Archbishop of the Abuja Diocese, John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan
Paul Ohia in Lagos and Muhammad Bello in Abuja with agency report
• New cardinal says elevation is honour to Nigeria
•Jonathan, Obi rejoice
The Catholic Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, yesterday elevated the Archbishop of the Abuja Diocese, John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, along with five others to the position of cardinal, barely two months after the retirement of the Archbishop of the Lagos Diocese, Anthony Cardinal Okogie.
He becomes the fourth Nigerian to attain that position after Dominic Cardinal Ekanem, who died in 1995, Francis Cardinal Arinze and Okogie.
Benedict, 85, announced the appointment of the new cardinals during his weekly general audience and said they would be formally elevated at a consistory on November 24.
With the new cardinals, there will be 120 cardinals under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope. Europe still has the most number of cardinals, totalling 62.
Also, with the new additions, the College of Cardinals is more multinational in outlook, comprising 21 from Latin America, 14 from North America, 11 from Africa, 11 representing Asia and one from Oceania.
Onaiyekan, 68, and the five other new cardinals from the United States, India, Lebanon and the Philippines will be consecrated by the Pope.
President Goodluck Jonathan and Anambra State Governor, Peter Obi, in swift reactions to Onaiyekan’s elevation, said his new status was a testimony to his commitment to duty.
A statement by the Director of Communications, Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Rev. Fr. Thomas Asen, said notwithstanding his elevation, Onaiyekan would remain in Abuja to run the affairs of the archdiocese.
The new cardinal was a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize alongside the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, for the roles they played in maintaining peace and equilibrium in the face of the Boko Haram insurgency in the North. He co-chairs the Nigeria Inter Religious Council (NIREC) with the sultan.
Reacting to his elevation, Onaiyekan described his appointment as “a great honour to Africa”.
“I see the elevation as a great honour to Africa, Nigeria, my country and (Nigeria's capital) Abuja. It is an encouragement for me to continue the good works that I have been doing for humanity,” he told AFP by phone from Rome.
He has won widespread respect for his efforts to ease religious tensions in Nigeria by using the pulpit to speak against mis-governance and build bridges between Islam and Christianity.
Onaiyekan, who holds a doctorate in biblical theology, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1969 and appointed by the late Pope John Paul II a permanent member of the Synod of Bishops in Rome.
The cardinals are the Pope's closest aides in the Vatican, where they run its key departments, and around the world, where they head dioceses to administer the 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church.
The other cardinals named yesterday included Beatitude Bechara Boutros Rai, 72, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon and Archbishop James Michael Harvey, an American who is based in the Vatican.
Harvey, 63, whose title is Prefect of the Pontifical Household, looks after world leaders visiting the Vatican and arranges the Pope's audiences. A native of Milwaukee, Harvey, who was the direct superior of the Pope’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, has worked in the Vatican for more than two decades.
Another new cardinal, Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, 53, the major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara rite in India, is on the frontline of inter-religious dialogue with Hinduism faithful.
The other two come from predominantly Catholic countries - Archbishop Ruben Salazar Gomez, 70, of Bogota, Colombia, and Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, 55, of Manila in the Philippines, which is the largest Catholic country in Asia.
Benedict has now named 67, or more than half, of the cardinals who will elect his successor from among their own ranks. Fifty-three others were named by Pope John Paul, but Italians are still by far the largest group of cardinal electors with 28 members.
Congratulating Onaiyekan on his elevation, a statement by President spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, said Jonathan believed that the elevation clearly showed the cardinal as diligent, dedicated and committed to his calling.
“The exemplary diligence, dedication and commitment with which he has gone about his labours in the Lord’s vineyard since his ordination in 1969 has been recognised and appreciated,” he said.
According to him, with his elevation, Nigeria “now has three members of the most eminent and distinguished College of Catholic Cardinals. This as an indication by the Vatican of its continuing recognition of the immense contributions of the church in Nigeria to the worldwide Catholic movement.”
The president prayed that God Almighty would grant Onaiyekan continued good health, strength, wisdom and divine guidance required to discharge his new responsibilities.
Obi, in a congratulatory letter to Onaiyekan, said it was both a divine favour and recognition of personal merit.
“No one can contest that in your capacity as a pastor, you have shown great devotion to your calling. And as a religious leader, you have displayed sensitivity to the mood and makeup of our society in the handling of religious issues.
“The appointment once more puts Nigeria in the global spotlight but for salutary reasons. Your selection makes a strong statement that we can offer the best to the world in every endeavour,” he said.