The Unarmed Soldier who Fires ‘Devils’ in Military

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In the armed forces, they mostly achieve their objectives with great violence and loudness. When, for example, they took the Somali port city of Kismayu as the high point of Operation Linda Nchi, they went in from all directions— from the sea, the land and the air. It is in the nature of their work to be loud.

“The military is active,” says Bishop Alfred Rotich, their chaplain of 25 years. “They need the contemplative aspect, which the chaplain has to give them.”

The soldier-bishop, who has been the first and only full-time Bishop of the Military Ordinariate, has now retired, but only from the military aspect of the job. He has shed the fatigues and the ceremonial uniform and is now Colonel Retired. But life goes on as the Rt Rev Alfred Rotich.

It is not your ordinary retirement. “I am not retired from the ministry. I am still their shepherd through the parish priests. I don’t feel that we are apart. But as to the new structure, I leave that to the authority of the Holy See.”

Even as a bishop, Rotich sees himself as a life-long student. And what he cherishes most is the life of silence, contemplation and solitude that he says calms all the loudness and fury of the world. Calmness in the face of the maddening noise and chaos means everything to him.

“The power of silence is profound,” he says. “It gives one an opportunity for internalisation. And when I look at people like Carole Carreto, St Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, who was a soldier and who founded the Jesuits, I get inspired. Ignatius talks about silence.

“Just like Jesus Christ silences the storms and calms the sea. This is what I endeavour to do and I get it from reading from the Scriptures and also the life of Jesus Christ himself because every time he finished his work, he had to find time for solitude.”

The Military Ordinariate is where he has strived to impart this for the last quarter of a century after inheriting it from his mentor— the late Maurice Cardinal Otunga.

The Ordinariate is the word used in Canon Law to distinguish between an ordinary civilian diocese that falls within a specific geographical area and a specialised community like the armed forces. The Ordinariate is a personal diocese that accompanies a soldier to wherever he or she goes. “When our soldiers are in Somalia, Sierra Leone and anywhere else in the world, the diocese is there,” says Rotich.

He had a rough start to his career in the armed forces. For him, it was a total culture shock. He had not expected the language and the mannerisms to be so direct. And he entertained doubts about what he had fallen into. It is another mentor, the man who ordained him, retired Archbishop of Nairobi Ndingi Mwana ’a Nzeki who sent him there in response to a request for a chaplain by the military.

He asked himself: “Why this kind of training? Is there anything in me that the bishop knew that needed to be corrected? The reason I asked that question is because earlier on I had heard that many young men had been sent to the army because they are rowdy. What was on me that I was not aware? It was a difficult time.

“I was told that I needed to be drilled to know how to walk because earlier on we were told ‘you civilians don’t know how to walk.’ The language was different. But afterwards, you sat down with a commander who was very calm and dignified. It became fulfilling but to get there was quite a hardship. I later learnt that it all had a purpose and now, 25 years later, I have seen the benefits of it.”

The chaplain of the forces is the right hand man of the command in spiritual terms. He walks with the command at any and at all levels.

Explains the bishop: “Life in the military is tough. That toughness is for a purpose because they have to be alert on a daily basis. These are people who are trained in managing our security. And they could be in one point this time and another point next time. Rotich retired from the military posting on attaining the age of 55. He says: “I came to serve. I am in full appreciation. It is written all over my heart.”

By Roy Gachuhi