By Emmanuel Ojeifo
Next year, January 6, 2018 would mark thirty-five years since Pope St John Paul II ordained the eminent prelate John Onaiyekan as a Bishop at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It was on the solemn feast of Epiphany, and Onaiyekan was one of fourteen bishops-elect from ten countries of the world that marched to the High Altar of the Basilica to receive the purple zucchetto from the hands of the saintly pontiff. Very few bishops in their lifetime can lay claim to the fact that a saint ordained them. Onaiyekan is one of them. Phenomenal divine privilege, you may say.

Almost thirty years later, Onaiyekan would again kneel before another great pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, this time, to exchange the purple zucchetto he had worn for nearly three decades for the red biretta of a Cardinal, thus becoming a member of a distinguished college of slightly over 200 influential Catholic prelates from around the world, each one a major stakeholder in the decision-making process of a massive spiritual empire that touches 1.5 billion souls.

Today November 24, 2017 makes it five years since that historic event took place. In the meantime, Onaiyekan has grown to become the most senior serving Catholic prelate in Nigeria in virtue of age and rank.

The choice of Onaiyekan for the red biretta came as startling news. When I published a tribute in The Guardian on the occasion of Onaiyekan’s thirty years as a Bishop in 2013, I noted that many people I know say that Onaiyekan should have been elevated to the Cardinalate about two decades earlier, at a time when he was concurrently holding seven powerful positions of responsibility in the Catholic Church and Christendom at the national, continental and international levels. One of such persons is Cardinal Anthony Okogie, Archbishop-Emeritus of Lagos. In an interview with Daily Sun shortly after the news of Onaiyekan’s elevation broke out, Okogie said to the journalist: “I must confess to you: when I was made a Cardinal in 2003, I didn’t expect it. Nearly everyone in the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, I am confessing to you now, nearly everyone in our Conference foresaw that Cardinal Onaiyekan was the right candidate for that post.”
Yet, this did not happen until God’s Time. It was while Onaiyekan was participating at the 2012 Vatican Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation as a pontifical delegate that the news broke out that Pope Benedict XVI had tipped him for the Cardinal’s hat, alongside five other prelates. There were three surprises in that announcement. First, it was a small number of cardinals-elect, just six. Secondly, the group was starkly non-European by the choice of names. These two surprises were quite unusual by papal standards. Previous consistories had had over fifteen names and were dominated by a pack of Europeans. The third surprise was that Onaiyekan made it on this small non-European list of six as the only African. Interestingly, four months after his elevation, Onaiyekan’s name would appear on a ‘watch list’ of twelve influential cardinals touted as possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI who resigned in February 2013.

Also on the list was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who eventually became Pope Francis. Onaiyekan has long provided the rationale for what might be considered to be his many phenomenal accomplishments. He says it is simply the grace of God acting on a weak and imperfect vessel. In his interview with the Vatican Radio shortly after the announcement of his elevation in 2012, Onaiyekan was asked what he thought about the news of his election to the College of Cardinals. He said: “I see it purely as God’s grace, certainly not as any reward for any good action. I’m not the best archbishop in the world and God has chosen me.

Also thanks to the Pope who chose to include me in this very special group of servants of the Church.” It is no surprise that his episcopal motto chosen in 1982 was a line of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done! His life and ministry have evidently been a life-long commitment to understanding and doing the will of God. Truly, anyone who knows Onaiyekan and has followed the trajectory of his humble background would easily accede to the fact that this is a ‘local boy from Kabba’ marked out by God and destined for greatness – a symbol that is it possible for someone from this part of Nigeria to make a mark.
Such is the increasing global recognition of Onaiyekan’s spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, humanistic, literary and academic résumé, which he has put at the service of God and humanity in these past decades of his life. The Late Archbishop G.G. Ganaka of Jos, who preached at the Thanksgiving Mass of Onaiyekan’s elevation to the dignity of Archbishop of Abuja in 1994 could today pass for a prophet when he said: “Onaiyekan will walk with kings and queens and never lose sight of the common touch.” Since then, Onaiyekan has grown through leaps and bounds to become “Africa’s superstar prelate, known around the world as the voice of his continent,” to use the words of John Allen Jr., America’s international religion analyst for the CNN.
Yet, in spite of his increasing influence on the global stage, Onaiyekan has not ceased to respond to the craving to stay decidedly local, ministering to the genuine pastoral and spiritual needs of over half a million Catholic faithful under his spiritual watch, in a rapidly growing cosmopolitan city that seems to live life on the fast lane. Such is Onaiyekan’s giftedness, which fits him easily into Pope Francis’ pastoral profile of a bishop as “a shepherd with the smell of the sheep” and “a pastor close to the heart of his people.” Colleagues often say that Onaiyekan is an embodiment of the Nigerian national character – bold, brash and unafraid to speak his mind as it is. Over the years he has earned a reputation for intelligence, candour and good humour. When you meet with him for the first time you cannot but be deeply touched by the aura of simplicity, grandeur and grace that flows around him.
As I concluded in my 2013 piece in The Guardian, “The life and achievements of John Cardinal Onaiyekan are a powerful testimony to the audacious leadership of a simple archbishop who started a quiet revolution without guns and without an army, but with the dogged conviction that one man’s courage can be the most powerful weapon of all. And so he represents a dazzling array of some of the most important religious personalities whose moral bravery and spiritual resilience stand as a new benchmark of non-violent spiritual activism across the globe.” There will be more to say at a later date. Until then, I wish Cardinal Onaiyekan God’s choicest blessings in the years of service that lie ahead.
Ojeifo is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja.

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