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INTERVIEW: Spanish Priest of Neo-Catechumenal Way Tells of Strengthening Young Faith in Kenya

As Pope Arrives, an Overview of the Church and Society in This East African Nation

When Spanish priest Angel Iglesias Solarano, of the Diocese of Madrid, arrived for the first time in Africa in 1971, his first sensation was one of profound disturbance in witnessing the suffering of the population.

In particular the parish in Tanzania where he was serving with the White Fathers, was receiving refugees from Burundi, fleeing from the massacres in their country. “This experience brought me very close to them,” he says, “increasingly knowing the people, I realized that the faith was not lived in a mature way and that the Lord was calling me to an important mission: to help the Christians mature their very infant-like faith through a path of Christian initiation.”

Therefore, Father Iglesias asked his Superiors if he could continue the Neo-Catechumenal Way of which he was a part, and offer himself for the New Evangelization. After two years of study of Biblical Theology at the Jesuits’ University in Madrid, he left for the Ivory Coast, Burundi, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Rwanda as an itinerant catechist and, finally, in 1982 for Tanzania and Kenya, where he still carries out a mission of evangelization.

Father Iglesias spoke to ZENIT about Kenya just before Pope Francis’ arrival there this evening, sharing his precious “logbook” of over 30 years and talking about a wounded and contradictory country in its enormous riches and in its profound poverties, where the people still wait to receive the Christian proclamation, which the Pope will bring with his presence.

Here is a translation of the interview.

* * *

ZENIT: How has Kenya’s face changed in these years, recalling also the profound socio-political transformation it went through in the 90s?

Father Iglesias: I arrived in Kenya in the year 1982. Since then, the country has often changed its face. It’s not easy for me to summarize in a few words the entire history of the last years of this nation, which is one of the countries with the most dynamic economy of the African continent. Kenya presents strong contradictions: on one hand extreme wealth, manifested in the tall skyscrapers, downtown, which is similar to the great metropolises of the world, in the luxury cars. On the other, the extreme poverty in which the greater part of the population still exists.

In Nairobi, for instance, there are still very many shantytowns, very violent: Kibera, in the city of Nairobi, is the largest in the world, with more than one million people. In the morning one sees streams of people walking to reach their place of work. After having worked 10 to 12 hours, with risible salaries, they return home, often to shacks, where there is no water, light or the minimum of sanitary services. I have always been struck by the dynamism of the Kenyan people, full of energy to earn their bread, but then, when they don’t find work, they fall into great frustration. Development has been very fast and perhaps it hasn’t given people the time to adjust.

ZENIT: In this situation, what sort of reception does the Christian proclamation find in Kenya?

Father Iglesias: At the beginning it was very good. Kenya is a very Christian country, close to 80%. Ten per cent are Muslims and the rest of ancestral religions, but with an abundance of sects of Christian origin: there are about 15,000 sects (8,000 already registered and another 7,000 awaiting registration). This shows the people’s desire to come close to the Word of God, but also the critical situation in which the great traditional religions find themselves to respond to the profound request of the people. In any case, at our catechises the people were enthusiastic about the Word of God. For instance, at Mombasa or Nairobi, many came, and this in an environment of great confusion. We were very well received and blessed by Cardinal Maurice Otunga.

ZENIT: During the October Synod, the African Episcopate evidenced the Church’s great difficulty in having the faithful live Christian morality, which clashes with ancestral practices and traditions – something that has its repercussions especially on the family …

Father Iglesias: It’s true; the desire to live the religion is mixed with the family’s tribal traditions, with problems linked to the dowry, with polygamy. This is very strong in the rural areas. In the cities, because of globalization, secularism has arrived and the mentality of the modern Western world. All this makes it very difficult, especially for young people, to form a Christian family and many engaged couples live a married life without having received the Sacrament of Marriage. Hence, there is a dichotomy in practical Christian life, a divorce between the Doctrine of the Church and the life lived.

ZENIT: The social situation also seems complex, Kenya being a country that has 44 million people divided in 42 tribes.

Father Iglesias: Yes, there are so many tribes, but only three to four are the main ones. There is great diversity and antagonism among them, which has led in the course of history, also recently, to violent clashes. Often the sects responded to the needs of the tribes, for some they represented an occasion of work: to found a sect could also mean to ensure one’s life, religious support, and emotional refuge.

ZENIT: What influence does this have on the new generations?

Father Iglesias: Young people study in Kenya (even though the schools are very expensive). They are well prepared, ambitious, but often they don’t find a work outlet. They feel frustrated, fall into drugs, into prostitution and are abandoning the faith. Pornography is also widely spread and destroys their preparation for family life. Therefore, I am happy that in the Neo-Catechumenal Way there is a systematic catechesis in meetings and pilgrimages on the Theology of the Body of Saint John Paul II, of Benedict XVI, and of Francis on engagement, family life, and the transmission of the faith to the children. We see with joy how the Lord works in those young people who accept preaching: they change their mentality, new Christian families are formed, engaged couples live in chastity until marriage, couples are open to life and to the will of God. We are truly happy, because if young people are ruined, everything is ruined.

ZENIT: Instead, what are the challenges that families face in Kenya?

Father Iglesias: The family in Kenya is suffering a great attack, with the gender ideology, which has also arrived here, with all its consequences, proclaiming a false autonomy of women, who in the end find themselves in great isolation and existential frustration, the children growing up without the presence of the paternal figure and directing everything to the children’s studies.

ZENIT: Then there is extremism, the “sirens’ call” for all persons without hope or prospects. How is this terror lived given the violence and attacks? In Kenya in particular, how is the memory of the massacre of Garissa, last April 2, lived?

Father Iglesias: The tragedy at the Garissa Campus was the most brutal summit of continuous attacks – some very bloody – which for close to eight years the Al Shabab Somali terrorist movement has been carrying out. This is causing great insecurity, pointing to the destabilization of the country. An effect of this is that in coastal areas, famous for the beaches, tourists no longer come, with a repercussion on the social fabric of Kenya as many lose their jobs.

ZENIT: Coming to Kenya, therefore, will Pope Francis find a tragic or positive scenario in Kenya?

Father Iglesias: The Holy Father will find first of all a very religious people, fond of him — people that desire peace. His visit will confirm the faith of brothers. There is in fact great and very strong expectation for this trip. In face of the ideologies and the message brought by the media, which contradict Christian morality and Dogma, the Pope’s coming will be a new spring for the Church in Kenya. It will give strength and missionary impetus.

ZENIT: The aspect of the visit highlighted in the main is the risk of attacks, especially during the stage in the Central African Republic. Feared, in particular, is that Al Shabab could take advantage of the Holy Father’s coming to strike Kenya’s Christians again. In your opinion, is this a real threat?

Father Iglesias: There have been no attacks for some time, because security has been greatly intensified at all levels, in buses, in airports, in shops. Metal detectors are used everywhere. This doesn’t mean that the risk is equal to zero, but it’s certainly a great deterrent. Moreover, the people are also prepared to help the forces of order in this endeavor of prevention, because they want peace in their country. The risk is real, but rather than probability one can speak of possibility. I’m sure that the Virgin, Our Lady of Africa, will protect us.

[Translation by ZENIT]

About Salvatore Cernuzio

Crotone, Italia Laurea triennale in Scienze della comunicazione, informazione e marketing (2008) e Laurea specialistica in Editoria e Giornalismo (2010) presso l'Università LUMSA di Roma. Radio Vaticana. Roma Sette. "Ecclesia in Urbe". Ufficio Comunicazioni sociali del Vicariato di Roma. Secondo classificato nella categoria Giovani della II edizione del Premio Giuseppe De Carli per l'informazione religiosa

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