, 16 December, 2019 / 3:58 AM
Appointed Saturday, December 14 to shepherd the people of God in Kenya’s Kericho Diocese by the Holy Father, Bishop Alfred Rotich, the retired Military Ordinariate Local Ordinary was born in the same diocese 62 years ago to a family of 13 children. This is part of the Rift Valley region, a place whose weather pattern, warm temperate climate and slightly acidic soil is appropriate for agriculture, with inhabitants engaged in large scale tea farming as their main cash crop.
In a recent exclusive interview with ACI Africa, the retired military man recalled how his parents, inhabitants of the tea zone, influenced his spiritual life because of the many times they spent in prayer including their participation in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Early Life and Priesthood
As a young boy, Alfred, as his father fondly called him, not really understanding what was happening at Holy Mass, always sat still throughout the celebrations, admiring the immaculate vestments of the priest at Mass and keenly observing the activities of the Mass servers.
During the interview, the Bishop recalled with nostalgia an incident while in Grade 6, “After Mass on the way out as we crossed the tarmac, I asked my mother, who are those serving with the priest? Are they half priests? And she didn't answer yes or no, but she said, do you want to join them? And I said yes.”
He added, “My heart opened and I found a sense of confirmation and satisfaction and it closed again and locked in kind of a very tight box. The only way I can compare is like the Blessed Virgin Mary saying she kept these things to herself until when the son was born.”
Unknown to him, the words he affirmed that day would develop progressively, with Saint Patrick's Missionaries teaching him in his High School days at Kipchimchim Secondary, a day school within Kericho diocese that would be instrumental in his journey to the priesthood, he recalled.
“There was a reason why I went to that school because I felt something, a desire to work within the Church but I had not really discovered what it was.”
Among the instrumental teachers he met was his parish priest and Principal at his school, the late Fr. Paddy Gallagher. “I really owe him as a great disciplinarian; he was an all-round and the students looked up to him for guidance and all manner of things that is needed of a leader,” Bishop Rotich recalls.
Like Pope St. John Paul II who never discussed with his father his vocation, the young Alfred does not recall sharing with his dad about the desire to become a priest. Instead, when his dad asked him and his siblings what careers they wanted to take up, Alfred usually talked of being a doctor, a lawyer and at some point, a broadcaster.
He recalls disclosing to a distant cousin about his desire to join the seminary. “So, I said I wanted and that journey begun till now,” Bishop Rotich recalls how his conversation of the cousin concluded and that the rest is history for he would be ordained a priest on November 18, 1983 for Nakuru diocese, on the same field he had played on in his secondary school days.
From Parish to Military
Five years of parish apostolate ended in the youthful Rotich being asked by his Bishop to take up military chaplaincy following the request of the conference of Catholic Bishops in Kenya. He had misgivings about this assignment based on the narrative among his contemporaries that errant priests would be seconded to the disciplined forces as a way of taming their wayward ways.
He made his hesitation known to his Bishop who told him to feel free to decline the posting. In a spirit of obedience, and after the necessary procedures involving the Catholic Bishops in Kenya and the military, he reported at the Armed Forces Training Academy in Lanet, Nakuru.
The first days of the training were hard as the physical training was rigorous, he recalls. In the camp, he was just like any other cadet; nobody recognized his priestly vocation and he was not allowed to celebrate Mass.
Over time, he found peace in the camp and started enjoying his exercises. He would once in a while be marched out of the camp to celebrate Mass in neighboring camps and would eventually be marched back as protocol required of him as a cadet. Upon commissioning three months later, he was posted in that same camp as a military chaplain, a posting he says made him proud knowing he would be ministering to his former instructors as well as military men and women in training.
What is currently the Military Ordinariate was established as a Vicariate, with the Servant of God Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga as its first Bishop while still serving as the Local Ordinary of Kisii diocese and later Nairobi Archdiocese.
The Military Vicariate was later promoted to the rank of an Ordinariate in 1986, thereby allowing military officers to be shepherded independently.
In 1996, Pope St. John Paul II appointed Fr. Rotich as the auxiliary Bishop of Nairobi, with his main duties being helping the then Archbishop of Nairobi in his military apostolate.
“I would go to the military and be back in Nairobi on a daily basis,” he recalls. For a period of one year, the two collaborated in the military apostolate. When Cardinal Otunga retired in 1997, Bishop Rotich was appointed head of the Military Ordinariate in Kenya.
Bishop Rotich was in office when Kenyan troops were on a peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, under the auspices of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).
This mission, Bishop Rotich recalls, brought him face to face with the dynamics of the battlefront, which he describes as “the theatre of war.” He accompanied the military top command to Sierra Leone following the highly-publicized kidnapping and eventual release of Kenyan soldiers who were part of the mission.
There, with the presence of peacekeepers, he had the opportunity to celebrate Mass in Freetown. Survivors of the war trooped to the open air field-turned Church, many of them amputees; a stark reminder that they were in the theatre of war.
A tour outside Freetown brought the team face to face with the reality of the war pitting rebels against government troops. Everyone in the vicinity was an amputee, and for some it was worse because they were double amputees, Bishop Rotich recalls.
“I remember one mother I met was a mother of nine children and for the sake of her children she sacrificed her legs to be amputated by the rebels. That was something – I remember she was called Animata. Also, to see a child 8 months old after the signing of the Lome Convention whose hands had been amputated in the full view of her mother – because the rebels were asking, which side do you prefer,” the Bishop recalls.
In one region, the rebels were using the diocesan lorries for logistics and they would often bully the Local Ordinary for fuel. For his security, he would oblige. However, the peacekeepers were able to repel the rebels and hand the Church premises back to the Bishop.
Ministering to bereaved families was one of the lowest moments as the Bishop recalled saying, “I experienced those moments too and looking at the families and the children and each moment they are watching and looking at news and if the flag in the camp is half-mast they are asking if it’s my husband or whose because that’s a sign that it’s a low moment.”
There were also memorable moments, the retired Colonel recalls. In Sierra Leone, while locals would hardly interact with other troops who were part of the mission, they would run, hug and easily interact with Kenyan troops.
For the 19 years Bishop Rotich served as the Ordinary of Kenya’s military ordinariate, he is proud that with the help of the Ministry of Defence, he and fellow chaplains were able to benchmark in countries like the Philippines, Germany and South Africa. This experience enabled them to write papers and design programs on accompanying soldiers during and after the war, to facilitate the management of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I am happy that by the time I was retiring, the command had implemented this and discussed with various commissions that this is the way because this is what we were experiencing,” the Bishop recalled the events of December 2016 when he retired having exceeded by four years the age of retirement in Kenyan military service.
By the time of his retirement, Bishop Rotich was a Colonel, the highest rank for a religious person in Kenya’s military cycles.
Life After the Military
Bishop Rotich served in the military for about 28 years, 19 of them as the Military Ordinariate.
He may have retired from the military, but the military traits seem visible – the stealth and alternate walking style, the sharply ironed suits and the soft but firm speaking style.
He has remained at the service of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) where he is serving as the Chairman for the Commission for Ecumenism, Vice-Chairman of the Commission for Inter-religious Dialogue, Vice-Chairman of Family Life National Office and also a member of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC). He has been especially active in CJPC where he and fellow Bishops have been instrumental in national peace, mediation and reconciliation efforts.
Passionate about families and as a member of Family Life National Office, Bishop Rotich actively participated in the Pro Family Side Events that sought to counter the controversial International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25), which was promoting pro-choice agenda of family planning, abortion, homosexuality and comprehensive sexuality education (CSE).
He also assists in the Archdiocese of Nairobi whenever he is called upon by the Archbishop to do so. When he is not engaged in pastoral duties, the retired Colonel has usually found time to relax and pray, things that rhyme with his love for solitude. It is for this latter that he chose to reside at Nairobi’s Resurrection Garden, known for silence, prayer and reflection. He believes that the solitude allows one to develop hobbies by listening to oneself; “What is it that gives you peace? What is it that God has given you and you want to recreate it, recreation,” he told ACI Africa.
He is a lover of music. He listens to classical music of great composers like Mozart and Beethoven. “Music that is well composed takes me a little to the highest level, ” he reveals.
Apart from music, Bishop Rotich loves reading books from a wide range of authors like Thomas Morton, Joyce Loupe among others. His collection of books includes military reads with his favorite being “In Pursuit of Peace in Africa,” an autobiography by Kenya’s decorated military man Lieutenant General Daniel Opande, whom he worked closely with on various missions among them the peacekeeping in Sierra Leone.
Bishop Rotich loves traffic marshalling, something he says arises from the military instinct of orderliness.
He exemplified this love on October 5, 2019 during Kenya’s National Prayer Day held at the National Marian Shrine, Subukia. The estimated 50,000 pilgrims caused an unprecedented jam along the way leading to the Shrine. Bishop Rotich abandoned his car and walked down from the Shrine to the main road, a distance of six kilometres, guiding the traffic, much to the appreciation of Christians and traffic police on duty who seemed overwhelmed.
Soft but firm, the Bishop ordered two of his fellow Bishops back to their rightful lanes as they tried to overlap. In the process, he mobilized young people to help push a stalled car. He is not one to sit back and watch things stall.
Advice to Priests, Deacons, Seminarians
In a highly secularized world, Bishop Rotich acknowledges that there are many temptations that can lead to the downfall of a priest. To remain faithful to one’s vocation, he has been guided by this formula, which he wishes to extend to priests: “the awareness of the webs of temptation, developing a habit of walking away from any muddy situation, and above all, praying.”
To deacons and seminarians, the Bishop’s advice is derived from cryptic advice given by his grandfather upon learning of his desire to join the seminary: “Ensure when you're playing with your friends, like playing football, ensure that they don't patch you with mud or that you don't have an impediment.”
To those who wish to join the priesthood, Bishop Rotich says, should watch out who and what they associate themselves with, lest they get entangled in issues that might hinder their admission to the seminary.
The Childhood Dream: Broadcaster, Lawyer, Doctor
Though he did not make it to institutions of journalism, law or medicine, Bishop Rotich is happy that in his priesthood, he has fulfilled his childhood desires of being a broadcaster, a lawyer and a doctor. As a clergy, he broadcasts the good news of our Lord; he is a legal defender of the Constitution of every Christian – the ten commandments; and he is a doctor who heals through the Sacrament of Confession, with the Stole as his stethoscope, he told ACI Africa.
Returning Home: Kericho Diocese
Born in Kenya’s Bomet County, Bishop Rotich is set to return to his native land to shepherd the people of God in Kericho Diocese, taking over from 77-year-old Bishop Emmanuel Okombo. Erected in December 1995, Kericho is one of the five Dioceses that constitute the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Nairobi. It is under the patronage of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It measures 4,800 square kilometres and according to 2017 statistics, the Diocese has an estimated 249,770 Catholics.