What you need to know:
- When I quit my newsroom job for this jungle, at first, fears, doubts and anxiety troubled me.
- Frankly speaking, the opening 15 days were long, strenuous and boring.
Two years ago, as a young Nation Media Group employee with a promising career in sports journalism, I bid goodbye to viewers and readers as I began a long journey to become a Catholic priest.
What would have led to such a radical choice? To abandon a salaried and independent life to embrace a life of owning nothing, following rules and vowing never to marry?
If I thought I was the only one to embrace such a radical decision, I soon gained consolation as I met in my batch engineers, computer scientists, teachers, medics and many young but gifted men. Well!
This is my story of the last two years, when I left as Mr Vincent Opiyo and returned as a religious with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and with an “SJ” at the end of my name standing for “the Society of Jesus”.
Allow me to tell my story beginning with the words of Prophet Simeon in the gospel of St. Luke 2: 29-32 that “at last all powerful master” I am proudly a Jesuit, a member of the religious congregation known as the Society of Jesus.
It has been a long journey, perhaps rocky, of about 12 years since my first attempt to join this Catholic universal religious Order of priests and brothers. This is a home I desired and kept admiring even amidst the noisy and busy world in the preceding six-and-a-half years before I made a bold step of joining the Jesuits from the confines of the ever-demanding media industry.
Undoubtedly, I enjoyed my career as a broadcast journalist, particularly, sports. I fancied covering football competitions from across the region, analysing football on both radio and TV and writing exclusive feature stories on the Nation platforms, but I never felt as satisfied and contented as I am right now after crossing over to the seminary.
In the spiritual world of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of this congregation 481 years ago, I can simply put it as a consolation, which, he defines in his book of the Spiritual Exercises as an increase in faith, hope and love. That is exactly my feeling on pronouncing my first simple but perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus on May 16 this year at our Jesuit novitiate in Arusha, Tanzania.
The vow of poverty has taught me to dispose of my gifts and talents for the service of others while relying totally on God’s providence, Chastity to free myself from exclusive to inclusive love while obedience, to follow the Master, Jesus Christ, through listening to the voice of God in the Word and what my superiors instruct me to do in our charism as the Jesuits.
When I quit my noble job for this jungle, at first, fears of doubts and anxiety troubled me as my 15 companions and I travelled to Arusha on May 20, 2019. Frankly speaking, the opening 15 days were the longest, strenuous and boring. If I were to quit then I would have done so during this first two weeks.
This is because I was coming from a watertight schedule in the mainstream media and here I was, doing nothing from morning to evening apart from praying, eating and sleeping. I later came to appreciate the value of silence and prayer in solitude. Thanks be to God, after 15 days, we were taken through a three-day retreat and this was a turning point to me.
In particular, I encountered God in a profound way while praying with the Call of Moses in Exodus 3:5. When God told Moses to take off his sandals “for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Meditating on this, God was telling me to remove the thoughts, the fears and doubts and instead, dispose myself to the novitiate formation I was about to officially begin for it was going to make a change. Truth be told. It did, hence, currently I feel that I am a happy Jesuit. Sometimes, we have to make painful decisions to find interior happiness.
As the novitiate programme became interesting, I adjusted myself into the routine schedule, waking up for community prayers, indoor works, classes on the Constitutions and history of the Society of Jesus, Prayer and Ignatian Spirituality as well as the Church, mostly, Vatican II documents, Liturgy and selected topics in Theology.
After classes, we had the Examen, as famously known is a prayer of review cherished by St. Ignatius of Loyola in which the person is invited for a short reflection recalling events of the day while taking note of the feelings and become more aware of how God was present in all activities of the day. This prayerful environment reinforced my faith. I found God in all activities and for me, I felt indebted to pray for the world, my family, friends and relatives.
After three months, we went for the Long Retreat that takes 30 days in Moshi, about two hours drive from Arusha. During this stretch, retreatants are taken through the Spiritual Exercises (SpEx) of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This Spanish soldier-turned mystic defines SpEx as a means of examining one's conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find God’s Will. It is to be done in 30 days but can be condensed into eight days or done in daily life for those who cannot spare a month in their life. This is a period I had been yearning for to see its impact in my life for the Spiritual Exercises have been voted among the world’s best game changers.
The most important experience of the long retreat was my confirmation to live a religious life, more especially, in the Society of Jesus, a congregation at whose doors I had knocked for about 10 good years. This is the anxiety I had before the Exercises and I was craving for the confirmation of God’s call. After the decision, I had no doubts whatsoever of the worldly life I quit. I also experienced in the retreat a loving God manifested by his giving of his only Son for the redemption of my sins (John 3:16).
The retreat also helped me to learn about myself, my strengths and weaknesses but most importantly, that I am unworthy but loved by God. Also, I am flexible, prayerful, and hard-working. However, as a weakness, that I am naïve and sometimes lack confidence. Thus, after this privileged month of prayer, one is expected to find God in everything and centre his life on Christ crucified for it is by looking at him that we, Jesuits, identify ourselves.
Woe unto me having spent the opening months of 2019 bracing myself psychologically to abandon journalism. I knew that I was crossing over to a new path of life devoid of newsroom demands. Shockingly, I found myself right back into the field. Novices are placed into different offices for five to six months. I served for two years in Rafiki office, which is the communication wing of the novitiate in charge of producing a bimonthly magazine and also updating our administrative region of six countries, called the Eastern Africa Jesuit Province, on weekly basis. I was the correspondent and photographer which I did so well, a continuation of my profession.
In addition, I was appointed to head the communication committee. In this 10-man committee, my job as the chairman was to ensure that we are up to date with magazine production, producing birthday cards and reinforcing our relationship with neighbouring religious communities. I got to actualise some of the units I had studied in college and that I had hardly utilised back in the media.
The climax was producing the inaugural 60-page yearbook. Again, I was appointed sports captain. My work was now to organise for friendly matches with our neighbours and ensuring the sports kits are in place. As an expert, I introduced rules of the game in both football and volleyball and surprisingly, whenever we had a friendly match, my brothers tasked me to come up with a game plan after analysing the opponent. I was a player coach. I fancied the opportunity. I had never imagined in my journalism career back then that one day I would have a group of religious young men listening to my game tactics and instructions.
By the way, this experience helped me realise how good I was as a defender and at some point a striker. I can’t recall how many classic goals I scored. I will tell you one day. I also officiated in some matches and in fact, introduced cards. Well, I never slapped someone with a red card, talk of mercy, I obtained it “blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
Interestingly, I also worked in the machinery office whose job was to ensure there was enough flow of water in coordination with the formator. I also learnt and later began grinding flour for the community using our milling machine. As if that is not enough, I was a lawn mower.
To inculcate more the fruits of the long retreat, novices are sent out for two-month internships twice. This can be in a hospital, hospice or school and one is expected to have his meals in it or in them, to serve the sick and the well for several hours during the day as time allows. This is in order to lower and humble oneself more thus giving a clear proof of effectively having given up the worldly pomp and vanities so that in everything one may serve his God. Such opportunities also help novices discover themselves.
For my internships, I first did at our radio station, Radio Kwizera FM located in Kagera region, northwest of Tanzania bordering Rwanda and Burundi. Secondly, I served at Bugando hospital in Mwanza region. Well, my two-month stay at Radio Kwizera FM was coined around the advice of the mother of Jesus to the servers at the wedding at Cana in the gospel of St. John 2: ‘do whatever he tells you’. Despite my familiarity in media, I was basically here to dispose myself at the hands of my superiors — the editorial and the people of good will I encountered in my apostolate.
At the radio, I produced religious programmes and broadcasted in live programmes like sports. Also, I was corresponding for the diocese of Rulenge-Ngara on the national Catholic weekly called Kiongozi, published by the Tanzania Episcopal Conference. I was available to help the journalists accomplish various tasks that included connecting them to several renowned Kenyan analysts on a range of topics for Radio programmes. I also shared with them a network of sources I had from Kenya which could help them gather more content for their respective programmes. Indeed, God fulfils our hearts’ desires only if we pour out all our frustrations, anxieties and hopes with faith and trust.
Meanwhile, Bugando hospital, built by the missionaries in the 1970s, is a referral hospital in the eight Lake Zone regions of Mara, Simiyu, Kagera, Geita, Shinyanga, Tabora, Kigoma and Mwanza. It is the third largest in Tanzania after Muhimbili and Mbeya with over 950 beds. Two of us, my companion Wisdom Justin and I’s main duty was to assist the medical personnel where possible, counselling and praying for the patients. I worked in different wards on a weekly rotation basis. I assisted in bed-making, scrubbing the floor, dusting and later helped the nurse on duty in feeding the patients using the nasogastric tube and other errands. In other wards I dressed wounds of patients, bed bathing and in the mortuary, learnt how a body is received, embalmed for preserving before discharging to the relatives.
This hospital experience taught me how fragile our bodies are hence need to seek for God’s mercy in our lives. I learnt to accept that in life suffering is inevitable. In Orthopedics ward, I encountered a promising 19-year-old boy from Ukerewe Island. He has been in the ward since February last year when he survived a Tuktuk accident. His right leg was amputated in June last year. Since then, he has been nursing it in the ward. I helped dress him during the week while I encouraged him to be patient and hopeful that he will still chase his dream upon recovery.
He taught me the need to accept suffering and find happiness in everything. He was happy lying in the ward for all these months feeding on the meagre hospital meals. “I have no other option, I can’t keep regretting on losing my leg,” he would tell me. This confidence inspired me so that I made it a habit to meet and greet him daily, just to give him hope for a better tomorrow.
Before finishing my experiment, I had a long conversation with him. He is the third born in a family of eight. Since June, none of his family members have visited him in the wards because of financial challenges in having to commute from Ukerewe to Bugando, about a three-hour trip that one has to make by ferry over Lake Victoria. When I shared with him that we might not meet again since I was going back to Arusha, he was sorrowful but he thanked me open-heartedly so that I felt helpless.
Indeed, God has been propitious to me because every day, I draw closer to him and in return, He has always been drawing closer to me (James 4:8), this despite a few challenges. The major one I faced in the beginning was adjusting to a variety of brothers, very different in age, nationality, culture but the reprieve was that we were united and intertwined because we had all joined a common apostolic body for the same purpose, the salvation of our own souls and later that of others.
The second challenge was Covid-19 outbreak, which deeply permeated into our way of proceeding. The whole world descended on Tanzania neglecting the measures against the virus. Thankfully, as a community, we instituted the universal measures advised by the World Health Organization.
One thing I keep appreciating my stay in the congregation so far is our charism, that of Ignatian Spirituality, coming from a man whose cannonball injury in the battle at Pamplona exactly 500 years ago has converted many and continues to attract many men and women to embrace his spirituality, “come and see” (John 1:39). The little that has been introduced to me has left an indelible mark in my heart and my love for the Triune God.
My prayer life, it goes without saying, has been deepened by the experience of Jesus I encountered in the long retreat, the internships within and outside the novitiate as well as the classes on Spirituality and the Constitutions. However, prayer, to me, is worthless, if I do not transform it to action using the gifts God has bestowed on me that help me overcome self-love, self-will and self-interest. Other tools employed to know oneself were seminars on Enneagram, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, family of origin and Human Sexuality.
Overall, I came out of the novitiate a transformed man looking into the future with hope, seeing all things new in Christ. As I head for my new challenge, a three-year Philosophy programme in Kinshasa, DR Congo, God willing, extended gratitude to the Society of Jesus for approving me, to those who guided me, Fr. Charles Mnubi (Novice Master), his assistant and my spiritual director Fr. Joseph Mboya SJ, Scholastic Cleophas Odinga SJ and all the Jesuits who contributed in my formation in various communities I resided for community experiments.
To my 14 companions for helping me discover my blind self through their fraternal corrections and all ‘friends in the Lord’, be assured of my prayers and may God fulfil the desires of your hearts, in all things to love and serve.