BY KIUNDU WAWERU
KENYA: He would have been a paramount chief but instead, he chose to serve God. The move saw the first Kenyan Catholic Cardinal Maurice Otunga, carry the staff of leadership beyond his Chebukwa village in Bungoma, to that of the whole country.
Otunga’s birth was a noble one. After arriving in this world in January 1923, his mother named him Simiyu - one born in the hot and dry season. But his father, Chief Sudi, upon looking at his son, immediately changed that name to Otunga - the staff that supports the old or the lame. Chief Sudi might have seen something kingly in his son’s face.
And while marking the third anniversary of Cardinal Otunga’s death, Archbishop Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki referred to him as the black Prince of the Church.
This is because Otunga, who refused the opportunity to study at the then prestigious Makerere College in the 1940s, opting for the Seminary, went ahead to be a pioneer in several leadership roles in the Catholic Church in both the colonial and post-independence eras.
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Otunga was the first Kenyan episcopacy, after Pope Pius XII appointed him as the Bishop of Kisumu in 1956. He had been ordained priest in October 1950 while in Rome, where he studied at the Collegio Urbaniano in 1947, returning home four years later with a Masters degree in Theology and a bright future in servant leadership.
While in Kisumu, notes his official biography, Otunga would encounter some difficulties which, according to Archbishop Philip Sulumeti was partly because some quarters could not accept a black bishop.
He persisted in his characteristic humble but firm way and in 1960, he became the first Bishop of the newly created Kisii Diocese. Kenya had not yet attained independence, and Bishop Otunga, though his deeds are not documented as such, played a role in cementing a foundation for the new Kenya. In the schools previously led by the British, he put in place structures for ‘native’ priests to become headmasters. He also started devel opment projects to ensure the people of Kisii were self-reliant.
Six years after independence, Bishop Otunga with the appointment of Pope Paul VI would make a major move as the Coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Nairobi. Two years later, he succeeded Archbishop John Joseph McCarthy as Ordinary of Nairobi. He would be made Cardinal two years later.
Cardinal Otunga experienced two worlds; colonial and independent Kenya, both of which had unique challenges. In the former, it was hard for him to be accepted as a black bishop and in independent Kenya, he found himself speaking against the injustices and corruption of the new government. He was the advocate of the poor and also stood against social ills he believed were not in line with religious philosophy. He was particularly outspoken against condoms and the artificial use of family planning methods. In the 1990s, he made history when he led Catholics and Muslims in burning condoms at Uhuru Park.
Otunga is also credited with setting up several institutes including the Catholic University of East Africa, the prayer sanctuary, Resurrection Gardens, where his remains are interred at the Memorial Chapel, and the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar.
After an eventful life of serving God and man, the Cardinal surprised many by how he chose to spend his sunset years. He suffered a stroke in 1997, sending him into retirement. He had a choice of retiring into comfortable living, or even the Vatican but Cardinal Otunga chose a house for the poor, the Nyumba ya Wazee (house of elderly) run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Nairobi. This was true to his lifestyle as Archbishop for he never chose to live in luxury and always implored his priests to beware of materialism as an obstacle to the gospel witness.
His selflessness has seen high placed people, like Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki liken him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
And now, Cardinal Otunga, referred to as the Servant of God is on his way to being made a Saint. This is a process known as beatification or canonisation of the people whose lives were marked by heroic virtues.
The process, referred to as the ‘Cause of Beatification’ includes an examination of the Cardinal’s writings, (both published and unpublished) and interviews with the people he came upon, all in a bid to prove whether he should be made a Saint. In 2009, Archbishop John Cardinal Njue started the process and appointed a Tribunal in 2011. The Tribunal finished the probe into the life, virtues and reputation of the Cardinal on September. They interviewed more than 160 witnesses and gathered, from church archives and personal collections, thousands of pages on his writings. This will then be evaluated by Vatican officials and if satisfied he merits sainthood, they will compile a biography which will in turn be studied by theologians, cardinals and bishops of the Congregation of Causes of Saints.
It should also be proved that Cardinal Otunga benefited someone through an extraordinary miracle which defies any scientific explanation.
Well, as the Catholic faithful, and indeed Kenyans eagerly pray and wait for Cardinal Otunga to be declared a Saint, many believe he is already one. Every day, people visit the Memorial Chapel at the Resurrection Gardens0 to pray next to his tomb. And in Nairobi, a new building at the Holy Family Basilica has been named after him. Otunga is remembered most for his distinguished and humble leadership which fostered phenomenal church growth, making the Roman Catholic Church the largest and fast growing church in the country.