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Cardinal Onaiyekan, Still Strong At 75



His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan has just clocked 75 years of age. By Catholic Church rules, he is expected to turn in his resignation to His Holiness, the Pope. He was consecrated a Bishop on January 6, 1983. His resignation as Bishop after attaining the statutory age of 75 is not automatic because the Pope still has the final say which means he can be asked to continue in his present capacity. That decision, the Cardinal said, is also dependent on one’s soundness of soul, mind and body.

But Cardinal Onaiyekan does not look his age even as he has exceeded the biblical three score and 10.  His agility and carriage attest to the fact that given the chance, he can still hold his own in his Episcopacy.  Making light of his age, he claimed to be enjoying the ‘jara’ years, the benevolent addition by the Almighty. “I am sitting at the departure lounge of the airport. I already have my boarding pass waiting for the plane to take me to Heaven”, the genial prelate said recently. And they are the words of a man at peace with himself convinced that he has acquitted himself handsomely in his chosen vocation.

Cardinal Onaiyekan is a strong and stabilising force and influence in Nigeria whose position on issues that affect the nation align with the expectations of not only the 30 million Catholic faithful but also with the hopes and aspirations of the downtrodden who look up to the Church and, by extension, to him for leadership in turbulent times. His principled stance against the Third Term political agenda of former President Olusegun Obasanjo was one of the factors that effectively defeated that obnoxious plan.

Similarly, at the peak of the Boko Haram insurgency and the mad drive by that cursed group to instigate religious crisis in Nigeria, Cardinal Onaiyekan displayed admirable leadership and appealed for restraint in a manner that assuaged the justified anger of a majority of Catholic faithful who lost not only their places of worship but also their loved ones.

Not a few at home in the country and internationally commended his leadership qualities in those trying moments in the nation’s history. He won prizes and was named Pax Christi International’s 2012 Peace Laureate and has remained a highly sought -after resource person in fora for advocacy of peace.

Onaiyekan was born in the town of Kabba, in what is now Kogi State. He attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Kabba from 1949 until 1956, Mount St. Michael’s Secondary School in Aliade, Benue State, from 1957 until 1962, and Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Bodija, Ibadan, from 1963 until 1965. He completed his religious studies in Rome in 1969 and was ordained a priest that same year by Bishop Auguste Delisle of Ilorin.  For being the best overall Northern student in his West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) set, the late Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, had offered him a scholarship to study abroad. He chose a priestly vocation instead and has made the best of his choice.

Onaiyekan taught at St. Kizito’s College, Isanlu, in 1969. He became Rector of St. Clement Junior Seminary in Lokoja in 1971, completed his Licentiate of Sacred Scripture in 1973 and earned his doctorate in 1976. He became Vice Rector of Saints Peter and Paul Major Seminary in 1977.

In October 1980, then Pope, now Saint John Paul II, named Onaiyekan to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission. In November, he joined the International Catholic/Methodist Dialogue Commission.

He was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of Ilorin, Kwara State, and titular bishop of Thunusuda on January 6, 1983 by Pope John Paul II. He became Bishop of Ilorin in 1984. In 1990 he was named Coadjutor Bishop of Abuja Diocese with the late Dominic Cardinal Ekandem, Nigeria’s first Cardinal and first Bishop of Abuja. When that diocese became an Archdiocese on March 26, 1994, Onaiyekan became its first archbishop. Cardinal Onaiyekan was elected vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) in 1994 and president of that body in 2000.

On 18 September 2012, now Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI named him one of the Synod Fathers for the October 2012 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on New Evangelisation and was created a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in a consistory on November 24, 2012. As Cardinal-Priest he was assigned to the titular church of San Saturnino. On 31 January 2013, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Onaiyekan a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and a member of the Presidential Committee of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Pope Francis appointed him to a five-year renewable term as a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in October 2016.

Happy birthday, your Eminence.