Sunday, June 07, 2009

In Kenya, Grandfather Catholic priest bares it all

By Kipchumba Some
The Standard (Nairobi, Kenya)
June 7, 2009

Three years ago, Fr George Githui would have been ashamed to tell anyone he is a grandfather. As a priest of the Roman Catholic Church, he is sworn to celibacy.

As such, getting romantically involved with women is not only forbidden but also grounds for being defrocked.

But when one month ago his son, 32, informed him he was a grandfather, tears of joy welled in his eyes. He reckons that breaking that vow might have been the best single mistake he has made in life so far.

"There are no words to describe the feelings that swept over me when I was informed I was a grandfather," he says.

Fr Githui broke his celibacy vow in 1976, after he fell in love with Ms Lucy Njeri, a nurse in Eldoret. He was ordained into priesthood the same year. He was then serving at St Patrick’s Parish in Iten.

"I met a nice woman and fell in love with her. Everything stopped to matter when I met her," says the 62-year-old. The two lovers got their son in 1977.

Tired of hiding

For the next 28 years, they lived a secret life. But all along, he never thought of abandoning his family.

"Some colleagues abandoned their families after "messing up". I did not want to be like them," he says.

But as he rose within the church, he began to question the rationale for the celibacy vow.

"Almost all the priests I knew had children or girlfriends," he says.

He says his immediate superiors knew of his family, but told him it was alright if only he kept quiet about it.

However, as a professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, he used intellectual forums to challenge the church’s celibacy law.

He reckons this was perhaps the reason for his suspension in 2003, after church leaders got wind he had a family.

"I had reached a point where I proudly told my peers about my family. I was becoming a thorn and an "embarrassment" to the church," he says.

But in 2005, he opted to retire from priesthood and married his long-time partner.

Got married

Their wedding ceremony, he says, was at held Kasarani Private Chapel in Nairobi and presided over by a senior bishop of the church who has since retired.

"After living in "sin" for 28 years, I decided to be truthful with my God," he said.

It is such stories that have re-ignited debate on whether it is time the world’s largest Christian church rethought its dogma. The debate has been sparked by last week’s ordination of a married former Roman Catholic priest as a bishop of a breakaway church.

The Ecumenical Catholic Church, formed by former Roman Catholic priests who revolted against the celibacy vow, last week ordained Fr Godfrey Shiundu as its first bishop in the country.

Theologians within the Roman Catholic Church and in the academia reckon the incident is just another manifestation that the church is in need of reforms.

However, Bishop Cornelius Korir of the Eldoret Diocese defends the doctrine, saying the reforms being advocated would erode the church’s identity.

"There is no problem with the law, the problem is the people who observe it. The church is not about to change its doctrine to meet the worldly desires of a few," he reiterated.

Clerical celibacy has split the Catholic faithful across the world. The conservatives are opposed to suggestions by liberals to make celibacy optional. Pragmatists have questioned the rationale for the vow, especially after the church was hit by sexual scandals in the US and Europe involving senior priests and boys.

"How does the church stand up to proclaim itself a paragon of morality yet its leaders portray a totally different image?" asked Fr Githui.

Celibacy unnecessary

During a visit to Boston, US, in 1993, the late Pope John Paul II stated that celibacy was not necessary for priesthood.

"Debate about celibacy seems to have fizzled out," says Prof Eric Nandi, a lecturer of religion at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

"But it remains a pertinent issue the church needs to tackle," says he.

However, Dr Emily Choge, a lecturer of Theology at Moi University, defends the church’s position and blames the dissenting voices for not remaining true to the vows they took.

It is estimated more than 150,000 priests have left the church since the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II in 1965, ostensibly to marry. As a result, a number of parishes around the world have been left without ministers.

While agreeing it is perhaps time the church started serious debate over the celibacy issue, Fr Joseph Njino, a lecturer of Religious Studies at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, says it is not time to change the law.

"Debate is certainly due on the issue of celibacy. It is one of the pillars of the church and we should only change it after careful consideration," he said.

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