ONITSHA, Nigeria -- The legend of Cardinal Francis Arinze, a contender to become the first pope from Africa in 1,500 years, stems from a moment of crisis in Nigeria's Catholic heartland. It was the early 1970s, and the government had ordered all European and American priests -- most of the Catholic leadership at the time -- out of the country.
The political purge left Arinze and a handful of Nigerian priests with a massive job and few resources to do it, church leaders here said. But Arinze, the first African-born archbishop in this grubby trading center on the Niger River, acted swiftly to replace the departed Westerners with Nigerians.
Students take communion at a seminary in Onitsha, where the archdiocese has grown so rapidly that it now sends its young priests to Chad, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Europe and the United States.
(Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
He moved lay people, including women, into key jobs, the church leaders said. He traveled the region in his battered white Peugeot, recruiting young men into the priesthood through urgent, plain-spoken appeals. With their grasp of the area's language and culture, these new priests eventually proved more adept than the foreigners at attracting new believers.
The rapid shift to Nigerian leadership, many here say, helped transform this archdiocese into one of the fastest-growing Catholic communities in Africa, which, in turn, is the continent where the church is growing faster than any other. Since the purge of foreign-born priests, church membership in the territory once overseen by Arinze has quintupled through a combination of conversion and the burgeoning size of Catholic families. Two out of every three residents of the area reportedly are Catholic.
When Arinze moved to a post in the Vatican in 1985, after nearly 18 years as archbishop of Onitsha, he left a church built in his image: devout, unostentatious, deeply conservative on moral questions and distinctly African. They are the same qualities, said Catholics here, that Arinze, 72, would bring to the papacy if he is elected to succeed John Paul II in the conclave that begins Monday. Vatican analysts rank Arinze among a handful of leading contenders, along with at least two Latin Americans.
Arinze's unapologetically traditional views on sexual issues have provoked some criticism. In a speech in Washington in 2003, he denounced homosexuality and pornography; last year he suggested that Catholics who favored abortion should be barred from holy communion.
Among Nigerian Catholics, talk of Arinze possibly becoming pope elicits a mixture of elation and skepticism. Many doubt that a church run for so long by Europeans would select an African leader, even if the church's membership has moved decisively southward. Latin America and Africa, along with developing regions in other continents, are home to two-thirds of all Catholics. Of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, an estimated 150 million are in Africa, and about 19 million of those are in Nigeria.
"Some people say, if not for his color, [Arinze] is surely the most qualified," said George Adimike, 26, a voluble seminarian here dressed in long white robes and black sandals. "If we had an African pope it would show that humanity is a universal thing."
Adimike is among more than 1,000 seminarians training for the priesthood in this southern section of Nigeria. At the campus in Onitsha, prayers begin at 5:20 a.m. By the time roosters announce the dawn, the young men already are deep into an hour of meditation to prepare for Mass, delivered in the Ibo language to the gentle rhythms of drums.
This newest seminary campus, opened in 2000 to handle surging enrollment, was named after the Rev. Michael Tansi, a former teacher of Arinze who was beatified in 1998, putting him on track to become the first saint from West Africa. A statue of Tansi sits in a garden on campus and his intense, bespectacled visage adorns ceremonial robes worn by priests here.
Overflowing with seminarians, the Onitsha archdiocese increasingly sends its young priests to Chad, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and even to Europe and the United States, where recruitment of new priests has been lagging. The Catholic faith has arguably become the most important export from a region that contributes few other products to the world than brake pads and palm oil.
"The church is still young here, so the people are very enthusiastic, just as it was in Europe and America" once, said Ignatius M. C. Obinwa, rector of the seminary. "Now it is our time to produce priests and send them to other places to evangelize. They have fed us. Now it's time for us to feed them."
Even beyond the orderly grounds of the seminary, the vigor of the religious movement built by Arinze is hard to miss: Many trucks on the highways bear drawings of Jesus in flowing robes, or Christian messages such as "Jesus is the Way." Colorful, life-size statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are sold at roadside stalls amid piles of garbage. Nuns can be seen riding through Onitsha's squalid and dangerous streets on the backs of motorbikes.
The first Catholic missionaries arrived here from Europe in 1885, and most paid the ultimate price, dying from malaria and other tropical diseases. But the dominant Ibo tribe here, whose traditional religion had elements of sacrifice and rituals similar to those of Catholicism, began accepting the new faith. That was especially true after Irish missionaries in the early 1900s began building the region's first schools, enticing many practitioners of traditional Ibo religion to send their children to classes led missionaries, most of whom were white.
The church leadership became more Nigerian with the rise of Tansi and, later, Arinze, who was born to the Ibo faith and converted to Catholicism at age 9. He became archbishop in 1967, at the start of the war in the breakaway state of Biafra, in which the Ibo and other southeastern tribes sought independence from an authoritarian government. After the end of that war in 1970, the victorious federal government expelled the foreign-born priests for supposedly supporting the rebel cause.
After organizing a visit to Onitsha by Pope John Paul II in 1982, Arinze moved to the Vatican in 1985 and eventually rose to become the pope's adviser on ritual and the sacraments. He also was the liaison to other religions such as Islam, allowing him to draw on his experience from Nigeria, where the north is predominantly Muslim.
From his Vatican post, Arinze has become a controversial figure to many American Catholics because of his rigid views on matters of doctrine. Arinze announced during the 2004 U.S. presidential election that Catholics who do not support making abortion illegal -- a group that included Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry -- should be not be permitted to take the Eucharist during Mass.
A year earlier, Arinze provoked shock and protest at Georgetown University, when as graduation speaker he denounced what he called threats to family life.
"In many parts of the world, the family is under siege," he told the students. "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."
Such statements are not controversial in Onitsha, or among Catholics in most African countries, where homosexuality is both illegal and regarded as unnatural. The Vatican's teachings against abortion, euthanasia and contraception also draw little dissent here. And although seminary students acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining their vow of chastity, they say the sacrifice is central to their idea of the priesthood.
"I have sexual feelings," acknowledged Augustine Umeh, 27, a seminarian with a gentle voice. But he added, "If you are alone, all of your mind and everything will be focused on the church, the people in the parish."
"If the church actually said priests could marry, we would leave the seminary," Umeh declared. "We cherish that celibate life so much."
For Umeh and other young men, the notorious corruption and social inequities of Nigeria also serve as an inspiration to become priests. Few other choices, they say, would allow them to stand apart from the illicit exchanges of money central to politics and business here.
But more than anything, these fervent young Catholics say they have received a call from God to serve, much as their heroes Tansi and Arinze did before them.
In his two decades at the Vatican, Arinze has remained a regular visitor to Onitsha and also to his home village, Eziowelle, about a half-hour drive down deeply rutted dirt roads. A scheduled visit in August stands to hold even more meaning for Onitsha's graduating seminarians, who are scheduled to be ordained by Arinze.
Yet with the conclave meeting, they know that other forces may intervene.
"If he becomes pope," said Livins Ugocsukwu, 29, "who knows?"