After every five years, the bishops of the Catholic Church all over the world are obligated to pay a visit to the Vatican. This is called the Quinquennial ad limina visit to Rome. It is an ancient custom and Church Law that decrees that every bishop who heads a diocese must go to Rome to make a pilgrimage known as ad limina apostolorum (To the thresholds of the apostles).
During these visits, the bishops get to meet the Pope one on one. They discuss matters affecting their dioceses. During the pontificate of Paul VI, a bishop’s ad limina visit involved a brief personal meeting with the Pope and a series of meetings with curial officials. But in the reign of John Paul 11, the schedules were changed to give the Pope more time with the visiting bishops in order to allow him to interact with them individually or as regional or national groups. The sessions lasted from 15 minutes to half an hour or more. Much as it was a grand opportunity for the bishops to meet the Pope, it was also a perfect time for the Pontiff to know the world’s episcopate and get an insight into what was happening in the wider Catholic Church.
During one of those ad limina visits in the pontificate of Paul VI in 1976, the bishops from Kenya filed into the Vatican as they were wont to do after every five years. It was a tradition for the bishops then as it is now, to wear their traditional bishopric regalia of black soutanes. The white soutane is usually a preserve of the Pope, especially when you are at the Vatican.
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But on this day, as the other bishops donned the black attire, Bishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki was wearing a white soutane. He stood out rather oddly in a sea of black attire. The cardinal in charge of protocol was uneasy at what he saw as a blatant breach of Vatican protocol. He took Ndingi aside and tried to prevail upon him to remove the white Soutane and don the black, like everyone else.
“No, this place is too hot for a black soutane,” he retorted. "I am going to wear this one.” The official politely tried to explain that only the Pope should wear the white in the Vatican. Ndingi would hear none of it. The official gave up. And as the Pope greeted each and every one of the bishops on November 26, 1976, he came to where Ndingi was. As he proffered his hand, the Pope remarked cheekily, “Oh, and there is another Pope here.” Ndingi was not bothered. Later the Pope granted him a private audience at which he handed him a letter about the state of the Catholic Church in Kenya.
That was Ndingi, a recalcitrant, fiercely independent-minded and trenchant character to death. He believed in himself and his cause. There was nothing that could sway him from what he believed in. He spoke his mind, no matter what other people thought of what he was saying and he did not care about the repercussions.
Right from his name, which excluded the name Raphael, Ndingi was a man who liked doing things differently. Few can say definitively if this cleric was an iconoclast or just a man who loved following his implacable spirit.
At a time when all bishops were donning the purple zucchetto (the skullcap worn by bishops and cardinals) as the official bishopric attire, Ndingi always wore a four cornered hat, a peculiar piece of regalia that was worn by no other bishop in the country. He had a close affinity to it, having been gifted to him by an Ethiopian cleric. But he believed that it represented the African spirit and that is why he wore it all through his episcopacy.
A man who was a stickler for order, Ndingi organised his life like a black ant. He knew which route to follow and he knew where every item that belonged to him was placed in his bedroom, office or sitting room. It is said that if he sent you to get him something, he would give you the exact compass direction of where it was placed.
But perhaps the one incident that underscored Archbishop Ndingi’s strong will was his going against traditions to ordain a catechist as a Catholic priest. When he was serving in the Nakuru Diocese, he was enamoured of a catechist by the name Joseph M’lengera whose passion in life was to serve God as a cleric. But everything was against him. He was not educated but he was one of the most devoted catechists in Nakuru. He attended Ndingi’s consecration in Kampala in 1969. When he met Ndingi face-to-face after he was posted to Nakuru, Ndingi was impressed by the man’s faith.
The story of M’lengera’s ordination is told with awe in Nakuru’s clerical corridors to this date. Normally it takes upwards of nine years to train a priest. But Ndingi broke with this tradition in Nakuru. One day when M’lengera was having his dinner, he got a visitor. The visitor had been sent by the bishop of Nakuru. He had only one question to him; “Would you like to become a priest?” M’lengera was taken aback. How would that be possible? He did not have the requisite education and neither had he gone to the seminary. But when he answered in the affirmative, the journey to his priesthood immediately began. This is one of the stories that illustrated that when Ndingi believed in a cause, there was no stopping him no matter what the orthodoxies of the time decreed.
Most people knew Ndingi, the firebrand who made his name in Nakuru Diocese. But what they probably do not know is that the man was a fierce defender of the African spirit and the African contribution to the Catholic liturgy. Thus in 1994, during the African Synod in the Vatican, Ndingi was one of those African prelates who put up a fierce defence for the inclusion of the African component into the Catholic liturgy. He believed in what he called “reconstructing the African face of Christ.”
The African Synod was called by Pope John Paul 11 in a bid to address the issues that were facing the African Catholic community. Every continent was holding its synod to address the peculiarity of the issues affecting the church in their particular domain. The synod is primarily a consultative body called by the Pope to assist and advise him.
The task of the African synod, as laid out in the outline document known as the lineamenta consisted of five chapters; proclamation of the Good news, inculturation, dialogue, justice and peace and the means of social communication.
When time came for Africa to throw its hat into the ring, Ndingi rose up as an unyielding defender of African values. He believed in the recognition of the African marriage customs and its acceptance by the church, strongly holding on to the view that the church should take cognizance of the diversity of the cultures of its faithful while also preserving its teachings and incorporate some of them into the liturgy.
It was on the chapter of inculturation that Ndingi’s paper was discussed. It was seen as a controversial paper which advocated measures that Ndingi believed would heal the many instances of spiritual schizophrenia and double life affecting many of the peoples of Africa.
More than the other four listed themes, this was the one that caused the biggest controversy. There was a feeling among the bishops that the dynamism of the African culture was not being taken into account in the operations of the church. While Christian marriage was affirmed, there was intense debate about the status of customary marriages in Africa. Ndingi, in a trenchant and style deficient of diplomacy, posited that there was an “Eucharistic famine” in Africa because of the church’s refusal to give African customary marriages canonical value.
He wrote in his paper: “Many of our Christian faithful have finalised their marriage according to the African customs of their own tribe but for different reasons they have not yet come to the church for sacramental marriage…in the mean time they are considered by the church to be living in concubinage because their traditional marriage has no canonical value. The consequence is that they are deprived of the reception of the sacraments, which, in the expression of some of our priests, leads to a “Eucharistic famine” of many Catholics in our parishes.”
Ndingi argued that to sate this “Eucharistic famine”, the church needed to make changes in the form of the sacraments salva illorum substantia (providing the substance is kept).
Needless to say this stirred quite a bit of controversy with one missionary priest, Fr Brian Hearne, writing a critical piece in newspapers about the Synod and asserting that it had achieved nothing. Ndingi reacted angrily, accusing the priest of “setting himself up as a spokesman for Africans in a way that was demeaning to them.” He was supported across the board by many bishops in Africa.
Was Ndingi being an implacable Africanist or was he, true to his character, only speaking his mind? Those who understand him know that when he set out on a cause, he was like a rhinoceros. Only an immovable object would halt his trajectory. He was one of a kind and, as an author working on his biography together with Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia, I enjoyed his honesty, forthrightness and resolve. His spirit, I am sure, will not go quietly into that dark night nor will his voice ever be stilled. It will live among us, in the sepulchers of the church for many years to come.
[Waithaka Waihenya is the immediate former Managing Director of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and author (with Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia) of A voice Unstilled, Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki]