14 July 2006

Uganda: Priest Follows His Heart And Weds

Recently married Catholic Priest Father Godfrey Shiundu has broken his vows of celibacy. Drum East Africa's Jim Onyango talked to him. We reproduce the interesting story below.

I was living a double life, but now my conscience is clear," says Catholic Priest Father Godfrey Shiundu, 38, of his recent marriage. "I knew it was wrong to have a girlfriend while serving God as a priest, but I couldn't leave her because I love her with all my heart."

Father Shiundu opened a can of worms when he tossed the mandatory celibacy rule out of the window and married his sweetheart Stella Nangila, who is a nurse at the Moi Referral Hospital in Eldoret, about 340km west of Nairobi. The colourful wedding in May, followed a formal civil marriage conducted in February at the Kitale District Commissioner's Office.

The awareness of living a lie, he explains, was as much a factor as love in pushing him towards his decision. "I'd be with my girlfriend in bed on a Sunday morning, then I'd rush to church to say Mass hurriedly so that I could go back to her. At the altar I portrayed an image of an honest and Holy Father, but in my head I knew that wasn't true. I was sinning. I couldn't live with that guilt anymore."

Father Shiundu is no stranger to controversy. Four years ago, he was accused of impregnating a seminary nun. Temporarily rejected by the church, he had no one to turn to but Stella. "The bishops didn't give me a hearing; I still maintain I'm innocent. Stella was my soul mate, the only person I could rely on."

Father Shiundu says his decision to marry her wasn't a difficult one to make: after all, she was already the mother of his two daughters, Natalie (aged six) and Camilla, aged one. Standing at 1.8m tall and dressed in a dark suit and black shirt, he looks every inch a gentleman. A neat haircut frames his light complexion, and his easygoing, confident manner betrays no sign of distress. He answers his mobile phone with a hearty laugh. "That's my former schoolmate congratulating me on my wedding!" he says.

Father Shiundu who holds a degree in theology from Urbaniana University in Rome, was ordained a priest in 1994. Three years later he was posted to Kerio Valley, where he met and fell in love with Stella - but strong disapproval from the church caused them to move to Uganda where the priest enrolled as a law student at Makerere University. However, he eventually dropped out of the course and decided to return to Kenya with Stella, marry her and put an end to their life of subterfuge.

His proposal, says Stella, came as a surprise. "I didn't expect it so soon." Her family was at first vehemently opposed to the match. "My mum - who's a staunch Catholic-warned me against marrying him."

Eventually, though, both Stella's parents came round and attended her wedding. Her father led her up the aisle and gave her away.

Father Shiundu's actions may have outraged his fellow clerics, yet he has no apologies to make. "I haven't broken my church rules - I just married my girlfriend of many years, and I don't think I need permission from the Catholic bishops to do that."

The church, however, doesn't see it that way. As soon as Father Shiundu's marriage had been solemnised, the senior bishops had him excommunicated from the church. This means he may not step onto any Catholic Church altar, or even sit among a Catholic congregation in any function.

But his reaction is one of anger and obstinacy. "Being a Catholic father is my calling. In my youth, I knew I would be a priest because I wanted to work with the poor and the sick. I haven't accomplished that yet, so I can't leave the church now," he says.

Father Shiundu's concern for his parish seems to have won him many sympathisers in Eldoret. The sleepy, agricultural town was abuzz with the news of his wedding. Everybody I spoke to seemed to know about the priest and his bride - and most of them shrugged off any suggestion of improper priestly conduct.

John Gitau, a taxi driver, laughed when I asked him what he thought of the marriage. "This is a wonderful thing that's happened here," he said.

"Some Catholic priests have girlfriends, but they hide them. Now Father Shiundu has shown us the way by marrying his girlfriend publicly. It has opened our eyes."

Looking at the couple together, you get the feeling of two people deeply in love. They walk holding hands and smiling at each other. "Isn't she beautiful?" Father Shiundu asks me. "Being without a woman in your life isn't as easy as Catholics are made to believe. I'm only human and I also need some romance."

His rejection by the church authorities has not fazed him. Instead of backing down, he has now joined a rebel Catholic group called the Reformed Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, with its Kenyan headquarters in Kitale. In fact, Father Shiundu defiantly sat among prominent Catholic bishops and priests at the funeral of a fellow priests in Eldoret on the very day his excommunication order was issued from Nairobi. This further outraged the Catholic Church authorities. Archbishop John Njue, chairman of the Kenyan Episcopal Conference, led the bishops condemning Father Shiundu.

"His marriage, as well as the fact he has formed his own breakaway church, are grounds for automatic excommunication," he declared.

But vice-chairman Phillip Sulumeti takes a more conciliatory view. He says that if Father Shiundu is prepared to renounce his marriage, he will be readmitted to the main fold. Father Shiundu, though, is far from remorseful about either his marital status or his rebel church, which follows traditional Catholic protocol, such as the regular celebration of Mass - but with some changes.

"The major difference is that we allow our Diocesan fathers and bishops to get married if they wish. And if a polygamous man comes to our church, we will admit him, but we don't encourage members who are already in the church to marry more wives," says Bishop Dr Karl Raimund Rodig, the head of the new church, which has its headquarters in Miami, America. Bishop Rodig - who is also due to marry soon - flew to Kenya to preside over Father Shiundu and Stella's wedding.

The Reformed Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church now has more than 2,000 members, and is encouraging women to join as priests. The election of bishops is done by the faithful, rather than by the head American church, and lay people are allowed up to the altar to read the Bible. The new church also permits the use of condoms, provided one of the partners is HIV- positive and could infect the other. These radical changes fly in the face of accepted Catholic doctrine, but Father Shiundu says a more realistic, practical approach is needed towards life, sexuality and relationships.

"When I was ordained a priest I promised to remain celibate, but-like any other promise- you can break it if it isn't working," he says. Still, he's just sworn to love and cherish Stella till death them do part.

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