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from issue no. 11 - 2007

The mission of Christ is the mission of the Church

An interview with Cardinal John Njue, Archbishop of Nairobi, on the African Church, born out of the charity of the missionaries, in a continent in thrall to the politics of the developed countries

Interview with Cardinal John Njue by Davide Malacaria

He, too, was in Saint Peter’s Basilica on 24 November. Pope Benedict XVI put the red biretta on his head also. New cardinal John Njue, an African from Kenya, is one of the two African prelates created cardinal in the last Consistory. Born in 1944, and baptized in 1948, after attending the Nkubu seminary he went to Rome, where he studied Philosophy at the Pontifical Urbanian University, graduating in 1969. In 1974 he also took a degree in Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University. He was ordained priest in Rome by Paul VI on 6 January 1973, on the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In 1986 he was ordained Bishop of the diocese of Embu, where he remained till 2002, before being appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Nyeri. On 6 October 2007 he was nominated Archbishop of Nairobi. He held various posts in the Kenyan Episcopal Conference till becoming its President. He had the task of running the apostolic vicariate of Isiolo, as apostolic administrator, after the murder of Bishop Luigi Locati, whose assassination on 14 July 2005 shook the whole Catholic Church. An affair on which the prelate wants not to comment while justice is taking its course. We meet the cardinal in Rome, immediately after the Consistory, precisely on the day of the death of the Archbishop of Nyeri, Monsignor Nicodemus Kirima, to whom Cardinal Njue was very attached. He mentions it almost with lightness, as a matter entrusted to God.

Cardinal John Njue

Cardinal John Njue

Do you think your nomination is also a gesture of concern from the Holy Father for the African continent?
JOHN NJUE: The nomination came like a bolt from the blue, a great surprise. In September I was informed of the transfer from Nyeri, where I was archbishop coadjutor, to Nairobi, and then, on 17 October, of the nomination as cardinal. It has been a difficult thing to accept, humanly speaking, because I was sorry to leave my confrere, the Archbishop of Nyeri. It cost me to leave him, but then obedience won over in me, because from the day on which I became deacon, and then priest, and then again at the moment of my ordination as bishop, I have always had in my heart the attitude to be open to the will of God. And, in particular, to the will of God that is revealed to us through the Church and that the Church communicates to us through the Pope. So I accepted in that spirit of obedience, full of hope in the Lord, who when He gives a responsibility remains beside one. This nomination seems to me an honor conferred not only on me, but also on the Church of Kenya, on the Church of Africa and, also, on the universal Church, because when cardinals are nominated they become almost consultants of the Holy Father, each with his responsibility, entrusted to each for the good of the Church. And that is why I accepted. And may God’s will be done. I remember here that when we met the Holy Father, during the recent ad limina visit of the bishops of Kenya, and then, again, when we met him as new cardinals, he much insisted on this: we must be tools in the hands of God, for the Church to grow, as the Lord wanted from the beginning.
At that ad limina visit on 19 November last, the Pope said: «The [Christian] community should be open to receive those who repent of having participated in the grievous sin of abortion and guide them with pastoral charity to accept the grace of forgiveness, the need for repentance and the joy of being able to enter once again into the life of Christ». Those words stirred interest in the Italian media.
NJUE: A sin remains a sin. In Law that sin entails excommunication. But the action is condemned, while the person remains a person. The position of the Church on the question of abortion seems very clear to me. As it also seems obvious to me that we bishops must be close to the people who live with this difficulty, encouraging them to return the Lord to His place in their lives. It is an expression of the mercy of God. I don’t think that the words of the Pope are a way of saying that abortion is a soft sin, but, rather, I believe it was an invitation to a pastoral of mercy, that recognizes the centrality of the love of God for all, no matter what the individual situation. However, for that love to be mutual, there has to be conversion and so the Lord needs to be returned to His place, according to the pact made on the day of baptism.
As you see it, what are the priorities that the African Church is called on to face in a continent tormented by hunger and war?
NJUE: It seems to me that the Churches in Africa have a common origin, arising out of the work of our missionaries. Because if the Church is there in Africa today, it’s thanks to the dedication and generosity of our missionaries and, more widely, of the older Churches. Now that the missionaries are dwindling in almost all countries, it seems to me that one of the foremost responsibilities entrusted to us is that of helping our people to become aware of being Church, of encouraging self-sufficiency from the point of view of evangelization, so that evangelization is entrusted to Africans, be they lay or religious. So that our people feel that they are the parish, they are the diocese and, finally, they are the Church. We have had very fine experiences in this sphere: where the people earlier were always there to ask, today, instead, they give. It seems to me that we must move in that direction. For that to happen, another priority is that of catechesis. The Church is living in a world absorbed in globalization, a phenomenon that skips nobody: even those who don’t know English are influenced by it. To remain steadfast in the faith that we have received it seems to me that we must focus our work on catechesis. Another priority that we must firmly consider is the call to live in a spirit of generosity. Africa is tormented by wars, by catastrophes, agreed. But we mustn’t always expect help to come from outside. I believe, instead, that we are called to live in a spirit of generosity, both from a human and Christian point of view. Another very important thing is political independence: unfortunately many of our countries have governments that are linked, for different reasons, to foreign powers, that condition their behavior. In the last five years we have had a positive experience in Kenya: the last government has sought the welfare of the people and this is testified by public expenditure for which there is the money: more than 93% of our government expenditure comes from taxes paid by the people. It seems to me a very interesting thing, because by limiting foreign funding the conditions outside financiers would have dictated have been avoided. The question of the political freedom of the African nations seems to me to be a very important thing: unfortunately, in the so-called “first world” not all give developing countries the chance to have their own identity and dignity. There are too many ties preventing true liberation for the African people.
Do you think the African Union can be of help in this process?
NJUE: The African Union exists and is a political given that can’t be done away with. However I wonder how much power there is both as a group and in the individual member countries for encouraging the political freedom of the African nations. I think there is still a long way to go. But to go ahead I think that the path toward political freedom must be initiated in every country, which will then be able to share the experience with others.
Benedict XVI placing the cardinal’s biretta on John Njue, 24 November 2007

Benedict XVI placing the cardinal’s biretta on John Njue, 24 November 2007

A presidential election is to be held in Kenya on 27 December. Has the Church had anything to say on the matter?
NJUE: Kenya’s own history began with independence from England in 1964. It was no easy thing to build a State, have concrete visions of how to go ahead after independence. It has been a long path. And for more than forty years we have had governments that, rather than looking after the welfare of the people, have used political power for their own interests. Something that, with the passage of time, the people have accepted with ever greater difficulty, because, in the meantime, the demand for a truly democratic state has emerged ever more strongly. It seems to me a response to that demand was given in 2002, with the government then installed. Of course this government also had its limits, but looking back one sees things are better than before. The roots have been planted, now we have to go ahead. We have had difficulties in these years, there has been the great debate on the referendum for changing the Constitution, a change rejected by the people because, according to me, the argument hinged on political questions rather than on a change of the Constitution. On 27 December there are the elections and as bishops we have the responsibility of educating the people. So we have made public a pastoral letter asking people to take this responsibility seriously, because these elections are not something optional, but a responsibility, indeed, one may say, a duty. We have asked that all violence be avoided and the buying and selling of votes be banned so they may take place in all legitimacy. Additionally we have asked young people not to let themselves be instrumentalized by the politicians. We have made this appeal to everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics, exercising what we believe to be our responsibility.
What are relations with Islam like in your country?
NJUE: Kenya is a secular country, a country that respects all religions. The Moslems in our country number less than 10%. Nevertheless they are there. And to live in decency with them dialogue is necessary. In Kenya this dialogue is a reality thanks not least to the work of an interior committee of the Episcopal Conference that is going ahead with the dialogue with Islam and the other religions. The problems are caused by the politicians, because there are those who want to attract the votes of the Moslems with dangerous promises. On the sidelines of the recent ad limina visit, while we were in Rome, we decided to give warning about this danger: nobody must base their election campaign on promises that may create difficulties for the country. The people must be consulted on questions that involve the national interest.
The tragedy of Somalia is taking place on Kenya’s doorstep...
NJUE: It’s a very complex question. Unfortunately the government has closed the borders to refugees from Somalia. We don’t know why. Probably they possess information that they have not made public. We have asked for an explanation. In the meantime, helping the refugees is difficult: we can help, and we have helped, those who are in our country. For the many still within the confines of Somalia our Caritas is seeking to send help through the humanitarian channels used by others also.
On 24 August 2000 Father John Anthony Kaiser, a religious of the Saint Joseph of Mill Hill Missionary Society, was found dead. The murder has been at the center of an insistent demand for justice by the Church of Kenya and others. After various attempts at sidetracking, aimed chiefly at passing the death off as suicide, in August the court brought in a verdict of murder.
NJUE: The murder is evidence of the difficulties in which Kenya was mired before 2002. Father Kaiser had spoken out about various injustices and we think that is the reason for his killing. In August the court established that it was not suicide as previous attempts had tried to get believed. Before coming to Rome I visited the Attorney General because we want to know what happened exactly: the case is not closed. It is a demand for justice that we also repeated on the anniversary of his death.
Faithful paying their respects at the grave of Father John Anthony Kaiser

Faithful paying their respects at the grave of Father John Anthony Kaiser

What contribution can the African Church make to the Western Church and what can the Western Church do to help the African Church?
NJUE: What the Church can do is first and foremost be Church. And being Church means living what the Lord himself indicated at the beginning of His mission in the synagogue of Nazareth: «The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; for this has He anointed me with unction, and has sent me to announce glad tidings to the poor» (Luke 4, 18). I think that, in these words, the Lord meant that this is the mission. And the mission of Christ is the mission of the Church. If the Church does not have missionary spirit it seems to me it is no longer Church. It is dead, it is a mere association. Both the Church of Africa and that of the developed countries should re-enter this reality of the mission. That is why, even where there are African priests, I believe a missionary presence needs to remain, because their mission is in no way exhausted. Their presence, even minimal, must remain because it represents a point of reference that reminds the African Church from whence it comes. On the other hand, we Africans must also become missionaries, not only by contributing to Missions Day, but encouraging the creation of a communion between the Church of the developed countries and that coming from the mission lands. In that way we will give testimony of a Church as real body of Christ.
You were made priest by Paul VI who famously said: «Africa to the Africans»...
NJUE: Paul VI spoke those words in Kampala in 1969, meaning that the Africans were by then missionaries to themselves. It seems to me it was a challenge, a way of saying: by now you must see yourselves as grown-ups, capable that is of going ahead with missionary work. When Benedict XVI gave us the biretta and the ring it was a very touching experience, that, among other things, made me relive the moment of my priestly ordination precisely here, in Saint Peter’s, on that long-gone 6 January 1973. Then there was the crisis in vocations, but Paul VI encouraged us to stay united with the Lord, in that way we would carry on the mission that had been entrusted to us...

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