He had an enduring passion for justice and reconciliation
He showed his mettle and benevolence in the 2007 post-poll chaos when he transformed himself into the ultimate caregiver, taking care of the displaced
“He took them in— more than 10,000 of them — and provided for their needs to the frustration and anger of their tormentors” PROF, FR LAWRENCE NJOROGE
It is well known that the Catholic Church in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa has expended huge resources in the sectors of education and health. Until fairly recently, it seemed that besides running educational institutions and offering health services, the Church mostly concentrated on internal matters of liturgy and worship with little or no time for involvement in political issues.
It must have come as a surprise to Catholic bishops when President Jomo Kenyatta said to them in their plenary conference in the mid-70s: “If we do something wrong and you do not point it out to us, you may one day have to answer God for our failings. You are the conscience of society.”
The pastoral work of Bishop Cornelius Korir during his 27- year tenure as head of the Eldoret diocese represents one gallant and continuous effort to serve as the conscience of society. Even as he ministered as shepherd of a particular diocese, he was part of the organisation of Catholic bishops in Kenya that constitutes a conference.
Bishop Ndingi Mwana ‘a Nzeki, who ordained Korir as a priest, indicated that the Catholic Church was breaking new ground by opposing the government on its mlolongo or queue voting system in the 80s. It was a bold and unprecedented move by the leaders of the Catholic Church in taking such a stance against the political establishment openly.
Upon completing his graduate studies in Ireland in 1989, Fr Korir was looking forward to resuming his ordinary priestly work at a parish in Nakuru diocese to which he then belonged. But soon after his appointment as Bishop of Eldoret in 1990, the Catholic Church became increasingly critical of President Daniel arap Moi’s government, rising a notch higher than the earlier opposition to the voting system.
This time round, the Catholic bishops issued a hard-hitting pastoral letter entitled: ‘On the Present Situation in our Country’. The National Council of Churches of Kenya, belonging to the Protestant fraternity, too, adopted a critical position and joined forces with the Catholics. Church leaders were accompanied in the same boat by political and civil society activists.
Together with his fellow clerics, Bishop Korir had to make a difficult choice whether to give in to a culture of silence or to rise to the occasion as the conscience of society through which truth speaks to power.
The courageous pastoral letter demanding multi-party democracy was followed by another powerful epistle from the Catholic Church headed: ‘A Call to Justice, Love and Reconciliation’. This was written during the tenure of Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth as Chair of the Bishops’ Conference.
Bishop Korir himself headed the 26-member Episcopal Conference from 2003 to 2006. But the period of the greatest trial and tribulation for him was in the aftermath of the post-election violence after the 2007 poll. There was a difficult choice to be made between allowing himself to be enslaved by narrow tribal instincts or opting to serve the common good as a bishop of the Catholic Church. The time for that decision had come.
More than 10,000 internally displaced persons, not of his own ethnic group, needed food, shelter and, above all, protection. He took them in and provided for their needs, to the consternation, frustration and anger of their tormentors.
Besides moral strength, he needed huge material resources to take care of those in need. He drew not only from internal diocesan resources, but also from a network of national and international organisations including the UN, the EU, OXFAM and the Irish Missionary Union through the good offices Fr Tom Kiggins, its Executive Director, who was Bishop Korir’s professor years before at St Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Nairobi.
A true ecumenist, the departed prelate had the gift of working with believers from various Christian churches. Together with the Rev Fr Evangelos Thiani of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Kenya, the departed bishop was a key leader of the Multi-sectoral Forum, a joint initiative of religious and civil society stakeholders whose Kenya Chapter seeks to promote social justice and good governance.
Given his passion for justice and peace, Bishop Cornelius Korir must be watching with concern the evil plots, quarrels and hatred among brothers and sisters in Kenya after the 2017 elections.
Let us allow his soul to rest in peace by fixing the political and economic problems now facing our beloved country.
Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon him.