Pope Benedict XVI's announcement on October 24 appointing the Archbishop of Abuja Catholic Diocese, Archbishop John Onaiyekan to the rank of Cardinal has naturally elicited much excitement beyond the confines of the church in Nigeria. Onaiyekan was among five others named to the College of Cardinals in the Vatican. Onaiyekan's elevation is a much-deserved reward for his excellent interfaith work in the country.
Beloved of many people of different faiths, Onaiyekan's activities, even when he was President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) caught the admiration of cross-sections of the Nigerian society.
The reception he got at the weekend on his arrival from Rome is a testimony to the great esteem that people regard him with. The involvement of politicians, traditional rulers and cultural and religious organisations in the reception indicates that Onaiyekan is respected by different strata of the community, apart from his immediate constituency, the Catholic Church. By his appointment, Onaiyekan will be a member of the College of Cardinals, a body that selects the next head of the Catholic Church. Onaiyeakan is widely acknowledged to be an effective moderator in interfaith engagements. His work, both as church leader and earlier as CAN president, is a good example of interfaith relationship for peaceful co-existence, a quality needed among people at this period of Nigeria's development, faced, as it is, with daunting inter-communal conflicts.
Onaiyekan's elevation is significant in several respects.
First is the fact that it underlines Onaiyekan's personal achievement as a good and humble shepherd in the tradition of the church.
Secondly, it further reinforces the notion that one does not need to raise one's voice for one to be seen or recognised as an effective leader.
Indeed, in Onaiyekan's many years of pastoral work, his quiet intervention in many a volatile situation proved to be more soothing than being implacable and cantankerous in responding to interfaith friction. Being non-controversial has never been a handicap; in fact it is an effective tool in interfaith relationship, which is good for the country.
Born on January 29, 1944, Archbishop Onaiyekan is also onetime President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria; he was also formerly Bishop of Ilorin.
Onaiyekan was born in Kabba, in Kogi State, to Bartholomew and Joann Onaiyekan, the future priest attended St. Mary's Catholic School in Kabba from 1949 until 1956; Mount St. Michael's Secondary School in Aliade, Benue State, from 1957 to 1962, and SS. Peter & Paul Major Seminary in Bodija, Ibadan, from 1963 to 1965.
He completed his religious studies in Rome in 1969, and was ordained priest on August 3, 1965.
He taught at St. Kizito's College, Isanlu in 1969. He became rector of St. Clement Junior Seminary in Lokoja, in the present Kogi State in 1971. He completed his Licentiate of Sacred Scripture in 1973 and earned his Doctor of Divinity qualification in 1976. He became Vice Rector of his alma mater SS. Peter & Paul in 1977.
In October 1980, Pope John Paul II appointed Onaiyekan for a five-year term to the Pontifical International Theological Commission. In November, he joined the International Catholic/ Methodist Dialogue Commission. He was ordained bishop on January 6, 1983, and became the Bishop of Ilorin. In 1990, he became an associate Bishop of the Diocese of Abuja and, when the diocese became a Metropolitan in 1994, Onaiyekan was named the Metropolitan Bishop of Abuja. Archbishop Onaiyekan was named Pax Christi International's 2012 Peace Laureate for his work in that field. If nothing else, Onaiyekan's elevation can be seen as reward for his peace and reconciliation work in the bitter Christian/Muslim divide in Nigeria and the sub-region.
Communal leaders of all faiths should learn from Onaiyekan's work, which Nigerians hope he will continue to sustain in his new position.
No less significant is the Pope's naming of Father Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, to the 13-member Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue in the Vatican. Kukah has also been relentless in pursuit of interfaith dialogue in the country. Both appointments, although done to advance their pastoral careers, represent an honour to Nigeria.
They have proved to be worthy Nigerians, deserving of the applause and respect of its citizens for their respective elevations.