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•I’ll retire at 75
Aidoghie Paulinus, Abuja
Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, has sensationally revealed that he would not accept any extension from Pope Francis when he eventually clocks the retirement age of 75 next year. This is just as he wants governors to stop receiving salaries after leaving office.
A year from now, you will be due for retirement. How do you hope to live your life in retirement?
Obviously, when people know the date for their retirement, it is only right to prepare for it. The only thing is that from the experience that we have seen of others, it is one thing to prepare for retirement, it is quite another thing to face the reality. Having said that, I have been thinking about what I will do when I am retired, meaning I am no longer the Archbishop of Abuja. That is what our retirement means. It does not mean that I cease to be an archbishop, nor that I cease to be a cardinal, nor does it mean that I am no longer able to carry out spiritual duties. But it only means that certain administrative decisions will be the job of my successor. All the powers of a bishop in charge of his diocese would be handed over to the new bishop. That will be the meaning of the retirement.
After 75, there is really not much energy left to do any great thing. Therefore, preparation for retirement cannot mean I am preparing for a new project of life, rather, one can prepare for the kind of things he would like to do with the freedom of the fact that one has been relieved of the burdens of office. That means, I am looking forward to my retirement not like many Nigerian workers do in trepidation, fear and anxieties, rather, I am looking forward to my retirement as a time when I would be relieved of the burdens of office that is getting heavy because of my age. Therefore, I can only plan on the basis of what I will be able to reasonably carry out at that time. Of course, what I will do at the age of 75 will depend very much on the condition of my health and that one is in God’s hands.
But you are very strong and enjoy good health. Why speaking like that?
Oh! You don’t know that people can collapse within a year. I know that very well because I have already been quite prepared for collapsing since I was 70 years old which is the sum of our years. But obviously, anybody who wishes me long life, I tell them please, tell God too to give me good health because if you have long life and you are all the time bedridden and doing pilgrimage from one hospital to the other and practically being a nuisance and a burden on everybody else, what will now be the essence of that long life. So I am praying that God would save me from that.
Is there going to be an extension?
Extension or no extension, it is all in the prerogative of the Pope. In any case, we keep hearing very much about ‘oh, cardinals are given about one or a few more years extra.’ But you cannot be pushed on till 80.
Will you accept extension if granted by the Pope?
It is a matter of doing what I have always done, namely: abide by whatever the Church asks of me. If I am asked to stay another year or two, I will continue for another year or two, but I would know also that this is extra time.
So, if you ask me, I would say personally, I do not think there is need for any extension. Personally, I don’t think there is need for any extension if the Pope were to ask me, do you want to continue a few months? I would say no, I don’t want to continue a little bit more. I think 75 is long enough and looking back, I just celebrated last week (precisely January 6th), 35 years as a bishop. So, looking back on that, God has done a lot and I thank God for it.
There is an auxiliary bishop in Abuja Archdiocese and not a coadjutor who has right to succession. So, who are we expecting?
Again, this is all a prerogative of the Pope. The coadjutor, normally, is given at the request of the bishop who says I have a lot of work to do; I need an Episcopal assistant to help me. And that was what I did. I requested and I was given an auxiliary. The auxiliary is not going to be my successor. The whole point of the auxiliary is that he helps me to carry on the duty.
Why didn’t you request for a coadjutor?
We don’t normally apply for a coadjutor too early because according to the customs of the Church, a coadjutor doesn’t hang around with another bishop for too long because it will be like you have two bishops going on for a long time.
Can an auxiliary be appointed a coadjutor?
That is a different issue. By the time I have already informed Rome of my forthcoming 75th birthday in a year’s time, Rome will begin to prepare for my successor. This process of preparing my successor can take two forms: it can take the form of a coadjutor, in which case, the coadjutor will have to be appointed a few months or so, or even a year. Right now, we are almost getting to a year before I retire. Sometimes, the coadjutor is appointed a few months before the retirement of the incumbent. Whether they appoint a coadjutor or not, by the time I leave here, a successor would have to be appointed, would have to come.
Don’t forget that I came here as a coadjutor in 1990. I was the Bishop of Ilorin and I was transferred to Abuja as Coadjutor Bishop of Abuja and not archbishop because there was no archdiocese.
And Cardinal Ekandem, your predecessor was still on ground?
Late Cardinal Ekandem was on ground as Bishop of Abuja because at that time, Abuja was a diocese.
What type of bishop do you envisage for Abuja in terms of personality?
It would be most presumptuous of me to think that I have a clear picture of who my successor will be. All I can say is that I have tried my best to be Bishop of Abuja and I know for a fact that between 1990 when I came here and this year 2018, that is 28 years, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and I have had to constantly adjust, adapt, change myself and my way of doing things according to the realities on ground. If it is so with me, how much more for whoever will come next time. His job will be that he will come, he will takeover, he will have a look around and he will get to understand what is happening. He will have his vision and he will be somebody who can plan ahead for another 20 years.
There are talks that either Archbishop Kaigama or Bishop Kukah would be your successor. Is it true?
I don’t know about that. And in any case, it is the kind of speculation that I don’t think is helpful.
Upon retirement, are you going to stay in Abuja or go to Rome?
My plan is to stay here in Abuja and I am preparing my retirement house here in Abuja.
You are preparing already?
Oh, yes! In Asokoro, I have my place.
Did you acquire the land by yourself?
Actually, the land was donated to Cardinal Ekandem by Nasko.
Gado Nasko (Major General Muhammad Gado Nasko (retd), is a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory during the Ibrahim Babangida regime). He donated the land to Cardinal Ekandem when he was retiring way back in 1992. We were not able to develop the plot; we decided to buy another plot which is now Gaudium Et Spes Institute. That is where we are building Cardinal Ekandem’s retirement home. We only reached foundation level when he died and we converted the place to Gaudium Et Spes.
How are you able to build it? Is it personal funds, funds from your friends or by the archdiocese?
It is the responsibility of the archdiocese to make provision for my descent retirement. But right now, I am raising the funds for it through my friends. But what my friends give me, it is still the archdiocese.
As Archbishop of Abuja, there are a lot of charity works you carry out. How are you going to cope in retirement, coupled with your welfare?
Two things: first, my personal welfare. Again, that depends on what condition one finds oneself. If one enjoys reasonably good health, you don’t need too much to live. I don’t need too much food and the comforts I need are very minimal and it will not cost too much to maintain.
So, you don’t visit the hospital regularly?
No! So far, not yet! Whichever way, I have a strong belief that the Archdiocese of Abuja would take care of the medical needs of its retired bishop.You mentioned people whom I am helping here and there. Most of the people I am helping, I am helping them in my capacity as the Archbishop of Abuja. So, they are coming, looking for help from the archbishop. From the moment that I stop being an archbishop, somebody else will be here and will have the honour and privilege of continuing the programme of assistance to the poor people who come around.
Obviously, there may be a few personal family members. I don’t expect them to come hanging on me, looking for things from me. In fact, I am looking forward to when I can just sit down and everybody will be falling over each other to look after the retired cardinal.
You have to look at things from different angles. And I am sure that there would be many, many people, including, not just family members, and friends who will keep coming to find out, how are you? Do you need this? Do you need that? Or people whom I can also reach out to if I want to help a poor person. I would normally refer the person to the bishop, who is on ground, but sometimes, I may want to do something completely on my own and I can get from whatever little funds that may be at my disposal or send the person to someone else.
This kind of thing happens and it is not as complicated as it may appear which is why even though I am a cardinal archbishop, I have no concern about my retirement. I am not like a governor who, after they retire, expect that the state government would buy them a big house and give them cars and continue to pay their salaries forever and ever which, I believe, is really a terrible practice that I hope they would stop it.
As you prepare for retirement, do you have a sense of fulfilment?
Unfortunately, you cannot predict how you will feel. You cannot! The only thing you can do is, one can spiritually and emotionally try to prepare oneself for when you would wake up one day and find out I am no longer the Archbishop of Abuja. There is something human about it and we need to spiritually prepare for it.
As for what I am going to spend my time doing, if my health is in good order, I hope to continue to do a lot of work: writing, reading, even attending conferences.