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An interview with Archbishop of Abuja, One of the 115 Cardinals

Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, was one of the 115 cardinals who elected a new pope on March 13, 2012. Shared his experience, Boko Haram and the Christian Association of Nigeria
Can you share your first experience and participation in the conclave to elect a new pope?
Let me start by saying that the conclave is a special gathering of the cardinals that are eligible to be electors – meaning the cardinals that are under the age of 80. It is an age-old custom and many of the procedure has been there for centuries. Many of the procedures have been allowed to continue and they have stood the test of time. So we didn’t just carry out the procedures because they are old, but also because they are effective and have stood the test of time. One of the aspects of that long tradition is that everything is done behind closed doors and in fact more than symbolically, only the cardinal electors are within the place where the election takes place. Also by tradition, the election takes place not just in any room or any hall but in one of the holiest places within the Vatican, Sistine Chapel. It is called the Sistine chapel because it was commanded to be built by Pope Sixtus and it was named after him. The Sistine chapel is more famous because it is the place where the conclave takes place. There are also beautiful works of art there, especially the drawings of the last judgment, as well as the drawings that reflect the creation of Adam and Eve. Apart from the artistic drawings, the chapel is an age-old chapel and it is there that the election takes place. I cannot tell you about the details of the election, but all I can tell you is that those cardinals who were eligible for voting went in there and took a vow not only to do everything according to your conscience, but also to maintain the required level of confidentiality in whatever you are going to do and you have the list of those to be voted for because we knew ourselves already. Before the conclave, there was a whole week of meetings called general congregations. They are meetings of not only the cardinals who are going to elect, but also those who are not going to elect but are above 80 years, but whose views and comments are very useful for us. This is because many of them are very experienced cardinals of the holy church. So they came in with their own ideas. What happens inside is simply that you have an election and the rule says you must have a two-thirds majority before a pope is elected.
Can we then say that there is democracy in the process for the election of a new pope?
Well, it is democracy but a special kind of democracy. First, because there are no campaigns. Second, because there are no political parties and third, because it is not a job that people really want to do. I don’t really know of anybody that will go into the conclave and pray that he comes out a pope. No! All we know is that we had a duty to get a pope and whoever the choice falls upon believes he is called by God to carry this load. Pope Francis came to Rome to elect like me; he is stuck now in the Vatican and can’t get back home. So, it is not the kind of job out there that people fight for. You see the pope as a big name and big person quite alright. But he is also a spiritual leader. Let me put it in a way our people will understand better. It’s like we do not go there to elect somebody. We go there with the conviction that God Himself has already chosen who He wants to be the pope and we were quite convinced about that. Our going there is just to discover him.
Why is it that the job of the pope is not too enticing since you alluded that the position has some loads attached to it?
Every job within the church is not the type that you run after with the hope that you will enjoy it and use the power to feather your nests and deal with your enemies like you have in politics out there. Rather, the positions in the church are positions of service and the positions that God has chosen, although using human instruments. But at the end of the day, it is the choice of God. The moment the person is chosen, he knows very well that he is God’s own choice and has been chosen to be the head of the Catholic Church. He has his job cut out for him. From then, he believes that he is not just like any other cardinal like the rest of us but a pope; and there is only one pope in the whole world.
A lot of Nigerians anticipated that it would fall on Cardinal Onaiyekan…
They have every right to have their ambitions, hopes and prayers to have a pope from Nigeria. That is natural and we all understand it. But we who went there didn’t go with the idea of capturing the World Cup for Nigeria. We went in to seek God’s will and what I can say very well is that the whole procedure is a religious affair. Even the way we dressed, we were dressed as if we were going for church service and the atmosphere and environment was quite holy. But we knew that the job we were doing was a very serious one because conclaves are not done every year. It is not like the presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which after four years would be due for change. Even if the incumbent gets a second term, he has to be re-elected; but with the pope, it is not like that.
How did you feel participating in the conclave for the first time?
Those of you who followed it on television know very well that it was something really serious. As a cardinal, I have been a bishop and God has been kind to me. I have been in the service of the church for a long time and I have been taught from early childhood to be quite convinced about the reality of the spiritual; in that there is much to our lives than what we can see and hear. If you don’t believe in the spiritual, you have no business being a Christian, not to talk of being a priest and then a bishop and cardinal. We went there even though every moment of my life I know that I am carried on the wings of God Himself and I am trying my best to do His will. On that particular occasion, I realised that God is active in a very special way, not only in me but also in my colleagues – 115 of us from all over the world.
Why did the conclave extend to a fifth ballot? Was there a disagreement?
On the first day, the cardinals went in and there was only one vote. Much of the first day was taken over by the oaths, which we took, one by one. After we have finished that, we voted once. When we returned the next day, we did two ballots in the morning and two ballots in the evening. We went into the conclave between 4.30pm and 5pm, if by 6pm people had seen the white smoke, they would have known that we got the pope in the fourth ballot. They knew we already had three ballots. So, because the smoke came around 7pm, they now realised that it was during the second ballot in the evening that the pope emerged. That was why people speak of the fifth ballot; and that is true. It was at the fifth ballot. It is an election in which everybody is a candidate. But in the process of the ballot, you begin to see the mood and how people begin to feel till you arrive at a two-thirds majority. In this case, we were 115 cardinals and we needed 77 votes before we could get a pope.
What informed the choice of Pope Francis?
I will not tell you how he was elected. All you need to know is that he was elected pope.
What is the significance of the name, Francis?
When one of the cardinals gets the required two-thirds majority, he is considered as having been elected. Then he is asked two questions. First: Do you accept your election? Normally, he says yes, by the divine wish of Almighty God he accepts. It is when he accepts that be becomes a pope, not just our election; because if he says he doesn’t accept, we will continue our voting until we get somebody else. Somebody is designated to ask him a second question, which is, what name have you chosen for yourself? Every pope has a name. In this particular case, when he was asked his name, he said, “I have decided to be called Francis in honour of St. Francis of Assisi, which is clear enough.” Everybody has made a remark that this is the first Jesuit to be a pope. But all Catholics know that there are many ‘Francises’. The most known pope is Francis of Assisi. But there was also Francis Zelia, a great missionary in the Jesuit. One would have expected that he would choose to be called Francis of Zelia, who was one of the followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola who is the founder of the Jesuits. But he made it very clear that he was choosing the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi.
What are the chances of Africa producing a pope?
It is not a question of Africa producing a pope; it’s a question of God choosing a black pope and there is nothing stopping God from doing it. The church is now well established in Africa. Afterall, there were 11 of us from Africa among the electors. Among us, there were people with better qualifications more than somebody else. You see, in the Catholic Church, we meet often at the level of bishops and cardinals and we are all equals; it doesn’t matter where you come from. Also, our training is the same. I don’t find myself in any way inferior to the Cardinal of New York because we have had the same training and theological formation and the same understanding of the church and we are no small boys. We are equal and that is the way we treat ourselves, which means we are colour blind.
What efforts are you putting in place to make sure that Nigerian Catholic priests are not tainted by sex scandals?
First of all, the extent of the sex scandals has been over-flogged and exaggerated. The way they talk about it, you would think it is every Catholic priest that has been molesting children, whereas you are talking of about 100 or so. How many priests are there in the world? We are hundreds of thousands of priests. When you compare the number of priests that misbehave to the number of children that are molested by their own parents in their own families, they are far more numerous. If you go beyond that, statistically, of the children that are molested, majority of them are molested within their families, by their own parents, families and uncles. If we go beyond it religiously, there are other religious bodies out there whose ministers are also guilty of all these things. Yet nobody talks about them. Maybe because the Catholic Church is considered unique and as such, this type of thing should not even be mentioned at all. Well, I take it to be a vote of confidence in us and we will do our best to retain that confidence. Finally, I must say that many of those people in the mass media who are talking about these things are not saying it because they are genuinely concerned about morality. These are people who don’t believe in any morality. They are only using it as something to flog the church which they don’t like, because the church makes their lives uncomfortable. The Catholic Church continues to champion causes and moral values that the world of today has decided to throw overboard. But the church will not change and so they find ways and means of hitting at the church and hoping that by highlighting the bad behaviour of some priests, they can destroy the credibility of the Catholic Church. But you can see from what has happened in the past few weeks. There were 6000 journalists accredited in the Holy City to cover the conclave. You saw the crowd in St. Peters and whether they like it or not, they cannot ignore the Catholic Church. You asked of what we are doing in Nigeria to ensure that our priests don’t fall into that temptation. One thing that they should know is that the Catholic Church had always trained its ministers, as seminarians to priests to a high level of moral rectitude. The bad behaviour that they have been talking about is not as if the church had accepted or condoned it before. No! We have always condemned it. In fact, if we know any young priest or seminarian who has that tendency, we don’t allow him to go further to be a priest. But you see, we are also human beings like anybody else. You can’t have a group of priests, as many as we are, and nobody will ever make a mistake. We didn’t drop from heaven, everybody knows my brothers, sisters and people knew my father and mother before they died. I schooled with people, primary and secondary school and they know me very well. So, we are not spirits and in our church, we believe that the church is the church of human beings. We do our best to behave well and we are aware that there aren’t times when we misbehave and repentance from sin is part of our daily life. This is where our position and way of dealing with these things differ from what the press will want to say: Why does the bishop not hand over a priest to the police immediately he is found to have misbehaved? No! When your son does something wrong, you try and correct him and don’t immediately start sending him to jail. If the case reaches the police and they ask me or come to me that they have a case against Reverend Father X or Y, I will tell Father X to go and answer the call. But it will be difficult for me to be the one that will lead the initiative to carry my own priest to the police because the example I gave is like what happens in the family.
What is your reaction to the recent bomb attacks in Kano?
What do they think they gain from that mass killing? From a religious point of view, this simply proves that the devil is active and alive everywhere in the world. Wherever there is evil, senseless killing and senseless infliction of pains on other human beings, the devil is at work. I ask, why would they do such a thing? What are they gaining from it? Killing people you don’t know, with whom you have no quarrel and had nothing against you? Killing men, women and children? If you don’t like the government, is that where to go? Is it the government you are killing?
What do we do about the Boko Haram threat?
There is no single solution to the problem. If we have to go to the roots, then we must get to know how those people were trained, their mental make-up, where they were indoctrinated, who is teaching them what, the doctrines they were working on and find someone who can change those ideas for them. You can be a good Christian or good Muslim without killing people. Luckily in Nigeria, even though these people call themselves Muslims, not only do we say that the leadership of Muslims in Nigeria has disowned them, but we also say that the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims have dissociated themselves from the activities of this group.
But a lot of people see the Boko Haram threat as an attempt to Islamise Nigeria.
If anybody wants to Islamise Nigeria, it should be the Muslim community in Nigeria led by its leaders, not a small group of terrorists. They cannot Islamise us because as you can see, the more they kill, the more they make people angry. These killings are not making people become Muslims. On the contrary, it makes us Christians become firmer in our faith. We can count on the Islamic community in Nigeria and have always asked them to do more and get closer to them, somebody who can call whoever is their leader and ask, ‘What exactly is the problem? Why is it that you don’t want us to live in peace?’ There must be somebody who can talk to them. Not me, not me. I cannot because I am an Archbishop, a Catholic and a Christian. It has to be someone within the Islamic community. There is no denying it that these people call themselves Muslims. I agree with those who say they are not good Muslims or that they cannot call themselves Muslims but they are calling themselves Muslims.
Do you think somebody like the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, who was demanding amnesty for Boko Haram members should call them to sheathe their swords?
One needs to go beyond what the Sultan said because I know him very well. Probably, there is more to it than what he said. Amnesty cannot mean that they are doing very well. After all, the meaning of amnesty is forgiveness. But you cannot forgive somebody who has not done something wrong. So the very concept of amnesty is contained in the fact that the Sultan believes that what they are doing is wrong. The only problem is that it is not enough for the Sultan to call for amnesty. Those people concerned must also ask for pardon, which means they will have to admit wrongdoing, ask for pardon and be prepared to make some kind of gesture of repentance. Even if all they say is ‘We are sorry, we have killed innocent people’, we will be okay and we are waiting for that. But in my own opinion, I don’t think we need to crucify the Sultan because he has started a debate which is useful. It is a step towards reconciliation. If we are only concentrating on the Joint (Military) Task Force and guns to settle this matter, it won’t work. It might go on for a very long time.
So would you then opt for dialogue?
Both; I mean dialogue and the ongoing security efforts by government. You need the security efforts to put pressure on people and we also need to open avenues for dialogue. We were even told that they were ready to talk. They should open avenues for those who want to talk, find out also those who are politically close to them because it has a political dimension and those who constitute the political opposition and who are sympathetic to them. They are the ones that should talk to them. Examples of other countries where it has worked are there. It is not going to be an easy thing and if we continue like this, keep shooting and killing, both sides will continue to suffer and nobody will be safe. Up till now, my church is not safe. Every Sunday, we have to put all kinds of security on ground. It was both Christians and Muslims that were killed in the Kano explosion. They killed Nigerians and I hope that we will not allow these things to totally polarise Christians and Muslims. I think there are enough good willed and reasonable Christians and Muslims in Nigeria that if we decide to put heads together, we will succeed. Fighting each other, accusing one another makes me feel sad because it’s not going to solve the problem. Unless we decide that now, we have declared war between Christians and Muslims, somebody will help me to draw the battle line. As you know, it is not an impossibility. Where do you draw the line, in Abuja or Lokoja or Kaduna? So we have a problem at hand. We should not forget too that even in countries that are almost totally dominated by Muslims, people are still active, fighting and killing. We should not limit it to religion. We should also use religion to deal with the situation because both Christians and Muslims are saying that their religions condemn the killing of innocent people. If that is what we both say, it means we should be able to jointly find ways and means of stopping the killings.
What is your relationship with the Christian Association of Nigeria?
Oh, my relationship? I don’t have any relationship with CAN.

Reporting for NaijaGospel

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