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“That dream is growing larger than he imagined”
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“That dream is growing larger than he imagined”

Nnadozie OnyekuruJanuary 6 is an auspicious date for the son of a devout rural couple, writes Nnadozie Onyekuru, 24, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Maiduguri in Nigeria.  On that day John Onaiyekan took the first step in a dream that led to becoming a Cardinal who earns laurels for his work on inter-religious harmony and his fatherly concern for Nigeria’s youth.

About three decades ago, fourteen not-so-young men were ordained Bishops at the famous St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.

One of them was the son of a farmer couple, Bartholomew and Joann, devote Catholics from Kabba, not far from the confluence town of Lokoja in North Central Nigeria.

Today he is one of Nigeria’s remarkable men.

It was January 6, 1983, 14 years to the day since John Onaiyekan was ordained a deacon. On January 6 two years later, he became the Catholic Bishop of Abuja, whose 30th anniversary of ordination ceremony attracted dignitaries from all walks of life including the nation’s president.

That winter day in 1983 was not John Onaiyekan’s first visit to Rome. Part of his studies as a seminarian had been undertaken there and in later years he made pilgrimage to the Eternal City to earn a further degree in the gruelling field of Sacred Scripture.

Surmounting difficulties joyfully was already part of his nature. As a child, his bed was mats and his first automobile ride was a lorry trip to his boarding secondary school, yet he emerged a supernova valedictorian.

Legend has it that the young Onaiyekan was flown in a helicopter around some areas to the wonder of excited juniors. It was with that same wonder that I sifted through his library five years ago in the company of some friends. Along with some colleagues I’d gone to interview the Archbishop for a university publication and while we waited for the appointed hour, he was locked somewhere READING.

That evening, he shared information about his life with us and when he introduced us to some waiting diplomats, he referred to us as “our children”. During the interview, he related to us as somebody in the realm of fatherhood. The most heartbreaking act to him as a Bishop, he admitted, was letting a young man know that he could not be ordained a priest for certain reasons.

Perhaps John Onaiyekan borrowed this fatherly attribute from the man widely regarded as the Archbishop’s spiritual father, the late Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s last visit to Nigeria in 1998 was to Abuja, Onaiyekan’s metropolis. For a quinqennium, Onaiyekan was among the theologians who provided reflections for the late Pope. The Roman Pontiff also appointed him to the International Catholic/Methodist Dialogue Commission.

Dialogue would later come to play a major role in the definition of Onaiyekan’s personality. As a leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), he shuttled sagaciously to ease tensions among members of the association while at the same time extending a handshake to the Muslim ummah on the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC). His high level cooperation with the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria’s Muslim head, earned the notice of the World Economic Forum to the G8. Last year, he was Pax Christi International’s Peace Laureate and there was speculation that he and the Sultan would be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Archbishop has always cautioned against religious stereotyping and expressed a firm conviction that at the heart of the Nigerian crisis lies a deep-seated restlessness for justice and good governance, which have been absent for the larger part of the nation’s history.

While the helicopter ride mentioned earlier may be untrue, the young Onaiyekan’s secondary school performance earned him the offer of a scholarship to study abroad. He declined for the sake of a different dream.

That dream is growing larger than he perhaps imagined as a fulfillment of his middle name Olorunfemi, which translates to My God loves me.

The Archbishop is no longer His Grace Most Rev. Dr. John Onaiyekan, but His Eminence John Cardinal Onaiyekan, courtesy of a surprise consistory by Pope Benedict XVI in November.

The ceremony itself brought to light the Archbishop’s enjoyment of celebration. He was seen warming up to his new colleagues in excitement.

If it pleases his God to call him further someday, it would be in Rome, as on that winter morning of the 6th of January 1983. And like his father Pope John Paul II who could not return to Krakow, it would take some pretty time for the man whom God loves to see the faithful of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja.

“They (youth) should have confidence in themselves. No matter how difficult a situation is, they should not look for shortcuts, they should always believe that honesty is the best policy.”

-John Cardinal Onaiyekan, 2008.

Photo: thecitizenng.com

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About me:

I am a Nigerian student. I love books. I am young and restless with firm dreams that are only tempered by Christianity. I dream of a world where people, inspired by their common humanity, engage in a global wheel of ideas and do not use history as a tool for blame game but as a lesson for the future. In my spare time, I write stories, speeches and participate in activities that advance the respect of human dignity.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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