A MAN IN THE LOUNGE: TRIBUTE TO CARDINAL ONAIYEKAN AT 80, BY EMMANUEL OJEIFO
In September 2020, barely a year after Cardinal John Onaiyekan retired as archbishop of Abuja, I engaged him in a series of intellectually stimulating conversations at his Domus Pacis (‘House of Peace’) residence. At this time, Onaiyekan had marked fifty-one years as a priest and thirty-six as a bishop, with nearly thirty years as spiritual leader of the Catholic church in Nigeria’s capital city. Sitting in his study room for our first conversation, which took place after night prayers in his private chapel, where a large painting of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco hangs over the wall behind the altar, I started by picking the cardinal’s mind on important highlights of his life’s journey, his legacy, and his dreams for life after death. These conversations spanned two months and gave birth to the co-authored book, Let The Truth Prevail: Nocturnal Conversations on the Church, the Nation, and the World Today (Lux Terra, 2021).
“Have you ever thought about what your epitaph would be?” was one of the questions I fired at the cardinal. He adjusted his swivel chair, closed his eyes, and with a brusqueness characteristic of his personality, replies: “No, I have not. That should be your problem.” I laugh. He smiles. He opens his eyes and proceeds to say what is on his mind: “I would really love that somewhere down the line my episcopal motto Fiat Voluntas Dei features – ‘Let the will of God be done.’” He then explains the two meanings of the Latin expression, citing a letter written by the fourth century African theologian St Augustine, wherein the Bishop of Hippo comments on this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Onaiyekan said he read this portion of Augustine’s letter to Probas while praying the Office of Readings––the canonical prayer for clerics in the Catholic Church––a few days earlier. According to Augustine, by praying that God’s will be done, “we are asking him to make us obedient so that his will may be done in us as it is done in heaven by the angels.” Before this, Augustine says, “As for our saying thy kingdom come, it will surely come whether we will it or not. But we are stirring up our own desires for the kingdom so that it can come to us and we can deserve to reign there.” Onaiyekan then concludes: “Any prayer that you say that is contrary to the Lord’s Prayer is no prayer at all.”
I start this tribute by recalling this part of our conversation because it summarizes the itinerary of Cardinal Onaiyekan’s long journey of life in the service of God, the church, and humanity. His has been a pilgrimage of searching, discerning, and striving to do the will of God. Onaiyekan’s parents––Bartholomew and Joanna––both died at age 92, about ten years apart from each other in 1995 and 2004 respectively, but as soon as he turned 70 ten years ago, Onaiyekan started to make it clear to anyone who bothered to listen that his sights are now turned to a different world – the world to come, eternal life. He has repeatedly used the metaphor of waiting in the departure lounge with a boarding pass in hand to board a flight as an expression of his preparedness to meet his Lord and Saviour and enjoy eternal bliss. Stressing the span assigned to individual human life on earth in the Holy Writ (Psalm 90:10), Onaiyekan insists that anyone privileged enough to attain the age of 70 should begin to get ready to board his last flight.
At 80, Onaiyekan still looks strong and healthy, and will probably reach and surpass the age of his parents, although when I suggested this, he told me starkly: “the rhythm of my life is not the same as theirs. They didn’t travel as much as I did, and they didn’t eat all kinds of things the way that I have. I won’t be surprised therefore if my own lifespan is shorter than theirs. But if God decides to keep me long, I will thank him provided he makes it not too hard for me.” He then waxes philosophical about long life: “These days, longevity in itself is not something to look forward to. Longevity with good health, that is okay. But longevity with sickness, with people carrying you up and down and draining up resources in the family, such that by the time you are dead there is nothing left to bury you, that is not something to look forward to.” This is the incredible gift that the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja will celebrate this weekend as bishops, priests, religious, and laity within the diocese and across the country gather to thank God for the life of a truly accomplished churchman.
The story of Onaiyekan’s life cannot be told in a few pages. When I published the authorized biography Thy Will Be Done: A Portrait of John Cardinal Onaiyekan (Lux Terra, 2019), I knew that there was much more to be said about this towering intellect than I could stitch together in a single book. The story of his birth and humble beginnings in Kabba, his primary and secondary education in Kabba and Aliade, his academic prowess, his decision to become a Catholic priest against the desire of the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria to sponsor his education to Kings College and then to university level, his seminary days at Ibadan, his sojourn in Rome for theological studies during the final lap of the Second Vatican Council, his priestly ordination in Kabba and early years as a priest, his advanced biblical and theological studies in Rome culminating in a doctorate (with distinction) at age 32, his appointment as lecturer and vice-rector, and then as rector at his Ibadan alma mater at age 34 (the youngest rector ever in the seminary’s centennial history), his appointments by Pope John Paul II to the Vatican theological and ecumenical dialogue commissions, his nomination as a bishop by the same pope in 1982, his ordination at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome by the same pope in 1983, his episcopal journey from Ilorin to Abuja as auxiliary bishop, residential bishop, apostolic administrator, co-adjutor bishop, residential bishop, archbishop, and then cardinal are too well known to warrant any rehashing.
In the intervening years of his episcopal ministry, Onaiyekan was thrust onto national and international prominence as he served in the highest positions of religious leadership in the Catholic Church and Christendom in Nigeria and Africa such as President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Co-President of the Nigeria Interreligious Council (NIREC), President of the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA), President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Co-President of the African Council of Religions for Peace (ACRfP), and Co-Chair of the World Council of Religions for Peace (WCRfP). It is said Pope John Paul II once jocularly called Onaiyekan “the president of Africa” on account of the many offices he held at the time across the continent.
If we focus on Onaiyekan’s service at the highest levels of church governance, we must include the many years he served on the ordinary general council of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican, his active roles and participation in a whooping total of eight Vatican synods (Laity 1987, Priestly Formation 1990, Africa I 1994, Bishops 2001, Eucharist 2005, Word of God 2008, Africa II 2009, and New Evangelization 2012) – a rare feat for any Catholic prelate around the world, and his later roles as Cardinal-Member of the Vatican Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith (DDF) and the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (DWDS) – a membership he will relinquish this month as he turns 80. For twelve years, Onaiyekan also served as Consultor to the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and for three years as Member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith for World Economic Forum (WEF). Put together, there is hardly any African Catholic prelate living today whose résumé is as impressive as Onaiyekan’s.
Onaiyekan realizes that God has immensely blessed him. He delights in making it known that God has always loved him as evidenced in the Yoruba name given to him by his father – Olorunfemi – which means “God loves me.” In fact, he tells me during our conversations, “I would almost say he loves me more than he loves other people. Because there are other people who, I would say, worked harder than I did and didn’t arrive anywhere near where I arrived at.” This goodness of God to Onaiyekan is what has kept him glued to a life of simplicity, modesty, and humility. As he says during our conversations, recalling his episcopal motto, “One good thing with total submission to the will of God is that it saves you from pride. You therefore are able to attribute everything to God’s own goodness.”
For more than half of his life, Onaiyekan has traversed borders, crisscrossed boundaries, and entered dangerous zones in his search and work for interfaith dialogue, peace, reconciliation, justice, and fraternity in our world. In his work, he has enjoyed the incredible support and positive esteem of people of goodwill across local and global contexts, but he has also been vilified and persecuted – the reward of anyone who dares to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace. More recently, after the contested 2023 presidential election in our country, Onaiyekan who has been serving as a member of the National Peace Committee came out openly to question the lack of integrity of our electoral process and the shenanigans of politicians who steal, kill, and destroy in order to grab power. While many citizens hailed the cardinal for his bravery and unflinching commitment to truth-telling, some young Nigerians took to social media to cast aspersions. For these young Nigerians, the easy accusation is to suggest that religious leaders who criticize government do so because they no longer have the opportunity to feed fat from the nation’s treasury. Unfortunately, these youths who have been bought over with crumbs falling from the tables of their political masters in order to keep them perpetually docile and subservient do not realize that when people like Onaiyekan speak out, they do so not because they are hungry or for any personal motives but for the common good.
Cardinal Onaiyekan’s lamentation about the persistent failure of politics and governance in Nigeria comes from a place of pain. He knows what possibilities abound in and for Nigeria. He grew up as a young boy seeing Nigeria navigate through the contradictions of British colonial rule to attain political independence in 1960. He saw a nation that was on the path to greatness and prosperity. As a primary schoolboy in Kabba in the late 50s, he was among the children ferried to Lagos by lorry to witness the historic visit of 30-year-old Queen Elizabeth in 1956, waving the Union Jack as the Queen’s Rolls-Royce drove past. In 2009, Onaiyekan would have the opportunity to tell Her Majesty about that spectacular moment of 44 years ago. For such a man who has been privy to the hopes, dreams, aspirations, struggles, and promises of a nation now held down by political evil forces, silence is never an option. This is why at 80 Onaiyekan continues to raise his prophetic moral voice in speaking truth to power and against the ills of society. He knows that Nigeria is not where it should be and he doesn’t see sufficient signs that we are headed in the right direction. It is therefore a pity that young Nigerians who suffer from a poverty of history (a symptom of the excision of history from our education curriculum) tend to fight for their political oppressors over and against those citizens like Onaiyekan who seek to liberate them from the shackles of historical dislocation.
At the end of the first segment of our conversations in 2020, I asked Onaiyekan: “When you say your private prayer, what does a cardinal ask for from God?” He replied: “Lord keep me close to you. Let me continue to be faithful so that I can live the last part of my life happily.” This happy life that Onaiyekan seeks for the remaining part of his years is a precursor to the eternal life he looks forward to in heaven. He describes the habitation of heaven as “the real beautiful house,” the mansion that Jesus speaks about in the gospels. And so, on this auspicious occasion of his 80th birthday, I pray that his desire for a happy last stretch of his life will fully be realized in good health of soul, mind, and body. When I concluded by tribute in The Guardian on the occasion of his thirtieth anniversary as a bishop in January 2013, I said: “I do not know how many million Catholics there are in Nigeria, but very few of us will enjoy the full range of intellectual, spiritual, literary, and linguistic gifts that God has bestowed on John Onaiyekan.” For a fulfilled life in the service of God, church, country, and humanity, permit me to raise a glass in toast to the man sitting in the lounge. May his last flight be delayed for a long time!• Ojeifo is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja. He was private secretary to Cardinal Onaiyekan for six years and is currently pursuing doctoral studies in the US.