A young Catholic from Kenya reflects on the Pope’s African visit

A month after the apostolic visit to Kenya, Uganda, and CAR, the impact of Francis’ call to integrity, holiness, and unity has been felt among both Catholics and non-Catholics alike

A month has already gone by since Pope Francis set foot on Kenya soil, on his first apostolic visit to the African continent, a visit which also took him to Uganda and the Central African Republic. Following the trip, the Holy Father has shared his reflections about his time in Africa, fielding questions from journalists on the flight back to Rome and commenting at the Wednesday General Audience on the second day of December. 

Asked what his most memorable moment of his first trip to Africa was, Pope Francis replied, “The crowds. That joy. That capacity to celebrate on an empty stomach. But for me, Africa was a surprise. I thought, God surprises us, but even Africa surprises us. There were many moments. But the crowds, they felt visited. They have a very great sense of welcome. I saw in the three nations that they had this sense of welcome because they were happy to feel visited.” Back in St. Peter’s Square at the General Audience, Pope Francis used the opportunity to share his experience and to give thanks. “Africa is beautiful! I thank the Lord for this great gift of His.”

I offer here some initial reflections, based on my own experience of the Pope’s time in Nairobi; I know that in the months to come, more reflections will emerge. I begin with a brief history of my ‘papal encounters’. Prior to last month, the last time a pope had been to Kenya was in September 1995. I was still in primary school, in my home town of Njoro, about 180 kilometers from the capital, Nairobi. I was not even aware that Pope John Paul II was in the country, perhaps owing to the fact that my parents were both non-practicing—my mum a Catholic and my dad an Anglican.

Fast forward to my early twenties when I became actively involved in youth and young adult ministry. My friends and I were preparing ourselves for World Youth Day 2005, in Cologne, Germany. I was looking forward to see Pope John Paul II. Then, in April of that year, he died. I was devastated. Would the next Pope show the same love and commitment to young people as JPII did? Would he show up in Cologne, to honor the appointment JPII had made with the youth?

That World Youth Day turned out to be what the then Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, referred to as “the World Youth Day of two Popes. John Paul II in heaven and Benedict XVI on earth.” I managed, finally to catch glimpses of Pope Benedict XVI during the main events of WYD 2005. It was a wonderful gift to be able to lead groups to the next three World Youth Days, in Sydney (2008), Madrid (2011) and Rio (2013).

In May 2015, I was invited to Rome, to a meeting of the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM), in preparation for the release of the encyclical Laudato Si’. Our Coordinator, Mr. Tomas Insua, intimated that six of us would have a chance to attend the Wednesday General Audience and to greet Pope Francis. I could not believe it—until it finally happened. Pope Francis, at the end of the audience, went round greeting everyone gathered on the upper sections of the square on either end of the main podium from where he delivers the catechesis. By this time, news of a possible papal trip to Africa was already going round. Someone asked me whether I would be meeting Pope Francis on his visit to Africa. I remember thinking to myself that it would be really special were that to happen.

When the aircraft carrying Pope Francis and his entourage landed in Nairobi, I was attending a conference organized by the Symposium for Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) on Land Grab and Just Governance in Africa. I watched television coverage of the Pope’s arrival and marveled at just how extensively the Kenyan media were reporting on the events. The Catholic Church in Kenya does not run a television station, and so it was rather unusual to watch a flurry of interviews featuring priests, bishops and lay Catholics, explaining the significance of the  papal visit. It was a moment of grace to see updates on social media, with a friend on Facebook sharing that she was now able to discuss her Catholic faith in a public space, without feeling shy. In closing his speech during the welcome ceremony at State House, President Kenyatta requested Pope Francis to, “Pray for me. Pray that as I lead this nation, God will lead me”.

Before celebrating Mass at the University of Nairobi grounds, Pope Francis held an ecumenical and interreligious meeting at the Apostolic Nunciature. He reiterated the need for religions to play a key role in “forming consciences, instilling in the young the profound spiritual values of our respective traditions, and training good citizens, capable of infusing civil society with honesty, integrity and a world view which values the human person over power and material gain”. I reflected on how honesty and integrity are values that are in short supply in my country, where the mentality of “getting ahead” often takes precedence. Unable to make it to the University grounds for the Mass on a wet, rainy morning due to early road closures, I followed the Mass on television, and listened to the translation of the Pope’s homily, which he delivered in Italian. I felt encouraged and re-affirmed as Pope Francis reminded us that Jesus “asks us to be missionary disciples, men and women who radiate the truth, beauty and life-changing power of the Gospel”, and ending with the motto chosen by the Church in Kenya for his visit: “Stand strong in faith! Do not be afraid!”

Later that afternoon, together with two of my colleagues, I went to the United Nations complex to listen to the Pope address diplomats and UN staff. It was also the first time I saw Pope Francis in person in Nairobi. Events at the United Nations offices in Nairobi are usually formal affairs, full of protocol. On this occasion, however, the atmosphere was one of joyous anticipation. A choir was already belting out well-known Catholic hymns as the Pope alighted from his car. The UN staff in conference room two, cheered and ululated as the Holy Father, accompanied by Cardinals Njue (Archbishop of Nairobi), Turkson (President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) and Parolin (Secretary of State), walked into the hall. Welcoming remarks from the top three UN officials followed, with Mr. Steiner (Executive Director, United Nations Environment Program) inviting Pope Francis to ”speak from the heart of Africa, to the hearts of people across the world”.

For my colleagues and I, it was a moment of ‘homecoming’,of the encyclical Laudato Si’ in Africa. Pope Francis gave a strong and impassioned, wide-ranging speech, touching on deforestation and desertification, the ‘throw-away culture’ and urbanization, and development, poverty and exclusion. On climate change, Pope Francis warned that, in reference to the Paris climate change conference, “it would be sad, and I dare even say catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good”. When he reminded us in his final remarks that “Africa offers the world a beauty and natural richness which inspire praise of the Creator”, I noticed how little I pay attention to my natural surroundings, and just how much all of creation should fill me with a sense of awe for God.

On his final day in Kenya, Pope Francis visited the Kangemi neighborhood, where he met with 1200 representatives from eleven slums in Nairobi, referring to them as “brothers and sisters, who I am not ashamed to say, have a special place in my heart”. At the Kasarani Sports Stadium on the other side of town, thousands of young people were gathered. The bishops and political leaders, including several governors arrived, and were soon joined by President Kenyatta. The atmosphere was electric, full of song and dance, punctuated with moments of reflection led by the Archdiocese of Nairobi’s youth chaplain. At one point, the Bishops accepted a challenge from the program director, to dance to a popular local tune. Within minutes and without being prompted, the President and the First Lady, joined in as well! It was as if they were all saying to the young people, “we identify with you, with your hopes and desires.”

Then Pope Francis arrived at the stadium and was driven around the stadium in the Pope mobile. He listened and took notes, as two youth representatives, Lynette and Emmanuel, enumerated the challenges faced by their contemporaries. Tribalism, corruption and radicalization of young people, all hot button issues in Kenya, were top on the list. The politicians seemed nervous. I found it most impressive that none of the politicians were listed on the day’s program. Young people are generally treated by the political class in Kenya as mere political capital. This day however, was for the Pope and the youth. “Tribalism! It can destroy. It can mean having your hands hidden behind your backs, and have a stone in each hand to throw at others. Tribalism can only be overcome with your ear, your heart and your hand”, said Pope Francis in his response as he tackled the issues head-on. Speaking in his native Spanish, he went on to invite everyone to do something that deeply moved me, and that will be remembered in Kenya for a long time. “I want to invite you all today, to the young, to invite Lynette and Emmanuel to come up now, and that we hold each other’s hands. Let’s hold hands together. Let’s stand up as a sign against tribalism. We are all a nation!” He exhorted us to work every day, opening our hearts to root out tribalism, a vice that has wrought division and pain in Kenyan society for decades.

Pointing out that the evil of corruption is a reality in all areas of life, including in the Vatican, Pope Francis explained that “corruption is something that eats inside, like sugar. Sweet, we like it, it’s easy. And then we end up in a bad way. So much sugar that we end up being diabetic, or our country ends up being diabetic. Young people: corruption is not a path to life; it’s a path to death”. Corruption in Kenya has been described by many as a national disaster, as the vice has permeated almost all spheres of society. The Church in Kenya now has a great task ahead, in ensuring that the words of Pope Francis are not conveniently forgotten.

Finally, Pope Francis decided to share “something personal”. “In my pocket, I always carry two things”, he said, “a rosary to pray, and something here which seems odd, this is here the history of God’s failure. It’s the way of the cross, a mini way of the cross, as Jesus suffered, and when they condemned him right up to where he was buried. With these two things, I do the best I can. And thanks to these two things, i never lose hope”.

I hope that Pope Francis’ message may continue to transform my country. That we may do the best we can, that we may never cease to pray, and that we may never lose hope.

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About Allen Ottaro 32 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.