As anticipation mounts in Africa ahead of Pope Francis’ coming visit, one Kenyan bishop said his country is excited to see the Pope’s simplicity and humility in action, especially toward the poor. “People are very much waiting to see Pope Francis because of what they hear about his way of doing things, the way that he’s simple, he goes to the poor and to the simple,” Bishop James Maria Wainaina Kungu told journalists Oct. 28. Bishop Kungu oversees the Catholic diocese of Muranga, roughly an hour car ride from the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. He is one of the country’s 38 Catholic bishops, and spoke to journalists in Rome after giving a brief background on Kenya ahead of the Pope’s visit. Kenya is the first country Pope Francis will visit during his Nov. 25-30 voyage to the African continent before making his way to Uganda and the war-torn Central African Republic. One of the most characteristically “Franciscan” stops the Pope will make after landing in Kenya is to Nairobi’s Kangemi neighborhood — a slum located, like most shanty areas in the city, on the outskirts of town. Francis is scheduled to visit Kangemi on his last day in Kenya. After leaving the slum, he will meet with youth and Kenyan bishops before moving onto Entebbe, in Uganda. Bishop Kungu said that Kenya’s poorest people “are very much expecting to have the Pope,” and will be happy just get a glimpse of him and to have him in their neighborhood. “I believe it is something that people will cherish.” Catholics in Kenya make up roughly 30 percent of the country’s overwhelming Christian majority. 80 percent of Kenyans are Christian, while Muslims constitute 15-20 percent of the country’s religious make up. Other traditional religions, as well as some Hindus and Buddhists, are also present, though few. While Catholics are well integrated into Kenyan society, especially in their parliament, Protestants tend to have a stronger presence, and are more vocal in the public sphere. Although Catholic relations with Protestants in the country are generally on good terms, the bishop said that a few challenges do exist. Among these challenges are efforts by some Pentecostals and Evangelicals to convince Catholics to switch denominations. “Sometimes because they want to get Catholic followers they use language that is a bit hard on our side, and we would wish it doesn’t get used,” Bishop Kungu said. “(W)e start asking ourselves what have we not done that we could have done to (retain) our Christians, to (retain) our followers.” Catholics in the country, for their part, try to avoid using means that are “unpleasant or unbecoming,” and instead simply try “to convince our people and other people to join us in a manner that is wholesome and acceptable,” he said. And a bigger threat looms for the local Church as well: Since 2011 Kenya has seen an uptick in violence near its border with Somalia. The violent Islamist terror group Al-Shabaab has been responsible for an increased number of attacks, though various Kenyan security experts maintain that radicalized Kenyan youth have been hired by the terrorists to carry them out. Just in April, 147 students — mostly Christian, separated from their Muslim colleagues at the start of the attack — were massacred at Kenya’s Garissa University College at the hands of Somalian Al-Shebaab gunmen. Five Kenyans were among the suspects arrested after the April 2 attack. They are said to have supplied the attackers with weapons. One of the four terrorists killed by the police has reportedly been identified as the son of a district chief in the north-east of Kenya. Terrorism in the country has for the most part been isolated to the north. But due to the recent episodes, religious fanaticism is a topic the Pope could discuss while there. Other cultural challenges Kenyans face are heightened attitudes of consumerism, individualism and homosexual unions — things the country “has never dealt with before,” but which are seeping in through an increase in globalization, the bishop said. While vocations in Kenya have always tended to be high, Bishop Kungu said that some of these new challenges, particularly materialism, are making it more difficult to yes to a vocation to the consecrated life. According to the Vatican blog “Il Sismografo,” Kenya currently has 1,830 diocesan priests, 914 priests who are members of religious orders, 798 religious men who are not ordained to the priesthood, 5,505 professed women religious and 550 lay missionaries. Though Kenya used to have a higher number of vocations, the country still has “enough,” the bishop said, adding that “if you work for them, if you look for vocations you will get them.” He stressed the importance of having good formation from the beginning in order to avoid some of the negative influences coming in through television, the radio and advertisements. While you can’t stop youth from seeing these things, the bishop explained that his diocese is currently trying to form a strong foundation to help youth “make the correct choices when it comes to the point of making the choices.”
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