Once in a while a bishop will call together his priests in the diocese and ask if any of them would be willing to go and work in another diocese as a Fidei Donum priest.
Priests who take up the call are then known as Fidei Donum priests who through the permission and blessings of their bishop and through their own desire leave their home dioceses to go and help a needy diocese for a specified number of years; usually on a three year renewable contract.
“A bishop who is a friend to another bishop will offer to assist his friend who is suffering due to lack of personnel,” explains Fr Cellestino Bundi, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) in Kenya.
This is how today we have priests ordained for Meru Diocese working in Isiolo and Malindi Dioceses, priests of Murang’a Diocese working in Marsabit Diocese, priests of Kakamega Diocese working in Kitale Diocese, those from Eldoret Diocese working in Lodwar Diocese and from Kitui Diocese working in Ng’ong Diocese respectively.
All this was made possible about 60 years ago when Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter, Fidei Donum which means the “Gift of Faith” published on April 21, 1957, encouraged missionary cooperation.
The Pope asked the “ancient” Churches in Europe to send priests to help the “young” Churches mostly in Africa and Asia whose growth was promising, to collaborate with the local bishops for a specific period.
“Pope Pius XII was asking the few Catholic bishops at the time to be open and understand that the universal mission of the Church was not limited to particular dioceses,” explains Fr Nicholas Makau the Vocations Director, Consolata Missionaries Kenya –Uganda region.
“If as a diocese you are lucky to have many priests – that is a gift which must be shared to other continents and regions – and that’s how the idea of Fidei Donum priests was born,” he explains in an interview with The Seed.
According to Fr Bundi, the call by Pope Pius XII came at a period when there was an awakening spirit of independence among churches in Africa and Asia and so the Europeans priest were going back to their countries resulting in a serious shortage of personnel.
“The Church in Africa and Asia had begun coming of age and so we had new bishops mainly Africans who had nowhere to borrow personnel and so a number of bishops from Europe decided to respond to the call,” he says.
The very first Fidei Donum priests arrived in Kenya from Podova (Padua) and Concordia in Italy about 50 years ago and went to work in the Catholic Diocese of Nyeri.
“This is how Bishop Luigi Paiaro Emeritus of Nyahururu arrived by ship from Padua on January 29, 1963 as a Fidei Donum and together with his colleagues were given Nyandarua currently Nyahururu Diocese by the then bishop of Nyeri, Caesar Gatimu,” explains Fr Bundi.
More Fidei Donum priests arrived later including the Maryknolls from the American Church who worked in Kisumu and in AMECEA as well as priests from Germany who went to work in the Catholic Diocese of Marsabit and others.
“Soon after arriving in Marsabit, Bishop Cavallera (first bishop of Marsabit) found out that the diocese was very vast and so he invited other dioceses to give him support in order to establish the diocese, and a few responded from Europe and elsewhere,” Bishop Peter Kihara of of the Catholic diocese of Marsabit tells The Seed.
“Since then Marsabit has been receiving Fidei Donum priests, and to date diocesan priests from Germany are still with us,” he adds.
With time the Kenyan Church began having abundance in priesthood vocations. “Some areas with more people had deeper Christian roots and so some dioceses sprung with more priestly vocations than others,” states Fr Bundi.
Dioceses such as Machakos, Meru, Nairobi, Murang’a, Nyeri, Embu and Nyahururu, experienced notable vocational growth compared to other dioceses such as Ng’ong, Lodwar, Marsabit, Maralal, Isiolo, and Garissa which due to the nature of where they are, have very few priestly vocations.
Consequently the bishops of Kenya started sending local Fidei Donum priest to the other needy regions of the country in what began as just mutual friendship.
Fr David Kinyanjui, a Fidei Donum priest from Nyahururu Diocese working in Marsabit Diocese says his prior interaction with nomads and pastoralists in Laikipia led him to volunteer to work in Marsabit.
“I admired their lifestyle and culture, so when the bishop came to Nyahururu and made the request in 2013, I volunteered,” says Fr Kinyanjui who works in North Horr Parish.
Other than through volunteer spirit, one can also become a Fidei Donum priest when a bishop decides to twin a diocese, explains Fr Bundi.
“In that case the bishop specifically identifies with a parish, then that becomes an extension of his diocese, and so he posts a priest there just the way he would appoint one to any part of the diocese. An example is the Meru Diocese which has taken up Kiwanjani and Tarasaa parishes in the dioceses of Isiolo and Malindi,” he says.
The major work of a Fidei Donum is to bring evangelization to the people and promoting a self supporting church, says Fr James Kinoti from Meru Diocese, a Fidei Donum priest of Tarasaa parish in the Catholic Diocese of Malindi.
“Pope Pius XII in his exhortations said we need to begin “new missionary subjects” and we need to become missionaries in our own countries because if we keep on relying on the first evangelizers missionaries we will never grow,” he says.
“We want our people to learn that the Church is not like an NGO but faith based. They are appreciating the work we local Fidei Donum priests are doing because they no longer depend on hand outs, and are slowly learning how to sustain themselves and supporting the Church,” adds Fr Kinoti.
Fr Bundi shares Fr Kinoti’s sentiments saying when one becomes a Fidei Donum priest “you are not a social worker but a gift to the other churches to strengthen the Christian roots.”
Being a Fidei Donum priest comes with its own challenges such the lack of financial support since ideally a sending diocese is supposed to fully support the priests, but lack of resources means not many dioceses in Kenya are able to support their priests.
“A sending diocese may be having many priests but it may not have resources to accompany them since not every other diocese has capacity to economically walk with their priests,” says Fr Bundi.
The other issue is lost identity since by incardination the Fidei Donum belongs to sending dioceses but by practice of the ministry they belong to the receiving diocese therefore the priests sometimes feel lost in between because having left their dioceses they don’t feel part of their home dioceses and yet they do not also fit into the diocesan structure of where they have gone to work.
It is for this reasons that the Kenyan Church saw the need to have a national policy to care for Fidei Donum under KCCB Commission for Missions P.M.S for coordination under the stewardship of Fr Bundi.
“After recognizing the sacrifice and effort of the local Church the bishops agreed to create a forum where these priests can come and deliberate topical issues, examine critical challenges and develop a strategy of how to move forward, borrowing from the expatriates,” explains Fr Bundi.
The forum which was created in 2014 not only provides a medium for spiritual growth but also encourages sharing of experiences among the priests and through the coordinating organ; every diocese organizes a retreat specifically tailored for capacity building of the Fidei Donum Priests.
The national office support the priests by collecting Mass Intentions on their behalf and distributing it to them on equity basis as well as providing literature on the current affairs including papal documentations since some are living in areas with poor infrastructure and communication network.
Currently the number of Fidei Donum priests in Kenya is 35 constituting of 17 expatriates from Germany, Italy, Romania, and Mexico and 18 local priests working in the dioceses of Lodwar, Kitale, Isiolo, Malindi, Marsabit and Kitui.
The dioceses that benefit the most from Fidei Donum priests in Kenya are Marsabit, Lodwar and Isiolo while the greatest donors are Meru and Eldoret dioceses which give an average of four or five priests.
“It is important to promote the local priests to become their own local missionaries. Most of religious congregations are moving out of Kenya and are going to new mission lands yet in some of our dioceses people have not received the basic evangelization,” concludes Fr Kinyanjui who is the Chairman of Fidei Donum Kenya.
By Stephen Mukhongi
THE SEED MAGAZINE