Cardinal Francis Arinze served Mass celebrated by a future saint.

The priestly example of Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi is what drew him to the priesthood. Since 2002, the Nigerian cardinal has been prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and is overseeing a new translation of the Mass. He lays a heavy emphasis on faith as the basis for reverent liturgy.

Cardinal Arinze, 74, spoke Feb. 14 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin in his office at the Vatican.

Who influenced you the most to answer the call to become a priest?

In the final analysis, no one knows why a particular individual is attracted to the priesthood, religious life or marriage. But analyzing it in our own weak, human way, I can say when I was a boy, there was a parish priest we had — Father Michael Tansi — who impressed many of us. Many boys in the area wanted to become like him, so they wanted to become priests.

I was his Mass server in 1945. He baptized me. He was the first priest I ever knew, my first confessor, and so I wanted to be like him. I wanted to go to the seminary after I finished my primary school. That’s the human explanation I can give. Actually that priest [Father Tansi] later became a monk, and became Blessed — he’s beatified now. But as to the origins of a priestly or religious vocation, only divine providence can fully analyze it, how God attracts a person at that age of 11, 12 or 13.

Your family was non-Catholic, but did they also have an influence on your vocation?

By non-Catholic, that could mean another religion in the sense of Anglican or Presbyterian, but no, not exactly. My parents were of African traditional religion — the ordinary religion around when the missionaries came. ... But our parents sent us to school — all the children — and gradually in the school we learned about the Catholic faith. We wanted baptism so I was baptized at the age of 9, but it doesn’t mean that I was a staunch member of, let us say, the African traditional religion at the age of 9 years. How much would I know? So that’s my background. My parents were not Christians at that time — later on they became Christians, but they didn’t persuade me to go to seminary. If anything, my father dissuaded me, but he loved me and when he saw that I liked to go to seminary, he said “Okay, if God wants this go ahead.”

And he joined the Church later on?

Afterwards, yes.

What have been the high points of your time in the many years you’ve served as a senior official of the Roman Curia?

The first eight years I worked in the office for contact with other religions — contact between the Catholic Church and Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, people of traditional religions, Sikhs, and so on, all around the world. I found it a wonderful experience — how the human soul is looking for God, even in the various religions, and how the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not destroy whatever is genuine in that seeking of the human soul.

Nevertheless, the Church cannot but preach Jesus Christ because in him we have the fullness of religious truth. That is not a condemnation of the other religions, but it is to say that they are all looking for Christ even without them knowing it. And he is our Savior, the Savior of all — even of those who don’t know, so that when they are in heaven they will be surprised that Jesus Christ is their Savior. So I found it very fascinating, especially when the Pope [John Paul II] invited people of many religions to Assisi to pray in the international year for peace in 1986. And also after 9/11, when he invited again many religions, Christian and otherwise, to come to Assisi to pray. Some people were asking the question, “Are the religions of the world part of the problem or part of the solution? Are they causing tension?” But that gathering was really saying genuine religion is about love of neighbor, not about violence.

So those were highlights, also of course the celebrations around the year 2000 — the Great Jubilee — the Catholic Church coming together to ask God for pardon in any way that members of the Church have offended in the last 2,000 years. That was a powerful event. Then special days — one for politicians, another for priests, one day for religious brothers and sisters, one day for youth, one day for families. That was powerful.

On the day for people in public life, people like Gorbachev also came. Another day for university people was also powerful.

Has there been any time in your years in the Curia that you’ve felt you would rather be serving a parish or diocese, ministering in a more practical, pastoral way, or have you been quite happy here?

Quite happy here. Nevertheless I never adopted the attitude of preferring one job over another because I am convinced the Church needs all. Most clergy are parish priests, diocesan bishops, but the Church needs a few priests to be in the diocesan office and also some bishops to be in the central offices in Rome. So I simply adopted the attitude: Let the Pope tell me where he thinks I will be most useful and I will be happy there.

Concerning the English translation of the Mass, some of the faithful think there is too much concern over the details, and that there are more important liturgical issues to focus upon. They point to the attention given to the decision to translate pro multis as “for many” rather than “for all.” What is your response to this criticism?

I can approach the question by saying that translation is a difficult thing; even between two scholars, good people, there can be disagreement on how to translate a particular word. More so, some technical Latin phrases that are difficult to translate, not only into English, French, German, Italian, not to talk of African, Asian languages. In Nigeria, we have 240 languages, so you see the problem. Secondly, there are areas where people who don’t have enough information, then make a big judgment that they would not have made had they known the reason why.

One example is pro multis that you have just mentioned. In the consecration of the wine that would become the blood of Christ, which will be shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins. It isn’t a question of English there. It is a question of all the languages.

Secondly, it was not a thing that was rushed; it was studied over a long period. When the present Holy Father was cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, his congregation at that time, and this one, the Congregation for Divine Worship, got theologians together to study just that, because the words of consecration are very important. There it became clear that the synoptic Gospels all said “for many.”

Isaiah the prophet, who prophesied about the suffering servant of God, said he would give his life “for many.” Then it was also found that no one of any Church has said “for all,” except this fashion in the Church that has gone on for 35 years. That means it isn’t a tradition in any Church — Oriental, Coptic, Aramaic, Byzantine, Maronite, Armenian. All of them said “for many.” It was weighed very carefully.

However, what you have said is right in the sense that it isn’t meticulous insistence on particular words that would be the most urgent thing in liturgy. That is true. But the issue of pro multis is not a question of meticulousness. Then there are many areas that deserve attention in liturgical matters. It’s a question of what looks more urgent in a particular country or another. The emphasis changes.

Do you think the Mass translation we currently have was rushed in the 1960s?

You are right in that sense. It was the Second Vatican Council that introduced the vernacular. That was only 40 years ago. It’s not a long time. No one had experience how to translate, neither this Congregation for Divine Worship nor the bishops’ conferences nor the experts they got together. So they began and the whole Church was feeling her way through.

Gradually, after 30 years, the Church had gathered experience. Then the Pope instructed this office to issue a document to say translations now are to be more faithful to the original text, that’s all.

You’d be surprised what countries have said about translations in those days. Let us say that prayer the priest says, after washing his hands. He says: Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father. You know how the French translated it: “Prions pour le sacrifice de toute l’Eglise” — Let us pray for the sacrifice of the whole Church. That was it. The translation avoided saying “my sacrifice and yours.” It was ideological. And their reply: “May the Lord receive the sacrifice from your hands, for the honor and glory of his name, for our good and the good of his Holy Church.” That’s faithful to the Latin. For the French: “Pour la gloire de Dieu et la Salut du monde” — For the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Beautiful theology, beautiful phrase. But not a translation.

So this recent document of five years ago said: Be faithful now to the Latin original. That’s all.

Are the reforms that came after the Second Vatican Council — I’m thinking of Communion standing up, Communion in the hand and changes to the music that, in the English-speaking churches, has been criticized as being rather banal and not raising the spirit of the faithful — concerns of yours, and will you address them in the future to make worship more reverential?

You are right. This Congregation for Divine Worship is concerned about all those points. But we do not pretend that we have a magic wand that we can wave here and everything goes right.

You mentioned Communion in the hand. As people know, for people traditionally in the Latin Rite, it was always on the tongue after the early centuries. Nevertheless, in the last 40 years, some people rushed — no, not rushed — they urged that it be also in the hand. They pushed and pushed and pushed, and then it was authorized by Rome that it can be on the tongue and also in the hand. If the bishops of a country vote by two-thirds majority, it is ratified here.

But we have problems. Now it has been done for many years, and people are careless. There are particles of the sacred Host that fall on the ground, and that’s the Body of Christ.

Problem No. 2: Some people are not only careless, but malicious. They receive the Host and they don’t put it in their mouth, they put it in their pocket. Someone put it in a photo album at home to remember their visit to Rome. Another problem is worse: People use it for devil worship. They take the sacred Host to honor the devil, to desecrate the Host. That was not the intention of those who urged Communion in the hand, but it has now become a fact. So that’s one area.

You talked about the whole area of reverence, respect, hymns. It is true. Many people make things a little banal, sometimes it’s the priest banalizing, secularizing, and sometimes it is people. Then there is also the whole area of singing. Some songs they sing are not approved by any bishop. They copy anything from somebody or a group, and that also can do damage because the way we sing will manifest what we believe. What we sing should be good theology and also good music, not music unsuitable for church. There’s a type of music suitable for the parish hall, for a picnic, for dancing, for enjoyment, but there’s another music suitable for prayer, adoration — all these are concerns.

What is your department doing to try to bring back that reverence, because if the bishops won’t do it themselves, perhaps there needs to be more authoritative pressure saying that these changes must be made.

You do not create reverence by decree from the Vatican. It has to be based on faith, whatever can be done to nourish the faith. For instance, the Mass: Do people believe it is the body and blood of Christ? Do they believe that God is our Creator, and we are his creatures? If so, are they showing it by their actions?

The priest who is celebrating Mass: Is he celebrating in such a way that he shows his faith, that faith is nourished in the people? The synod of two years ago said it on the Eucharist. Then of course, I gave talks, but one talk does not change the whole Church. Then we also trust that the bishops and priests will be doing their work at the liturgical institutes, at seminaries where the future clergy are formed and the religious houses. It is not a work that one person alone can do. Reverence is based on faith.

As one Protestant said to a Catholic: They went into a church and the Protestant said, “That red light that I see there, what is that?” The Catholic said, “Is it near the tabernacle?” And the Protestant said, “What is a tabernacle?” He said it’s that box there, and the Protestant asked what is in the box? The Catholic said it’s Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The Protestant said, “If you believe that it is Jesus Christ, why don’t you genuflect, why don’t you crawl on the ground?”

The Protestant was correct. The Catholic got the message and genuflected. That means that our actions are based on our faith. You can therefore suspect that many people’s faith in Christ in the Holy Eucharist is weak. They show it by lack of reverence.


Next Week:Part 2 of Edward Pentin’s interview with Cardinal Arinze.