Faith Drives His Zeal for Liturgy

Cardinal Francis Arinze is prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the Vatican body that just released a major document attempting to correct abuses in the liturgy.

He spoke to Register correspondent Sabrina Arena Ferrisi in Rome about his life and work.

What kinds of liturgical abuse is your congregation hoping to curb?

Examples of liturgical abuse are anything connected to the celebration of Mass that is not according to the approved rites. Individuals can invent all kinds of things once they leave the approved rites.

The general approach is that the liturgy is the public worship of the Church. It is not an area where individuals do their own thing, feed the people with the latest production of their over-fertile imaginations. This would do damage to the faithful and the liturgy. Sometimes it shows a lack of faith.

Some abuses make the Mass invalid. For example — nobody did this — but suppose a priest says, “I don't like wine at all. I am going to use Coca-Cola.” From the point of view of theology, it would not be Mass at all. If he didn't use bread made from wheat but uses bread from cassava or wine from the palm tree and not from the vine.

These are abuses that affect the validity of the sacrament.

But there can be abuses that do not make the sacrament invalid. Like if a priest begins Mass by saying, “Good morning. Did your favorite football team win?” That's banalization. Everyone would recognize that.

Suppose in preaching it is no longer on the Gospel and our faith but on politics. Or suppose he says, “I do not like these vestments. I think I will use my overcoat.” Or if he says, “I do not like some of the words in the book, I am going to invent my own prayers. I composed these myself last night.”

When it comes to the issue of liturgical dance, it seems many papal celebrations have some form of dance. Which kinds of dance are appropriate and which ones aren't?

In the last analysis, the bishops of each country must look into this matter. It is not cut and dried. There are many rites: Ethiopian, Byzantine, Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Chaldean, for example. The Latin rite has not traditionally known dance. If you say “dance” to anyone in Europe, I leave it to you to see what comes to their mind. They will say, “That has nothing to do with the liturgy. When we want to see a dance, we don't go to Mass. We go somewhere else.” It is a cultural thing.

Africa is a little different.

You see the average African — if he were bringing up the gifts at offer-tory at Mass — he would have some type of movement from left to right to show joy. They don't jump up and down! Not exactly. They show graceful movement. That would be normal.

In India, parts of Asia, there are gestures with flowers or with a bit of fire that are very graceful and meaningful in their culture. Those who are in that culture see the meaning and it lifts their heart to God.

The main reason we go to Mass is to adore God, to praise him, to thank him, to ask for what we need and ask for forgiveness. So those who want to talk about dance in the liturgy must answer some hard questions — whether what is called dance helps in those directions.

You see why it is hard to give instructions valid all around the world. You must take a hard look at culture.

I am not talking about dances that are morally unacceptable, dances that are unnecessarily provocative. Obviously, I am not talking about those. The bishops in each country have an important responsibility in this whole matter.

What advice can you give the faithful if they see abuse in their parishes?

Do your best to speak with those in the parish who can do something about it. If there is no success, if it still very important, you can approach your diocesan office. But the first thing to do is not to take paper and write to the Vatican. There must be a better solution than that, although as a last resort, people retain that right.

I have heard you are a convert, and you had the good fortune of being baptized by Nigeria's first blessed. Can you tell me a bit about your conversion?

When people hear the word “convert,” they normally think of someone who was, for example, Episcopalian or Baptist and then became a Catholic.

In my case, it was not exactly that. I was simply a small boy with my family. My parents practiced the African traditional religion. People believe in one God and in spirits, good and bad, and ancestors. That was the normal religion when the missionaries came to our area.

Gradually, parents sent their children to Catholic schools. Most of the children would become Christians freely. They were not bound to accept Christianity. It was at the age of 9, then, that I was baptized.

In our context in Nigeria, we would hardly call the person a convert. But for us, it was simply growing up in the natural religion that people had, then came contact with Christianity, and then one became a Christian.

The process of a person becoming a Christian is a work of God's grace. We cannot explain the whole thing ourselves.

The priest who was our parish priest at that time was Father Michael Tansi. He was ordained in 1937. He was, at first, assistant priest in another parish, then began in our parish in 1939. He was the first parish priest there in a place called Dunukofia. He baptized me on Nov. 1, 1941.

But before baptism, the person in our parish had to go through a catechumenate, which might have lasted about two years. You would come to Mass and to prayer with the Christian community. You would come to catechism classes.

Finally, toward the end of one or two years, the station catechist examined the person. Such stations had no priest in residence. Then, later on, there was the overall parish catechist who gave another examination. If you passed that, then you qualified for examination by the parish priest. When you passed that, then you were approved for baptism.

Most of the missionaries, at that time, were Spiritans of the Holy Ghost Congregation. In our area, they were mostly Irish. They had a very good approach. They were near the people. They approached the older people especially. Many old people said to them, “Father, do you not see we are old? Why don't you begin with the children?” So, the missionaries got the idea, and they began with the children. Gradually, the children became Christians, and the parents had no objections.

They saw they were even better children. Gradually it was the children who spoke to their parents and gradually many parents became Christians.

Did this happen with your parents?

Yes. It was normal in 1940, 1950. The majority of the families were not Christian. But now they are. Those who follow the traditional African religion are now a small minority.

How did you discern that God was calling you to the priesthood?

Again, this is God's own mystery. How he calls each one. Each one will have a separate story. We can only see a part of it. We must not pretend that we understand the whole working out of God's call, whether to priesthood or religious life, or even to marriage.

In my case, I must say in a human way, this Father Tansi was a person you could not be indifferent to. It was like sitting near fire. You were going to get warm, even if you didn't realize it. He was an extraordinary priest, and in the areas where he worked, he gave life to Christian families. There were many young people who went to the seminary and girls who went into sisterhood because of this spiritual person. After being a diocesan priest, he went to a Trappist monastery in England. And he died there as a Trap-pist Cistercian in 1964.

Of course there were other influences. We would have seen seminarians who were on holidays. There were very few at that time. And simply God's grace working. You'd start with a boy serving Mass. Indeed, even now, most of our young boys who go to the seminary are those who have been altar servers. If the priest is doing his job well, and prays well, it is likely God will call some of the boys who are around him at the altar — if he is a good role model.

You have the good fortune of being able to spend time with our Holy Father. How and when did he ask you to come to Rome? What personal testimony can you give us about him?

The Holy Father in 1984 asked me through the archbishop who was his assistant secretary that he had in mind to bring a few bishops to work in Vatican offices. How did I feel about it? My reaction was: Wherever the Holy Father wants me to work, I am ready and willing. I do not ask for this or that. I am happy to stay, happy to go.

After two months, the Holy Father finally decided and assigned me to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Looking back, I am happy, because I left myself in the hands of Divine Providence. I did not decide where to work. God looks after that and tells me. The Pope is his representative. I do not need an apparition of six angels to know the will of God.

How do I see the Holy Father? Of course, everyone has his or her own angle. I see him as a person of great faith. He really believes in God. He is a man of prayer. He really prays, whether privately or even in a big grand celebration in St. Peter's Square or in a papal visit to a country. You can see him in link with God. He also sacrifices himself. I have never seen him complaining. Even when the temperature was 38 degrees Centigrade, when he beatified my hero in Nigeria. It was very hot for us Nigerians. For the Pope, it must have been boiling!

The Holy Father believes in the promotion of the Gospel. And he takes the human being seriously: whether the unborn child, a child of 4 years or a sick person of 90 years. It is a privilege to work near this great Pope.

What are the greatest challenges to the Church in the third millennium?

I am not a prophet. The Church has the same assignment in every millennium: preach the Gospel, be witnesses of Christ to the ends of the earth. Help people believe that God loves them. In this millennium, we must think of the Church being present to the family and marriage, which is so fundamental to society.

The Church must be present in the area of work, relations between employee and employer, companies, globalization in all its ramifications, the area of sharing the good things of this world. A few should not become an oasis of enjoyment while the majority remain a desert of misery and want.

Also, the Church must be present in the whole area of science and culture. Science is a good thing. God gave us intelligence, but not all that is scientifically possible is morally acceptable — like the cloning of a human being. The whole area of the mass media — TV, radio, the press, computer, derivatives. They have wonderful powers to do good, but they can also do harm.

The Church helps promote justice and peace. Everyone is concerned about terrorism and war. Even a child understands what is meant by lack of peace.

In summary, the Church has to be a witness of Christ in the world today. When we say Church, we mean all the baptized—you should not think of the Vatican: All the baptized have a duty.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Jersey City, New Jersey.