NEWS STORY: Cardinal With N.J. Ties Seen as a Potential Pope

Print More

c. 2005 Religion News Service

NEWARK, N.J. _ It began in 1991 with a hopeful invitation asking a cardinal in Rome to bless a church library in Newark.

Fourteen years later, St. Mary’s Parish of Newark Abbey enjoys a special friendship with Cardinal Francis Arinze, who over the years has become one of the Vatican’s most visible leaders and is often mentioned as a possible successor to Pope John Paul II.

Arinze, a Nigerian of high rank at the Vatican for 20 years, has since visited Newark Abbey and St. Mary’s, which has a large West African membership, about half a dozen times. His latest visit concluded Wednesday.

“We pretty much treat him with great deference and reverence, but he’s very much at home when he’s (here),” said the Rev. Melvin Valvano, abbott at Newark Abbey, who asked Arinze if he would visit Newark to bless the church’s library in early 1992.

“I was received as warmly and graciously as I could be,” Valvano said of that first meeting. “My impression was of a very humble man, and that has not changed over the past 13 years.”

In an interview this week at Newark Abbey, Arinze recalled how he had come to Newark in 1992 to offer encouragement to a parish that has many Nigerians and Ghanaians as well as to bless the library.

“Many (at St. Mary’s in Newark) were in the actual diocese where I was,” he said, referring to his tenure as archbishop of Onitsha, Nigeria, from 1967 to 1984. Under his stewardship, the Catholic population in Nigeria grew dramatically.

Some members of the Newark church knew Arinze in Nigeria during those years. Vincent Okpala, who moved to Newark three years ago, is one of them. This week he had Arinze sign an old prayer card and had his picture taken with the cardinal.

“I’m excited,” said Okpala, a doctor at Newark Beth-Israel Medical Center. “He confirmed me in 1982 in Nigeria.”

Before this week’s trip, Arinze’s last visit to Newark Abbey was in December 2001 for Christmas. Newark Abbey runs both St. Mary’s and St. Benedict’s Prep School.

On Tuesday, before 200 people in the auditorium at St. Benedict’s Prep, Arinze received an honorary degree _ a doctorate in humane letters _ from Seton Hall University.

He also gave a wide-ranging speech on the importance of the Eucharist, Catholic schools, evangelization and living one’s faith outside church. On that last subject, he drew laughter with an old rhyme about a fictional Catholic, “Paddy Smith.”

The cardinal said: “Paddy Smith always went to Mass. He never missed a Sunday. But Paddy Smith went to hell, for what he did on Monday.”

After his 45-minute speech, bishops, priests, monks and lay people in the audience gave him a warm ovation. A group called the Nigerian Women’s Rosary Crusade sang a song in Igbo, a language in Nigeria, that translated to: “God has done a great thing for making it possible for someone like you to be among us.”

“Oh my God, it’s a glorious thing! To see him, it’s a very joyful occasion for all of us,” said Jacinta Ogbonna of East Hanover, a Nigerian native and one of the singers.

It is considered taboo for Catholic clergy to talk publicly about any cardinal’s chances to become pope while the reigning pope is alive. But most people present at the ceremony knew that Arinze, one of 119 cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope, is said to be in the running.

Arinze was born in Nigeria on Nov. 1, 1932. At age 9, he converted to Catholicism from a traditional African religion. Entering a seminary at age 13, he was ordained at age 26 and became a bishop at age 32, as his country was descending into civil war. Two years later, in 1967, he became archbishop of Onitsha, and later would serve as president of Nigeria’s Catholic Bishops Conference.

Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1985. A year earlier, Arinze was put in charge of what is now the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In 2002, he became prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments, a post he currently holds.

Over the years, the monks at Newark Abbey have developed a relaxed relationship with Arinze.

During his visits, “people come in to see him, but he usually takes his meals with us,” said the Rev. Phil Waters, pastor of St. Mary’s. “He’ll come into the community room and read the paper.”

“For all his prominence in the church,” said the Rev. Luke Edelen of Newark Abbey, “the cardinal is a very humble and very prayerful man of God. … He’s a very interesting blend of extreme capability on the one hand and extreme simplicity on the other _ simple in his humility, his faith.”


Before the speech, Arinze talked with Catholic bishops from New Jersey and Monsignor Robert Sheehan, president of Seton Hall University, in the abbey’s hospitality room.

When Newark Archbishop John J. Myers told another visitor that Arinze was to receive the honorary degree, Arinze piped up: “Without actually studying there!”

Paterson Bishop Arthur Serratelli chimed in, “Your Eminence, make sure they don’t send you the bill for the credits.”

(Jeff Diamant is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at jdiamant(at)


Comments are closed.