by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism
Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your call to the priesthood? How did your academic work inform your priesthood?
Father Waithaka: I felt a desire to be a priest at a young age. I could have joined the Maryknolls because my parish in Kenya was ministered by the Maryknolls, both priests and sisters. But the Maryknoll fathers always encouraged men to join the local dioceses or congregations. The bishop was not taking local vocations because the diocese was more of a mission territory. So, I joined SMA priests. While going through philosophical studies, former pastor while growing up had returned to Chicago, and we kept correspondence. He invited me to consider studying for the Archdiocese of Chicago. I took the invitation to prayer (I did not know where Chicago is located in the US, but I knew of Chicago Bulls because of Michael Jordan). After prayer, I applied to Mundelein Seminary and was accepted in August 1998. I was ordained in 2002 and have worked in two parishes: St. Sylvester and St. Catherine Laboure. I also worked at St. Stanislaus Posen for a year. Besides theology, I chose to study Spanish so that I can minister to Hispanics in the Archdiocese. I have enjoyed in bilingual parishes. While in ministry, I also attended Loyola University Chicago and graduated with a master's in Pastoral Counseling. It helped me immensely to deal with families or individuals that need counseling in the parish.
Dr. Knight: You seem to really enjoy your ministry as assisting as a formation director. What sustains and supports you in this challenging task?
Father Waithaka: community. We pray together, we eat together, and we live together. The sense of community is gratifying. There are a few individuals who have taken their time to reach out to me and continuously check on me in a very genuine way. I am grateful to them because that is what sustains me, along with more opportunities to pray.
Dr. Knight: What are the issues in Chicago that are of primary importance at this time in the history of the Church?
Father Waithaka: I do not know if you mean Chicago Archdiocese or Chicago City and its surroundings. But I will speak from both perspectives. First, as a church, we are going through the Renew My Church initiative. The RMC is very important because while the process has been painful to the faithful Catholics, we know that it is needed. I am optimistic that the procedure will rejuvenate the Church because the parishes that will remain open will not have the financial burden or deteriorating infrastructures that continue to restrain the evangelization efforts. The process will also help priests to work together without burnout. We also need to attract vocations to the priesthood. But young men will not enter the Seminary if they do not enter the Church. We have to get their families to come to Church, so we have to pray for vocations every day and increase of faith in our families. To the second aspect regarding Chicago, in general, the city is one of the most segregated cities in the world. So, I think the most pressing issue in Chicago is racism and prejudice. Racism usually adopts new realities; it has not ended. How do the Catholic church and the people of goodwill in Chicago address the new realities of prejudice and racism? I think a historical mistake in Chicago centers around ethnic identity in expressing our faith. Churches were built along ethnic lines - a polish church, Italian, German, Hispanic, African American Parish, and so on. I think people still cling on to those ideologies. As a young seminarian, I was sent to St. Benedict Blue Island. I entered the Church, and a gentleman who was an usher told me that there is a black church called St. Peter Claver a few miles down the road. He did not know I was a seminarian assigned to the parish.
Dr. Knight: Have you worked in other dioceses? Tell us about the diocese.
Father Waithaka: No! I was ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago and have worked here since. It has been 18 years now, and I enjoy it.
Dr. Knight: As working with Seminarians, what part of your ministry do you most enjoy?
Father Waithaka: A life of prayer. Seminary is like an aircraft carrier. We are all together! We do things together, such as praying the breviary together, attending daily Mass, and Eucharistic adoration together. There is beauty when you see young men engaged in worship. It is very fulfilling!
Dr. Knight: I am part of the RCIA program, and I often reflect on how we can assist the next generation in being good Catholics. How does the Seminary engage young adults?
Father Waithaka: Our seminarians participate in what we call Tolton Teaching Parish Program. Augustine Tolton was the first African American priest and will soon be canonized. He had the love for parish ministry. The seminarians often take part in the RCIA or faith formation programs and relate well with young adults. There are also classes where young adults can register at meager costs and learn good theology taught by the seminary professors. We have found out that young adults often time purchase these classes.
Dr. Knight: The Catholic School system in our Archdiocese is struggling to figure out the use of our resources in the best way. What do you think we should do to alleviate the burden of cost to the local community?
Father Waithaka: I think first we need to define what is a catholic school. I believe our catholic schools today resemble public schools in comparison so that a parent feels it is just a choice between the public system and the catholic system. We have lost our catholic identities in our schools. If we are to save our schools, we must recruit the parent, NOT the child. If parents do not commit to practicing their catholic faith, then the schools will continue to struggle. The second point, in my humble opinion, the curriculum is not a catholic curriculum. For example, name one school that teaches Latin at grade school level! Do we teach about our great Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and others? I think our Catholic schools educate children but do not form children. This will continue to be a struggle.
Dr. Knight: The social media of this day and age has provided some beautiful aspects of communication as well as drawbacks. How can we use social media to assist others in knowing/loving/serving God?
Father Waithaka: I think Covid-19 has taught all sectors that technology/ social media are crucial today. YouTube and podcasts are the pulpits of 2020. Any catholic that want to know, love, and serve God can find ways to do so through social media. BUT a word that must remain at the heart of every Catholic is discernment. The is a sense of social media consumerism. We must discern well what knowing, loving, and serving God look like while using the media. Just like one must read the bible in the light of faith and in the context of the Church, the same must apply when dealing with social media.
Dr. Knight: What part of your Seminary work has been meaningful to you?
Father Waithaka: Accompanying the men in their journey to priesthood. When I listen to the men talk about why they want to be a priest when they share the joys of faith, and when they talk about their love for Jesus. There is a sense of inner happiness in them that is contagious. That is what I find more meaningful.
Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Church in light of the abuse scandal?
Father Waithaka Well, first, we must accept that this Church is ultimately a Divine Institution, and we are stewards of what Jesus commanded. The hope subsists in the words of Jesus presented by Matthew 16: 18, "The gates of Hell will not prevail against it." In those words, we anchor the hope, the future of the Church. Another factor is that every institution will have good and bad people. Just like what we are seeing now happening in our country, not every police officer is a corrupt officer. In fact, we can point to when police rose beyond the call of duty to save someone. In like manner, not every priest is a bad priest. Priests have done lots of good for the people of God. We need to remain focused on forming good men to the priesthood. I can tell you that the formation program now we have in Mundelein is more robust and focused and pays close attention to the men entering or continuing the formation to the priesthood.
Dr. Knight: What books do you enjoy that you would recommend to our readers?
Father Waithaka: Well, with my work, most books I read have to do with ministry and spirituality. I usually don't have much time to read for leisure. I am a massive follower of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe. The Franciscans recently had his writings translated into English. So, I have both volumes. I also like the writings of Fr. Michael Gaitley. He writes outstanding spiritual books, and the one I like is "The 'One Thing' is Three. In the book, he talks about how Nothing the world can be explained outside the Trinity. It is an easy read.
Dr. Knight: What recent movie such as "The Two Popes" was one you enjoyed?
Father Waithaka: I enjoy more life stories-based movies. For example, just last week, I watched Soul Surfer on Netflix about a girl, Bethany Hamilton, in Hawaii. She was determined to be in a surfing competition even though she lost her hand from a shark bite. I did watch The Two Popes, which was a fascinating movie. I enjoyed it most when the two popes were watching the World Cup. I am a massive fan of soccer (football as is called in the rest of the world).
Dr. Knight: Could you share with us other aspects of your ministry that most don't know about?
Father Waithaka: Well, in 2009, I took a mini-sabbatical and went to Cameroon under CRS's auspice. It was an enriching experience working with the people infected with HIV/AIDS or children that are orphans or vulnerable due to the decease. I also worked in the Central Prison in the Capital of Cameroon, and it was very comforting. Besides, I participated in the advocacy meetings and seminars with high-level government officials in Cameroon to talk about the Natural resources and how people have been exploited because of mining and logging – it was a high awareness of how we are abusing the natural resources and the environment.