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Nigerians Did Not Think Catholics Ready for Black Pope


Cardinal Francis Arinze
As cardinals voted for a new German pope, Benedict the Sixteenth, many Nigerians were doubtful their own cardinal, Francis Arinze could become pope because he is black.

On the Sunday after the pope's death, massive Catholic services were held in West Africa, and Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze was described in news reports as a possible successor.

But as the new pope came out to deliver his blessings it was not Cardinal Arinze, who instead stood in the background. His failure to be elected surprised few in Nigeria, which has about 20 million Catholics.

After the election, about 100 faithful attended regular mass inside the Holy Cross Cathedral in central Lagos.

One of them, journalist Paul Okolo, said before the election, many Nigerians had some hope, Cardinal Arinze might be elected.

"Some were seeing it as well, church is beaming in this part of the world and it would sort of be appropriate for a person from this part of the world to occupy the highest position in the church hierarchy,” he said. “The church is on the wane in Europe so the feeling was that hey it is about time an African could get elected after a long, long time."

But among the Catholic faithful, Mr. Okolo said there was little disappointment.

"There is no gloom in the faces of the people I have seen here, everybody is taking it with equanimity,” he added. “The general impression I get is that they feel that God has appointed for them somebody who is most appropriate to lead the Catholic church at this time."

Most Nigerian Catholics live in small towns in the east of the country, like Eziowelle, where Cardinal Arinze was born 72 years ago, to animist parents in a mud-brick bungalow surrounded by mango trees.

Nigerian journalist Gilbert da Costa said just getting there was difficult.

"The road leading to the village is in a very, very bad state, very, very, very bad state and it takes a lot of effort really to get there. Most often people tend to take a bike. You ride and bike and then it's a bumpy ride into the village," he noted.

One woman said Eziowelle could have become heaven on earth if Cardinal Arinze were to have become pope, with paved streets, running water, nice schools and better roads.

One of those who had been the most doubtful about Cardinal Arinze's election was his elder brother, Christopher, because of what he views as latent racism.

"I fear the European countries will admit an African, will allow or be pleased [for him] to take that seat," he said.

Cardinal Arinze spent the past two decades at the Vatican in handling relations between Catholics and Muslims, as he made clear on a recent trip to Nigeria.

"Christians and Muslims should not just co-exist, they should also cooperate to build up society,” said Cardinal Arinze. “If their leaders do not motivate them to collaborate, should we not admit that such leaders have failed?"

Cardinal Arinze has said the two religions could find common ground in fighting sexual permissiveness. He shares many of the conservative views on family and sexuality held by both the late pope and the new one.

Journalist Gilbert da Costa says many townspeople in Eziowelle would not be disappointed either by his failure to become pope.

"He is a local hero there, everybody looks after him and everything. There were also some who expressed concern about the fact that being a black pope he might be targeted and perhaps killed because the pope suffered a similar fate. Quite a number of them said, 'look at Pope John Paul, he was white and he was targeted and he was shot and everything, not to talk about a black pope.' So that really emerged quite strongly with the people I spoke with," he added.

At a fork in the rutted track leading to the town, the billboard that reads "Eziowelle for Jesus" will not be changed as the 115 Cardinals at the Vatican chose a German national instead of the first African pope in 1500 years.

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