NAIROBI, KENYA — Schismatic Roman Catholic priests, who left the church to claim their right to marry, are now asking for an “African pope” to lead them.
The priests say they regret their former church is “allergic” to change. They believe priestly celibacy is neither rooted in the teachings of Jesus nor in the work of his apostles, who were married. And they insist celibacy does not work in an African context.
Former Zambian ArchbishopÂ Emmanuel Milingo who married a Korean acupuncturist in a 2001 celebration sponsored by the Unification Church and presided by its late founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, serves as “African patriarch” of a number of church groups affiliated with his movement.
MilingoÂ was excommunicated in 2006 for consecrating four married priests as bishops. Later, he founded a group called “Married Priests Now!”
Since then, the number of priests leaving the church to marry and rear children has grown. There are an estimated 300,000 members affiliated with Milingo’s movement across Africa.
The group, loosely known as the “Reformed Catholic Churches,” resembles the Catholic Church in belief and ritual and is led by young clerics, many of whom were educated in Vatican-approved seminaries before leaving to form their own congregations.
The fledgling group has churches in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa, according to Bishop Peter Njogu, a former Catholic priest, now married, and working in Kenya.
“We respect Pope Francis and pray for him, but we are not Roman Catholics,” said Njogu. “We want a leader similar to the pontiff who will understand our situation. That leader has to be an African.”
The Milingo case shocked and embarrassed the Catholic Church when at age 71 he broke his vow and married Maria Sung, a 43-year-old Korean woman.
Following his marriage, Pope John Paul II summoned him to the Vatican, where he promised not to see his wife anymore.
After the separation, his wife, Sung went on a hunger strike in protest. They reunited in 2006.
Milingo’s marriage gave a global dimension to the calls for married priests, and led dozens of clergy to come forward and reveal their secret marriages and families.
Angry at the betrayal, Catholic bishops expelled priests associated with the rebels and strongly warned Catholics against them.
In marrying, the priests believe they are Africanizing Christianity. They are also open to shunned practices such as polygamy and women’s leadership, said Njogu.
“We must realize, for example, the lack of children is the worst evil for man in the African tradition,” said Njogu who teaches comparative theology at Kenya Methodist University.
In 2011, Njogu established the Restored Universal Apostolic Church. The same year he was installed the church’s bishop by Milingo in a ceremony attended by 15 other married priests. Within two years, RUAC had more than 3,000 members in Kenya alone.
Njogu now serves as the chairman of eight rebel Kenyan priests who have been enthroned as bishops of churches they founded after being expelled from the Roman Catholic Church. Their independent churches are affiliated with Milingo and include 80 former Roman Catholic priests and an estimated 30,000 members, some priests said.
“Every Sunday, we see new people coming to our churches,” Njogu said. “They come voluntarily and want to become our members. I think this is the future of Christianity.”
Njogu, like many in the movement, believes celibacy is too onerous a vow.
“The young priests find it very difficult to stay celibate, and many are in favor of marriage,” he said. “When a priest is married, he is able to serve the church better. This also makes their lives easier.”
Bishop Mark Kambalazaza, a former Malawian Roman Catholic priest who formed Charismatic Redeemed Ministries International, said many priestsÂ who take the vow of celibacy live with mistresses.
He thinks the Vatican should allow priests to choose whether to remain celibate. He hopes Pope Francis can change the law.
“This is the perspective in the Anglican and the Greek Orthodox churches,” said Kambalazaza, referring to the practice of married priests in those churches. “The church is called to make an analysis on all these issues and decide appropriately, if it is to remain true to its calling.”
In March this year, the Rev. Anthony Musaala, a Ugandan Catholic priest, shocked the church when he wrote a letter published in the Ugandan press saying that many bishops and priests in the country had failed the celibacy test.
Musaala was immediately suspended for urging open and frank dialogue about priests marrying.
“My forecast is that we will have a few more years of Catholic self-deception, perhaps 10, telling ourselves and the world that everything is OK, nothing serious,” he wrote in the letter. “Then the scandals will surface.”
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