When Vincent Muko joined missionary congregation in 2004, he had made up his mind to be celibate for the rest of his life.
In front of his family, friends and hundreds other people, he promised to devote his life to the church. Little did he know that nine years later all that would change.
Having had the desire from observing some of the missionaries in his home parish, he was so confident about becoming a priest that he happily shared it with everyone.
“Some men enter a seminary because they like the studious environment. That wasn’t me. I wanted to be a priest so I could be around ordinary people and have a positive influence on their lives. My last day of seminary couldn’t come quick enough,” Muko narrates.
Muko, 32, is one of the men who last week opened up to Lifestyle on the reasons why they abandoned a call to become Catholic priests; reasons that range from differences with the Church to personal decisions.
The debate on the requirements of priesthood was recently ignited by Pope Francis when he told a German newspaper that he was ready to see married men becoming priests because the Catholic Church was running short of clergy. Pope Francis told Die Zeit that the shortage of Catholic priests was an “enormous problem” for the Church.
While the desire to lead a married life is what has made many shy away from becoming priests, it has not been a factor to all.
Muko, for instance, says he was pushed out when he questioned the conduct of clergymen behind the scenes.
With a strong Catholic upbringing, Muko often went to church in the company of his mother who was then an official at the local church. He attended Mass, spent time in the chapel and enjoyed hearing stories from priests.
“I was admiring the lifestyle that the priest led and this is what really informed my decision of joining the priesthood,” says Muko.
VOCAL AND OPINIONATED
For nine years he devoted his life to God. He started as an altar boy. He studied at missionary schools run by the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity – a Roman Catholic missionary congregation founded in the 1920s – then later went to South Africa for further studies.
“But on July 6, 2013, I was in my sick bed. I had a successful operation. Priest in charge approached and told me that I needed to take some rest for two years and rethink whether I wanted to be a priest or not,” he says.
According to Muko, he was not told reason as to why he was given a break. He was told to take the time out and go discuss with his family if he really needed to take the oath.
Muko told Lifestyle that he was the type of person who would not keep quiet whenever he saw something wrong in the community, something he says did not go well with the in charge who was looking for the opportunity to send him away.
“Most priests would preach peace to the congregation yet themselves they would go for a week without talking to each other. I would question them why they were pretending,” he recalls. “This led to my expulsion.”
“Muko you are the only child of your mother, what do you think about African tradition whereby if are the only boy, you have to bring your mother a helper and have a family?” he remembers being asked by his rector.
According to Muko, he did not consider this an issue but a scapegoat.
When men join a seminary, they write down their life and family history. He had then indicated the fact that he was an only child.
He was ejected at the last stage of the formation when he would become a perpetual member – when one takes permanent vows of the religious life. He was three months away from becoming a deacon, he says.
“I accepted to go home though with a lot of bitterness because I did not join the seminary to try whether I wanted to be a priest but it was a call,” he says. “I wanted to be a priest because I believed the Christian message could help those who were looking for meaning and purpose in life.”
He continues: “They did not trust my calling. It was a love affair where a partner is very honest to the other only to realise that the other one is playing games. I was very honest but they played games with my calling.”
He even told his friends that they would be joining him on his ordination as deacon that he was certain would happen in three months. It was never to happen.
Muko says if it is God’s plan that he becomes a priest, he is ready to go back.
“If God has a purpose in my life which I believe he has, He will guide me in the right direction. When He planted me in my mother’s womb, he already knew my destiny and it is only Him who has the key to my life,” he says.
“Some friends stopped contacting me and others have remained close but my mother was the most affected. She went into depression until she was counselled and she had to accept the situation.”
He has since moved on and is not regretting.
“I enjoyed my time in the seminary and I’m thankful for the experience and opportunities, but I am missing the religious life though I am a staunch Catholic and would not fail to attend any mass.
While Muko was ejected, one Christopher Apondi left the seminary voluntarily. Apondi says he wanted to leave a different life from what he had yearned for.
Growing up in a family of mostly Catholics, he says he admired how the missionaries conducted themselves and this sparked a desire to become a priest.
“I wanted to get into their shoes and do what they were doing,” says Apondi.
He started as an altar boy in 1997 just to put him closer to the altar.
He went through the normal process of minor and major seminary and there he came into close contact with missionaries, and their lifestyle further ignited his ambition of becoming a priest.
“In 2008, I so wanted to be a missionary and joined them for basic information lasting about nine months with no phones. This was simply to prepare us for what we were getting ourselves into whether to continue or take off,” he says.
In 2012, he proceeded to Jinja in Uganda for three years for his degree in philosophy. He completed and joined Tangaza College in Karen for his theology but after a year he gave up and left.
He says he did not enjoy the one year in the theology school.
“I wanted to have a different lifestyle of having a family. The stories other seminarians were talking about made me change my mind. It was an informed decision. I was not forced to live. Neither did I leave because of the falling out with the system,” he says.
He wrote a letter and requested time out from the seminary and was given a go-ahead.
“Once you join a seminary and about to finish and request for time out, you are granted freely because they know someone has changed their mind,” he says.
Many did not like his decision but he says he owes it to no one since he did not consult anyone while he was joining.
“I made the decision for my own good. I am not bothered what someone would say to me withdrawing because I did not seek consent while joining,” says Apondi. “Seminary life was good. I was never depressed while inside like some do but I managed.”
He adds: “Life outside the seminary is sweeter. There is nothing better in life than when you determine your own destiny.”
He says society bashed him and talked behind his back though he knew what he was after. Apondi is a husband and a father of a three-year-old son.
Besides Apondi, Vincent Owino also voluntarily abandoned the call to the pulpit. Owino left while he was in Argentina after having studied and worked with the Consolata Missionaries for over seven years.
“Being a religious congregation, you take three vows: Poverty, Obedience, and Chastity. I wasn’t fully convinced with the first one (poverty),” he says. “I wasn’t able to live by the vows of poverty where the riches of the congregation are shared and enjoyed by the members only; not even your family members.”
“Sometimes you are needed to provide for your family but you can’t, going by the vow. I left because the in-charge believed that I was a ‘troublemaker’ because I kept advocating that since our community took vows of poverty, we should, in fact, live as poor people did.
“I didn’t want to see my family more so my mother missing basic necessities yet I was swimming in riches of the congregation,” he says.
He met his superior general in Italy for the vows to be reversed but he was told it was not possible. He then wrote a letter requesting for a timeout, which he was granted.
“I left Argentina with a mind of not going back. I have never returned. I am very much at peace knowing that I can provide for my family anytime they request for help,” he says. “Initially, my mother was living under stress but now she appreciates that I am close to her and giving her financial support anytime she is in need.”
Apart from the three who allowed Lifestyle to publish their names but not pictures because of the sensitivity of the matter, others requested that we conceal their identities.
John’s* dream of becoming a priest was shattered by the priest in charge when he refused to give in to his sexual demands, he told Lifestyle.
He too started off as an altar boy while in Standard Six to feel closer to the priesthood.
“I nursed this ambition through to Standard Eight. I chose to enroll in a minor seminary, St Peter’s Seminary, Mukumu, for my secondary education. I knew this was the place I should be to solidify my ambition to ascend to the altar,” he says.
“The institution not only teaches the normal secondary school syllabus but it also treats its students as junior seminarians,” he adds.
After his major seminary, he went for his further studies in Uganda. He completed the studies and when he was two months away to be ordained as a deacon, he was suspended on allegations that he engaged in gambling.
“When I returned from suspension, the first in my student life, I knew all would be well. To my surprise, there were fresh accusations,” he says.
He was again suspended and asked to return in the company of his parents. “When I returned, I met new accusations. My parish priest had complained about my absence from the parish during holidays and had asked the institution to send me out of the seminary,” says the bitter John.
He continues: “Staying in the seminary during holidays was not something I wanted because most priests-in-charge push seminarians to stay in the parish. In the process, you hear of sodomy cases. That is why I declined to stay at the parish, angering my parish priest.”
“Initially I was accused of taking part in gambling and was subjected to a punishment. Then came fresh accusations of my absence from the parish but in the real sense, I had declined one of the priests sexual demands,” says John who exited the seminary in tears.
“Many people ridiculed me. Some castigated me while others made funny comments behind my back: ‘Yule aliyetaka kuwa Father ameshindwa na akafukuzwa’ (That one who wanted to be a Father has failed and he’s been chased away),’” he recalls.
“I left my rural home and went to Nairobi. Just to recollect. While there, my love for Catholic Church was rekindled and slowly, the vocation to priesthood begun to show again.
“The dream of becoming a priest keeps getting back every other time. But it has been overcome by events. I am now a family man, a husband, and father of two. I am also a staunch Catholic,” says John.
Charles Ouma* quit because he found himself breaking the rules of seminary life. This left him feeling guilty and he started serious deliberations on whether that was the direction he wanted to take. He developed a strong urge to quit but he was both fearful and sceptical.
The seminary conducted eight days discernment retreat and it was at this time that he received a powerful prayer signal that convinced him that God was calling him into a different life.
At the seminary, he got influenced by his peers telling stories of sexual relationships, since he had never had a girlfriend nor had sex, he decided to give it a try and slowly this became an addiction.
“I was sexually active and I felt the need not to live a double life. I had not taken an oath since I was just completing my degree in philosophy. Sexual relationships were strongly prohibited. I opted out,,” he says.
When asked what he was missing about the seminary life, Ouma says it is the intense spirituality “which you do not find on the streets because of too much secularism”.
“Out here one has to struggle. People also adore you when you are a seminarian. But once you have left many don’t want to associate with you again. But it is a life I have chosen and will abide by it,” he says.
*Not his real name
CONFIRMING THE OBVIOUS
‘Stella was already my girlfriend for years and I was a serving priest’
“Stella was already my girlfriend of many years when I was still a priest in the church and we had one child. So when I was marrying her I was just formalising what was already happening,” with those words Bishop Godfery Shiundu repeats what he has always believed in all along - that priests in the Roman Catholic Church should be allowed to marry.
This debate was recently rekindled following Pope Francis’ remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit. Asked about the global shortage of priests, the Pope expressed a willingness to consider ordaining viri probati (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons.
Viri probati is the Latin term for “tested men” or married men of outstanding faith and virtue. As expected, the pontiff’s remarks have generated much heat with those supporting saying that this is what the Catholic Church should have done many years ago to arrest the falling numbers of priests.
According to Father Shiundu who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 2004 after he allegedly impregnated a nun when he served in West Pokot, there was no strong scriptural support for celibacy among the clergy.
He immediately joined the Redeemed Catholic Church (RCC) and was immediately ordained a priest and in 2009 elevated to a bishop at a ceremony officiated by by Archbishop Karl Raymond Rodig from Germany who officiated at his wedding with Stella Nangina.
“God created man as a free being but some top church officials have always wanted to cork the people with stifling rules,” he said.
Shiundu says that he has since been elevated by RCC to Africa’s Nuncio and so far he has planted churches in several parts of Kenya as well as Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and South Sudan.
He says it has not been easy given the fact that he was up against the more entrenched Catholic Church.
Back to Pope Francis and his latest sentiments should be seen against the milieu of his earlier utterances.
Some Kenyan priests thought that the pope’s message had been misunderstood.
“In Catholic Church, there are married permanent deacons who cannot be ordained to priesthood. These are the people according to my understanding that the Pope was referring to and not priests,” said Father Evans Juma, Youth Chaplin, Archdiocese of Kisumu.
“I took an oath to lead a celibate life till I die and I will live by it. I will be comfortable with the status quo,” he said.
Father Juma said that only permanent deacons could marry as they cannot be ordained to be priests.
Reverend Father Moses Omollo, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Kisumu added; “What Pope Francis meant is something very different from catholic priests being allowed to marry. We have devoted married old men in church who are committed to the work of God,” said Father Omollo.
-By Tom Osanjo
ROAD NOT TAKEN
FAMOUS people who tried the priesthood
George Muhoho: was ordained a Catholic priest in 1963, but quit 13 years later because he was not serving the church at parish level and thus, “I decided my life was not in the priesthood,” he said.
He was at the chaplain of the University of Nairobi in 1976. He was the first black diplomat to the Vatican. He was a one-time private secretary to Pope Paul IV.
Francis Kimemia: Former Head of Public Service and an aspirant eyeing governor of Nyandarua County left the seminary because he wanted to marry. “My brother and I were in the same seminary and both wanted to be priests and the family was against it.
“Catholic priests do not marry so the family decided that one proceed and one quit and I was the sacrificial lamb. I am married and have children,” he recently said in an NTV interview.
Mr Kimemia says priesthood helped him rekindled his humanity.
Larry Madowo: Had contemplated becoming a priest but took up journalism instead.
Appearing on the Jeff Koinange Live, he once said he might consider going back to seminary because he was not married yet. But he has no regret for it was a learning experience, he says.
Madowo: “I made mistakes that led me to where I am right now. Had I been ordained, I would have made a terrible priest. I Would have led a hypocritical life,” he said.
He continued: “They would tell us in the seminary that many are called but few are chosen. I guess I was among those who were not chosen.”