Liturgical Views of the Papabili: Cardinal John Onaiyekan

By Peter Schineller, SJ

Sunday in Nigeria

In my twenty years in Nigeria, I really cannot recall a Sunday Mass in a Catholic Church in Nigeria that was less than three-fourths filled! Catholics love their Church and their parish churches. And Sunday is for the Lord. Children may sit in the front on the floor; the choir, well-dressed in their uniforms may be on the side or in the back. There is always a group of altar servers (and in a growing number of parishes, female altar servers). The Mass will probably last an hour and fifteen minutes, with many announcements and possibly two or three processions.

The tone is uplifting and joyful. The homily (or sermon!) may go on for over twenty minutes. But who is counting? No one is in a rush. Depending upon the location, city or village, the language of the Mass may be a local Nigerian language or may be English. Not every Sunday, but on special occasions there may be dancing to go with the singing.

These are the type of Sunday celebration Cardinal John Onaiyekan has participated in and led in Nigeria and throughout Africa, and the type of liturgy he has spoken and written about. And it is a key part of the “good news” from Africa that he wants to share with the larger world.

The Life of Cardinal Onaiyekan

Before offering insight on Cardinal Onaiyekan’s views of the liturgy, I will present an overview of his life that led up to him being named a cardinal. He is one of the two last cardinals name by Pope Benedict, being named in October 2012.

Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan hails from Kabba, Kogi State, Nigeria. He was born on January 29, 1944, and after seminary training was ordained a priest on August 3, 1969. He studied Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute 1971-1973, and attained the doctorate in Biblical Theology from the Pontifical Urban University ,which he attended 1973-1976. He began teaching Scripture and fundamental theology at SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary, Ibadan, Nigeria in 1977 where he was appointed Vice-Rector. He was ordained a bishop on January 6, 1983, and became bishop of Ilorin, Kwara State. In 1990 he became coadjutor bishop of Abuja. When the diocese became a metropolitan see in 1994, John Onaiyekan became the metropolitan of Abuja.

In Nigeria and in Africa Onaiyekan has held several key positions. He was vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria 1994-2000, and then president starting in 2000. He was president of the Christian Association of Nigeria 2007-2010. Beyond Nigeria, he was president of the Association of Episcopal Conference of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA) in 2001and President of SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) 2004-2007.

On the world scene, he was a member of the International Theological Commission 1980-1985. On January 31, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal 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.

Cardinal Onaiyekan has been one of the leaders at the last few Synods of Bishops. This includes the synods on the Eucharist (2005), the Word of God (2008), and the Special Synods on Africa in 1990 and 2009. He was appointed by Pope Benedict to serve at the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization of 2012.

Onaiyekan was named Pax Christi International‘s 2012 Peace Laureate for his efforts at improving Christian-Muslim relations. With an outgoing, engaging personality, he speaks several languages. As is clear from his important appointments, he is well-known and respected in Africa, in Rome, and beyond.

Cardinal Onaiyekan’s Input at the Synods of Bishops

During the Synod of 2005 on the Eucharist, Onaiyekan gave an intervention that emphasized the positive contribution of the liturgy in Africa to the larger church:

My speech is a hymn of thanks and praise to God for the great blessings which the African people have experienced in the period following Vatican Council II, through active, conscious and fruitful, but also joyful participation in the Eucharist, celebrated in the richness of our cultural expressions.

The cardinal acknowledged that, as expressed in the Instrumentum laboris, there may be

errors, exaggerations and hazardous experimentations on this subject of liturgy, these should not be cause for false alarms. Throughout Africa, in the last forty years, there have been many very beautiful Eucharistic celebrations, which have deepened people’s faith, improved the quality of their participation, intensified their love for the priesthood, infused joy and hope in the midst of despondency and despair, favored ecumenical relations and generally promoted evangelization.

He continued that

the Eucharist deserves and receives the best of our culture… and Africa offers this to the world. We may not have much to offer in terms of the glorious architecture of European cathedrals or the fabulous paintings of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. But what we have, we are happy to give: our songs and lyrics, our drumming and rhythmic body movements, all to the glory of God.

According to Onaiyekan, solemnity and sacredness may actually be expressed not only by chants and instruments used traditionally in the Western world, “but also with the gong, the xylophone and the tom-tom.” Thus he can say that

We do well to acknowledge and extol the valuable heritage of the eucharistic traditions of the different ancient rites of both the East and the West. I believe these are themselves products of an inculturation that took place many centuries ago under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit has not gone to sleep. The process of inculturation still remains active today in Church communities.

At the time of the Synod on the Eucharist, the then-archbishop Onaiyekan spoke in an interview about the inculturation of the liturgy:

The liturgy expresses the faith, but does so according to the culture of people. When we express our faith in the real presence of Jesus Christ, how to do it? For some it’s standing, for others kneeling, some prefer to be in silence, or surrounded by background music, for other it merits powerful music. Before the Most Holy, we can pray still, composed. But if my God is there in front of me, I want to be able to display my joy dancing energetically: that’s what believers do in Africa.

He explained “that trust should be placed in the Holy Spirit that guides the Church, and that, if we are steadfast in the same faith, we must also have the courage to let the Spirit inspire this same faith to be expressed in different ways. Finally, he added that

we know that in celebrating the Eucharist we are together with the angels and saints, and we proclaim the praise of God before his throne, for all the world. In the Eucharistic prayer the needs of the world become ours.

Other Writings of Cardinal Onaiyekan

In the Archdiocese of Abuja, Archbishop Onaiyekan continued and expanded the work of the pastoral institute located there, the Gaudium et Spes Institute. This serves as a think tank, a place of prayer and reflection, and a center for training of laymen and women, priests and religious for the archdiocese. I served as its head for several years. We had numerous meetings and days of recollections for lay catechists, choir directors, lectors, members of parish councils – all encouraged by the bishop and moving towards active participation of the laity in the church and in the church’s liturgy and mission.

One part of the mission of the Institute was publications to instruct and encourage participation of the laity in the liturgy. I think of three booklets which I put together. Archbishop Onaiyekan encouraged and supported them, gave them his imprimatur, and wrote introductions to each of them.

a) Meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist (2002) presents the reflections of the Jesuit Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe on his varied experiences of Eucharist. Cardinal Onaiyekan in his foreword notes how the experience of meeting Jesus in the Eucharist shapes our lives. “Each one of us has his or her remembrances of Masses we have attended, in special places or on special occasions. There, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we have me the Lord in the breaking of the bread. Such encounters with Jesus mark and give direction to our lives.”

b) Handbook for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (2000). With the rapidly growing Catholic population in the archdiocese of Abuja, he encouraged the laity to take up the task of active participation as Ministers of Holy Communion. The faithful too are to welcome these special ministers. In his foreword he notes that “nothing happens in the Church which is more important than the Eucharist. That is why everything concerning the Holy Eucharist must be considered of utmost importance. Nothing is to be done with levity or in disorderly fashion.”

c) Handbook for Lay Readers (2002). In his introduction, Cardinal Onaiyekan remarks that “one result of the renewal is seen in every parish where lay men and lay women are called and trained to be lay readers at the celebration of Holy Mass.” He adds that one feature of this booklet is “to challenge lay readers to be active agents in assuring that the Word of God be given more preeminence not only at Mass, but in their own lives, and in the overall life of the parish.” He urges that “the two tables at Mass, the table of God’s Word and the table of Christ’s Body, be fittingly celebrated.”

Cardinal Onaiyekan’s Style and Presence

In a number of settings, in villages and in cities, I have concelebrated Mass with Cardinal Onaiyekan. These include ordinations, bishops’ conferences, school commencements and confirmations in parishes, and diocesan and national Eucharistic congresses. At the ordination of Jesuit priests, for example, he was most cooperative and insistent that the celebration reflect and incorporate the Jesuit traditions and customs, and of course cohere with the liturgical policies and practices of the Church.

Most especially I recall his leadership at Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja, a boarding school for young Nigerian men and women. His liturgies with us were always joyful celebrations, with students in school uniforms or in traditional Nigerian dress singing and dancing, carrying in procession pots of smoking incense. His presidential style was strong and confident, but not overwhelming or focused on himself.

Two key characteristics stand out from my interaction with him. First, he is easy to be with and to work with. And this carries over to how he prepares and celebrates the liturgy. He was open to suggestions and adaptations, and yet made it clear that he was in charge, as leader – servant leader – of the celebration and of the archdiocese. He could work in a wide variety of settings, with children in villages to adults in a major urban parish. Secondly, he could always be counted on to give an appropriate and challenging homily at the Masses he celebrates. This was also true of his many speeches and addresses to Catholic, Christian, inter-religious gatherings, and public occasions.

In Conclusion

Cardinal Onaiyekan has been a champion of and for the Catholic faith, both within and outside the country, and a champion of equity and justice, and peaceful co-existence of people of all faiths and ethnic differences. He knows the difficulties facingNigeria. He has witnessed churches in Nigeria and in his archdiocese of Abuja attacked by fanatics and terrorists during liturgical services, and yet he continues to move forward with hope and courage. One might say that his leadership in the affairs of the Church is parallel with his leadership of the liturgy. He is able to meet, mix with, listen to, learn from, and work with a variety of peoples. He brings his own vision, experience and expertise, but then interacts with others at the same time as he exercises authority and leadership when called for.

The cardinal has been a strong voice for peace and religious toleration, in the pulpit and in the public forum. Most apparent, as we have seen, is his appreciation of the spiritual depth and richness of African culture which must be taken into the liturgy. Not only is he proud of this culture and the growing and deepening faith of the African Catholics, but he sees these both as distinct and much-needed contributions that can be offered to the world church by church in Africa.

Rev. Peter Schineller, SJ, is archivist of the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. He served 22 years in Africa, including 20 in Nigeria.

Thanks to Mr. Eric Styles for the photographs.



    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #1:

      I was in Nigeria the summer of 2007 so many things could have changed since then. That being said, people received Communion STANDING, but always on the tongue and always from a priest, male religious or seminarian. The only time I recieved Communion any other way was at a retreat house among women and men religious.

      If you can imagine, one of my most vivid memories was getting up Sunday mornings at an extraordinarily early hour to help destribute Communion at a packed St. Joseph Parish. The people just kept coming. The young lay servers were very serious and watched me with a close, scrutinizing eye. I have to say I took some pleasure in quietly teasing their strict sensibilities. I specifically remember one morning, not yet having gotten the hang of distributing on the tongue comfortably. A server dutifully stuck his paten under the chin of every communicant so as to catch the “holy crumbs.” The hosts were super thin and prone to crumbling. I was still groggy with sleep and the sleeve of my cassock/alb was getting in the way. I stopped for a minute, handed my ciborium to the stunned “tween” and rolled up my sleeves. I took great satisfaction in the incredulous look on his face. I simply took the ciborium back and continued offering Communion with the biggest smile I could muster.

  1. From John Allen’s interview with Cardinal DiNardo

    You also have a large African diaspora in Houston …

    Lots of Nigerians and people from Cameroon.

    What about them?

    I think they would like to see an African pope! They’re very proud of their Catholic faith. They know they have a strong church, they’re growing.

    Let me give you an example. I did my first Ibo Mass in Houston right after I got there, in 2005. They used Ibo for the songs, the music, and I did everything else in English. The offertory procession alone took 25 minutes! The beautiful Ibo chant with drums, as they did it, was very moving. The whole congregation is in a movement of dance, because they’re bringing the gifts up.

    But guess what happens at the “Holy, Holy Holy”? They sing it in Latin, without any sense that there was a problem. They’re tied to Rome and to the Latin sensibility of things. They know how the missionaries came in, and they’re very proud to be Roman Catholic. I do think they’d love an African as pope.

    I think this is probably a good example as to how the liturgical thinking in the USA (left and right) is largely irrelevant to the Third World.

  2. I had the great pleasure of attending a Jesuit Ordination Mass with (now) Cardinal Onaiyekan as principal celebrant. It figured largely in an article in Company Magazine about my time in Nigeria.

    Onaiyekan was electric! His presidential style was profoundly indigenous. I remember that one of the rhetorical devices used in his homily was an elaborate exploration of the many names we give to stealing. It ended with the whole assembly joining him in using the widely known Yoruba word for “thief.” In the end, Onaiyekan said, they are all the same. A thief is a thief. The people howled, understood him and his message completely.

    This was a number of years ago now and I cannot recall the exact theological point, but I do remember his use of scripture and indigenous culture reference was impressive.

    I also remember his something about his vestments. The alb he wore under his chasuble clearly belonged to him. It was made up of that distinctive Nigerian lace and was a very pale pink. Again, I was so impressed. I had come to observe liturgical inculturation in an African context, to learn and absorb as much as possible. As an African American interested in this topic, Nigeria proved to be a great choice.

    Cardinal Onaiyekan embodied a inculturated Nigerian Catholicism that was for me a sign of great hope and pride. I will try to find a way to share with you all some pictures. Check out my twitter account at @etstyles

    1. @Eric Styles – comment #3:
      Eric, thank you! Would love to see pictures.

      If you post them on a personal website, you can link to them in the combox here, but only one link per box. If you put two or more links in a box here, it will go into spam and won’t appear until it is reviewed and approved by the moderator.

  3. I’ve often quoted then-Archbishop Onaiyekan’s intervention in the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. He seems to have such a warm, human, and pastoral approach, and a kind of humility we rarely see in the higher clergy — a quality so abundant in, say, Pope John XXIII, and which inspired so much love and loyalty in that instance. Yes, we see a lot of theatrical humility today, a phony populism that disappears at once when policy is considered, but this one seems genuine. A pope whose personal presence inspired trust and affection would go a long way, though not without actions that genuinely addressed current problems. (Incidentally, I somehow missed the idea that he is papabile. The Africans Turkson and Arinze are more often cited, aren’t they?)

    Jack @ #2, I wonder a bit at Cardinal DiNardo’s comment. It doesn’t seem problematic to me that they burst into the Sanctus in Latin, within an otherwise Ibo and English liturgy, does it to you? We burst into Greek at the Kyrie, and don’t think it strange. Perhaps, however, he is noting this in order to raise another issue indirectly — about un-reflective adaptation to Roman ways with respect to clerical culture. Male superiority is unquestioned in most African contexts, and this tallies well with the sexism of Roman Catholic structures.

  4. A universal faith (Greek word is, Catholic) is expressible for all nations, by its culture and spirituality. It also becomes a duty to warmly welcome the native people into this universal instrument established for mankind’s salvation, without destroying their rich culture and the liveliness that comes with it.

    To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

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