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Row over money shook church in Njue’s early days

NAIROBI
By Allan Mungai | March 28th 2021
Cardinal John Njue displaying copy of his new book titled; Feeling With The Church.The book, launched today at Holy Family Basilica Nairobi and written by journalist Waithaka Waihenya details Njue's long service in the Catholic church. (James Wanzala, Standard)

Disagreements over money threatened to split the Catholic Church in the early days of John Cardinal Njue’s tenure as the Nairobi Archbishop as he pushed through proposals to slash allowances earned by priests and bishops.

Njue took over in Nairobi in 2007 to replace Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki who had just retired.

In Nyeri, where he had served as Coadjutor Archbishop from 2002 to 2007, Njue had earned a reputation as a feather-ruffler and as someone who unsettled the status quo.

The cardinal’s biography, Feeling with the Church, and authored by Ndirangu Waihenya, sheds light on the opaque topic of finances within the Catholic church.

The book suggests that Njue faced resistance from the Catholic clergy when he was posted to Nairobi because he demanded more money from the parishes and went after the clergy’s allowances. 

Waihenya addresses Njue’s standoff with priests in 2009 and attempts to tell the story from Njue’s point of view, countering the picture painted that the Archbishop was dictatorial, arrogant and proud.

The book is told from interviews with Njue and priests he worked with closely and tells the story of Kenya’s second Cardinal and Nairobi’s Archbishop who retired last year.

The attitudes towards having Njue in Nairobi were contrasting. The congregation was excited but the priests were lukewarm and concerned that Njue was ruling with an iron fist.

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The book attempts to give an inside look into a conflict that almost split the church and decodes a man whose subordinates, and the biography too, admits was stubbornly obstinate.

Njue, priests who have served under him in Nairobi, Nyeri and Embu know, would not cede an inch if he could give less.

“The first few weeks in Nairobi were easy for John Cardinal Njue. His presence was basically a breath of fresh air in the Archdiocese. The Christians were happy to have a mighty shepherd in the Archdiocese,” the biography says.

In fact, most seemed to hang on to every word he said, Waihenya writes.

But for the happiness that the congregation had, the clergy had a sinking feeling in their stomachs.

The primary reason was that they knew Njue shook the table. They decided to maintain a respectable distance from him while watching his every step.

But that warmth turned into open hostility when Njue laid out his plans for the Archdiocese.

Njue wanted the remuneration to the clergy capped at a standard figure for all of them, regardless of where they served.

The second change would have implications on the finances that the churches collected. Njue wanted the parishes to increase their contribution to the diocese from five per cent to 30 per cent.

Previously, the parishes in Nairobi contributed five per cent of their annual collection to the Archdiocese, which came to about Sh15 million.

Family day

As he did in Nyeri, the Archbishop proposed introduction of a family day when all parishes would gather for a day of unity and prayer and bring their contributions to the Archdiocese.

The book suggests no one could say with any certainty the precise moment when the warm engagement between the new cardinal and the clergy he was supposed to superintend over turned from coexistence to confrontation.

However, meeting with priests after the proposals were an uncomfortable affair. The first meeting called by Njue after he laid out the plans was at the Holy Family Minor Basilica.

“It was supposed to be a cordial meeting between the clergy and their ordinary. But those who were at the meeting talked of an incendiary encounter that degenerated into accusations and counter-accusations,” the author writes.

The priests would hear none of the proposals. It was a wild idea, impractical and ill-informed, they said.

“Where in the world have you heard of a government that raised taxes from five per cent to 30 per cent? This is like trying to jump over River Nile,” one missionary told Njue.

One-off contributions

The parishes preferred to contribute on a one-off basis, if the cardinal had a project in mind, rather than being tied down to annual contributions.

But if the meeting was tense then, the atmosphere would become even more combative when the proposal to chop the allowances was tabled.

Njue’s argument was that “by dint of their calling, the priests were supposed to have no regard for money or personal property”.

He, a Cardinal and Archbishop, had never had any regard for personal property, did not even have a personal bank account, and had nothing to his name.

Money and property meant nothing to him and for the same reason believed that it should be the same for the priests in the diocese.

But this rang hollow among the clergy. “Our standards of life are different. You can’t come to Nairobi and change lives this drastically,” the priests told Njue.

But it was a young priest in Thika who really gave Njue an earful.

“I know you are the bishop, but we cannot allow one person from Kianjokoma (a village in Embu) to come and divide us. You will not divide us. You are not going to disrupt our lives,” Waihenya writes, attributing the statement to an aggrieved newly-ordained cleric.

But Njue did not react to that statement.  

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