Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, one of the top contenders to become pope next week, is best known for his interfaith experience with Muslims and his meteoric rise from a poor African village to the halls of the Vatican.

He was the youngest Catholic bishop in the world when he was consecrated Aug. 29, 1965, at 32. Today, he’s a favorite of traditional Catholics because of his withering denunciations of dissent on all the hot-button topics: population control, homosexuality and pro-choice Catholic politicians.

Born in a small Nigerian village, the 72-year-old cardinal is now tied with Milan Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi as top contender on the betting Web site — at 11 to 4 odds.

A tongue-in-cheek song, “Papa Nero,” about him was even broadcast on Italian radio in 1996 after the selection of Denny Mendez as the first black Miss Italy.

“And if he is a man from the black continent, will it be true?” go the lyrics, penned by Pitura Freska. “After Miss Italy, to have a black pope? That doesn’t seem likely to me.”

But what has won the cardinal the most attention is not his race, but his outspokenness. A year ago this month, he bluntly said U.S. Catholics have no moral option to vote for pro-choice candidates.

“The norm of the church is clear,” he said at a press conference. “The church exists in the United States. There are bishops there. Let them interpret it.”

In a February interview on granting Communion to pro-choice politicians and Catholics who wear rainbow sashes to Mass to demonstrate approval of homosexuality, Cardinal Arinze said “The answer is clear. … Do you need any cardinal from the Vatican to answer that?”

He added that the interviewer, with the Catholic cable channel Eternal Word Television Network, should “ask the children for first Communion [class], they’ll give you the answer.”

The cardinal — who leads the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, which regulates how Mass is to be celebrated — raised hackles at Georgetown University in May 2003 when he said the family is “mocked by homosexuality” along with divorce, pornography and adultery.

Seventy faculty members circulated a letter protesting the speech.

Because of his dozens of visits to the United States in the past 20 years, Cardinal Arinze might be the foreign cardinal most familiar to U.S. Catholics.

Two of his most frequent stops are in eastern Ohio: at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a school known for its commitment to “dynamic orthodoxy,” and at Catholic Familyland, a Bloomingdale-based camping resort on 950 acres also known as the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

The latter has the world’s largest repository of teachings by the cardinal; at least 5,000 sermons on video, said Theresa Schmitz, the group’s vice president.

“He is our primary teacher,” she said. “The families love him, and he is so well-received by them. We sell out as soon as we make it public which events he’ll be at.”

Several years ago, the cardinal, in a blunt speech against overpopulation at Familyland, suggested that those in favor of population control be shot.

“He said, ‘If people are concerned about overpopulation, maybe they should volunteer themselves to be eliminated rather than the helpless innocent,’ ” Mrs. Schmitz said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat his beliefs.”

Photos of the cardinal are sprinkled all over the resort’s Web site along with downloads of his speeches. The cardinal, who is on the group’s advisory committee, spends two weeks there every summer.

On the international front, the prelate is “serious but engaged and connected,” said Trace Murphy, the religion editor at Doubleday who edited the cardinal’s 2002 book, “Religions for Peace.”

From 1984 to 2002, the cardinal oversaw the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which reaches out to non-Christians.

“His writing the book shows a certain world awareness that might be lacking in other cardinals,” Mr. Murphy said. “He’s met with a variety of world religious leaders and his openness to dialogue is extremely important.”

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