This year marks the 14th anniversary of the death of Maurice Cardinal Otunga, whose process to sainthood has completed the Kenya chapter and is in its Roman phase.
Thousands remember the prelate with affection and gratitude.
Christians whom he served — as bishop of Kisii, bishop of the military and the cardinal archbishop of Nairobi — recall a humble bishop of great dignity.
Many narrate with nostalgia how he visited their parish every year without fail to confer the Sacrament of Confirmation and discuss their spiritual and human development activities.
They recall with admiration how he would drive himself in his simple but decent Peugeot 305, celebrate the Eucharist with reverence and sit to a common meal with them.
Fr Callisto Nyangilo of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, the Notary or Church Lawyer in the Cardinal Otunga Process, describes him as a “visionary whose powerful eyes were focused on the heavens with his feet firmly on the ground”.
Cardinal Otunga was level-headed and soft-spoken but beneath the humble bearing lay boundless energy.
As a student at Mang'u High School in the early 1940s, Maurice Otunga was a star footballer who captained the first 11 with great success.
He expended his energy with similar generosity in pastoral and priestly duties.
Clergymen such as Archbishop R. S. Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki, Bishop Alexander Muge, Rev Dr Timothy Njoya, Fr Dominic Wamugunda and Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia are known to have played an important role in championing expanded democratic space — especially during the ethnic clashes of late 1980s to early 1990s.
It was a major turning point when Catholic bishops joined forces with the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) to fight for social justice.
Several clerics involved in the historic struggle alongside civil society have recorded accounts of the endeavour.
In his book, A Voice Unstilled: Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki, Fr Ndikaru narrates how in 1991 Cardinal Otunga invited Bishop Mwana a'Nzeki to his residence and said to him: “We must do something to defend the people.”
Cardinal Otunga multitasked in many church organisations.
Being a cardinal, he had responsibilities in Rome as a key member of the department that formulates policy and administers the finances of the universal church.
Active in the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (Secam), the pan-African organisation for Catholic bishops, championed the founding of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (Amecea), comprising eight countries, and was chairman of the Kenya Catholic bishops.
Cardinal Otunga was a pastor in the original and best sense of the term.
Well-known football official and former chairman and singer in the Holy Family Basilica Choir, Mr G. M. T. Ottieno, narrated how the cardinal related with the choir.
“Every time the cardinal celebrated the liturgy at the Basilica, he made sure to meet our choir, albeit briefly, after Mass,” Mr Ottieno said.
“His Eminence knew many of the choir members by name.”
Cardinal Otunga became archbishop of Nairobi when the country was terribly divided along ethnic lines after the assassination of Tom Mboya, the immensely gifted Cabinet minister.
While proud of his ethnic heritage as a Bukusu elder of the Bakhone clan, he transcended all negative tribal divisions and stereotypes.
He incarnated and represented what is best among our people.
Many Kenyans were able to say with pride: “Cardinal Otunga is our archbishop.”
As our republic experiences trial and tribulation in the aftermath of the recent general election and, given the repeat presidential poll, let’s take a lesson from the life of that servant of God who loved this nation dearly.
May that good man of God intercede for the cohesion, justice and peace of our beloved country.
Prof Njoroge, pro-secretary of Maurice Cardinal Otunga at the Holy Family Basilica in 1981-82, is the Catholic chaplain and a professor of development studies and ethics at JKUAT. [email protected]