Kenyan Bp. Okemwa visits Green Bay Diocese
AIDS and human rights are major concerns in Africa
By Joanne Flemming
The Catholic Church is strong and growing in Kenya in eastern Africa, Bp. J. Mairura Okemwa said during a recent visit to the Green Bay Diocese.
The Kenyan church is strong, he said, the vocations picture is bright and as part of the African church, it has strengths it could share with the universal church. But the country has problems, too, he said, including AIDS and human rights violations.
Because the church "is very strong, it speaks up about human rights. It stands against injustices," he said. "The government is not very happy with the Catholic Church."
One of the church's strongest proponents of human rights, he continued, was the late Fr. John Kaiser, whose body was found along a Kenyan highway in August 2000 with a gunshot wound in the back of the head.
Fr. Kaiser, a Mill Hill Missionary priest originally from the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., spent more than 30 years in Kenya.
"He was a very strong man. He defended the poor. He was in a poor parish," Bp. Okemwa said.
When the government took a huge chunk of land and left the residents homeless, Fr. Kaiser helped them build shanties and lived with them. He also helped two young women parishioners who brought rape charges against a government minister considered the chosen successor to Kenyan Pres. Daniel arap Moi.
Bp. Okemwa, who had been Fr. Kaiser's prodigy and student, said he thought Fr. Kaiser planned to present materials on Kenya's human rights violations to the Hague in the Netherlands. Pres. Moi "has overcome all larger obstacles except the Catholic Church," the bishop said.
After its own investigation, the FBI last spring said Fr. Kaiser's death was a suicide. The 24 Kenyan bishops have protested that finding. The bishops have had their lives threatened and last February Bp. Okemwa said he narrowly escaped assassination.
While in northeast Wisconsin, Bp. Okemwa visited Msgr. Alfred Schneider, a retired priest of the Green Bay Diocese. They are old friends from Msgr. Schneider's work in Africa. The bishop said he was in the United States because the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis invited him on a mission trip to speak at four of its parishes.
Bp. Okemwa's diocese is Kisii in the southwest Kenyan highlands near Lake Victoria. It is one of 24 dioceses in that country, he said. At 47, he is one of Kenya's youngest bishops.
Kisii covers 1,500 square miles. It is a heavily populated rural area with two million people. About 350,000 are Catholic served by 16 parishes.
The smallest parish has 20,000 members. Each parish has 20 to 40 out stations, which the priest visits over the course of a month.
The Kisii Diocese also has 30 seminarians. Despite hardships, vocations to the priesthood and religious life are growing, the bishop said. His country has two national seminaries. Religious congregations also have their own seminaries and schools.
Because the African church is growing, the bishop believes the universal church is enriched. He predicted that Africa some day might send missionaries to other countries.
The African church can enrich developed countries with its "human values, its sense of African unity and extended family, its concern and care for one another. In Africa, people live a communitarian life and most ... things, they share. No one is alone," he said.
AIDS is a major problem facing his country, he said, noting that "estimates for those infected ... for most regions of Kenya range from 20 to 50%. In the Kisii Diocese, estimates range from 20 to 40%."
One goal for his diocese is to build small group homes for children orphaned by AIDS. Many of the younger ones have AIDS, he added.