Cardinal otunga

Servant of God




by Rev. Father Lawrence Njoroge

Chaplain and Lecturer, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

September 2005


It is a great honour to be asked to reflect on Cardinal Otunga for several reasons. I shall mention just a few.

First, it is now two years since the Cardinal passed on. If you go to the internet e.g. and type his name, you will witness discussion still going on in relation to the late Cardinal. Not only are there controversial contributions on his exhumation and reburial but there are serious attempts by various commentators and writers to evaluate the Cardinal’s legacy. Though not physically present with us today, Maurice Cardinal Otunga continues to have a great influence on our thoughts and lives. In the book African Religions and Philosophy (1969), philosopher and theologian John S. Mbiti classifies human beings into the unborn, the living, the living-dead and the dead-dead (p. 25). Maurice Otunga who lived among us until two years ago would certainly belong to the living-dead in Mbiti’s classification. Given the interest many individuals and communities have in the life and times of the Cardinal, the probability is that the late prelate is unlikely to ever enter the class of the dead – dead who are dead, buried and forgotten in Mbiti’s scheme of things. Cardinal Otunga will always live in our memory.

Second, Otunga was an architect of institutions including SECAM (Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), AMECEA and CUEA. All these have an influence, directly or indirectly, on the way we think and live. CUEA is now known not only because of its theology of enculturation but also on account of the quality of education in the arts and sciences it is imparting in the Eastern Africa region and beyond.

Third, in all the 80 plus parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, virtually every parishioner who participated in parish life before 1997 when the Cardinal retired will tell you his/her impression of Cardinal Otunga. And it is likely to be more than an impression; it will be an experience. The Cardinal was a shepherd who was personally present in every parish at least once a year. And there were times he would show up in a parish unannounced. I am not suggesting here that he was capable of bilocation. Should I suggest that Maurice Cardinal Otunga, or MCO as he was known to many of the priests he ordained and the women and men whose religious vows he witnessed, was capable of being in two places at the same time, I will be accused of belonging to that crowd suspected of trying to fast track his canonization.

Therefore, let me put it thus: that Maurice Cardinal Otunga’s presence as shepherd was felt in all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, without being in a literal sense ubiquitous. It was a caring presence. MCO was always present as shepherd to his flock and to the individual person. Later I will offer a personal experience or two to illustrate how MCO was present to people. It is the kind of presence that gets one thinking a new what probably could be meant by real presence, as for example in the Blessed Sacrament.

So far we have made three basic statements. One, Cardinal Otunga is part of the living-dead. But he is more than a mere memory. He influences our thinking and life. Two, he was an architect of institutions such as SECAM, AMECEA and CUEA. And institutions, by their very nature, outlive individuals and perpetuate institutional and communal memory after individuals are departed. In a word, the cardinal was a creator of tradition, handed on by institution and community. Three, as shepherd he showed a caring, personal presence. In everyday language, you could count on Cardinal Otunga being always there for you.



Having made these introductory remarks, it would be useful to inquire further why the life and times of Cardinal Otunga are important for us today. What seems to be the foundation on which his moral authority is ground? Put in slightly different words, what lay beneath the simple life style, the solemnity as he celebrated the sacraments and the wit and charm at the dinner table? Beneath the simplicity lay a mysterious depth.

A person qualifies as a moral authority because there is a basic agreement between faith and practice, between mind and heart, between manner of talk and walk. Morality is not an individualist, private affair. It is lived out in society. As Bénézet Bujo argues in Foundations of an African Ethic: “For Black Africa, it is not the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) but the existential cognatus sum, ergo sumus (I am related, therefore we are) that is decisive.”

The ethical icons of our times have become moral authorities not because they are faultless but on account of their courage to live what they believe in and out of season. This courage attempts to bridge the gap between talk and walk, under ordinary circumstances and when the going gets difficult. This is why moral authorities leave a legacy.

Many will agree that moral authorities or role models of the 20th century and of our times include Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., courageous men who fought oppressive regimes in a peaceable way, thus giving a new lease of life to an ethnic of active non-violence. From South Africa we cannot forget the courage of Steve Biko who was killed by the apartheid regime for his insistence that all humans are equal irrespective of race by didn’t of tier being created in the image and likeness of God. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned unjustly for over 25 years for insisting on the same God-given dignity of egalitarianism.

One of the greatest changes of our time is the growth of informal settlements. Some people call them slums. The hopelessness of life in normal settlements such as in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Kalkota in India and in our own Mathare Valley, Mukuru and Kibera is enough to make one give up. But Mother Teresa of Kalkota refused to give and literally went into those settlements to engage actively to improve the quality of life of the people. It is difficult to measure and quantify with mathematical accuracy the impact and difference she made. But all will agree that the legacy she left consist in the hope she gave to the people of Kalkota and elsewhere. Here was an ethic of engagement that went beyond mere activism.

I would like to argue Maurice Cardinal Otunga is in the same league as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; that he stands with the likes of Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela and that he walks alongside Mother Teresa of Kalkota owing to his caring presence in ministering to his people. Though the humble ambassador of God would almost certainly objet to being called so, he is an eloquent voice for our times, not so much in the manner of talk but certainly by his mode of walk.




In my previous life as the Cardinal’s Education Ssecretary at the Holy Family Basilica, I once went to complain to him about a thing or two in his administration. It was in the morning. We were in a half dark room with a high ceiling. He sat opposite me, very still, his head in his hand. As I poured out my complaints I wondered if he was asleep as he was so motionless. But I did not gather enough courage to ask if he was listening. So I spoke on for perhaps ten minutes or so. He did not interrupt me; he let me speak until I had stopped.

Then he looked at me in the eye, his hands holding mine. He responded slowly, with an even voice, systematically covering point by point all the complaints and things I had said. And he went further. He narrated how he knew me. And he proceeded to tell me how he knew my parents and my grandparents. The man did not simply know about me; he knew me. It was a moment of revelation for me. He showed knowledge of such care and concern that, frankly, I was totally disarmed. It was now my turn to speak. I found myself asking him if he had any problems in the administration of the archdiocese I could help him to solve.

That was Maurice Cardinal Otunga. Here was a man of deep care and concern for others and for whom people and the apostolate were both a duty and a delight.

The man was calm and recollected, even in the midst of a crisis. In 1982 several faithful including religious and priests gathered at the Holy Family Basilica to organize his 25th anniversary as bishop. The meeting started at 10.00 a.m and went on until 12 noon when the Cardinal led in saying the Angelus and closed the meeting.

As we prepared to depart, he said calmly that he was requesting our prayers because he had learnt the night before that, as he put it,” “I am now an orphan. My dear mother died yesterday.” After a moment of silence in disbelief one of our diocesan priests who is famous in our circles for his quotable quoted exclaimed: “Your Eminence, sorry but you can’t be serious. You mean you’ve known all this time that your dear mother died last night and you’ve been sitting at this meeting with us!”

That was Maurice Cardinal Otunga, calm and imperturbable – doing what he needed to do at the right time and place. Two priests volunteered to accompany the Cardinal from Nairobi to Kibabii in Western Kenya to make preparations for his mother’s funeral.



Let us look at three decisions the Cardinal made and which entered the public domain.

First, in the early 1970s the Archdiocese of Nairobi through local and international efforts procured funding to move the premier Catholic sponsored school, Mang’u High, from the small old compound it had occupied since 1940. The new grounds were spacious and the infrastructure was to be built in three or four phases, all designed from scratch. The school moved to the new site. But what to do with old site? One school of thought championed by several local leaders, were thinking of starting a technical school to be located on Mang’u old site. This probably was a good idea, given the need for technical education in a developing country. The idea of a technical school gained ground very fast. But there was a hitch. The land on which old Mang’u stood belonged to the church and Maurice Otunga was Archbishop of Nairobi. Nobody had consulted him regarding the technical school idea or what to do with the old sire. The Archbishop had an idea different from the technical school, school of thought. To cut a long story short, the disagreement found its way out the highest authority in the land. The President listened to both sides. Then he gave his verdict. The church owned the land; therefore, let the church decide what to do with the property. And the President agreed with the Archbishop; the promotion of girls’ education at both primary and secondary levels was paramount in the country.

The Archbishop’s decision to help educated the students of St. Francis Girls School on the premises of old Mang’u should be respected and encouraged, concluded the President. The moral of the dispute is fairly clear. Apart from questions of ownership of property and its use and disposal, the Cardinal’s priorities were clear. As a matter of pastoral priority, the Cardinal promoted girl education with vigour in the diocese where he worked. He was accurately aware of the patriarchal structures in which education operated in Kenya and the historical disadvantages suffered by girls and women in society. These needed to be addressed specifically without prejudicing the education of males in society. This was long before talk about the rights and education of the girl-child became part of mainstream discourse.

A second illustration related to the Resurrection Garden. The creation and development of this serene place of prayer was accompanied by criticism similar to that of offering Mang’u old site to St. Francis Girls’ School. Many critics questioned the Cardinal’s wisdom in investing so much time, money and energy in a place of prayer. Wouldn’t it have been wiser to open a technical school, or build an orphanage or rehabilitate a slum and thus improve the quality of life of the people in a more tangible way? But he opted for a place of prayer as a priority. For Cardinal Otunga, prayer was an integral part of human life.

Then finally Maurice Cardinal Otunga received much publicity, a lot of it negative, when he led Catholics and Muslims in burning condoms at Uhuru Park in the 1990s. The criticism was: why is this man so anti-science, sin anti-modern and conservative? Doesn’t he see the rising poverty in Kenya and the population explosion in the land? Without entering into specific ethical debate of the right and wrong methods of birth regulation as found in Humane Vitae, it is the contention of this paper that the Cardinal considered his position to be informed not only by the teaching authority or magisterial of the Church but also by a pro-life faith and philosophy which one may describe as “the seamless garment” woven in one piece from top to bottom (cf. John 19:23). We shall revisit this position a little later when we analyze and summarize the Cardinal’s position on the role of education in socio-economic ad integral human development.

The three events we have just described in relation to Cardinal Otunga ate not mere events. They were experiences in that the Cardinal contributed to their occurrence, shaping the very nature and proceeding of those events. When we are involved in an event, it becomes an experience. In an experience, an event shapes us and we I turn shape the event. An experience is more than an event also in that it leads to the area f interpretation. The interpretation of an experience gives rise to meaning. This leads us to the concluding remarks of this paper: why is Cardinal Otunga a moral voice for out times? In asking for the reason why the late prelate is of ethical significance, we are in the area of meaning. What does his legacy meant for us?

The decisions Maurice Cardinal Otunga made in the area of education indicate several objectives and values. Maurice Otunga believed that if one offered a wholesome education, then this enabled the educated to make responsible decision. The answer to our predicament and especially in its socio-economic manifestation is not to offer easy and quick solutions such as, he believed, the free distribution of condoms. Educated people will be able to make their decisions and take responsibility for them. The Cardinal’s stance came long before there was any talk about capacity-building. The education of all and especially of the disadvantaged such as girls in a traditional patriarchal society would reap benefits because of the positive impact women can have in society.

Maurice Cardinal Otunga believed sincerely that God’s will was revealed n not only through the teachings of the Church but also in natural law (cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theological qn 94 especially article 6). This explains why in the question of birth regulation, Cardinal Otunga invited Dr. and Dr. Billings several times to Kenya to teach natural methods of family life. It is not the case that Maurice Cardinal Otunga was anti-science and against modern methods of doing things. He did not believe that the apparently free dispensation of money or of condoms would address the problems where they lay or originated For him the problems were deep. And you needed a deep solution to a deep problem. Part of the deep solution was education and obeying God’s will as reveals in nature.

To return to the question we posed at the beginning: where did the Cardinal stand with regard to being and becoming? Though a man of simple life-style, the humble ambassador of God was far too deep and mystical to be categorized that easily. It is true he was firmly grounded in deontology; but he remained open-minded even as he aged to critically examine the end results of a certain moral action. Maurice Cardinal Otunga did not have a closed mind.

Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga was not only a recipient of tradition and of meaning; he was at the same time a creator of tradition and of meaning. He witnessed events, participated in experiences and created meaning out of event and experience. And meaning was significant not for him alone but it continues to influence out thoughts, choices and actions.



Maurice Cardinal Otunga was proud of his roots. In his last will and testament he thanked God because in God’s plan, Otunga was born son of Sudi Namachanja and Mama Namisi into the Bakhone clan of the Babukusu people. And in that will he called them: “My beloved Bakhone, for whom I pray daily”. The Cardinal drew strength and inspiration from his ethnic origins to become priest and bishop and prince of the Catholic Church. His local roots supported him to flourish to great global heights. But the cardinal, who as a Bakhone came from a line of kings, never let his ethnic origins come between him and people of other ethnic origins. Part of Maurice Cardinal Otunga’s legacy to Africa, to Kenya and to us here and now is: there once lived a man who would never apologize for being a Bukusu. He was proud of it. He drew inspiration from positive ethnicity. And he hated negative ethnicity – tribalism. Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga was truly global and trans-ethnic.

In an age when there is such a deep yearning for role models, Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga is an eminent moral voice for our times.