f all the cardinals in the Roman Curia, few are as disarming, good-humoured and at ease with themselves as Cardinal Francis Arinze. A natural leader with a common touch, the Nigerian cardinal, now 74, has long been expected to reach great heights. He has even been described as a potential Successor to Peter. "Yes, according to journalists," he chuckles when I meet him.
But his ready laugh and broad grin belie a serious approach to many Church matters, particularly in his area of responsibility: the liturgy. When I raise ongoing concerns such as continued lack of reverence at Mass, and cite as examples Holy Communion in the hand and standing up, and ubiquitous banal hymns, his own reservations about these practices are obvious.
Certainbishops,he says, "pushed and pushed and pushed" for Communion in the hand to be accepted practice for past 40 years, in effect forcing Rome to ratify it. Now, he says, "we have problems", and he speaks with visible anger about the dropping of particles of the Sacred Host on the ground. tourists putting the Host in a photo album as a souvenir of their trip to Rome, and desecration of the Host through black magic. On Church music, he blames the "banalising" and "secularising" of hymns on both priests and laity. "There's a type of music suitable for the parish hall, for a picnic, for dancing, for enjoyment," he says, "but there's another music suitable for prayer and adoration."
On whether priests should celebrate Mass facing the congregation or facing East as they did before the Second Vatican Council, he sees arguments for both positions, although his preferences are clear. "The Mass is not a mutual entertainment gathering between the priest and the people you admire me and I admire you," he explains. "The priest is not a reverend showman." Still, Cardinal Arinze is not prepared to make changes, believing it unwise "to order the people of God around again and tell them to shift around the altar again". "If you were in my shoes would you go so far?" he asks.
Indeed, he quickly dismisses the mere suggestion that wielding a little more authority would help. "You do not create reverence by decree from the Vatican," he says with an enormous smile. "It's not a work that one person alone can do. Reverence is based on faith." As an example, he recounts a time when a Protestant asked a Catholic about the purpose of the Tabernacle. When the Catholic replied that it was where Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament was kept, the Protestant said (and the cardinal tells this part with added verve): "If you believe that it is Jesus Christ, why don't you genuflect? Why don't you crawl on the ground?" The Protestant, says Cardinal Arinze, was correct. "Many people's faith in Christ in the Holy Eucharist is weak," he says, "and they show it by lack of reverence."
We move on to the long-awaited motu proprio in which the Pope is expected to liberalise usage of the Tridentine Rite (the pre-1962 Mass). The cardinal has little to say on this as it is not his responsibility, but he maintains it is still under consideration and that the Pope is keen that it won't create division, hence the delays. But he uses the subject to censure those who still refuse to accept the Second Vatican Council and who blame it for the Church's current ills. Just because a priest may depart from the rulebook doesn't mean it was the Council's fault, he argues. And secular society also plays a role. "Some blame the Vatican Council for everything — they say if it rained last week it was the Second Vatican Council that caused it," he laughs.
He believes that to tackle all these challenges all Catholics need to get to grips with their faith by reading the Catechism or the Compendium. Then it's up to the priest. "The way he celebrates and the people around him — does that manifest the faith of the whole Church?" he asks. "Does that wake up those who are half asleep [or] when, next Sunday comes, do they feel, 'Oh Lord help us, we have to go back to that Church and be again with that priest for one and a half hours?' " In common with most Africans, Cardinal Arinze has a refreshing fervour and frankness about the faith that Europe largely lacks. Perhaps, then, he may still be an ideal candidate to lead the Church's new evangelisation. But that, as the cardinal would say, is just a journalist's presumption.
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org