How Catholic Diocese in Malawi is Navigating Rough Terrain, Handling Shortage of Priests

Bishop Martin Anwel Mtumbuka of the Diocese of Karonga in Malawi. Credit: ACN

The Catholic Diocese of Karonga in Malawi has been forced to be creative in order to reach as many Christians as possible despite the Diocese’s vastly rough terrain and an acute shortage of Priests.

Where the elderly and sick find it difficult to climb the numerous hills and mountains that are said make up most of the Diocese, lay people are trained to provide pastoral care in the absence of a Priest, and sometimes, Church leaders engage with the people through mobile phones that are distributed to community leaders, including chiefs.

Bishop Martin Anwel Mtumbuka of Karonga told the Catholic Pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, that the Diocese’s 24 Priests care for more than 60,000 Catholics in a territory of about 12,000 km2, bigger than Lebanon, Kosovo, or Jamaica.

Created in 2010, the Catholic Diocese of Karonga is located in the North of Malawi, with the great Lake Malawi to the East and mountains to the West.

Bishop Mtumbuka told ACN that his main concern in the vast Diocese is evangelization, noting that Church leaders had made it their business to look for the people, instead of waiting for the people to struggle to reach Parishes, which are very few.


“We should ensure that people are not looking for us, but that we are looking for them. We should try to be as close to them as possible,” the Catholic Bishop says in the Wednesday, August 24 ACN report.

Bishop Mtumbuka says that although the use of mobile phones and the internet is extremely rare, this has not limited the creativity of Priests in the Malawian Catholic Diocese.

He gives the example of Fr. Federico, one of the missionaries in the Diocese, who always takes a mobile phone with him when he goes to a remote village to meet the chief.

The Bishop says, in reference to the innovative Missionary Priest, “At the end of the meeting, he gives him the phone and, from that day on, he sends a daily message with a biblical verse to each of the chiefs he met, who then shares it with the whole village.”

He says that each Priest tries to visit everyone in his Parishes at least once a year and that the Diocese’s strategic plan calls for the constant presence of a Priest within at least 20 km of every single Parish in Karonga.

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The Catholic Bishop who has been at the helm of the Malawian Diocese since his Episcopal Ordination in November 2010 told ACN that with hills and mountains making up most of his Episcopal See, it is difficult for the elderly and the sick, who need sacraments, to climb the hills and go to church.

In the August 24 report, he says that the roads in the mountainous and the rural districts are very bad and that cars are not always the best option, especially during the rainy season.

“The road is so bad that in some cases priests have got stuck and had to spend the night out in the open. Nonetheless, we need to do everything possible to reach our parishioners: if we didn’t reach you by road or by car, we’ll reach you by motorcycle; if not, by bicycle; if not, walking; if not, by radio. That no one may blame us for not having brought the message of Christ to him. We should be able to say we went to every village,” Bishop Mtumbuka told the charity foundation that has helped fund the purchase of nine motorcycles to help with pastoral work in the Malawian Diocese.

He attests that the faith of the people is deep and vibrant, and explains that even when a Priest cannot be present, in some places the local people gather for prayer by themselves.

The 65-year-old Bishop says that each Parish has between 15 and 60 small churches or chapels, adding, “When such a small community doesn’t have a place to gather, they build the church themselves.”


He says that the people contribute cement and bricks, and pitch in as they can with the construction, but not being professionals, after a short time many of the buildings collapse. To Fill this gap, he says, the Diocese is adopting a unified approach, with standards, to build churches and other Parish infrastructure.

Bishop Mtumbuka says that with the large distances and shortage of Priests, the Laity come in to help in delivering certain pastoral services.

“You can’t just give everything to the Priest,” he says, and explains, “For example, not every funeral can be presided over by a priest, it is not possible in our situation. So, the responsible lay people were trained as funeral ministers. The idea is that lay people can fulfil all those responsibilities which the Church allows for. We need to make sure that people receive very strong training in catechesis. We want to have as many agents of evangelization as possible.”

In the 12 years since The Diocese of Karonga was created, there has been a significant growth of Parishes, from five to 16, and many young Priests have joined the Diocese, which currently boasts of 28 Seminarians. 

In the August 24 report, Bishop Mtumbuka shares with the Pontifical charity foundation that some priests are studying abroad to be future educators and teachers.

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The charity foundation reports that it has funded the completion of more than 100 different types of projects in Karonga Diocese, totaling almost 1.5 million Euros, including the construction of 25 buildings, 12 of which are churches.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.