ROME – At the age of 54, Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Kenya is one of the youngest prelates among the “old” participants of the Oct. 3-28 meeting of bishops on youth taking place in Rome. As someone who finds it “uncomfortable” to be referred to as “you elderly people,” he has one key message for his brother prelates: “Waste time with young people.”
“There’s a lot of fury that goes on in discussing what we should do for the young people, what we should propose to them, what do young people seemingly want to say,” Muheria said in an interview with Crux. “We as bishops must interact more with young people, must be with young people. What I said [to the synod fathers], ‘We must waste time with young people,’ hang around them and they must be at ease with us.”
There are currently some 260 bishops (and cardinals) gathered in Rome to talk young people, their faith and their vocation. Also in the room, beyond the usual cast of characters, are 36 young men and women from all over the world who are not shy in cheering when they hear something they like, nor are they shy in remarking on the age difference between those doing most of the talking and the crowd for whom they’re allegedly preparing a document.
Muheria, a member of Opus Dei, is convinced that once interaction takes place, it opens up the opportunity for young people to challenge bishops and present “uncomfortable questions” that otherwise they wouldn’t ask. For instance, he has “youth walks” in his diocese, where he treks over 13 miles with young people.
“They see the bishop getting tired, having muscle cramps, struggling. And in that vulnerability, they’re able to say, ‘Hey bishop, we’ll help you.’ And you create a connection,” he said. The last time they had one of these walks, in preparation for the Synod of Bishops, he said three people approached him to talk about a vocation.
If there’s no connection between the bishop and the young people, Muheria said, young people won’t listen. Winning a space in the hearts of youth, he said, is something as necessary today as it was in the past.
Beyond the walks, he also has a digital-world initiative, through which young people can actually reach the bishop via WhatsApp. From time to time, his office sends a message to all those who are on the service and then each of them can respond personally to the prelate, “through a direct line,” not a public platform.
“That’s why I believe that more than a pastoral office, we need a digital pastoral office,” he said, “where the bishop is able to interact pastorally with the individuals. We have to go out there, meet with them. I’m not saying this as a theory, but as something we have done and that’s worked.”
Early on in the synod, Muheria made headlines in Kenya because he took a selfie with the pope, which he saw as a way to connect the young people from his country, who are following the synod in Rome, to Francis.
“If he’s this close to the bishop, people can say, ‘He’s close to us because he’s close to the bishop’,” he said. “You need to make that relationship closer, because that way they will listen to the pope better. The opening of the heart opens the mind.”
“If you love, you’re willing to accept what he says,” he continued. “If you don’t have a heart connection, then it’s just in the air, a good idea or something some philosopher has said.”
On clericalism and clerical sexual abuse
In his experience, clericalism is thinking that the clerics are the ones who have the solution to any and every problem, and that the involvement of lay people is unnecessary. He’s convinced that in recent years, much progress has been made, at least in his diocese of Nyeri, where he has professional men and women, young and old, in the Church’s organizational and governance structure, and has come to rely on their advice.
“This is just following the Second Vatican Council,” he said. “These are top Catholic professionals who are better equipped to decide on some of the issues. And they’re [providing] fantastic advice for me. It’s taken time, but it’s trickling in. I wouldn’t say that in Africa we’re doing very well, but we’re getting there.”
Regarding the clerical sexual abuse crisis, Muheria, like many in Africa, still believes it’s a crisis that is “more in the West,” but acknowledges that it’s present in Kenya too.
“Of course it’s very sad, and it hurts to see all those abuses that have happened … I guess it’s part of our frailty sometimes, the incoherence in the moral issues when we are living two lives and not one life,” he said.
“So unity of life is something we are trying to emphasize, not only with people in ministry, the priests and the religious, but also in the families,” because as he noted, the crisis is not just a crisis of the priesthood, it’s a crisis of the family, “of our faithfulness.”
What they’ve also noticed recently, he said, is that the abuses that were taking place in the families, were also taking place in the Church, and they hadn’t realized that this “virus” is everywhere.
Muheria insists that whether it’s pedophilia or other kinds of abuse- such as abuse of power or conscience- within the Church, it all comes down to faithfulness and “what we’ve promised to God.”
“We are saying you’re called to faithfulness, whether you’re a priest or married or religious, especially if you have been given a responsibility,” he said. “A dad has responsibility over his children. It’s terrible when a dad abuses his role in order to cause hurt to his children. The same thing happens in the Church, the misplacement of the trust that has been given to us. So, we are trying to awaken that reality.”
He also said that that even though those who commit these crimes have to be removed from the priesthood, the Church has to find a way to reach out to them, as the “sinners and Magadalens of this life.”
“There’s a lot of thinking that has to go around many of those issues,” and much of it will take place next February, as Francis has convened the head of every bishops’ conference to talk about the Church’s abuse crisis. “But I don’t know what will happen, let’s wait and see where the Holy Spirit will lead us.”
Ethnic violence, Kenya’s biggest challenge
When they come to Rome to participate in a synod, bishops get the opportunity to get a first-hand education on what is going on in the global Church from a direct source and discover challenges of the local churches that could perhaps go unnoticed.
In the case of Kenya, according to Muheria, the biggest challenge is ethnic violence, even if “things are calm at the moment.”
But in 2015, a cocktail of ethnic hatred fueled with bias against Christians and a complex regional situation with sprouts of violence in Somalia, led to 148 people getting killed in Garissa University, in an attack perpetrated by the Islamic militant group and Al-Qaeda offshoot Al-Shabaab.
There have been no terrorist attacks or atrocities fueled by religion lately, but “what we have as a real virus is ethnicity: a being anti-another ethnic stance.” The level of violence is not the same, yet for Muheria, addressing this is a priority: “We must heal hearts in acceptance.”
“It’s really about human dignity in the long run,” he said. “The Church has to make it her task to make especially the youth to accept others across the divide of ethnicity and religion.”
Also in preparation for the Synod of Bishops, in the past year the Kenyan bishops have organized meetings with young people, some of which were attended by 35,000 people from all over the country, and one of the things they’ve underlined is anti-ethnic bias, to the point that they want to make a “new covenant.”
During his 2015 visit to Kenya, Francis called on the locals to “be one, fight corruption, fight ethnic violence,” and he made everyone hold hands.
“He almost led us to make a covenant with God, and we’ve repeated it over and over again,” Muheria said.
When it comes to youth meetings, they sing what he described as a very popular prayer song that in English would translate into: “God, our father, we pray that you may lead in peace, that we may reject hatred, that we may reject ethnicity and division amongst ourselves.”
The efforts being made, he said, are bringing young people together, and making this covenant again: “We’re hoping that slowly we’re making progress.”