His Eminence John Cardinal Onaiyekan was born on January 29th, 1944, in Kabba, Kogi State of Nigeria. Intelligent right from his tender age, he began his Primary School education from1949-56 at his home town Kabba. His academic prowess heightened at Mount St. Michael’s Secondary School, Aliade, Benue State Nigeria between 1957-62 where he had distinctions in his SSCE; a record no one has yet broken in that school. His priestly formation commenced in Jan. 1963 – June 1965 with Studies of Philosophy at the prestigious SS. Peter and Paul Major Seminary Bodija, Ibadan Nigeria and from Sept. 1965 – June 1969 studied Theology at the Pontifical Urban College of Propaganda Fide, Rome. Cardinal Onaiyekan’s early priestly life began with his ordination to the Catholic Priesthood at his home town Kabba, on 3rd August, 1969. He taught at St. Kizito’s college, Isanlu before proceeding for Scripture Studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Biblicum) Rome in Sept. 1971 and completed his Licentiate degree programme in Sacred Scriptures in Feb. 1973. Between Feb. 1973 – Jan. 1976 Cardinal John studied and obtained a Doctorate degree at the Pontifical Urban University, Rome in Biblical Theology with full distinction.
From that moment, divine providence plotted the graph for Cardinal Onaiyekan’s steady rise on the ladder of ecclesiastical leadership. On his return from Rome in Jan 1966 he was made the Rector of St. Clement’s Junior Seminary Lokoja, Kogi State Nigeria where he served until August 1977. In Sept. 1977 Onaiyekan was appointed Vice Rector of the Major Seminary of SS. Peter and Paul, Bodija Ibadan Nigeria (his alma mater) and teacher of Sacred Scripture and Fundamental Theology. Onaiyekan became the Rector of the same seminary in Feb. 1978.
In Nov. 1982 and at the age of 38, Pope Saint John Paull II appointed Cardinal John the Auxiliary Bishop of Ilorin and ordained him in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome in Jan. 6th 1983. By this appointment and episcopal ordination, he thus became the second youngest Bishop in Nigeria after Cardinal Arinze. October 1984 Cardinal John was appointed Residential Bishop of Ilorin. Six years later, Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Onaiyekan the Co-Adjutor Bishop of the newly created Federal Capital Territory Abuja Nigeria in July 1990. As the Coadjutor Bishop of Abuja, Onaiyekan remained the Apostolic Administrator of Ilorin Diocese until 1992 when he became Bishop of Abuja following the retirement of his Predecessor Dominic Cardinal Ekandem. Two years later (in March 1994) when Abuja Diocese was elevated to the status of Archdiocese, Bishop Onaiyekan became the first Archbishop of Abuja Archdiocese.
Being the Metropolitan Archbishop of Abuja, He welcomed Pope Saint John Paul II on his Apostolic Visit to Nigeria in 1998 and was a key proponent in the beatification of Blessed Francis Iwene Tansi. In the consistory of 24 November 2012, he was created and proclaimed cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus. His Eminence participated in the conclave of March 2013, which elected Pope Francis. His Eminence is a member of the highest ranking Vatican Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Cardinal Onaiyekan has served and continues to serve in the following Vatican appointments:
- 1980-85: Member of the International Theological Commission.
- 1981-91: Member of the Methodist/Roman Catholic International Dialogue Commission.
- Many times member of Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican.
- March 1991- June 2006: Member Standing Committee of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.
- Created Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, November 24th, 2012
- 2013 to date Onaiyekan took possession of his Titular Church of San Saturnino in Rome as the Cardinal Priest of the Church.
- 2013 to date serves at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Other Posts Held by His Eminence includes:
- President, Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria, from March 1999 – March 2006.
- President, Association of Episcopal Conferences of Anglophone West Africa (AECAWA) – August 2001 – August 2004.
- President, Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, (SECAM) – from October 2004 – January 2007.
- Member of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) since 1999 to date
- Vice-President of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) from 1996-2003
- June 2007 till June 2010: Elected President of the Christian Association of Nigeria
- Became the Co-Chair of the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) from 2007 to 2010.
- Elected as the Co-Chair, African Council of Religious Leaders, (ACRL) since June 2003 till date.
- Elected Moderator of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (RfP) from 2012 to date
Awards and Recognitions:
In December 18th, 2001, His Eminence was conferred with the National Honour of the Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) by then Nigerian President – Olusegun Obasanjo. He also received Grande Ufficiale (1 Classe): Ordinedella Stella della Solidarieta Italiana by President Carlo A. Ciampi of Italy. In Oct., 2012 PAX CHRISTI International gave him a Peace Award in Brussels and in that same year was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in recognition of his work in promoting religious harmony, peace and justice in Africa.
Among Cardinal Onaiyekan’s published works are materials on Church – State relationship, interfaith dialogue in Africa, theology and praxis and fundamentals of biblical theology, Seeking for Common Grounds, Inter-Religious Dialogue in Africa, 2013. etc. He also has strong traits in social activism. Onaiyekan incarnates in himself the courageous and austere lifestyle of St. John the Baptist and the sublime theological countenance of St. John the Evangelist, qualities which made him a radical but gentle churchman.