On St. John Paul II’s Centenary Birthday, Africans Recall Saint Who Walked in Their Midst

St. John Paul II during his apostolic visit to Uganda in 1993.
Credit: Public Domain

Of all the remarkable moments that a priest in Kenya’s Archdiocese of Nairobi recalls from the many occasions he interacted with St. John Paul II during his 27-year tenure as Pope, one particular experience stands out.

“I have this memory of a humble servant of God who bent his knee to pick my rosary when I was a young seminarian,” recalls Fr. Stephen Okello as he narrates the incident that happened in August 1984.

“I was attending an inter-seminary meeting in Rome and after Mass at the Pope John Paul’s residence, all the seminarians lined up to shake the Pope’s hand and he was also giving us rosaries. My rosary fell down and as I tried to pick it up, I felt a strong hand pull me up and the Holy Father bent down, picked the rosary and handed it to me, clasping my hand reassuringly,” says Fr. Stephen.  

The 63-year-old Consolata Priest had met Pope John Paul II before in 1980 on the Pontiff’s inaugural pastoral trip to Africa during which he visited six African nations including Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Ivory Coast, Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and Ghana.

Aged 23, Seminarian Stephen was part of the choir that sang at Nairobi’s Holy Family Basilica during Mass with the Pope John Paul II in Kenya in 1980.

“He (Pope John Paul II) was the most joyful person I had ever met in life and he had this contagious smile on his face. He filled all of us with immense love and a desire to be always around him. He truly had the Spirit of God,” recalls the Kenyan-born Cleric in an interview with ACI Africa May 18, the centenary birthday of St. John Paul II.

The next time the Consolata Priest went to Rome for his theological studies in 1983, he met a very prayerful Pope.

“The late Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki met us at the Vatican and took us to meet Pope John Paul II in a chapel where we found him in very intense prayer. He was making sounds that were not audible and we were all suddenly immersed in his prayer as if it was our own prayer too,” the Priest recalls, adding, “and as he greeted us, he touched me on my cheek and told me ‘You are so young.’”

Fr. Stephen, a senior lecturer of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) met Pope John Paul II at least three more times after he had eventually been ordained a priest in 1987.

Fr. Stephen was the one who sampled the Swahili words that the Pope said at Kenya’s Uhuru Park in September 1995 when the then head of the Catholic Church brought the synod to Africa on his visit to Kenya, South Africa and Cameroon.

The words were recorded on tape and sent to the Vatican, allowing the Pope ample time to go through them in anticipation for his interaction with the people of God in Kenya, which would later become his last pastoral visit to the East Africa country.

“When he arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport aboard a Kenya Airways plane, Pope John Paul II broke into greetings in Swahili, uttering pleasantries in very fluent Swahili, to the amazement of a cheerful crowd that had arrived to meet the beloved Pope,” recalls Fr. Stephen.

The Priest’s quavering voice as he describes his final encounter with Pope John Paul II in 2004, a year before he passed on, gives away his love for the Pope who has since been declared a saint.

“He was very old and sickly when he gave us an audience in 2004,” he says, adding, “Though his mind was fairly okay, one could see the frustration on his face in the sense he wasn’t able to address us effectively. This really broke my heart.”

Many other people shared their memories of St. Pope John Paul II on his centenary birthday, which is being celebrated across the globe Monday, May 18.

Born in Poland in 1920 and named Karol Józef Wojtyła, he was made a Cardinal in 1967. In October 1978, he became the first Pope from a Slavic country and the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. He took the name of his predecessor Pope John Paul I whose pontificate lasted only 34 days.

Having made 16 pastoral trips across 38 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa during his 27-year pontificate, St. John Paul II is so far the most travelled Pope on the African continent.

On his maiden trip to Africa in 1980, he is remembered urging Ghanaians to promote the dignity of individuals as well as to uphold equality and justice.

“The Church asks you to bring the influence of the Gospel and the presence of Christ into every human activity, and to seek to build a society where the dignity of each person is respected and where equality, justice and freedom are protected and promoted,” he said in a Homily in Accra.

In 1982, during his pastoral visit to Nigeria, Pope John Paul II urged reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, saying, “All of us, Christians and Muslims, live under the sun of the one merciful God.”

Fr. Patrick Alumuku, a Nigerian national who worked closely with Pope John Paul II for 12 years at the Africa Service of Vatican Radio remembers the Pope who “loved Africa.”

“He was called ‘The Pope who loves Africa’ by the Italian press because of his many trips to our continent,” says Fr. Alumuku, currently the Director of the Abuja-based Catholic Television of Nigeria (CTV).

He adds, “He's fondly remembered all over the continent. He also led to the growth of the church on our continent and we thank God for his life, his example and his leadership. And he remains a model for evangelization for the entire African continent.”

The CTV Director remembers a leader who “came to call for a new evangelization in Nigeria and that call actually led to a new momentum in the missionary activity of Nigeria.”

“It also gave impetus to a desire for missionary groups, possibly for Nigerians, to become missionaries to themselves and to be missionaries outside of their country. And that was the beginning of the great movement for vocations in our country. I worked here for twelve years, and afterwards I was sent to study in Rome and also worked for Vatican Radio,” the Nigerian Cleric who holds a doctorate in Social Communications from the Gregorian University in Rome says.

In his testimony about St. John Paul II shared with ACI Africa, the President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Philipp Cardinal Ouédraogo, celebrates a most-travelled servant of God

“He is a great Pope, an authentic Pastor and Witness of Jesus Christ,” says Archbishop Ouédraogo.

The Archbishop of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso explains the “greatness” of St. John Paul II, “First of all, by his personality, he was a man of God, imbued with God who was not afraid to announce the Gospel to the little ones as well as to the great ones of this world. He made, it seems, 104 pastoral journeys and bequeathed to the Church 14 Encyclicals, which constitute precious teachings on the faith, the Church and the world.”

He continues, “In my capacity as President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), on behalf of the African Episcopate, we must pay a vibrant tribute to him for his many pastoral journeys on the African Continent and his precious Post-Synodal Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa.”

Citing personal experiences with St. John Paul II, Cardinal Ouédraogo says he interacted with him both as a seminarian and as a Bishop.

“While I studied in Rome between 1979-1983, I lived with great pain the attack on the Pope in St. Peter's Square,” the 75-year-old Cardinal says and adds, “I consider him a true father and a guide for my life.”

From 18 to 24 November 2019, the President of SECAM says he hosted and presided over the 4th Pan-African Congress of Divine Mercy in Ouagadougou whose theme was “Divine Mercy, a grace for our time.”

He adds in reference to the saint who he considers as the pioneer of Divine Mercy, “In this we can see a convergence and a deep communion between Saint John Paul II and our Pope Francis for whom mercy is the vibrant heart of the Gospel.”

“So, Saint John Paul II, pray for the Church and the world that you have loved and served so much,” the Burkinabe Cardinal says in his final remarks to ACI Africa and thanks the various media outlets that are facilitating the marking of “the centenary of the birth of Pope John Paul II with a golden stone.”

On his part, Cameroonian Martin Jumbam, a Catholic Journalist, Translator and Interpreter remembers St. John Paul II as spiritual leader who left a mark in the country’s education as well as health sector.

Sharing personal memories of Pope John Paul II’s two visits to Cameroon in 1985 and in 1995, Martin Jumbam says, “When Pope John Paul II first visited Cameroon in 1985, I was not yet active in the Catholic media and I observed the events more from the sidelines than from the inside.”

The Pope’s pastoral visit to Cameroon saw the establishment of thriving learning institutions and health facilities, Martin Jumbam says and adds in reference to the 1985 Papal visit to his country, “I recall the Holy Father's meeting with Catholic intellectuals in Cameroon's capital Yaounde. Here, the Holy Father urged them to be more active in finding solutions to the problems of their society and not wait for others to come from outside and do it for them.”

He adds, “At the meeting, the Pope called for the creation of Catholic institutions of higher learning and that the Catholic University of Central Africa, among other institutions, came as a response to that appeal. It has since earned a solid reputation for its pursuit of intellectual excellence and integrity in academic matters.”

“In fact, it is Jesuit-led and stands head and shoulders above every other institute of higher learning in Cameroon, be it public, private or confessional,” Martin Jumbam says in his interview with ACI Africa Monday, May 18.

The Doula-based Catholic journalist who also met the Holy Father on his second visit to the West Africa country in 1995 says, “From Pope John Paul II’s two visits to Cameroon, our people, and people in surrounding countries, have reaped many benefits, both spiritual and material, all for the greater glory of God Almighty. Saint John Paul II, pray for us.”

Christian Cardinal Tumi, Archbishop Emeritus of Douala in Cameroon says that St. John Paul II loved the Church, especially the people of God in Africa.

“In Africa, for example he promoted enculturation, bringing into the Church African cultures that are in agreement with the gospel,” The Cameroonian Cardinal says.

One of the setbacks that Christian Cardinal Tumi faced when Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Garoua, he says, was having few priests to serve in the local church, a challenge that he says the Pope solved immediately.

“I wrote to the Pope to tell him about this challenge and he sent me priests from the Archdiocese of Milan to help in my pastoral ministry. So, every year I received 6 priests from Milan sent by the Pope to help the Archdiocese of Garoua,” the 89-year-old Cardinal says and adds in reference to St. John Paul II, “The Pope also supported the local Church in the building of schools, hospitals and Parishes in Garoua.”

Meanwhile, in a letter shared with ACI Africa, Charles Besigye, A Ugandan Focolarino refers to St. John Paul II as “the Pope of the People.”

“Your Holiness JP II,” Charles writes and continues, “If you were still here on earth with us, we would have shared a Cake on your 100th Birthday. All the same we celebrate you here on earth as you do in heaven with the saints. I thank God who made me know and meet a Saint in the making on three occasions that have marked my life.”

The Rome-based member of the Focolare Movement goes on to narrate his first meeting with Pope John Paul II during a festival that brought together more than 16,000 youth from across the globe in 1990 at Palaeur Studium in Rome.

“He encouraged us to build a united world as the title of the meeting suggested. The only thing I remember today was his smiling face as he addressed us,” he says.

At the World Youth event that was held in Rome in 2000, Charles recalls a remarkable night that millions of youth across the world had with the Pope.

“His love for young people was so great. I Had accompanied a group of more than 10 young people from Kenya and we happened to be privileged to occupy the first long rows so we could see and hear him directly on the stage,” he says.

Charles who was also present at Pope John Paul II’s funeral in St. Peters Square in April 2005 says, “It was incredible to see how many people were present and grieved of the loss of a Pope that loved people so much. We had carried banners written ‘Santo Subito’ (Saint immediately) …and we raised our voices and banners acclaim in Santo Subito as we accompanied him to rest.”

“I am full of gratitude to God who gave us the gift of John Paul II who left us with a legacy of his Magisterium that the Church and the society will always draw from to nourish current generations and those yet to come,” Ugandan-born Charles says and adds, “We call on you St. John Paul II to help us keep faith and hope in this trying moment of the COVID-19 Pandemic.  Happy Birthday!”


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]