Sunday, June 28, 2009

Priests torn between love for spouse and celibacy vows

By Osinde Obare and Vincent Bartoo
The Standard (Kenya)
June 28, 2009

Fr Godfrey Siundu, Kenya’s first head of the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ (ECCC), a splinter group from the Roman Catholic Church, has been called a rebel without a cause.

The 38-year-old opened a can of worms when he broke the mandatory celibacy rule and impregnated Ms Stella Nangila, then a nun at Mon Parish in Marakwet.

In May, 2006, they wedded in Kitale.

As a Catholic Father, he was bound by the celibacy creed of the church but felt otherwise. "I was living a double life, but now my conscience is clear," says Siundu.

"I knew it was wrong to have a girlfriend, but I could not leave because I loved her with all my heart."

The awareness of living a lie, he explains, pushed him towards his decision.

"From being with my girlfriend on a Sunday morning, I would rush to church to say Mass hurriedly so that I could go back to her," confesses Siundu.

He says he portrayed the image of an honest priest at the altar but knew he was dishonest.

"I was sinning. I could not live with that guilt anymore."

The decision to marry was not a difficult one, since she was already the mother of his two daughters.

"His proposal came as a surprise because I did not expect it so soon," says Nangila.

Her parents attended her wedding despite first opposing the marriage.

"My mum, who is a staunch Catholic, warned me against marrying him but my father later led me down the aisle," she notes.

Siundu’s actions may have outraged fellow clerics, but he has no regrets.

"When I was ordained priest I promised to remain celibate, but — like any other promise — you can break it if it is not working for you," he says.

Broken vows

As a result, he cannot step onto any Catholic Church altar.

"I have not broken my church rules. I just married my girlfriend of many years, and I do not think I need permission from the Catholic bishops to do that," says Siundu.

A more realistic, practical approach, he says, is needed towards life, sexuality and relationships.

Siundu was on May 31, at Kitale ASK Showground, consecrated bishop by the Church’s head Archbishop Karl Raymond Rodig, at a ceremony attended by about 500 members and witnesses. He holds a degree in Theology from Urbaniana University in Rome and was ordained in 1994.

He first served at the Kapsabet Parish and then moved to Kerio Valley, where he met Nagila.

After the Church’s disapproval of his conduct, Siundu moved to Uganda where he enrolled as a law student at Kampala International University, Uganda.

Defied celibacy

Father Benedict Simiyu, formerly of the Bungoma Roman Catholic Church, was also ordained alongside Siundu as Bishop of the Kitale Diocese of the new church.

Simiyu took the bold step to defy celibacy in 2000 while serving the Catholic Church.

"I publicly got married and still attended services in church before priests started telling the faithful to shun me. But I believed I was doing the right thing and did not want to hide it," says Simiyu.

He says the church mistreated him and he could not take it anymore.

"That is when I joined the then Reformed Catholic Church. I believed the Roman Catholic Church needed reforms," he says.

"It is time the Roman Catholic Church accepted that the celibacy doctrine is failing miserably. Bishops and priests have defied it secretly and they have children out of these affairs," he says.

Fear of exposure

Worse still, he claims, clergy, who fear they would be exposed, have abandoned their children and their lovers.

He says the celibacy doctrine was introduced to ensure clergy remained dedicated to God’s service but he maintains the same could happen even if the church leaders are married.

"You do not need to be robbed of God’s gift to humanity. He did not decree it. We can still serve him with commitment when married," he adds.

Retired Keiyo Roman Catholic priest, Father George Githui, also broke his celibacy vow in 1976 after he fell in love with Ms Lucy Njeri, a nurse.

"I met a nice woman and fell in love with her. Everything stopped to matter when I met her," says the 62-year-old.

For the next 28 years, they lived a secret life but all along, he never thought of abandoning his love and their son.

"Almost all the priests I knew had children or girlfriends. Some colleagues abandoned their families after ‘messing up’. I did not want to be like them," he says.

He was suspended in 2003 and opted to retire from priesthood later in 2005 and officially married his long-time partner.

Photos: Fr Godfrey Siundu and his wife, Stella, on their wedding day; Fr Godfrey with the children at his church's orphanage.


Faithful Catholic said...

This was a really excellent article. Thank you.

Fr. John said...

Neither of them were free to marry. She, being a nun, had already made a religious profession, and he being a priest, was not free to seek a wife. They both led each other into an invalid marriage. Sounds like he cared more about legitimizing the desires he responded to in having a mistress; if that is all, why did he become a priest? Surely he knew about the Church's call to celibacy before he was ordained. He could have chosen the married life rather than the priesthood. The Church does not force this sacrament upon any man - it is a willing sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God.