On the second full day I was in Nairobi, Kenya, I had the privilege of concelebrating at the funeral Mass for John Anthony Kaiser, a priest of the Mill Hill Missionaries, who had been killed after serving in western Kenya for over 36 years. His as-yet unidentified killers fired a shotgun into the back of his head and left him on a road near the town of Naivasha. The general consensus is that he was killed for his successful advocacy on behalf of very young Masai girls, who are sometimes raped by their male elders and by prominent political figures. Father Kaiser also played a significant role in challenging government policies related to the heated issues of land rights and property distribution. One of the figures against whom Father Kaiser testified in secret is a member of President Daniel arap Moi’s cabinet.
It is said that at the time he was killed, Father Kaiser was compiling files on three more cases of rape of local Masai girls by well-known public officials. Soon after he testified behind closed doors before an investigating commission, he was told that his work permit would not be renewed, and he received a deportation order. Father Kaiser went into hiding to avoid expulsion. Public pressure and diplomatic efforts by the United States and others eventually resulted in the renewal of his work permit. This renewal, however, was to become his death warrant.
Father Kaiser’s funeral Mass was held in the Holy Family Cathedral in Nairobi. The church was packed, and the overflow crowd filled the parking lot. Twelve bishops attended from local dioceses. The papal nunciothe Vatican’s ambassador to Kenya, Archbishop Giovanni Tonuccicelebrated the Mass and preached. He had met with Father Kaiser only two days before his death and spoke of how, in taking his leave, Father Kaiser asked for the nuncio’s blessing. The nuncio told him, It is I who should be requesting your blessing. Father Kaiser insisted and received the blessing. The archbishop was moved by the meeting and shaken by subsequent events.
Several eulogies captured the various dimensions of Father Kaiser’s personality, his vocation and his work. As I sat through the three-hour Mass and these eulogies, I recalled that just a few days before, at the opening of World Youth Day 2000 in Tor Vergata field near Rome, I had listened to Pope John Paul II begin the ceremonies with a roll call of martyrs. He reminded the two million young pilgrims that witnessing to the truth of Jesus Christ in the world carries a price. The lives and deaths of the martyrs are tangible evidence, public witnesses, to the ever-present danger of seeking holiness in a hostile world. Father Kaiser’s death is one more example of the sacrifices sometimes demanded of those who witness to the truth.
But despite this, I do not think the Catholic Church is under systematic assault in Kenya. In the past four years, several missionaries besides Father Kaiser have died violently here. Other priests and religious have been beaten and robbed. Most Kenyans, on the other hand, are Christians of one denomination or another; and those in power often speak of their Christian faith. President Moi is himself a Protestant minister. Walking the streets as a priest, one is treated respectfully and courteously. In the weeks since Father Kaiser’s death, peoplepolicemen and soldiers includedhave shouted out to me, Kah-ee-zuh (Kaiser) upon noting that I am a Catholic priest. Shopkeepers have expressed sympathy. The danger to Catholic missionaries who are not engaged in public controversy over specific issues would seem to be about the same or even less than that facing the average Kenyan citizen. The main threat tends to be from violent crime committed out of greed.
The deeper story of Father Kaiser is about his 36-plus years of almost anonymous toiling on behalf of his flock in rural areas of Kenya. The Father Kaisers of the world leave home and family as young men and spend their lives building churches, tending to the sick, burying the dead, bringing Mass and the sacraments to remote communities. Sometimes they face local hostility; most often they confront the day-in, day-out fatigue and frustration of mechanical failures, no electricity, transportation woes and sickness from diseases like malaria, cholera and tuberculosis. They live their lives, serve their flocks and in many cases die in their adopted land. Some retire and return to their native soil for their remaining years. Whichever the case, they are remembered for awhile by the people they served, but forever in the mind of God.
It seemed to me, as I looked around the cathedral at the many missionaries who had come to pay their respects, and at the believers and nonbelievers who also had come in great numbers, that these men and women understood what it took for Father Kaiser to recommit himself day after day, decade after decade, brick by brick, in sickness and in health, to building the church. They came to acknowledge not only the tragedy of his death, but also the dignity of his life. They paid tribute to his humility and fidelity and perseverance in his vocation as priest and missionary.
The people were likewise paying tribute to his colleagues, who continue to labor in obscurity: to those who have come to share the satisfactions and joys of the very simple, if challenging, everyday life in the rural villages and towns of East Africa. They live through moments of joy and exultation as well as those of loneliness and doubtthe times when they can in faith do no more than screw their courage to the sticking place and press on.
The essence of Father John Kaiser lay in his fidelity, his courage, his doggedness in being there. He responded to God’s call daily, never quite knowing where it would lead. For him, it led to a violent death.