He was a priest just out of seminary. She was a nurse. They were both from the slopes of Mount Kenya, but their paths improbably crossed in Rome.
He became unshakable in his desire to marry her, even though he had taken the Catholic church’s mandatory vow of celibacy for priests.
When he returned to preach in Kenya, Peter Njogu was shocked when fellow priests told him that many of them had broken that vow, marrying and having children.
In hushed tones, they spoke of their “secret families”, kept hidden in distant homes. The thought of doing so pained him.
As the Catholic church goes through a global crisis brought on in part by the revelation of widespread sexual misconduct by its clergy, self-proclaimed Bishop Njogu believes he has figured out how to save Christianity’s largest church from its own sins – let priests marry and raise families.
Njogu’s breakaway faction, the Renewed Universal Catholic Church, is Catholic in every way except in having optional celibacy for its priests.
Its growth in Kenya is rooted in opposition to the practice of keeping secret families but reflects a growing worry among some Catholics that the celibacy requirement – to many an non-negotiable tenet of the priesthood – creates a harmful culture of sexual secrecy.
The Vatican has shown no interest in re-examining the issue for all priests, and Pope Francis has called celibacy a “gift to the church”.
But the pontiff has also signalled that he is open to ordaining married men in remote parts of the world with a severe shortage of priests.
More radical voices in the church have called for the church to rescind the requirement altogether.
“Most of our members are ex-Catholics,” says Njogu. “They are tired of the hypocrisy. Some of our people call us the ‘church of the future’.”
Nearly 20 priests and more than 2,000 parishioners have joined Njogu since 2011, he claims, mostly in the towns and villages that dot the fertile slopes of Mount Kenya, the 5,200m high extinct volcano right in the centre of this country.
“Now that I’ve come out, these other priests tell me: ‘The problem with you is you went public,’” he said on a recent Sunday after celebrating mass. “And I say: ‘I am not the problem, I am the solution. Join me’.”
To his flock, he said: “This is where you find your freedom from all that hypocrisy.”
The church in the hilltop village of Gachatha where Njogu preaches his reformation is a far cry from a cathedral.
The pews, pulpit and church itself are all made of wooden planks nailed together. The floor is sawdust on top of dirt. On a clear day, the ice-capped peak of Mount Kenya glimmers through a glassless window.
While Catholicism has declined in numbers in some former bastions in the west, such as Ireland, it is growing more rapidly in Africa than anywhere else.
Africans make up nearly a fifth of the world’s Catholics.
Njogu’s sermons hark back to Catholicism’s pre-celibacy era while appealing to the faith’s future in Africa, where he believes it will have to reconcile with local customs as it grows.
“No one in the Vatican understands the African soul. They do not understand that for the African man, priest or not, the worst sin is to leave this world without siring a child,” says Njogu.
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SOURCE: The Independent, Max Bearak, Rael Ombuor, and Chico Harlan