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​Encouraging a spirit of religious tolerance

· In Kenya, as a sign of hope for entire continent ·

Papal visits have never been taken for granted anywhere in the world since time immemorial and Kenya is no exception. The reason behind this is that, unlike other leaders who are either civil or religious, the Pope fills both roles as statesman and religious leader (Vicar of Christ). Papal visits leave an impact on the hearts of those who are blessed to see the Pope for generations to to come.

The first Pope to visit Kenya was St John Paul II. During his papacy, he visited our beloved country three times: in 1980, 1985 and 1995.

A lot has changed since Pope John Paul II visited our country 20 years ago, on 8 September 1995. A palpable excitement is building in Kenya as we prepare to welcome the Holy Father. It is uniting a country that is home to 44 million people from 42 tribes. Excitement is evident in millions of Kenyans irrespective of their denomination, age or social status.

Since the first Holy Ghost missionaries stepped foot in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1890, the Catholic community has grown in leaps and bounds. Out of 44 million inhabitants, 14.5 million are Catholic faithful spread across four metropolitan provinces of Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nyeri covering a total of 24 Dioceses, one Vicariate and one Military Ordinariate. The number of new dioceses has grown steadily — from eight to 26 today.

Five new dioceses have been created since the last Papal visit in 1995. These include, the Diocese of Kericho, created on 6 December 1995; the Diocese of Malindi created on 2 June 2000; the Apostolic Vicariate of Isiolo, created on 15th December 1995; the Diocese of Maralal, created in 2001, and the Diocese of Nyahururu that was created on 5 December 2002.

With gratitude and humility, I must admit that the Church in Kenya owes a lot to Pope Francis and, indeed, to the long line of his predecessors. Pope Pius IX in his encyclical Fidei Donum, more than a century ago, rallied the Church to send more missionaries to Africa. His call was heeded and continues to be heeded by thousands of missionaries who help to set up pastoral stations in some of Kenya’s poorest, most far-flung regions.

The Fidei Donum spirit is best exemplified by Blessed Sr Irene Stephane, who was beatified in a colourful ceremony, in the Archdiocese of Nyeri on 23 May 2015. The Sister was given the name ‘Nyaatha’ which means ‘the merciful one’ for her selflessness and love for the poor. Kenyans indeed view the beatification of Blessed Irene Stephane Nyaatha, and now, the maiden visit of Pope Francis, as a sign of hope — hope in a renewed faith; a re-awakening of the Church’s mission in Kenya: to witness Christ.

We are further strengthened in hope and faith by the ongoing process of beatification of the Servant of God Michael Maurice Cardinal Otunga — now Venerable and indeed a true son of Kenyan soil — who hosted Pope John Paul II during his visits in Kenya and who is a model to be emulated for his virtues of simplicity, passion for pastoral work and concern for the poor and above all his love for God and humanity. This is a clear manifestation of the fruits of missionary work and Pope Francis’ visit is going to rekindle that spirit and leave an indelible mark on the history of our land and her people for generations to come.

The last papal visit to Kenya came in the wake of strong socio-political winds of change that were sweeping through Africa in general and particularly in Kenya.

In his address to the nation during his last Papal visit, Pope St John Paul II said: “I come as one who is deeply concerned for the destiny of Africa’s peoples. Africa is at crossroads. Its peoples and their leaders are being called to exercise all their wisdom in the difficult and urgent task of promoting a development which is not just economic and material, but involves building a civilization of respect for all of society’s members — for their rights and freedoms, as well as for the spiritual nature of every person”.

His wise words were timely. At that time, the country was undergoing a socio-political transition. Indeed, St Pope John Paul’s visit heralded a period of great changes for our country; changes that the Church in Kenya, helped to shape and to shepherd.

His holiness Pope Francis’ first visit to Kenya is not so different from that of Pope St John Paul II twenty years ago. Although a lot has changed in Kenya, the challenges closely resemble to those that Pope St John Paul II correctly pointed out.

Millions of Kenyans still live in poverty. Families are breaking under the heavy pressure of materialism and the loss of African values. Divisive politics, corruption and negative ethnicity continues to eat into our society. The Church has been on the forefront in pointing out these challenges, and actively engaging the Government to solve them.

In pastoral work, the Church in Kenya has made tremendous progress over the years. Vocations have been thriving; we now have hundreds of seminarians preparing for pastoral work. Today, we can proudly say that the Church in Kenya is sending missionaries out into the world. Hundreds of our priests, religious brothers and sisters are serving throughout Europe, Asia and America.

We not only believe in reaching out to the millions of souls who need Christ in their lives, but also in bearing witness through service to the community. The Catholic Church in Kenya runs more than 8,000 schools, 470 health facilities and 18 medical training colleges.

The future of the Church in Kenya is bright. It is reflected in the increasingly vibrant Pontifical Missionary Children across all 26 dioceses, and in the active participation of the youth. They are our future, the pillars of the Church.

When Pope Francis touches African soil for the first time, we are reminded of his consoling message of condolence during our darkest moments, when terrorists attacked and killed 147 students in Garissa University on 4 April 2015. In his message after the attacks, the Pope called “upon all those in authority to redouble their efforts to work with all men and women in Kenya to bring an end to such violence and to hasten the dawn of a new era of brotherhood, justice and peace”.

Pope Francis’ visit to Kenya will strengthen our resolve to fight terrorism and encourage the spirit of religious tolerance and cohesion across the globe. His presence puts his words into practice, as he comes to empathize with all those who have lost loved ones due either to political or religious intolerance. His physical presence will speak louder than words.

The Holy Father’s visit is a God send, as he comes to uplift Africa in hope and faith, to encourage and motivate the world that all is not lost and to strengthen our resolve to strive to make Kenya the pearl of Africa. Your Holiness, Karibu (welcome) to Kenya.

John Njue
Cardinal-Archbishop of Nairobi

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