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Centenary of Evangelization in Kenya

Centenary of Evangelization in Kenya
Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of Kenya
May 1989

This Pastoral Letter, the only one published by the Bishops this year, was written in the context of the preparation for the celebration of the Centenary of Catholic Evangelization in Kenya. Though it might not appear particularly related to Social Teaching, it was included here for special reasons. First of all, it provides a global historical view of the growth of the Catholic Church in Kenya that is very helpful in understanding the ecclesial context of other Pastoral Letters.

But perhaps the main reason to insert this Pastoral Letter among the Letters conveying Catholic Social Teaching is that Part III of the Letter provides an analysis of the Pastoral Challenges to the Church in Kenya in the years to come, practically all of then having a social dimension (See No 17-19).

This Pastoral Letter is not just a document of history. The Bishops wanted the Centenary to be a favourable time for Catholics to renew themselves and become more aware of their own responsibilities as members of society and as members of the Church. All the Pastoral Letters of the following years will be marked by this pastoral and social concern


  1. The centenary of the evangelizing presence of the Catholic Church in Kenya is for all of us an occasion of joy and thanksgiving. Borrowing the words Paul the Apostle addressed to the Corinthians, everyone of us, your pastors, can say to all of you, our dear brothers and sisters: "May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ send you grace and peace. I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ. I thank him in that you have been enriched in so many ways, especially in your teachers and preachers...." [1]

  2. The celebration of this first century of evangelization must also be, for all who are united in the Catholic Communion, a "favourable time" [2] for prayerful meditation on the quality of our present Christian commitment, both at personal and ecclesial levels. The memories of the past, though glorious, cannot be reduced to a mere historical remembrance, nor should they create in us feeling that the mission of announcing the Good News has already reached its fulfilment. On the contrary, this celebration should renew in all of us our apostolic zeal so that "we strain ahead for what is still to come." [3]


  3. Part I: A Historical View

  4. Evangelization is a process rightly compared by Jesus in the Gospel to the silent process of the seed germinating in field. [4] This is why any attempt to trace the history of the evangelization in our country would inevitably be incomplete. It is difficult indeed to do justice to all the efforts of unknown sowers of the Word of God and to fix clear dates and places for such a complex process in which, by the fate of history, Kenya and Tanzania were so closely implicated at the very beginning.

    It is not our purpose to make a full summary of the history of evangelization in Kenya. We can, however, present the highlights of two clearly different periods that we could call the "Portuguese Period" and the "Missionary Period."

  5. The Portuguese Period

  6. The first Christian presence in Kenyan territory was that of the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century when their navigators established settlements at Malindi and later on at Mombasa. Witness to this first presence is the cross erected by Vasco da Gama on the seashore of Malindi in 1498, which was a comforting sight to St. Francis Xavier when he called at Malindi on his missionary journey to Goa in 1542.

    This period, whose historical sources remain still obscure to us, knew, however, a promising Christian community in Mombasa around 1591 thanks to the missionary zeal of some Augustinian priests. Of special memory are the Catholics, about 300 in all, both African and Portuguese, who were massacred by the local sultan of Mombasa on the feast of the Assumption, the 15th of August 1631. The blood of these "Mombasa Martyrs" was indeed a fruitful seed of Christian faith in our land.

  7. The Missionary Period

  8. We can say that this period starts from 1860 when the first group of missionaries arrived in the island of Zanzibar. The first mass was celebrated there on Christmas Day 1860. In 1862 Mgr. de Maupoint was appointed Apostolic Prefect of Zanzibar, and the evangelization of the prefecture was entrusted to the Holy Ghost Missionaries. The geographic limits of this Prefecture were: to the North, Cape Guardafui in present day Somalia; to the South, Cape Delgado (Mozambique); to the East, the islands of the Indian Ocean; and no limits inland, to the West. The first missions were established in Tanzanian territory: Bagamoyo, Morogoro, Mhonda, Kilema and other places.

  9. The year 1889 can be set down as the date of the beginning of the Catholic Church in what is now known as Kenya. In that, year, Father Alexander le Roy, one of the greatest Holy Ghost Missionaries, spent a period of five months in Mombasa and explored the island for other possible mission sites. The first group of Holy Ghost Missionaries came to Mombasa from Zanzibar in 1891 and their community was officially recognised in 1892. From these humble beginnings, the Catholic Church spread out of Mombasa through Nairobi (1899) and towards the North, to the Vicariate of Nyeri, where the Missionaries of La Consolata arrived in 1902. Meanwhile, the Mill Hill Missionaries established missions in Kisumu and Kakamega in 1903. By 1926 three Vicariates, namely Nyeri, Kisumu, Zanzibar (Nairobi) and the Prefecture of Meru covered all Kenya. It would remain like that until 1953 when the hierarchy was created. It comprised the Archdiocese of Nairobi and the Dioceses of Nyeri, Kisumu and Meru.

  10. It is impossible, within the limits of a Pastoral Letter, to recall all the difficulties as well as the spiritual consolations of those first pioneers. To all of them, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and generous Catechists who gave themselves entirely to the evangelization of Kenya, we express our sincere gratitude. If not all of them are recorded in our historical archives, it is our conviction that "their names are written in the Book of Life." [5] Thanks to them, as well as to those who came after them and to the ones who are still sharing with us the "heavy day's work in all the heat," [6] the Gospel message has penetrated our people. Despite all the limitations and shortcomings inevitably attached to the human condition, the Catholic Church has reached her age of maturity in our country.

  11. Through the hardships of the First and the Second World Wars, without forgetting the prolonged struggle for our independence, the Catholic Church has seen herself, not as the ultimate goal, but as an instrument and a servant of evangelization. As Pope Paul VI expressed it: "The preaching of the Gospel to the people of our times, full as they are of hope, but harassed by fears and anxiety, must undoubtedly be regarded as a duty which will benefit not only the Christian Community, but the whole human race." [7]

  12. Part II: The Catholic Church in Kenya Today

  13. The fruits of a century of evangelization appear today: about 5,000,000 Catholics distributed in 18 Dioceses, 4 National Major Seminaries, many Minor Seminaries and Catechists' Training Centres, as well as a good number of Noviciates and Formation Houses for Religious men and women. All this is but a sign of the vitality of our Church. Vocations to the Priesthood and to Religious Life are flourishing now among the sons and daughters of this country, and local Religious Congregations, both of men and women, are growing together alongside the international ones, which count an increasing number of Kenyans among their members.

  14. The Kenyan Church has a special reason to thank God for having raised among the children of this land the missionary spirit. As we celebrate one hundred years from the first baptism officially administered and recorded, we are proud that we have sent Kenyan Priests and Religious to some other countries such as: Colombia, Zaire, Ethiopia, Sudan, Liberia, Tanzania, Mozambique, etc. The prophetic message of Pope Paul VI during his visit in 1969 to Kampala (Uganda), namely "Africans, you must be missionaries to yourselves," has brought forth tangible fruits through the action of the Holy Spirit.

  15. Kenya benefits from the active presence of ecclesiastical institutions such as the permanent secretariat of the Association of Members of Episcopal Conferences of Eastern Africa (AMECEA); Pastoral Institute (formerly in Gaba, Uganda) and more recently the Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa (CHIEA), without forgetting other new born theological colleges, Hekima College and Tangaza College, for the theological formation of Religious. All these institutions, along with the many Diocesan Pastoral Centres, constitute a real spiritual and apostolic asset for the formation of Priests, Religious and Catechists in Kenya.

    The numerous primary and secondary Catholic schools and the Teacher Training Colleges all over the country are a reason for hope for the future generations and a sign of the commitment the Church in the field of education. In the same line of social concern and human promotion, are to be numbered all the health centres, Catholic Hospitals, Parish Dispensaries and Homes for the disabled and aged, which are a living witness of the loving for the disadvantaged the Church has inherited from Christ himself.

  16. The Kenya Catholic Secretariat with its different Departments provides a service of national co-ordination and animation in various domains of human life: Development and Social Services, Medical Services, Catechesis, Education, Communications, etc., in which committed lay Christians, both men and women, share real responsibilities in the Church. In the field of publications it is worth mentioning the catechetical production of a Religious Handbook for the Schools in ecumenical collaboration with other Christian Churches, the Catechesis for the Family, the opportune and rich collection of St. Paul Publications, as well as our Catholic National Magazine, "Mwananchi," so welcome in all our parishes, which is a sign of unity and common collaboration within the Church.

  17. The creation by the Kenya Episcopal Conference, of the National Commission of Justice and Peace deserves a special mention.[8] Through this organ, the Church will be better able to fulfil the mission Christ started of "proclaiming Good News to the poor, announcing freedom to the captives and liberation to the downtrodden." [9] The two Lenten Campaigns so far promoted by this Commission are a promising sign of the Church as the prophetic "conscience of society." [10]

  18. The inventory of good fruits after one hundred years of evangelization would be incomplete if we did not mention the vitality of innumerable Small Christian Communities spreading throughout both rural and urban areas. What constituted the main pastoral priority for the AMECEA Bishops for the 1980's is becoming an ecclesial reality for our Church in order to "become really local, that is, self-ministering. self-propagating and self-supporting." [11]

  19. The two pastoral visits of Pope John Paul II have encouraged us, the last one having taken place in the context of the 43rd International Eucharistic Congress in Nairobi, which was a privileged occasion for spiritual renewal for all, especially for the Christian families to which the Congress was particularly oriented. Pope John Paul II remembered the coming of the missionaries in 1889 in his address to the Kenyan Bishops on the occasion of the Ad Limina visit last year.[12] Our union with the See of Peter is a sign of our communion with the universal Church.

  20. Part III: Pastoral Challenges for the Future

  21. The rich harvest of a century of evangelization cannot make us forget the challenges we have to face in the years to come. Like Elijah the prophet on his way to Horeb, our Church hears the voice not of an angel but of the "signs of the times," saying: "Get up and eat, or the journey will be too long for you."[13] Strengthened by the Bread of Life and the Cup of the New Covenant, "source and summit of the life of the Church," [14] our pilgrim People of God in Kenya are ready to face these challenges on the eve of the end of this second millennium.

  22. The first challenge was already expressed last year in our Pastoral Letter: "The gap between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the powerless is reflected in our country. Injustice is growing." [15] This pressing call to action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us "as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel." [16] We, therefore, invite all Justice and Peace commissions at Diocesan and Parish levels, to devote themselves to the transformation of our society according to the Gospel ideals, for peace is the fruit of justice.

  23. Of special concern is the challenge coming from the situation of the Youth and the Children of our country. It is estimated that 55 to 60 per cent of the Kenyan population is constituted by youth under 20 years of age. This fact poses to all of us serious questions: How to give them an appropriate education for the future? How to create for them more sources of employment? How to deal with the increasing rural migration of youth to towns? All these questions go hand in hand with the alarming crisis of the family, including the Christian families, which are often disrupted by the loss of ethical and traditional values and by the tough economic conditions of poverty causing the breaking of the common life of both parents and children. The generation gap between the youth and their elders, the crisis of moral value especially those regarding honesty, fidelity in marriage and family life, are an urgent appeal to us as pastors, as parents and educators of the young generation.

  24. Another challenge that we share in common with other local churches in Africa is the inculturation of the Christian Message to our own African contexts. "The Gospel and evangelization are not especially related to any culture but they are not necessarily incompatible with them. On the contrary, they can penetrate any culture while being subservient to none." [17] Our efforts for inculturation must aim not only at the Africanization of our expressions of Christian faith, but also at the Christianization of our cultural expressions and traditions. This has to be achieved not from without, as though by adding some decoration or applying a coat of colour, but in depth, going to the very centre and roots of life."[18] Therefore, the pastoral efforts for a genuine inculturation have to reach all the levels of our evangelization, from the scholarly attempts to produce an African Theology to the local catechesis, from the rite of liturgical celebrations to the formation of lay leaders in parishes and pastoral centres.

  25. Many other challenges are coming which are not exclusive nor typical of our Kenya situation alone but of the present international society, rightly called today "a global village." The roots of these challenges have been accurately analysed by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter on The Social Concern of the Church,[19] considered by many people as the "Charter of the Third World." We must take them into consideration in our pastoral planning for the future since they are described as "structures of sin," caused by widespread materialism, individualism, idolatry of money and power, and they are also affecting our nation as a member of the international community. The humble recognition of our complicity in such evil mechanisms would lead us to the search for authentic Christian solidarity, which is essential to the spirit of ecclesial communion.[20]

    In this same spirit we encourage all competent lay Christians to commit themselves in the "the wide and complex arena of politics, sociology and economics which is their special field of evangelization,"[21] so as to be the "salt of the earth" in their place of work, as Pope John Paul II reminded them during his two visits to Kenya.

  26. Conclusion

  27. It seems universally acknowledged that, among all peoples, we Africans possess a special sense of festive celebrations. It is, then, as Africans and as Christians that we want to celebrate this first centenary of evangelization so that all the members of the People of God may participate in the common joy and thanksgiving of this spiritual event. Therefore, we launch an appeal for creativity at Diocesan and Parish levels in order to make this year 1989-1990 a time of grace and interior renewal.

    While a detailed programme is currently being prepared by an appointed Governing Board, we can already announce some key dates for the celebration of the Centenary of Evangelization of Kenya:

    • June to August 1989: Preparation for a Renewal Programme.
    • August 13, 1989: Launching of a year of Pastoral Renewal to August, 1990.
    • August 5-12, 1990: A week of final celebrations.

  29. May this "centenary year" be an occasion for everyone to become more and more aware of his or her own personal responsibility in the common mission of evangelization entrusted to the whole Church. May our joy produce concrete fruits of deeper apostolic zeal, preferential love for the poor, a stronger desire for justice, and full communion with all our Christian brethren.

    We conclude this Pastoral Letter by invoking the Spirit of God, the soul of the Church and source of our unity, so that, with Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer, our Church in Kenya may be also filled with grace and, in all humility, sing the Canticle of Mary: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my Saviour ... for the Almighty has done great things for me, Holy is his name." [22] We bless you and remain, Yours devotedly in Christ.

Questions for Reflection and Sharing

  1. How has the Catholic Church contributed until now to Human Promotion in Kenya? Can you give examples in your own area?

  2. What are the major challenges to the Youth and Children of Kenya today? How could the Church respond to those challenges in the future?

  3. What are, according to your knowledge, the most devastating "structures of sin" affecting Kenya today?

  4. The Bishops mentioned the Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II, The Social Concern of the Church, as being the "Charter of the Third World" (Cf. No 20). Have you read it? How can this Encyclical Letter inspire a Lay Catholic in Kenya ?


[1]1 Cor 1:3-5.
[2]2 Cor 6:2.
[3]Phil 3:13.
[4]Cf. Mt 13:1-9; 4:26-29; Lk 8:5-8.
[5]Rev 3:5; 21:27.
[6] Mt 20:12.
[7]Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelization Today, (8 Dec. 1975) No.1.
[8] Cf. Justice and Peace Commission, Pastoral Letter of the Bishops of Kenya, Nairobi (January 1988).
[9]Cf. Lk 4:18.
[10]Words of the late President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta addressing the AMECEA Bishops in 1976.
[11] AMECEA, Plenary Meeting (1973), cf. AFER, No.1-2 (1974), p.10.
[12] Cf. Mwananchi, (April 1988), p.2.
[13] I Kings 19:7.
[14] Vatican II, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, No.10.
[15] Catholic Bishops of Kenya, Pastoral Letter, On the Present Situation in Our Country, No.7.
[16]Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World (Rome, 30 Nov. 1971), Introduction.
[17]Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelization Today, No. 20.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Pope John Paul II, The Social Concern of the Church (30 Dec. 1987).
[20] Cf. Idem., No. 40.
[21] Cf. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelization Today, No. 70 .
[22] Lk 1: 47-55.