Known for his broad vision, forthright style and lively wit, he came to the University of Dallas during Holy Week to give a public lecture, and hold informal sessions with students on the topics of interreligious dialogue, evangelization and the Jubilee.
What follows is his exchange with the audience on evangelization, which he describes as the Church's mission “to give everyone the opportunity to know about the greatest event that ever happened since the beginning of the world, that the Son of God, the Word of God, remaining always God, came down from heaven, [and] took on human nature for love of us and for our salvation.” Compiled by Register correspondent Ellen Rossini.
Student: You weren't always Catholic. What religion were you brought up with?
Cardinal Arinze: African traditional religion, or ATR for short. The people believe in God, one God, who is creator and great spirit, who lives above, who made the sun and the moon and who gives us children. Secondly, they believe in spirits, good and bad. [There are] good spirits — some of them are spirits of harvest; … others are idiosyncratic or wicked spirits that can do harm to people who have done no wrong at all. Rivers have spirits … mountains have spirits … and so on.
Then, they believe in their ancestors, fathers and mothers who lived well, and who have died, and who have reached the happy spirit land and are with the other spirits, with God and the ancestors.
This religion was realized by the missionary to be a providentially prepared steppingstone for Christianity. Many of their beliefs are good, noble and true. There are also errors.
[ATR] was the religion of most of the people in Africa before the arrival of Christianity or Islam. [It] is still strong in some countries like Ghana and Nigeria. It is very weak, almost nonexistent, in northern Africa, where most people are Muslim. [It still exists in some parts] of eastern Africa, central and south.
You became a Christian at age 9. Would you tell us about that?
The missionaries in our area, the Irish, came in 1885 to the eastern part of Nigeria. They went to the older people to bring the Gospel. Some old people said to them, “Father, don't you see we are old? Why don't you begin with the children?”
The missionaries got the idea, and also they promoted the school, without a colonizing authority. For example, the British were interested in trade and in the government of their colony.
The parents sent their children to school so that later on they would get good jobs and earn good money. In school, if [the children] wished, they could get baptized. [First] they had to pass the examination in catechism with a catechist, and then with a priest.
Most children got baptized. But if any child did not want to become a Catholic, there was no problem and no pressure.
We had a parish priest, a Nigerian priest, Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi. He baptized me in 1941. It was my second or third year in school. I passed the exam with the catechist. I passed the second exam and was baptized by him. Later on he went to a Trappist monastery in England. He died a Trappist monk in 1964. Last year in March, Pope John Paul II went to Nigeria and beatified him. He's now blessed. My master is now in “headquarters.”
Is there a difference between evangelization and interreligious dialogue? If there is, how do they relate to each other? Is interreligious dialogue a type of evangelization?
Yes, interreligious dialogue is part of evangelization, provided that you understand evangelization not as proclamation, but proclamation as one aspect of evangelization. In short, evangelization is what Christ sent the Church for.
Evangelization is not done in one act alone. It is done in many acts. It is articulated in many ways. The Pope's encyclical Redemptoris Missio speaks of the ways of mission:
• Presence in the name of Christ. Without necessarily talking at all, you are just present in the name of Christ. You live, like Charles de Foucauld, in the desert, among Muslims. He didn't preach. He just lived the Gospel and loved the people.
• Witness. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters would see somebody who was sick, or hungry, or old, or all three, and they would take them, clean them, give them a house and some food. They didn't go giving the person a lecture in fundamental theology. They just showed the person Christian love and Christian solidarity.
• Proclamation — preaching Christ. [When someone] proposes the message of Christ to people and asks them whether they want to believe. If they adhere to it — faith — then they get baptized, install a Christian community and nourish the community by incorporation. That's evangelization.
Evangelization is also interreligious contact. If some people have another religion — they are not Christians, they don't want to be Christians, they want to remain in their religion — are you, as a Christian, going to say to them, “If you don't want to become a Christian, then I have nothing to do with you?”
They are created by the same God as Christians. They are saved by the same Christ as all of us. Whether they know that or not, it does not change the reality that Christ died on the cross for all, even for those who do not believe in him. Salvation is for all. [Christ's] offer of salvation is for all.
A good member of the Church goes along with the Church and doesn't sing outside the choir. That's what I will say.
Is the theological articulation of the faith more difficult in these countries?
Much more. You need sound philosophy, and without philosophy how are you going to do theology? How are you going to handle the major articulations of Christian faith, such philosophical concepts as person, substance, essence and nature? Because we must talk of three Persons in one God, we must talk of the holy Eucharist in which at the consecration, the substance of bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, but the “accidents,” what the scholastic would call the appearances, of bread and wine remain: the taste, the weight, the color. But not what the thing is; that has changed. That is more difficult.
[Problems arise] if, for example, in that area the people are not able to learn philosophy and theology in their local language but in English — and in Nigeria we have 240 languages. If we have 500 seminarians in one seminary as we have in some parts of Nigeria, and they come from areas covering about 20 languages, how many languages are you going to do the theology in? These are practical difficulties. So you do the theology in English or in Latin.
But effort has begun. For that, we need theological institutes in the place, and philosophical, and people who have been soaked in the Christian mystery, and who live it. We need monasteries. We need also local theologians; we need also experts in music and in literature and anthropology.
How has inculturation been part of the Church's evangelization in Africa?
Inculturation is bringing the Gospel to people in such a way that whatever is good, noble and true in their religion or culture is saved. Christianity can adopt many of them, adapt them, retouch them, ennoble them or elevate them. Some of the elements need to be purified and some elements have to be rejected. Christianity cannot promise to accept every element of every culture.
In my people's culture before Christianity came, twins were regarded as abnormal. When twins were born, the mother was punished and the children were thrown into a big bush which is regarded as looked after by bad spirits.
Christianity cannot accept such. Every good doctor can explain why there are twins this time instead of just one child. It is not the fault of the mother, nor is it the fault of the children.
They are human beings with human dignity. If you throw them away, it's murder.
Christianity has to challenge this culture. If a culture allows one man to marry two wives, that's not acceptable. There are many other things like that.
Are there any positive elements?
There are elements that are good. For example, how to pray. In some parts of the world, in India for example, the people's way to pray is to sit on the floor and cross the feet. They celebrate Mass like that in India when they want to follow their culture. In Japan, they don't enter a house wearing shoes. So, in Japan, in the churches, all the shoes are left outside and you enter just in your socks. In some countries in Africa, if you left all your shoes outside, after Mass you wouldn't find many of them!
Christians have begun to do carvings on church doors, or in the stained glass windows, in the form of local art that says something to the people … or shows Christ and his Blessed Mother as local people. Sometimes some of the local people protest and say, “That's not how we are accustomed to seeing them. We don't want that sort of thing.” Then others say, “We want that sort of thing.” It's not as easy as it looks.
But theologically, it's all right to show Christ as a local person. After all, the Blessed Virgin Mary, when she appeared in Guadalupe, showed herself as a local Mexican! The real Blessed Virgin Mary was from Palestine! But the theological truth is there, that she is the mother of all and Christ is the savior of all.
[Some people] make vestments with local cloth and in local designs, and yet those designs must be liturgically meaningful, and not just locally authentic, because the Church didn't begin just this century. The Church has been there for 2,000 years. What the Church has led, even from Greco-Roman background, must not be regarded as not there at all.
Looking at the situation of vocations in our country, is it possible that Africa might re-evangelize Europe and North America?
All in all, we have to realize that many parts of Africa still remain areas of primary evangelization. They have just been evangelized in the last 100 years. For the Church, this is a short period.
In parts of Europe and even in North America, it is true that some people have grown cold in the faith. It is also true that many people are very warm in the faith. Appearances can be deceptive. Some people highlight only the negative elements. But there are very good things happening that are not mentioned because “they are not of news value.”
What we need is the Church's collaboration. Sometimes there are more ministers in one place than another. At another time, the situation changes again. We must communicate in the Church.
In some places it happens that people focus on a certain tradition, or rejection of that tradition. Would you talk about dialogue within those communities?
It is needed very much. Sometimes there is unnecessary suffering within the Church because some groups are overinsistent; they exaggerate, they take one truth, but they take it out of context, and they fight … for their point of view, and they forget all the other elements.
The Church should be a good mother that has room in her heart for all the children. The priests and the bishops should be good leaders, so that they accommodate people within the faith, and within that faith allow them reasonable freedom. I think it was St. Augustine who said, “In necessary things, unity. In nonessential things, freedom. In all things, charity.”
Can you also cite some examples of this extremism?
For instance, even within the Catholic Church, do you know that there are some people who believe that the Pope should define three dogmas on the Blessed Virgin Mary within two years? And if he doesn't do that, he has not obeyed our Lady of Fatima and if anything happens to the world the Pope is responsible, together with all his cardinals and theologians. They say the Pope must define that the Blessed Virgin Mary is the mediatrix of all graces and is the co-redemptrix and advocate, and if the Pope doesn't do that, he doesn't love our Lady.
Well, well, well. Take it easy, calm down. Bring him some ice water. This type of exaggeration, taking one truth and running away with it and forgetting all the rest, that's not right.
There are other people who talk of tradition as if it were something fossilized from the Vatican Museum or the Vatican deep freezer, as if the Church were not alive anymore in our age, the Church stopped at one moment in history and didn't move anymore. That is also rigidity. That's not right, either.
A good member of the Church goes along with the Church and doesn't sing outside the choir. That's what I will say.
Personal: Born in 1932 in Onitsha, Nigeria.
Background: Baptized a Catholic at the age of 9; entered the seminary at the age of 13; ordained in 1958; consecrated a bishop in 1965; named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
Current Position: President of Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue since 1985; member of the Roman Curia; member of the executive committees of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pontifical Council for the Laity; one of five cardinals on the presiding council of the Holy Father's central coordinating committee for the Jubilee year 2000; featured on the Eternal Word Television Network and on other networks.