Catholic priest with passion for interfaith dialogue gets a papal nod, and a coveted peace prize
Polyglot and church intellectual, John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, was Wednesday announced as cardinal-elect, the highest career rank for the catholic clergy.
For Onaiyekan, this honour comes as an icing on the cake in a week that he was also announced as recipient of this year’s coveted Pax Christi International prize for his effort at interfaith dialogue in the face of the escalating Boko Haram terror campaign in Nigeria.
President Goodluck Jonathan, in congratulating the new cardinal-elect, spoke of wishes of increased grace.
Prize administrator’s of the Pax Christi laurel said Mr. Onaiyekan is being rewarded on account of his efforts in promoting understanding between people of different faiths through dialogue in Nigeria and Africa. The award will be made to Mr. Onaiyekan next week in Mechelen/Brussels.
The co-presidents of Pax Christi International, Marie Dennis of the United States and Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, praised the very important role Mr. Onaiyekan has played in building bridges between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria and other countries.
Mr. Onaiyekan is Co-Chair for the African Council of Religious Leaders – Religions for Peace (ACRL – RfP), and immediate former Co-Chair of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).
Mr. Onaiyekan, 68, born in Kabba, Kogi State, started elementary school at the St. Mary’s Catholic School in 1949, and later trained in divinity and philosophy at the Saint Peter and Paul Seminary in Ibadan before proceeding to complete a doctoral thesis in philosophy in Rome in 1976. He is fluent and literate in 7 international languages.
A Catholic Bishop of the Oyo Diocese and Chairman, Social Communications Committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, Emmanuel Badejo, confirmed the cardinal appointment.
Mr. Badejo, who is currently attending a conference alongside other bishops and lay faithful in Rome, said the Pope would formally inaugurate the new cardinals-elect on November 24 in Rome.
This means Nigeria will have three cardinals with Francis Arinze and Anthony Okogie as the other two cardinals in the country.
A cardinal is a very important position in the Catholic Church. It is from a College of Cardinals that a pope who is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the apostle of Jesus Christ, is elected.
Mr. Badejo disclosed that five other Cardinals were appointed. They include James Michael Harvey from United States of America and Bechara Boutros Rai from Lebanon. Others are Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of India, Ruben Salazar Gomez, Archbishop of Bogotá, Colombia and Luis Antonio Tagle of Philippines.
The Cardinals have the task of helping the Pope carry out his mission. Cardinals below the age of 80 are eligible to vote and be voted for during the election of a new pope.
Both Mr. Arinze and Mr. Okogie had resigned after they attained 75 years, the age set for cardinals, archbishops and bishops to retire from their pastoral care, as head of their dioceses.
It would also be recalled that the two Cardinals were appointment by late Pope John Paul II. While Mr. Arinze was appointed in April 1985, Mr. Okogie was appointed in October 2003.
He started his priesthood career at the Lokoja Diocese and in 1980 was ordained Bishop of Ilorin. A decade later, Mr. Onaiyekan became co-adjutor and Bishop of the Diocese in 1990. When the diocese became a Metropolitan See in 1994, he was made the Metropolitan of Abuja.
His career took on a forward thrust under the papacy of the late Pope John Paul ll who gave Mr. Onaiyekan a five-year appointment to the Pontifical International Theological Commission in October 1980. he In 1994 he was elected to the position of Vice President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), and in 2000 he became the President of that organization.
Only last month, Mr. Onaiyekan was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to serve as one of the papal appointed Synod Fathers for the ongoing Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.
Next month in Rome, at a consistory, Mr. Onaiyekan along with the five others will be officially elevated into the position of cardinal. The six cardinals, along with 120 already appointed cardinals, would be saddled with the mandate of electing a successor for Pope Benedict XVI, who turned 85 last April.