Monday, July 17, 2006

Out of Africa

It's always been said -- and wisely so -- that if the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests were ever loosened, it wouldn't be in response to the "But celibacy's so tough" agitations of activists in the spoilt West (around whom, contrary to their deep-seated belief, global Catholicism does not revolve), but to sanate the widespread but clandestine situation in Africa and Latin America. In the former, local custom and tradition render the celibate man an ineffective messenger, and in the latter many priests are already what we could call "married"... just not officially. It's been said that in much of the global south, episcopal selection basically boils down to finding the cleric with just one wife and, well, there's your nominee.

Well, in the spirit of Milingo, one Ugandan priest has taken the plunge and gone public with his new wife -- who was already the mother of his two daughters:
"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.
Well, there ya go. Tip to Jimmy Mac, master of the newsdesk.