Cardinal Francis Arinze was baptised into the Catholic Church on November 1, 1941, his ninth birthday. He was a child eager to convert to Christianity from a traditional African religion, not because of the wishes of adults or others around him, but of his own volition and by the grace of God.
The man who received him into the faith was Blessed Cyprian Tansi, at the time a parish priest whose example of great holiness left an impression on the boy that has endured for a lifetime. This was the priest who, perhaps most significantly, helped to teach Arinze to recognise and love Our Lord present in the Eucharist.
“He was the first priest I ever knew,” recalls Cardinal Arinze, now 85. “He gave me the first sacraments – baptism, then penance and Holy Communion. He prepared me for Confirmation and I was his Mass-server in 1945.
“He was what you would like to see in a parish priest – zealous, sincere. When he celebrated Mass you saw that he believed what he was celebrating, so his life was attractive in itself. It was no surprise that wherever he worked there were many seminarians and women going into religious life.”
Among them was Arinze himself. He entered the All Hallows seminary of the Archdiocese of Onitsha at 15 and proved to be an outstanding student. He passed the Cambridge School Certificate in 1950, the year that Blessed Cyprian left Nigeria to join the Cistercians at Mount St Bernard in Leicestershire. In 1955 Arinze moved to Rome where he attained a doctorate in Sacred Theology summa cum laude from the Pontifical Urban University. He was ordained in 1958.
He attended the funeral of Blessed Cyprian in England in 1964, and has actively promoted his Cause for canonisation ever since, admitting that he fought to control his enthusiasm when it was first opened.
It was a year after Blessed Cyprian’s death that Fr Arinze became the youngest bishop in the world, when at the age of 32 he was consecrated as coadjutor of Onitsha. Within two years he succeeded as archbishop, becoming the first native African to lead the archdiocese, and in 1979 he became President of the Nigerian bishops’ conference.
Pope John Paul II elevated Arinze to the College of Cardinals in 1985 and in 2002 he was made Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
His tenure as Prefect was a productive one, corresponding with the publication of Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II’s 2003 encyclical on the relationship of the Church to the Holy Eucharist, and with Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI’s 2007 exhortation on the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission.
Given Cardinal Arinze’s credentials, he cannot be ignored when he chooses to speak about the sacraments. One such moment came recently at Buckfast Abbey in Devon, at a time when the German bishops had become so publicly divided over moves to allow Lutheran spouses of Catholics to receive Communion at Mass on Sundays that the Vatican was asked to intervene.
“What does the Church do that is as great as the Mass?” asked Cardinal Arinze. “The Church has only one possession equal to the Mass and that is another Mass. Nothing else.
“It is very important to look at the doctrine,” he added. “The Eucharistic celebration of the Mass is not an ecumenical service. It is not a gathering of those who believe in Christ and who invent a prayer for the occasion. It is a celebration of the mysteries of Christ who died for us on the Cross, who made bread into His body and wine into His blood and told the Apostles ‘do this in memory of me’.
“So the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass is the celebration of the faith community, those who believe in Christ. They are communicating in the faith, and in the sacraments, and in ecclesiastical communion, not now Holy Communion but ecclesiastical unity with their pastor, their bishop and the Pope. It is the community that celebrates the Holy Eucharist. Anybody who is not a member of that community does not fit in at all.
“It isn’t just that we wish one another well. After Mass, you can have a cup of tea and even a glass of beer and a bit of cake. That’s OK. But the Mass is not like that.
“But we wish other Christians well. The Holy Eucharist is not our private possession which we can share with our friends. Our tea is such and also our bottle of beer. We can share those with our friends.”
He said that if Protestants wished to receive Communion in Catholic churches they should become Catholics. “Come, be received into the Church and then you can receive Holy Communion seven times a week. Otherwise, no.”
Furthermore, Catholics who have committed mortal sins must receive absolution before they can receive the Eucharist, he said.
“If a person is not in a state of grace, even if he receives Holy Communion five times a day he doesn’t get grace at all but he commits five sacrileges because he wasn’t well prepared,” he says. “It means that the Holy Eucharist is for those in the Catholic faith and fold who hold on to that faith and who are well disposed. For the same reason you can see if a person is divorced and remarried then there is a problem. Christ said [that] he who drives away his wife or husband and marries another… Christ has one word: adultery. It is not we who made that. It is not a Vatican law. It is Christ who said it.
“We cannot be more merciful than Christ. If any of us says he has permission from Christ to change one of the major points Christ gave us in the Gospel we would like to see that permission and also the signature. You can see that it is not possible. Not even if all of the bishops agree, it doesn’t become so.”
Senior Vatican officials soon afterwards instructed the German bishops to withdraw their document on shared Communion, although the majority of them supported its publication.
But it wasn’t the end of the matter. Pope Francis later explained to reporters that the bishops had erred because canonically such matters must be decided at a local rather than national level, in a way achieved perhaps by One Bread, One Body, the 1998 norms of the bishops of England and Wales for shared communion between Catholic and Anglican spouses.
Within days the German bishops published the guide, saying they felt “obliged to stride forward in this matter courageously”.
Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn has said he would approve of Communion for Protestant spouses “in individual cases” after a period of discernment, while Bishop Franz Jung of Würzburg invited Lutheran spouses to receive the Eucharist during jubilee marriage Masses celebrated in his cathedral.
Whether this represents a shift in Eucharistic theology, as well ecumenical practice, will be a matter of debate for years to come.
But certainly change is in the wind and before too long it will, without doubt, descend upon English-speaking countries. This is perhaps evident in the statement by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission published this month on authority and ecclesial communion.
In one paragraph it expresses traditional Catholic teaching on the Eucharist, held with such conviction by figures like Cardinal Arinze, while in another it gently nudges open the door to novelty.
The Catholic Church might “fruitfully learn from the Anglican practice of provincial diversity and the associated recognition that on some matters different parts of the Communion can appropriately make different discernments influenced by cultural and contextual appropriateness”, the document declares.
Such innovations might well hold out the prospect of closer unity with other Christian communities, but they surely carry within them a counter-productive risk of grave division within the universal Church.
This would not only upset Cardinal Arinze and those like him, but would arguably be contrary to the unity for which Jesus Christ himself prayed.