Marking 20th anniversary of the death of Maurice Cardinal Otunga

The late Servant of God Maurice Cardinal Otunga. [File, Standard]

This year marks the 20th anniversary since the Servant of God Maurice Cardinal Otunga, the much-loved first Catholic bishop in Kenya, returned to his heavenly father. Most Rev Philip Arnold Subira Anyolo, Metropolitan Archbishop of Nairobi, has invited the faithful in his jurisdiction and all Kenyans and persons of goodwill to commemorate this celebration in a special way.

In a recent correspondence to Archbishop Anyolo, Dr. Waldery Hilgeman, the Postulator or Director who is presenting the case for the Sainthood of Cardinal Otunga to the Dicastery or Department for the Causes of Saints in Rome, has conveyed that the matter will soon be placed before the competent panel for their discernment. This group of experts comprises cardinals, archbishops, bishops, canon lawyers, theologians and medical doctors. A unanimous vote is required for the Servant of God to be elevated to the next level of Venerable.

The SoG Maurice Cardinal Otunga is a man of many firsts. He made history in Kenya when he was nominated aged 33 for the bishopric in 1956. The following year, he was consecrated the first indigenous Catholic bishop in Kenya by Archbishop James Robert Knox, the Pope’s representative in English-speaking Africa. Young Bishop Otunga became the premier Kenyan to establish and head a diocese. He served the new see of Kisii from 1960 to 69 when he was promoted to the rank of Archbishop and appointed Co-Adjutor with right to succeed Archbishop J. J. McCarthy.

Archbishop Otunga made history again when Pope Paul VI named him in 1973 among 30 prelates to be made cardinals. The announcement came a day after he turned 50, a young age for the rank of cardinal and a truly surprising birthday gift. Another pleasant surprise was that Msgr. Otunga and Archbishop Knox, the Aussie prelate who had made him bishop in 1957, both became cardinals in the same consistory or solemn assembly presided over by the Holy Father.

When he retired as Metropolitan Archbishop of Nairobi in 1997, Cardinal Otunga had served as bishop in the Catholic Church for 40 years and as the prelate heading the military jurisdiction for 33 years. The Servant of God is the first Kenyan-born candidate for sainthood. When Maurice Cardinal Otunga is finally canonized, this will be the crescendo for the history of the Catholic Church in Kenya and a kairos for the country.

In order to advance a cause for sainthood, the petitioner appoints a Central Committee whose mandate includes the mobilisation of resources. John Cardinal Njue, the original petitioner, had appointed a 12-member committee headed by Fr. Celestino Bundi of the Diocese of Meru. Sadly, several dedicated members of the group passed on recently including Mr. Ejidio Wahome (famously known as Fifty Fifty), Gen. John Koech, Lt. Col. Cyril Bede Maloba and the chair of the committee. A month ago, Archbishop Anyolo, who succeeded Cardinal Njue as petitioner, appointed a rejuvenated Central Committee headed by Fr. Peter Kaigua Ngugi, a diocesan priest who serves as Lecturer and Chaplain at the University of Nairobi.

As the church commemorates the departed prelate, Archbishop Anyolo has written a letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Nairobi and all persons of good will urging them to pray fervently for the success of the process. In the epistle dated August 7, 2023, the Nairobi Metropolitan states that though the process is now in the Roman phase, “the beatification and canonisation of the Servant of God is still work in progress … and the process belongs to us”.

In the same letter, the petitioner has emphasised the need to emulate the values that the Servant of God championed with such vigour and dedication. Believing the family to be the bedrock of society, Cardinal Otunga established the Family Life Counselling Association of Kenya (FLCAK) in collaboration with Sr. Stanislaus Barry RSM, Dr. Andrew and Mrs. Jane Kiura, all medics. Their mandate included promotion of family values and provision of counselling services. The Servant of God invited Dr. John and Dr. Evelyn Billings, an Australian couple, to train Kenyans on family counselling.  

The highlight of the 20th Anniversary will be the celebration of Holy Mass at Queen of Apostles Parish Ruaraka on 6th September at 10 am presided over by Archbishop Anyolo.

The Metropolitan Archbishop of Nairobi concludes his letter for this special commemoration with the prayer: ”May the Servant of God intercede for each one of you in your daily quest for God’s graces”.

Sr. Esther W. Ichugu FMI is the Administrator, Beatification Office, Nairobi.

Prof. (Fr.) Lawrence Njoroge is Vice Postulator, Cause of Cardinal Otunga