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Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga: From Becoming One Of The Youngest Bishop In The World At The Age Of 33, To His Rich Legacy 


© Victor Ochieng’

There is a good book co-authored by Margaret Ogola and Margaret Roche. It is A Gift of Grace, which enshrines life and legacy of a clever cleric — Cardinal Maurice Michael Otunga, an eminent churchman. This prelate was born in colonial Kenya. His parents were ardent followers of traditional African religion. At a fledgling age, Cardinal Otunga became a beneficiary of the modern missionary education, and a convert of Catholicism. 

The moniker was Otunga, an ancestral name, which meant a staff upon which the elderly or infirm lean on to find support and solace. Otunga then ought to be a pillar of strength to others. The original form of the name was Odunga, but as Lubukusu does not contain the ‘d’ sound, it in time morphed to Otunga. He adopted it as his official moniker for the rest of his life well lived. The man of God attended premier Catholic schools in the colony: the Mill Hill Missionaries Schools in Sijei and Kibabii. Later, he found himself at the Holy Ghost High Schools in Kabaa and Mang’u. In his sojourn in this world of birth and death, he became a priest, bishop and cardinal. 

In November 1956, at the age of 33, he became bishop. Then, one of the youngest in the world. Having been ordained to the episcopacy in February 1957, he served as an active bishop until his retirement as Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Nairobi in 1997: a period that spanned for 40 solid years in sacred service. In biblical language, this means a long time. At his retirement he was the longest serving Catholic Bishop in the world. 

We remember Cardinal Otunga as an eminent servant of God, a faithful minister of the church, a humble, simple priest, and a patriotic citizen. For the Archbishop Emeritus of Nairobi, God’s revelation comes to the citizens of this world through the church. Thus, the church, as both institution and people of God, constitutes the locus in which God Almighty meets humanity. In a word, the church is the sacrament of God to the citizens of this world. Therefore, service in the church constitutes both the worship of divinity and whole-hearted service to humanity. 

It said, the glad day Cardinal Otunga left home to pursue pious position of priesthood he did not set foot in his home until he was fully grafted into priesthood. His trust in Christ made him live, love and serve in full hope that all would be well so long as he made prudent choices and executed correct actions. For humankind are born without choice, but they live by choice. Choices have consequences. Destiny is a matter of choice, not chance. 

In philosophical terms, the structure of a responsible human life is in the knowledge, will, and right action sequence. In theological language, this is analogous to the three cardinal virtues — faith, hope and love. Without a tinge of doubt, the Margarets accurately pointed out some of the virtues that go into making the delightful yet complex person that was Cardinal Otunga. The colourful qualities that decorated this man of means that was calm, cool, composed — with imperturbable demeanor, even at the centre of crisis. His charm at the table, and reverence at the altar. His utter honesty, among other charisms — were quite evident in his portrait. 

By the very nature of task, no account of a person’s life can examine in total thoroughness all the facets that formed this pious and prayerful person. This man of cloth was instrumental in the inception of bodies destined to play a pivotal role in the lives of many men and women. He was the only Kenyan African Bishop governing a diocese to participate in the second Vatican Council. For umpteen years, he chaired the Kenya Episcopal Conference. He was the founding member of A.M.E.C.E.A, the Bishops eclectic body that conflates the Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa. When the pan-African bishops’ organisation, S.E.C.A.M came into existence, the Kenyan prelate was one of its chief’s architects. Something quite outstanding about him is that never missed any of the Synod of Bishops’ gatherings in Rome. 

Again, the two beautiful biographers offered us a precious profile of a carefully cultured person who was eminently himself. The servant leader who saw his life vocation as one called to be, and became himself. This two-fold dimension of the prelate’s self-understanding, endeared him to many who met him. The two women of letters had to submit it. Any life is a dynamic mystery, hard to pen on paper. But this particular life, had been richly eventful, and too deep to fully plumb. They only hoped that they only did at least some justice to the man and his mortal life under the scorching sun. Writing about this spiritually decorated man, was for them a breathtaking historical and spiritual journey — simply and aptly put — very edifying and moving. 

Three years before the third millennium, having been a cardinal for twenty four years, a Bishop for forty years, Cardinal Otunga was a deep source of winsome wit and wisdom. It is what made him guide the Church and the country. A calmness of character, careful comportment, depth of insight, and holiness mien — characterised his grace and goodness. There are two schools named after him — Cardinal Otunga High School in Kisii, and Cardinal Otunga Girls’ High School in Bungoma. 

The reviewer is an avid reader, author and public speaker. 

vochieng.90@gmail.com. 0704420232