Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
As he clocks 75 today, the Metropolitan Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has said his only regret at 75 is that the world is full of a lot of unnecessary sadness and pains through the action of people who don’t care about others.
Your Eminence, at 75, you have officially hit the retirement age. Are you set to quit?
Well, I am supposed to be set to quit and we know that already. Luckily, retirement age gives you good notice. And I have already informed the Pope long before, reminding him that I will be 75; that I am ready to step aside for another person to continue with the work in Abuja.
How about your successor? Any move to that effect?
Yes, there are moves. That doesn’t mean that I know the full details of the moves. But there are moves.
What about your retirement home? How far with the building?
That one I can answer very clearly. They are almost finishing it in Asokoro. Hamza Abdullahi Street, Asokoro. If I had my way, I wouldn’t live on the street of Hamza Abdullahi even though he has died. He was not kind to us when he was first minister here. He threw away all our land files. May God have mercy on him.
From the way you are talking, it seems you have no idea of when exactly you are leaving as the archbishop of Abuja?
No, if you mean exactly what date. What it does mean now is that after 75, I am prepared to receive the letter from His Holiness. I have handed in my resignation. I may probably remind him again officially and I wait for his reply. He has already said it in a recent declaration that anybody who reaches 75, could continue his work until he tells you that you can now go on leave.
We have it on good authority that the man leaving is usually asked to suggest two or three persons…
(Cuts in) Let me just say that not only me, but any bishop that is about to go, has the prerogative to give some names of possible successor; but makes it clear that he does not choose his successor.
Your Eminence, who have you recommended?
That one is supposed to be confidential information that I have given to the Holy See.
How is your present mood like? Is it like that of St Paul who said ‘I have run the race to the finish and I am waiting for the crown of glory prepared for me,’ or how?
The crown of glory I hope I will get. I think I have run the race quite a lot with 50 years in the priesthood and 36 as a bishop. Whether I have kept the faith, only God will judge.
What do you consider a turning point in your priestly vocation?
Every point is turning point in this whole journey of the priesthood because every point is very important and God keeps talking to us day by day. What you could say is that there are some important moments like the day I was ordained a priest. That was a great moment for me; the day I was made a bishop; that is a great moment for me; the day I was promoted archbishop, it was a turning point for me and also the time I was made a cardinal.
But which of them was your finest moment?
Every moment was fine because every one of them is a fine moment from God. If you are talking in terms of one’s own personal ambition, the only ambition I had was to be a priest and in that case, you can say August 3rd, 1969, was when I achieved my life ambition.
Cardinal Onaiyekan is known as one personality who frequent overseas. How many countries have you visited?
I can’t remember them. They are many. Let’s just say they are many.
Are they up to 100?
I don’t know whether they will be up to 100. But they will definitely be more than 50.
At 75, what kind of exercise do you engage in?
Mainly very simple ones; straightforward; running up and down to my room, moving around to anywhere. Honestly, I don’t. Maybe it is my fault. I don’t have a regular programme of exercise.
When you are not putting on the cassock or Roman collar, what type of cloths do you like to wear?
Anything light and simple.
Do you go on holiday?
I am guilty. Mea culpa, mea culpa. I am very guilty and people have been telling me, you never go on holidays.
But you only go for conferences…
Exactly! I go out so often that I don’t have the courage to tell anybody I am going on holidays. But whenever I go out so often, I probably had a day or two or even spend an extra week and refresh myself. The time I got a holiday some three years ago was by force when I went to Rome and I was detained in Rome for radiotherapy for a period of almost two months when I was doing nothing, just attending the hospital for half an hour every day. But that was not a holiday.
What is your favourite meal?
Anything really. Simple, straightforward. I must say I am not a stickler for food. I try my best to eat whatever is available.
Do you regret that you don’t have children?
No. Do you know why I don’t regret? Nobody can have everything in this world. Whatever God gives you, you take it, you are satisfied with it and in some cases, you can’t combine with others. And having children is what I cannot combine with the kind of life that Jesus Christ has called me to. So, I have made my choice and I stand by it and there is no need having regret because it doesn’t make sense to me.
Some will say that there is no worthy life without regret. Do you have any regret about life?
The only regret I have is that this world is full of a lot of unnecessary sadness and pains through the action of people who don’t care about others; that this world should have been a beautiful place for all of us. There are many people who don’t care about others, so people suffer unnecessarily. And when you look at innocent people who are suffering because of the stupid actions of others, that makes me really, really sad. But it is not a sadness that belongs to me personally; it is more a sadness of the spirit.
At 75, what do you have to say about your life that younger generations can learn from?
I will simply say that I believe that God has been very, very kind to me. Right from the beginning, the family I came from; as you know, we don’t choose our families. I didn’t choose what family to come through, but I can be more grateful than I am now for my family. I have been lucky all along: school times, seminary times and by all accounts and purposes, you could say that my life as a priest was quite successful if you talk of success in that regard. But I never take anything for granted. I have been taught to be serious with what I do, to work hard and to try and live my life with seriousness and not be careless with anything that I do. And apparently, living that way also gives you inner joy and perhaps, others look at it and find that yes, you are doing something good.