Five years later, legacy of great academic, priest Donders lives
What you need to know:
As an academic, Fr Donders was a specialist in modern philosophy.
Since his student days in Rome, Sjef was under the intellectual influence of French Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin.
Fr Joseph Gerard Donders has become an ancestor who now dwells among the living-dead.
This is the fifth anniversary of the death of Father Joseph G. Donders, who was a professor of philosophy at the University of Nairobi for 14 years, playing in the same premier league as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p‘Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong.
Prof Donders’s influence went beyond the university. It was felt by college and high school students throughout the country because he was often invited to address them as a motivational speaker.
Fondly “Sjef” to his colleagues and students, he was a superb communicator through both the spoken and written word.
As an academic, Fr Donders was a specialist in modern philosophy, his PhD dissertation, ‘On the Intelligibility of the Theory of Evolution’, successfully defended at the Gregorian University Rome.
When he died in 2013, he had authored more than 30 books in philosophy, religion, education and culture.
An immensely gifted person, he enjoyed facility in at least seven spoken languages — his mother tongue Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Kiswahili, which he learnt on coming to Kenya in 1970. Besides Latin, he had a good command of biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.
As a communicator, Sjef broke the barriers of age group, social class, political persuasion, ethnicity and economic bracket. His language was poetic, simple without being simplistic and searched and conveyed deep truths, often tinged with humour.
Since his student days in Rome, Sjef was under the intellectual influence of French Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, a palaeontologist and poet, but remained an original thinker in his own right.
During his time at the UoN, Prof Donders wrote Jesus, the Stranger, which won the National Religious Book Award in the United States in 1979.
It portrays Jesus, the man from Nazareth, as a familiar friend sent to us by God. As we get to know him better, he turns out to be no stranger at all but a fellow who is quite at home in Africa.
In fact, he has been in the continent before — as a refugee in Egypt during his childhood and youth.
The book, a collection of sermons preached at St Paul’s Chapel of the University of Nairobi, became immensely popular in Kenya and abroad.
Another highly successful of Sjef’s works is John Paul II: The Encyclicals in Everyday Language. Definitive Edition of All Fourteen Encyclicals.
An encyclical is a letter written by the Pope intended for circulation to all Catholics to convey an important message in matters of faith, morals and Catholic life.
Since the Holy Father is the spiritual head of Catholics, his teachings carry the highest authority for the faithful. But encyclicals, in their original form, do not always make easy reading for ordinary folks.
One of Donders’s most unique feats is obtaining The Vatican’s permission in 2005 to edit all 14 of Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals and put them in everyday language. This is an edition that is engaging, lucid and eminently readable.
POPE JOHN PAUL II
Sjef’s achievement is even more remarkable considering that Pope John Paul II is, without a doubt, one of the greatest pontiffs ever.
Not only is he the most widely travelled Pope, he was canonised saint barely 10 years after his death. The very year that John Paul II died, Fr Donders was allowed to edit his letters for publication.
Fr Donders’s edition has been an overwhelming success. The publisher, Orbis Books, announced recently that the title is one of their bestsellers.
Sjef continues to be alive in the legacy of his powerful writings. To borrow a phrase from his friend and fellow philosopher, Prof John S. Mbiti, Fr Joseph Gerard Donders has become an ancestor who now dwells among the living-dead.
Fr Njoroge, a philosophy student of Prof Fr Sjef Donders’s, teaches development studies and ethics at JKUAT. [email protected]