The elevation of Kitui Catholic Bishop Anthony Muheria to Archbishop of Nyeri may have surprised him but not the church faithful.
His rise to almost the top of the Catholic church in Kenya has been remarkable with his latest promotion sparking speculation that he may be destined to be the next cardinal.
The archbishop, a trained civil engineer, is not only the first Opus Dei (a special group of Catholic clerics) Catholic priest to become archbishop in Africa, but is also well educated and is said to hold considerable sway at Catholic Secretariat’s Waumini House.
Until his appointment by Pope Francis last week, the cleric was in charge of both Kitui and Machakos dioceses; and he is a strong voice in the church where he chairs the finance commission of the Kenya Episcopal Conference.
In an interview with the Sunday Nation, he said the elevation came as a surprise just like his appointment as bishop in 2005.
He, however, said he hoped he would live up to the demands of the new evangelical assignment.
His new assignment as head of the archdiocese, he said, included extra administrative duties and in this case he will be overseeing Murang’a, Nyahururu, Isiolo, Maralal, Meru, Embu and Marsabit dioceses.
“I was ordained as a priest to serve and I have tried to continue serving as a priest while being a bishop.
“I pray I die serving, whether after many years or after a few, as an instrument, without any need of human glorification,” he said.
Despite Christians in Ukambani being happy about his promotion, they wished he would have served the Kitui diocese longer because of the work he had started in reforming the Catholic-run education and health institutions across the region.
Mr Nick Mulila, the director of risk management at Safaricom who sits in several boards of Catholic institutions, said people were saddened by their cleric’s departure.
“I could write a book about our bishop. During his tenure in Kitui, he started many transformative projects in the diocese and strengthened all institutions sponsored by the church,” Mr Mulila said.
He described the bishop as a very decisive and meticulous man who never rushed to make decisions but was very firm on his convictions.
Among his landmark projects is the construction of a modern shrine in Museve hills.
According to the Kitui diocese website, he was ordained as a priest on June 13, 1993 at the Basilica of the Saint Eugene in Rome, making him among a few Catholic priests in the country to have been decreed at the church’s Italy headquarters.
The cleric, who is the younger brother of Central Bank of Kenya Governor Patrick Njoroge, has had many firsts including toping his civil engineering class at the University of Nairobi in 1984.
He was the first Opus Dei priest in Africa to become a bishop in 2003, according to Rome-based Catholic News Agency.
“The story of vocation to priesthood is part of a maturing of my Christian journey, particularly through the contact I had with the message of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, since my university days and I’ve tried to live up to ordinary Christian practice,” he said.
ENTRY INTO PRIESTHOOD
After graduating with honours, he was employed by Gathaiya Njagi and Partners, a firm of consulting engineers.
However, four years later, when all his peers were getting married and starting families, he quit the well-paying engineering job to join priesthood in 1989. It was a difficult decision for his family, he said.
“It is in this context that the call to become a priest matured. Of course, it was difficult for my family given that it meant leaving a good professional job to start priestly training,” he said, adding that he owed a lot to his parents who are staunch Catholics and the good upbringing they gave him, especially being nurtured in the best schools in the country.
The archbishop joined the International Seminary of the Holy Cross while attending his theological studies in the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, until he was ordained as a priest in 1993.
After his ordination, he worked within the Seminary of the Holy Cross for two years while doing his doctoral studies in sacramental theology.
He returned to Kenya in June 1995, where he mainly got involved in the pastoral work within the Prelature of Opus Dei – that teaches that everyone is called to holiness and that ordinary life is a path sanctity.
During the World Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held in October 2008, he was the only bishop from East Africa who addressed the congregation presided over by Pope Benedict XVI.
He spoke of strong presence of the “false” evangelicals in Africa.
In Kenya, the cleric has been part of a team of influential and educated Catholic priests whom John Cardinal Njue relies on in shaping major policy decisions and the church’s stand on crucial issues.
His influence and steady rise within the Catholic church has been evident in the way he has been tasked to face cameras whenever the church is announcing major decisions.
For instance, he was the only bishop who accompanied Cardinal Njue to a ceremony to mark the promulgation of the Constitution at Uhuru Park in August 2010, where they received a hostile reception from the crowd apparently for opposing the new laws.
However, he downplayed the notion that he was influential within the church terming it misguided and said it was the wrong understanding of how the Catholic church works.
A bishop or archbishop is not a reward for greatness or holiness, but a call to serve even more humbly, the cleric said.
“When one is ordained a priest, the ambition is not to become the Pope or a bishop. The goal is to serve. Indeed, very many successful priests have passed unnoticed yet they are the real heroes,” he said.
He attributed the perceptions to society’s flawed emphasis on glorifying individuals who climb the ladder, saying that showed how people were wired up by greed and vain ambition.
“It seems the goal of many is to maximise on individual glory, to climb the ladder. That is why, when looking at the Catholic church, many who apply these standards are totally mistaken,” he said.
The archbishop, who was born in Murang’a County on May 27 1963, attended various primary schools in Murang’a, Kirinyaga and Kiambu counties before being enrolled at Mang’u High School where he sat the O-level examination in 1978.
The cleric was then admitted to Strathmore College for his A-levels for two years.
Having excelled in his Form Six examinations, he joined the University of Nairobi to study engineering.
He was first appointed bishop of Embu diocese in 2005 before being transferred to Kitui to replace the late Bishop Boniface Lele, who had been elevated to head the archdiocese of Mombasa.