He is among the most powerful men in the Vatican, atop all A-lists of possible future popes, and on Friday night Cardinal Francis Arinze will headline a fund-raiser in Pittsburgh for one of his favorite ministries.
Arinze will speak, mingle and answer written questions at Le Mont restaurant on Mount Washington. The $250 per plate dinner benefits the Apostolate for Family Consecration. Arinze has close ties to the group, which promotes family spirituality and the teachings of Pope John Paul II. He spends part of each summer recording teaching tapes at its headquarters, Catholic Familyland in Bloomington, Ohio. But this is the first time he has raised money for them.
"We never asked him before. But we do need funds," said Jerome Coniker, co-founder of the apostolate.
"When he comes here, he is very disciplined, his prayer time is paramount," Coniker said.
"He works hard and comes in and gives me the outlines [for teaching programs]. He does hundreds of hours of preparation And he tells me, 'Jerry, the only reason I can justify this is that you are doing what the church is asking.'"
Arinze, 71, is a multi-faceted figure who is at least as traditional as John Paul on most church issues that rile American Catholics. But he has long been beloved of even the most liberal American journalists in Rome for his native command of English, his brilliant wit and -- until recent years -- his accessibility. After media began to tout him as a possible successor to John Paul, he shied away from interviews.
Coniker and Arinze met nearly 20 years ago through mutual acquaintances in Rome. Coniker, who was beginning to produce religious education videos, recruited Arinze for one taping. He proved so engaging that Coniker persuaded him to do more. Arinze has since recorded 1,700 programs, which also air on Coniker's satellite Familyland Television Network.
"The pope is profound, but he needs someone like Cardinal Arinze to explain him, and Cardinal Arinze is a master," Coniker said.
"He says, 'I'm not a philosopher like the Holy Father. I'm just a rough and tumble pastor who teaches what the church teaches.'"
Arinze, a Nigerian convert to Christianity, was the world's youngest bishop when he attended the closing session of Vatican II in 1965. Despite civil war and persecution, he built a thriving archdiocese in Onitsha, Nigeria, now home to the largest seminary in the world. Both his effectiveness as an evangelist and his ability to work with and among Muslims led John Paul to appoint him the head of the Vatican's office for relationships with non-Christians in 1984. He held that post until 2002, when he was promoted to head the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
In a Vatican mileu where prelates often talk all around a controversial subject without ever naming it, Arinze is unflinchingly direct. Pressed by reporters earlier this year, he made headlines by saying that he would deny communion to Catholic legislators who gave unequivocal support to abortion rights. He drew protests from some students and faculty at Georgetown University commencement a year earlier when he spoke of threats to the family:
"It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce."
Coniker -- who shares Arinze's views -- sees other dimensions to his work. Through Coniker's group, Arinze has been teaching conservative Catholics about Vatican II.
Coniker, a traditional Catholic, says he acquiesced to the changes of Vatican II without understanding them. If anything, he viewed the council as a disruption, he said.
But four years ago, when the pope invited him to a meeting of lay leaders, John Paul insisted that they learn to know and love the documents of Vatican II.
"Everyone quotes it but no one has really read it," himself included, Coniker said.
"I called Cardinal Arinze on my way back to the airport and asked him to change his assignment for the summer and asked him to do the documents of Vatican II. We now have 109 programs with Cardinal Arinze on 16 documents of Vatican II."
Reservations for the dinner are still available. It costs a prepaid $250 or $1,800 for a table of eight. Arinze will mingle with guests beforehand and speak on "The Passion, the Eucharist, the media and the family."
For more information contact 1-800-77-FAMILY.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.