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THIRTY-Seven years after he was ordained a priest, Nigeria's Anthony Olubunmi Okogie was yesterday elevated, alongside 30 others across the globe, to the position of cardinal of the Catholic Church by the Pope, John Paul II.
Okogie, who is the Archbishop of the Lagos archdiocese, has thus joined the elite group of 'princes' that will elect a successor to the incumbent Pope when he passes on. He will henceforth be a resident cardinal as the archbishop of the Lagos archdiocese.
Okogie joined another Nigerian, Francis Cardinal Arinze in the elite group of Catholic priests occupying position next only to the Pope. Arinze is preceded by the late Cardinal Dominic Ekandem who was born in 1917 in Obio Ibiong Itu in Cross River State.
Cardinal Arinze is the president of the congregation for the doctrine of faith and the discipline of the sacrament in the Vatican. The Ifite Ukpo, Anambra State bora cleric is also seen as a front runner in the list of the Pope's successors.
It was a festive occasion yesterday as the large gathering of Catholic faithful celebrated the historic occasion.
The pontiff, winding up a week of ceremonies crowning his 25-year papacy, hailed the new cardinals from 22 countries as a reflection of "the multiplicity of races and cultures that characterise the Christian people."
His hands trembling from Parkinson's disease, John Paul had an aide read his homily and handed each new cardinal his square red 'beretta' cap rather than try to place it on the heads of men in red robes and white surplices who knelt before him.
"The scarlet of a cardinal's garb evokes the colour of blood and recalls the heroism of the martyrs," he said before they took their oaths under cloudy skies on St. Peter's Square.
Despite his weakness, he smiled often during the ceremony.
"There was obviously a hint of sadness with the manifest decline in the health of the Holy Father, but it was a splendid Roman occasion," said Australia's newest Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney.
The 31, including one named secretly to protect him from a possibly hostile reaction from his government - were a mix of conservative and moderate clerics.
Vatican observers could not say how they might influence the next papal election.
Pope John Paul, now 83 and unable to walk, tired visibly and slurred his speech as he presided over the past week's events, including his 25th anniversary as Pope last Thursday and the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta last Sunday.
Since the mid 1980s when the Pentecostalism made a serious in-road into Lagos, the challenge that it has posed to orthodox churches have been monumental. Many of these churches lost some of their members to the new churches, which promise miracles, healing, and solutions to all shades of problems facing humanity. These, the orthodox churches seem not to be able to provide.
The Catholic Church in Lagos was one of the most threatened by this challenge. However, Archbishop Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, who has been the shepherd of the archdiocese for about 30 years, was firm in defending the Catholic faith. To prevent the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a society in his fold, from being infiltrated by Pentecostals and being labels as such, he introduced more traditional Catholic practices into Charismatic sessions; thus separating defectors from mainstream Catholics. To promote orthodoxy in Catholic doctrines, he put conservative Catholics at the helms of diocesan affairs. For his priests, he selects well balanced, brilliant, articulate young men, who combine an unwavering fidelity to Catholicism with unquestionable respect for his authority.
Like the political actor of Machiavelli's Prince, Okogie abhors dissidents and self-seekers, preferring pastoral commitment and dedication to intellectual skill and theological expertise. In this way, he exercises maximum control of his priests, and not failing to punish any erring priest whenever he gets incriminating reports about them. Unlike other Catholic dioceses where priests have carved out special ministries for themselves, defeating the corporate object of their order, Okogie's diocese has had priests, who given the tempting position of Lagos, have lived above board. It is even said by some critical Catholics that, had Okogie been the Archbishop of Boston in the U.S., paedophile priests would have fallen in line with their moral expectations.
Okogie, known for his no-nonsense stand on critical issues, is outspoken in matters of social justice and public accountability, just as his defence of the interest of the masses is unique. He stood up against bad leadership and took military rule head on. Like Cardinal Sin, the archbishop of Manila, who in the Philippines led a demonstration against the removal of Ferdinard Marcos from office, Okogie stands against social injustice, corruption, mal-administration and against government policies that do not promote human dignity.
Okogie, who believes that divine worship should be very spiritual, meditative and solemn, has made a crusade of his conviction. In a strong defence of what he terms divine worship, Okogie has criticised the jazzy worship sessions characterised by clapping, drumming and excessive dancing in the church. To him, they are no different in mannerism from everyday owambe parties. Moreover, he argues that God is not deaf and "you do not need to break the roof of your church with drums and clapping before He hears your prayers and petitions".
Where others had done away with foreign missionaries, Okogie has accommodated them and employed their energy and resources to open up Lagos archdiocese. The same Catholic nuns that gave Maryland its name are still retained to promote education. The Dominicans, a group of Catholic religious that opened up such Lagos suburbs as Yaba, Mushin, Suru-lere and Ajegunle in the late 1950s are still very much around collaborating with indigenous priests and religious to pastor the Catholic Church in Lagos. And Okogie still accommodates more: the Jesuits, the Redemptorists, the Vincentians, the St. Patrick fathers, among others.
All these paid off for him as his diocese has made steady progress physically and spiritually. There is a Catholic mission, with a resident priest, in almost every area of Lagos. Run-away Catholics, on getting better educated on their faith, are coming back, while many others still become Pentecostal without losing their Catholic identity. Today, according to the statistics of the Vatican, Lagos archdiocese is the third largest in the entire Catholic world.
These salient features may have counted positively for Okogie in his appointment as a cardinal by the ailing Pope John Paul II who announced last Sunday the names of 31 new cardinals for the church.
A cardinal is a priest of very high rank in the Roman Catholic Church and is next only to the Pope. They are called the princes of the church. Once a cardinal, he can enter any of the Catholic Church in the world also the entire world is his constituency.
Cardinals belong to a group called College of Cardinals and headed by a dean. They are nominees for the election of a Pope. Their prerogative is to elect a Pope in accordance with the norms of the Canon Law whenever the Papacy is vacant. They are also available to the Pope, either meeting collegially when they are summoned to deal with major and important issues, or acting individually in the daily care of the universal Church.
Only two Nigerians have been appointed into the prestigious Roman Catholic elite group. They are the late Cardinal Dominic Ekandem, who was born in 1917 in Obio Ibiong Itu in Cross River State. He had his education at Christ the King, Onitsha, Senior Seminary in Owerri and ordained a priest in December 1947. Appointed a Cardinal in April 1977, Ekandem was in charge of the Abuja jurisdiction before it grew into a full diocese and later an archdiocese. He died about six years ago.
Cardinal Francis Arinze was born in November 1932 and ordained priest in November 1958. He was appointed a Cardinal by the present Pope and is currently occupying one of the most strategic offices of the Roman Curia as the Prefect of the Congregation of the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament.
The new members bring to 135 the number of cardinals eligible to enter Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in the Vatican for the conclave to elect a new Pope.
One will succeed the Polish pontiff, who stamped his Church of one billion with his trademark mix of high-profile preaching, orthodox dogma and progressive stands against poverty and war.
Among the newcomers is Keith O'Brien, the archbishop of Edinburgh, whose openness towards reform of priestly celibacy and the ban on artificial birth control seemed to rule him out. He stated his support for Vatican policies after his nomination.
There were cardinals from the developed world and from countries where the church had suffered, such as Sudan and Vietnam. Three each came from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
At 51, Peter Erdo, archbishop of Budapest, became the youngest member of the College where the oldest member is 100.
Among those under 80 and eligible to vote for the next Pope, the average age is 71. There are 195 cardinals.
John Paul has appointed so many Church leaders who reflect his doctrinal conservatism that many Catholics assumed the 31 new cardinals must also be papal 'clones.'
But Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop of Brussels, said this was not the case. "I don't think so. I think there's a good balance in the College of Cardinals among all tendencies in the Church," he told Reuters.
John Allen, whose book 'Conclave' explains procedures and issues for the next papal election, said the 26 newcomers who are eligible to vote fall into three groups.
"Only seven are clear doctrinal conservatives," Allen wrote in his column for the National Catholic Reporter. The biggest group is made up of 10 men "whose primary interest is in social justice questions outside the Church, where they take a moderate-to-progressive stance."
Among cardinals seen as front runners are Arinze, Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Italian Dionigi Tettamanzi, Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, Vienna's Christoph Schoenborn and Danneels from Belgium.
An African or Latin American pope is also seen as likely, with two-thirds of Catholics now in developing countries.