last session,” Cardinal Arinze said during a video interview with Shalom World, an international television channel.

“One Bishop asked me, are you a seminarian? I said I was, but not now. The church took a risk in making a 32-year-old bishop. It was a wonderful experience for me to admire those great figures in the history of the church.”

Cardinal Arinze also said that it was great to see more than 2000 bishops from all around the world, occupied with how to present the church to the world of today.

Arinze was one of the principal advisors to Pope John Paul II and was considered ‘papabile’ at the ‘papal conclave’ that elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

According to a statement by Cardinal John Onaiyekan, during the celebration of Arinze’s 90th birthday, Cardinal Francis is the only surviving council father among the few who went from Nigeria to that great event.

“He is in fact one of the very few in that hallowed category of ecclesiastical ancestors in the entire Catholic world,” Onaiyekan said. Arinze played a vital role in promoting the church and interreligious dialogue in the West African nation.”

Meanwhile, the six living council fathers that witnessed Vatican II are Patriarchs, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops who have lived more than 90 years.

Known as the youngest living council father of Vatican II, Francis Arinze is the Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri-Segni and the Prefect emeritus of Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

The second living African council father that witnessed Vatican II is Bishop Daniel Alphonse Omer Verstraete, a 98-year-old Bishop of Klerksdorp in South Africa.

Other council fathers alive include Archbishop Alphonsus Mathias, a 94-year-old Archbishop emeritus of Bangalore in India, and the second youngest Vatican II council father alive today. Also from Asia, Archbishop Victorinus Youn Kong-Hi is a 98-year-old Archbishop emeritus of Gwangju in South Korea.

In Italy, we have Bishop Luigi Bettazzi, a 99-year-old Bishop emeritus of Ivrea. The oldest living Vatican II council father goes to Bishop José de Jesús Sahagun de le Parra, a centenarian Bishop emeritus of Ciudad Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico.

What was Vatican II all about?

The Vatican II solemnly opened on October 11 1962 in St. Peter’s Basilica, after over three years of preparations. The Council met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965 each lasting between 8 and 12 weeks, in the autumn of each of the four years, for a total of 169 General Congregations.

It was shortly interrupted after Pope John’s death on June 3 1963, and resumed after Pope Paul VI’s election, on 11 June that year. It closed on December 8 1965.

Pope John XXIII expressed the desire to create new ideas and energy in the church. The council was a response to how the church will remain relevant and dynamic with new changes that emerged post-World War II.

He called the council because he felt the Church needed ‘Aggiornamento’, an Italian word meaning updating. In order to connect with 20th-century people in an increasingly secularised world, some of the Church’s practices needed to be improved and its teaching needed to be presented in a way that would appear relevant and understandable to them.

According to a statement by Vatican news, for the first time Protestants, Orthodox, 42 lay and religious listeners, men and women, were invited to assist the council.

Yateghtegh, the associate Priest at St Charles Lwanga Military Catholic Church, said that the second ecumenical council of the Vatican is the most significant event in the modern age of the Catholic Church.

“The Vatican II was called to allow and let in some fresh air into the Church – aggiornamento – to bring the mission of the Church up-to-date,” he said.

“It was thought wise to revitalise and revalidate the teaching of the Church in the contemporary age rather than hurling anathemas, condemnations, and ex-communications.”

According to Yateghtegh, Vatican II was created to help apply the truths of Christ to modern-day life. The 20th century brought a new way of life to the world’s citizens, with big changes such as World War II having a huge impact on even the smallest communities.

“Note that Vatican II is the first Ecumenical Council the Nigerian Church has experienced in all 21 Ecumenical Councils occurring over a period of some 1900 years,” Yateghtegh said.

What has changed so far?

After Vatican II, the Catholic Church witnessed landmark changes in ecumenical interreligious relations.

According to Yateghtegh, for the church to operate within the contemporary realm, they allowed Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations, encouraged friendship with other non-Christian faiths, and opened the door for languages besides Latin to be used during Mass.

“Masses are now been celebrated in local dialects in every corner of the country as against the Latin language which was used mostly at all liturgical celebrations. That is why we now have Bibles in local dialects, and other cultural elements included during worship while at the same time maintaining the Christian Truth as handed down from generations,” he said.

Yateghtegh added that there are more engagements between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, Inter-Religious and Inter-Faith dialogues are fostered and Inculturation has gained more grounds, i.e. the adaptation of Christian teachings and practices to cultures.

On the changes that have occurred so far, Ernest Osabu, President, Catholic Youth Organization of Nigeria (CYON), Archangels perish said, “The holy mass is celebrated with the priest facing the congregation and not backing them as it was before the Vatican council.

“Secularism type of worship/ hip-hop and other danceable forms of Christian music was brought in as compared to hymns and solemn music before the second Vatican council. Also, laymen can now help in the distribution of holy communion.”

Read also: “Understanding the place of the Church in Nigeria’s transformation journey”

Furthermore, regular members of religious congregations in ministries multiplied over time. Lay readers and ministers of communion appeared during Mass.

Laity was represented on parish councils and diocesan boards, and lay men and women, many with theology degrees, replaced clerics in a number of administrative church positions.

The Council underlined the Church’s solidarity with humanity instead of its separation from the secular world, and this led to the proliferation of social and charitable activities. Church leaders spoke frequently about the Church’s preference for the poor and suffering, and became strong human rights advocates.