Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki's biography: A Voice Unstilled

In this second part of the serialisation of Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki's biography, A Voice Unstilled, read about how the retired clergyman confronted the issue of celibacy

Up to this day, there is nothing that pains Ndingi more than the willful violation of priestly vows and the failure or refusal of those who cannot keep on with the priestly vow of celibacy to seek dispensation in the normal, accepted ways.

On many occasions, Ndingi spoke about this issue at length. At every priestly ordination, he exhorted the priests to uphold the vow of celibacy and live up to their calling as the Lord's servants.

It is a personal burden that is light if we take the adequate means to protect it," he told a congregation at a priestly ordination at Tangaza College on November 28,1992. "We see its beauty in prayer. It is the pearl of great price that we have found."

Ndingi believed and still does, that celibacy was possible even in the most outrageously difficult circumstances. But he also acknowledged that a celibate life is for the brave few, "for those who can accept, for those who can lead a disciplined life." A key component to leading a fullsome celibate life was prayer.

This is something he affirmed repeatedly when he met priests or delivered homilies at their ordination, "We cannot serve God and the world," he told priests at the Hekima Jesuit School of Theology on February 17,1993. "If we look back once our hands are on the plough we are not fit for the Kingdom, for the mission entrusted to us, for the call we have answered."

Yet the Archbishop believed that even those priests who were not able to keep up with their priestly vows were in need of help not condemnation. But before help was offered, he demanded honesty and forthrightness among those who genuinely sought it.

"A priest," Ndingi once told an audience of rectors, "remains human and is beset by temptations like any other Christian. A priest is liable to fail and to fail badly?' But this does not mean that he does not have a vocation. "St Peter," he stressed, "was not removed from among the 12 after he denied Christ One who is obviously trying to respond to God's love is to be encouraged."

Many priests are forever appreciative of the help they got from Ndingi. Fr Kanja says, "Ndingi was especially helpful to those priests whose vocations were threatened and sought help from him. He never condemned. He tried to help."

But what he could not countenance were priests who refused to acknowledge that they had a problem or did not attempt to seek help for it. He stressed continually the need for church leaders to listen to those in need of guidance.

Before priests can be ordained, proper choices must be made, vocations must be nurtured in the correct way and the major seminaries must inculcate values in the seminarians which would enable them lead celibate lives as per the requirements of the Church.

"When there is doubt about a candidate's suitability, he should be advised and helped to find his vocation in the world," he told a meeting of vocation promoters in Nairobi on October 24,1993. But a candidate thus advised should never be made to feel rejected or useless. Every assistance, he urged, should be given to make them adapt to their new environment.

Only the best and mature priests in the diocese should be entrusted with the pro-motion of vocations, those whose lives mirrored the life of Christ. He thus expected his priests to set a good example to those they led. Though he never voiced it publicly he expected priests in the Nairobi Archdiocese to always wear their clerical collar as was the custom in Nakuru. Though it was not a hard and fast rule, the donning of the collar was, to him a testimony to one's pride as a servant of the Lord.

In his first days as Archbishop of Nairobi, many priests admit thinking that they were offending to the archbishop if they appeared before him without the clerical collar. They later got used to the idea that their bishop was more concerned about how they lived their priestly life and carried out their pastoral duties than what they wore.

While addressing a seminar for rectors and spiritual directors of Eastern and Southem Africa at St Thomas Senior Seminary in Langata on July 28,1989, Ndingi stressed the need for priests not to set themselves apart from the communities they serve by way of dress, titles or living facilities, saying this may be a hinderance to their work.

But he also acknowledged that there is a subtly calculated, maybe diabolical, tendency to secularise the priest Too often, too many priests who have succumbed to the trend have become "one of the lads" in dress and recreation and overall behaviour. Thus, his belief has been that the priest's attire must befit their priestly office and purpose, even on their off days.

The priest by tradition is a "signum ek-vatum" (elevated sign), a beacon to beckon others to follow safely on. If the sign that should stand out is lowered and no longer seen, then it has failed in its purpose. The young Church in Africa needs priests - an authentic few committed to Christ and his values rather than a shiftless many who bend to every permissive breeze and are grateful to be "with it".

Priests, he insisted, must remain priests all the way. But what, even as he entered the last decade of his episcopate, saddened him was that some priests did not want to be priests in that sense of totality. "Some have already succumbed to a level of compromise between sacred pledge and sad performance," he says, "they want to be priestly, not sana (very much) but kidogo tu (just a little) as if there ever was a 'no-man's land' between the commitment Christ demands and the compromise man commends."

Yet, he was always appreciative of the fact that priests also led a difficult life in their efforts to uphold their vows. He was especially sensitive to anything that threatened priestly celibacy but those who ever had an opportunity to lay bare their lives to their bishop recall that Ndingi was always supportive.

He tried to help them in the best way he could, sometimes even transferring them to far away places just to separate them from the women threatening their priestly life.

In the early 1990s, Father Peter Mbuchi, an up-and-coming, young intelligent priest, was stationed in Nakuru Diocese. Mbuchi had had his measure of problems since his seminary days.

He was a seminarian in Nyeri when he was accused of leading a strike in the seminary and he was expelled. But some of the priests there had faith in him and still believed he would make a good priest.

His spiritual adviser, Fr Remigio Dalsanto, believed that a young man endowed with exemplary talents should not be let go off the seminary because of an infraction he probably had never intended. There was only one bishop he knew who could be willing to listen to the young man and even offer him a chance. He called up Ndingi in Nakuru and explained the situation.

"Let me see the young man," he told Fr Dalsanto, even though a letter sent by the rector had already damned Mbuchi to almost irredeemable levels.

Arriving in Nakuru one morning, Mbuchi met the bishop. For close to an hour, Ndingi listened to Mbuchi. Somehow he was struck by the young man's sincerity and determination to become a priest. "This is my candidate," he heard him say.

From then onwards, Mbuchi became a seminarian in the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru. After being accepted back, Mbuchi wrote Ndingi a letter expressing his gratitude "Sooner or later," he wrote, "you will realise that I am not the kind of person you have been told I am."

From then onwards, Ndingi and Mbuchi were one. "I believed my personality and his danced to each other," Mbuchi was later to say. When Mbuchi became a priest, the chemistry between him and Ndingi continued to flourish. Mbuchi found himself undertaking tasks that required full trust of the bishop. When Ndingi wanted something done, he sent for Mbuchi. When he wanted to replace white missionaries with Africans, he always sent Mbuchi to take over.

In many ways, Mbuchi was able to execute Ndingi's will and plans almost faultlessly. Ndingi thought he had found his man in Mbuchi. He trusted him fully and saw him as his son to the extent that the other priests thought that Ndingi favoured him.

So much did Ndingi trust Mbuchi that in 1986 he made him a representative of all the diocese priests in Moshi at the General Assembly and 25-year anniversary of AMECEA. In Mbuchi's own words, "the bishop had fantasies about what I would become. He saw me as his spiritual son, as someone to whom he would pass the mantle." Yet, much as he trusted the priest, Ndingi was afraid to let Mbuchi know how he felt about him even as he told everyone else what a wonderful priest Mbuchi was.

At one point, he wanted Mbuchi to go to America to study sociology. But Mbuchi was too in love with his work and was not ready to go. Instead, the bishop sent Fr Patrick Kanja. Fr Mbuchi was, however, to find himself in some inauspicious circumstances. In the course of his work, he met a nun with whom some intimacy developed. The nun was in charge of schools in the area that Mbuchi was administering. The relationship blossomed and in 1990, the nun got pregnant with Mbuchi's child.

When Ndingi came to know of it, he sent for the priest and they discussed the matter openly.

Mbuchi told the bishop that he wanted to quit priesthood on account of what had happened.

"Why?" the bishop asked in consternation. "Because of the relationship?"

Clearly, Ndingi did not know the whole truth. Then Mbuchi dropped what he thought was a bombshell: "You see," he told him, "the lady is heavy with my child."

Ndingi looked up as he is wont to when in deep thought He looked at the priest and said, "Yes, you have done wrong. But you are not the first one to fall into that kind of problem. You are still a priest"

The two continued debating the issue. According to Mbuchi, Ndingi talked to him as only a father would, in many ways, he believed that the Church should not be denied the services of such a priest because of the sins of the flesh.

Soon after, Mbuchi took some time off to spend 30 days interrogating his soul in an exercise called Ignitian Exercises (named after St Ignatius). The exercises were conducted under Fr Cecily Mc-Garry SJ, Mbuchi's spiritual adviser.

He spent the days reading the book of Job. Perhaps equating his tribulations with those of Job.

Afterwards, Ndingi, determined to save Mbuchi's priesthood sent him to a remote parish in Mombasa where he had to work with very difficult missionary priests. But despite these efforts the relationship between Fr Mbuchi and the nun continued.

Ndingi, who had thought that Mbuchi would forget her, got to know that the relationship was continuing. He had a perfect intelligence network. Ndingi had maintained a close relationship with the masses and with his priests. He would drop by a convent here and a parish there. That is how he got to know that Fr Mbuchi had not broken off the relationship.

He called him for a chat and encouraged him to leave the woman and continue with his vocation.

He could see the will in the priest yet there was a weakness that prevented him from acting. Ndingi hoped to act on that weakness and eventually prevail over the priest

Later Mbuchi went to America to create distance between himself and the nun while lending her support.

But none of that was working. Defeated, Mbuchi felt he had to quit "There was no way I was going to abandon that lady" he says. "I felt the Church expected me to reject her and the child" Ndingi still believed that Mbuchi should not quit

Even after Mbuchi wrote to the Vatican explaining his circumstances, the bishop advised him not to send the letter. When Mbuchi finally wrote to the Vatican asking to be laicized, Ndingi felt betrayed.

Ndingi's position on celibacy was quite strong. While he would encourage priests to rise above temptations, there were some things he was unequivocal on: "Priests who have fathered children should never be allowed to live a double life. It is either celibacy or family but not both," he maintained.

His insistence that Mbuchi go on with his ministry was therefore a contradiction. But it showed how much he believed in Mbuchi, his transgressions notwithstanding.

Upon Mbuchi's decision to leave the ministry, Ndingi underwent a period of turmoil. Those who worked with him say, "It was as though something died in him," recalls Fr Mirango, "as though he had lost a son."

On February 19, 1994 Ndingi wrote a heart-rending letter to Mbuchi expressing his regret at his leaving the priesthood.

Dear Peter,

It is with deep regret and sadness that I write to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 8th February, 1994. I have read your letter and I see the unfortunate decision you have reached to leave priesthood. With effect from the moment you receive this letter, you cease to practise your priesthood except as stated in Can. 976.

The obligation for celibacy remains until such time as laicization is requested and dispensation granted. I take this opportunity to assure you of my continued prayers and will always be available to assist you in any way I can.

On February 23,1994, Ndingi wrote to all the parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru, all Kenya Catholic bishops and the Apostolic pro-Nuncio informing them that Fr Mbuchi "had decided to resign from the priestly ministry"

At the time Ndingi was writing this letter, he had seemingly given up on saving Mbuchi's priesthood. A number of letters had been exchanged between the priest and his Ordinary and despite Ndingi's best efforts, Mbuchi had decided to leave.

In his letter to Rome asking for laicization, Mbuchi stated that "for over six years I have been tormented by the conflict between the official teaching of the Catholic Church on the priesthood and my own experience as a sexually active person."

He went on to say that after parenting two children and having always preached responsible parenthood and against discrimination and suffering of children and single mothers, "I feel it a requirement of guilt shame or fear."

I felt that I should not preach water and drink wine. I have therefore publicly accepted my parenthood and wish to identify myself with these children and their mother, Mary Gertrude Kasiva, without remorse, guilt, shame or fear."

Even as he left the priesthood, Mbuchi wrote one last letter to Ndingi, lamenting a few incidents when he felt let down by the Ordinary but acknowledging that the bishop was "an honest man who would never intentionally say or do anything to hurt another person"

The letter was personal in nature but it also underscored the kind of relationship that Ndingi had with his priests, even those with whom they differed fundamentally. Like Mbuchi, they acknowledged the "atmosphere of openness" in which the bishop sought to ferret out matters.

Mbuchi was eventually granted laicization after 13 years of priesthood and left the Church in 1994. He married Mary Gertrude Kasiva at Mwangaza Spiritual Jesuit House on December 31, 1999 at a low-key ceremony presided over by his spiritual adviser, Fr McGarry.

Ndingi was evidently in agony after this. Had he invested too much in Mbuchi? Couldn't his ministry have been saved? Ndingi believed that celibacy should not be used to deny the Church the services of such priests. Ndingi still beheves in his heart that Mbuchi is still a priest even though he left the Church.

The case of Mbuchi revealed a man who was fiercely loyal to the Church but who, at the same time, was still rooted to his African roots.

Ndingi's initial refusal to let Mbuchi go, his frantic efforts to save his priesthood and his perorations about the need to uphold celibacy and the importance of waking up and walking when one stumbled upon the hurdles of one's vocation, reveals a man who not only deeply cared about his priests but who also felt that African priests were operating in peculiar circumstances.

In his reign in Nairobi, he accepted back a priest who went to the USA to study but failed to return after his studies. One day Ndingi was shocked to receive a call from the priest. "If I came back, would you agree to see me?" the priest asked.

"Come back and see me," he told him.

"Will you accept me back?" he sought assurance.

"Just come and see me. I'm your bishop and father."

The priest came back and after he listened to him, Ndingi accepted him into the archdiocese and posted him to a parish in the eastern deanary. As this book was being written, the priest was happily carrying out his pastoral duties at a parish in the Nairobi Archdiocese.

Ndingi was a firm believer, as the Mbuchi case amply demonstrates, that the Church must harness priests. In fact, he wrote a letter to the Nuncio on November 28,1983 outlining the possible causes why diocesan priests were leaving the ministry and offering suggestions to help the Church ring-fence them.

"It is so hurting to see a good priest and who is sincerely seeking help from those who should give it getting turned down. Is it better to keep a priest who is not happy in his own diocese and eventually see him leave the ministry or is it better to let him transfer and keep happy and in the ministry. If this option was or is given, there are some priests who would have remained in their ministry", he said.

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