FR NJOROGE: Busy agenda and high expectations await Pope Francis

There are interesting parallels between the first visit of the late Pope John Paul II to Kenya in 1980 and Pope Francis’ visit this year.

John Paul began his papacy the same year Mr Daniel arap Moi assumed the presidency. Pope Francis and President Uhuru Kenyatta each started serving in their respective leadership roles in 2013. Like Pope John Paul, Pope Francis is visiting Kenya about two years into his tenure.

During such visits there are great expectations. When John Paul visited Kenya 35 years ago, many hoped that he would challenge President Moi’s administration to implement policies that would help the needy.

Kenya was a society which, despite making remarkable economic progress, had become increasingly unequal under the founding President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

One of the expectations on the eve of Pope Francis’ visit is that he will challenge and encourage Kenyans to face and resolve the question of negative ethnicity.

It is interesting that two days before his arrival, the Holy Father sent a video message to Kenyans stating that the theme of national integration will be the motif of his visit.

Pope Francis is right. We need a radical change of attitude before negative ethnicity spells our doom. It is not difficult to understand why this country awaits the pontiff with great eagerness.

Pope Francis has attractive personal attributes. He has a warm, magnetic character as evidenced by what one perceives to be a genuine smile.

Here is a man at ease with himself and with others, devoid of pretence and distinctions based on class or rank. He reminds one of Pope John XXIII, a happy outgoing person with a warm personality.

Pope Francis brings to mind the manner in which Jesus is portrayed in the gospel of Luke. He has a specific interest in turning outsiders into insiders, of welcoming home the disinherited, the poor, the lost and the despised.

The pontiff’s motto, Mercy before Justice, reflects this attitude of inclusivity.

It is a mindset that is well spelt out in his first official letter, The Joy of the Gospel, which is also one of the hallmarks of Luke’s gospel. Little wonder then that Pope Francis has taken initiative to meet powerful decision makers, including those of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to discuss the plight of developing countries

The pontiff is a bundle of energy. This is admirable, given that he is 78 years old with a medical history of lung ailment and sciatica.

His message of sympathy to Kenyans earlier in the year when terrorists struck Garissa University College endeared him to the citizens of this country.

Several Kenyans have wondered if the Pope will address the question of the use of condoms, given that the Aids pandemic remains a menace. In a recent interview on one of the TV channels, a Catholic nun asked the Holy Father to review this matter.

However, Pope Francis is unlikely to make any statement on faith and morals that would be a radical departure from traditional Catholic teaching.

Potentially divisive

There is desire by some Catholics, especially from the Archdiocese of Nyeri, for the pontiff to approve the cause for beatifying the faithful who were killed by the Mau Mau during the struggle for freedom in the 1950s.

Nobody knows whether or not the Holy Father will comment on this request. It is a controversial and potentially divisive matter.

In a country that is seeking integration, a process to beatify persons who died in the Mau Mau War would open wounds that have barely healed.

There are still many people in this country for who the divide between freedom fighters and collaborators with the oppressive colonial regime could easily precipitate renewed animosity and hatred.

To pursue such a cause would prove right the thesis of those who, during the struggle for independence, asserted that the colonialist and the missionary were one and the same.

Many Kenyans, including Catholics who love their Church, find little merit in pursuing this particular cause for beatification.

Kenyans are eager to welcome Pope Francis to our beloved country. Images of his recent visit to Cuba and the United States, where he opted to ride a small but decent black Fiat, are fresh in the minds of many.

The choice of that small vehicle was replete with meaning. And so was his message to Americans that he had not come to judge and condemn but to proclaim the gospel and encourage them to do good and avoid evil. Welcome Pope Francis to Kenya.

Fr Njoroge serves as Catholic Chaplain at JKUAT where he is Professor of Development Studies.