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INTERVIEW: Irish Priest in Kenya Describes What the Pope Will Find

A Nation ‘Pulsating With Potential’ and the Church at the Forefront of Its Development

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When Pope Francis arrives in Kenya later this month (Nov. 25-27), he will find himself in the midst of a young, vibrant Church, rooted in the deeply religious African psyche. A Church at the forefront of development and a leader in the battle against corruption.

This is some of the picture painted by Fr. Conor Donnelly, an Irish priest of Opus Dei who has been working in Nairobi for 10 years.

ZENIT asked Fr. Donnelly to give us a look at Kenya and preparations for the Pope’s arrival.

Here’s what he said:

ZENIT: As an Irish priest working in Kenya for 10 years now, could you describe the Church and society there for readers in the Western world?

Fr. Donnelly: Kenya is pulsating with potential. Almost 50% of the population is under 20 years of age. In Uganda it is almost 60%. Education is treasured. Children long to go to school. Unfortunately not everyone can afford school fees. You see rapid development before your eyes. Nairobi has always been an important city in East Africa and that is so even more now. Many multinational organizations have moved their headquarters here from Johannesburg. The climate is one of the best in the world.

It is generally acknowledged that the most serious problems hindering the development of the country are corruption and tribalism. The Kenyan bishops have frequently referred to them in their collective declarations. In a statement issued a few days ago, concerning the Holy Father’s visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops said the following: “We also must tackle the ‘festering wound’ of corruption, the heightened looting from public coffers by those entrusted with public resources. We must guard against reckless and irresponsible utterances that can incite communities to violence; and promote respect for the laws of the Country.” The good news is that a new society is growing, of well educated, professionally qualified, articulate people of integrity, so there is much hope for the future.

The Church runs 30% of the hospitals of the country and many of the top schools. All are synonymous with quality and the highest standards. In this way the Catholic Church, along with other churches, has played major role in the development of the country. It is interesting to see this close up, because it is the same story for many European countries although this part of their history sometimes seems to have been conveniently forgotten.

The seminaries are full, the bishops are young. Mass attendance is high. There is a strong respect for the sacred. Holy Communion for remarried divorcees is not an issue. People value their faith. The family as an institution is strong although subject to all the winds that are blowing in the Western world. The deeply religious sense of the African psyche is expressed in a repugnance  felt for a justification of an aberration like ‘gay marriage’.

Women could be valued more. Although Christianity has penetrated deeply, there are still areas where more could be done. The Catholic population is about 40%.

There were approximately 100,000 Catholics in Africa in 1900, that number is now approaching 200 million. Since 1980 alone the Catholic Church in Africa has grown by 238%. Today missionaries are going from Kenya to Europe and other parts of the world.

Many of the stories of the beginnings are only now being written. Elderly missionaries now have the time and inclination to write. It is a glorious history.

ZENIT: So, is Nairobi a “nice” place to live, say, by the standards of your friends from back home in Ireland?

Fr. Donnelly: An accountant friend of mine from Dublin lived here for four years. He said those four years were probably the happiest of the growing years of his children. I think that answers the question.

So many places to go, so many things to see, flora, fauna, etc.

ZENIT: Pope Francis will probably speak of the problem he’s called “ideological colonization” in Africa. Is this something affecting Kenyan society?

Fr. Donnelly: Absolutely.  In Kenya we need a paradigm shift not just for Catholics but for all health care workers. We need to change the culture of death programs and change them for culture of life alternatives.

Maternal mortality is rising in Sub Saharan Africa. The rate for the developed world is about 1 in 15,000. The rate in rural Kenya, as in the rest of Africa, is 1 in 15. It is one of the scandals of modern medicine. We need to promote the scientific truth from the obstetrical community that this can only be solved by dealing with one mother at a time.

Governments and aid agencies have focused their attention on HIV Aids; they have forgotten women and mothers. This is reflected in their budgets. Only 7.9% of the UN budget is allocated to maternal and child health, which is where the people are dying.

Contraception and abortion are counter cultural to African values and have been proven to be ineffective in lowering maternal mortality.

Marriage, fertility and motherhood in Africa are a status symbol. It is a family based culture. Motherhood is celebrated. Infertility is an abomination. To put in place strategies that will make you infertile is not African.

The approach of some is to eliminate motherhood, not to eliminate maternal mortality.

We need to confront the new global ethical agenda which is a result of moral relativism and which is targeting Africa at present.

There tends to be no mention of sex with responsibility. The UN proposes every form of abortion as a means to lower maternal mortality. What happens to women’s rights and doctors’ rights?

ZENIT: Drawing from your medical background, can you explain some of the reasons that the maternal mortality rate is so high and what actually needs to be done, since the UN isn’t getting it right?

Fr. Donnelly: There are many reasons. Lack of rural hospitals and trained health care workers. Lack of funds. Mothers have no political representation. No incentives for doctors to work in rural areas. Governments are not interested. Mothers don’t matter. Prof Robert Walley of Matercare International has all the answers (info@matercare.org). He has single handedly built a maternity hospital in rural Kenya.

From a medical perspective not much is needed. Prof Walley has trained traditional birth attendants (rural midwives) — some of whom can neither read nor write — to recognize emergencies from a chart, call the ambulance and get the mother to hospital. The ambulance is a motor bike with a stretcher and the hospital is 3 hours away. With this system, lives have been saved. There are some great stories.

To give her her due, Mrs Margaret Kenyatta, wife of the President, has organized a mobile maternity unity for each county in the form of a truck. It is a nice idea but expensive:  Will they reach distant villages where roads are bad, and what will they be like in 5 years time? These are unanswered questions.

In the rural areas. contraceptives abound but antibiotics and other basic medicines are often lacking.

ZENIT: What do you do as a priest in Kenya?

Fr. Donnelly: I spend a lot of my day in the confessional box. I am chaplain to Kianda School for Girls in Nairobi and have spent most of the past 10 years as chaplain to what is now Eastlands College of Technology. 

Eastlands is a depressed area of Nairobi with a huge number of unskilled youth. It was a black area during the apartheid, colonial era. Many people think that apartheid was something associated only with South Africa but it should not be forgotten that in those days apartheid was everywhere. 

Technical training as a preparation for employment in the local industries is the key to lifting the youth of the nearby slum areas out of the cycle of poverty. The spirit
ual direction of these schools is entrusted to the care of priests of the Prelature of Opus Dei.

ZENIT: You said earlier that in Kenya, “women could be valued more.” How do you see that play out in your work at the girls’ school?

Fr. Donnelly: Schools with a Catholic ethos have been the great uplifters of women in many countries. Polygamy is endemic in African culture. The first wife is often left to fend for herself. She has no legal redress. Infertile wives or those who don’t produce a male offspring are often left for other women. This gives rise to inheritance headaches when the husband dies. Education and empowerment of women is one of the solutions to this problem, as well as greater legal protection.

ZENIT: What do you expect from the Pope’s trip?

Fr. Donnelly: The country is excited. The litany of media coverage that will be relayed around the world would take your breath away. President Obama was here earlier this year but the buzz for the Papal trip is on an entirely different level. People are aware that the Pope is the greatest spiritual and moral leader of the world. Wonderful anecdotes from non-Catholics are emerging from the last Papal trip here of St John Paul II in 1995. 

We hope for more peace and harmony in the country, particularly from politicians. 

The goal for everyone with this visit is to deepen our faith. We need a greater faith practice, allowing our faith to percolate into our life, affect our personal choices, so that we make the right professional decisions.

We should let our faith engage more in social choices. Our faith should direct society’s choices according to what builds. Chesterton once said:  “to admire mere choice, is to refuse to choose.”

We should lose our fears of taking a Catholic stand. This approach concerns everyone in society from the boda boda (public transport) operators to the legislators and is particularly relevant at present in health care.

We have a wealth of criteria coming from the Church in her documents. We need to know these criteria and know the why of the criteria, deepening in the theological underpinnings. Every Catholic health worker should be conversant with Humanae Vitae, Donum Vitae, and other great Church statements.

This is the 11th international trip of the Pope, we see him spending himself at almost 80 years of age. He is also going to the Central African Republic. He’s not afraid of going where the trouble is. What greater example do we need?

Pope Francis is out in front, blazing a trail. Any young person worth their salt would want to give him a hand and give themselves completely to the great ideals he is placing before us.

(Fr Conor Donnelly is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, a medical graduate from University College Dublin and has a doctorate in theology from the University of Navarre. He has lived for 10 years in Manila, 12 in Singapore and has been 10 in Nairobi.)

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Kathleen Naab

United States

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