An Interview With Bishop Martin Mtumbuka of the Diocese of Karonga, Malawi

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop, there are a lot of charitable organizations around the world that want to come in and help poor countries, but they often don’t want to address the spiritual aspect. The Catholic Church refers to this as integral human development, where you address the material and the spiritual needs. Can you talk about how important that is, integral human development, in helping the poor?

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: I want to say that, yes, it’s true, there are some charity organizations, including some Catholic ones, who do not concern themselves with the spiritual welfare of those they’re helping. They’ll do one of the two either for spiritual welfare or for human, kind of, developmental welfare. But I think the church, in its teaching, [and] a number of popes have reminded us again and again to help people in an integral way.

Not just because this is the creation of the popes, but our Lord himself, that’s what he did. He asked for the faith, from those he interacted with, to believe in him, that he is son of God and their Savior, but also fed the hungry and healed the sick. It is an invitation to all of us to do the same, and he attached a lot of importance to spiritual well-being. Of course, what saves us is to believe and accept him as our Lord and master. But at the same time, he also attached a lot of importance to spiritual and material well-being.

Cross Catholic Outreach, in terms of that approach of not only concerning yourself with the material well-being of the people you serve, but also their spiritual well-being, is a very unique approach. And we would really like to applaud you for this, because at the end of the day, we are a church, at the end of the day, we are people who are continuing with the work of Christ. So, yes, we want people to eat well, we want people to dress well, we want people to have clean water. But at the end of the day, we want people to see the face of God. And we should not apologize about this, we should not put this in brackets, we should not hide this, because that’s who we are. We cannot just end it at helping people at the material level. Our master did not do this. The Church was not founded to do this. So, there are very few organizations, I hardly can remember any, other than Cross Catholic Outreach, in this kind of very integral approach, a very holistic approach to assisting people, and I would like to appeal to Cross Catholic Outreach to continue with this.

It’s also for the benefit of the staff of Cross Catholic Outreach, because it is also a reminder to them that they must themselves remain close to the Lord, who is sending them out to assist others, they must also mind about their faith, they must also themselves mind about the closeness to Christ. And so it’s a kind of a win-win situation so that you do not have here very empty people who have no spiritual values but are just doing good works with no basis. You can only do that for a time but afterward, you run empty because you see no justification for why you should do this. But if you are rooted in Christ, you can continue even in the midst of personal storms in life, you can continue to do this. I really want to say it’s a very unique approach, and I would like Cross Catholic Outreach [to] maintain this.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Catholic missionaries are on the front line in fighting poverty. Talk about the challenges missionaries in your diocese face in their work.

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: I would say that there are many. Beginning with all of us and myself, first of all, the distances that you have to cover, the inability sometimes to move from A to B. But the worst, I think, is in the difficulties that the people you are serving face because these always affect you.

If you are going to a particular area and people have nothing to eat, you’re going to a particular area and people have no water, you’re going to a particular area and people have no access to health facilities, these preoccupy the people as much as [they] preoccupy the minister. Because you can’t just go there and start talking about God when people have not eaten, many of them are sick, there’s a funeral one day after another, and children are dying. You can’t.

Like now there is an outbreak of cholera in Malawi, which touches on water issues. You know, you can’t go there and teach catechism, because there’s a crisis. So, I would say that these are the most difficult.

But of course, we’re still trying, but if they are missionaries from outside, they are really shocked by the deprivation that is there, because then they will only have to eat what is there, the little that they have. However, I must say, the people of Malawi, the people of Karonga, even if they have nothing, they’re full of life. Even if they have nothing, they’re very cheerful, which is paradoxical. I suppose they try to hang onto the little hope that they have and let that guide them.

But the missionaries, they go there, they share in the joys and the anguish of the people that are there. Lack of water, lack of food, transport problems, and health problems that affect them, [they] are also affected by the same. And we, as a church, in general terms, even more; because, for example, we have 32 seminarians ourselves, and one of them costs about $1,000; I don’t have $32,000 to pay their fees.

We have children in the schools, but we don’t have enough materials to look after them. But we have the faith. We have the faith, but we do not have enough means to look after them. I was in the Diocese of Pittsburgh the other day and trying to collect vessels, vestments and tabernacles. Because we are opening churches, our friends are closing churches, but we need those things.

They are going in different directions. But at the same time, [they] would not lose hope. We still have people who are sisters, we still have people who are encouraging us. In short, the challenges of the people of Malawi are the challenges of the missionaries there. Because you can’t go there and be exempted from being affected by these challenges that I’ve talked about.

Cross Catholic Outreach: What would you say to the Catholic faithful in the United States who share their blessings and support people in other countries like Malawi and around the world? What would you say to them?

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: I would say my message is this: I was privileged to read a good bit about this country, not that I know everything about the Catholic Church in this country, as part of my studies in education. The Catholic Church in the United States was founded by very poor people. They came here, found a new life, established a new life, but they also brought their faith. And it was extremely difficult to support the church, to establish the school system which is supporting the Catholic Church in this country. Very much so.

It was really the poor Catholics. But they were close to the Lord, but they also gave to the Lord. So, my appeal would be to remember where you came from. And remember the kind of people [from] whose sacrifices this church is built. Christianity is always about going to the Lord and being sent by the Lord, receiving from the Lord, and giving as commanded by the Lord.

So, the Catholic faithful in this country — the Church is no longer very much the same as when it started. But the generosity of the very poor Catholics who came from Ireland and different parts of Europe, who came here, should always remind the Catholic faithful here that just as their founders were so generous under very harsh conditions in honor and respect for them, they should continue the spirit.

They’re not followers of their grandparents, they are followers of Jesus Christ. Yesterday, we had the Feast of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Let them continue to realize that to be a Christian is to participate in the Paschal mystery of Christ, to die with him, suffer with him, so that you will rise with him. Christianity is always about receiving from the Lord and giving to the Lord and his Church, and also his brothers and sisters.

And always remember, in this country, this church, the Catholic Church in America, was founded on the generosity of very, very deprived people, but people of faith, and in all of their doings, not only just their giving. But let me make one specific appeal here — let them remain faithful to that faith which propelled the founders to endure so much. They endured so much.

But there was a definite, clear Catholic faith which they embraced and passed on to their children. Let them not betray their grandparents, who established, who planted the faith here, and let them remain faithful to that faith, which was a deposit of faith coming from the apostles.

Cross Catholic Outreach: A moment ago, you spoke about missionaries sharing the joys and the sorrows with the people they’re helping. Pope Francis has talked about this, and he’s used the word “accompaniment.” And Pope Francis has been a great inspiration to the poor. Talk about how important the Holy Father has been just to be a voice for the voiceless.

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: The Holy Father, what he emphasizes, I’ve always cherished that. The motto of the Diocese of Karonga, therefore the motto that we have ourselves, is “We shall go to them.” And this was before the Holy Father became pope, because I was appointed bishop by Pope Benedict.

We’ve always felt that the priests or ministers or servants of the church must be close to the people that they serve. In the Diocese of Karonga, we are trying very much to divide up the big parishes into smaller parishes for the reason that the pastor must be known by the faithful and if possible, must know them by name.

He must be able to go to every village, and every family, and they must also know the priest, they must know who he is as a person. So the proximity of the priests to the faithful, which the Holy Father really emphasizes, is nonnegotiable. Especially in the world of today, the faithful want to be treated, be saved, and be related to by a priest who knows them, because they are faced with so many challenges.

And you cannot do that remotely. If there’s anything that is unique about the Holy Father, [it] is this emphasis on the proximity of the priest to the faithful. It means you must also listen to them, you must accompany them, and you must journey with them.

For a long time, this has been a problem because, unfortunately, in many circumstances, priests have waited for the people to come to them to look for them. This way of ministering today has no place in the church, and for this, I really would like to thank the Holy Father.

This kind of ministering in Karonga Diocese, I really don’t want it, where the people have to look for where the priest is. No, it should be the other way around. It should be the priest who opens his door, who goes to the people, [goes] into the families. And the early missionaries were great at this. Like in our case, the white fathers in the other part of the country, the missionaries were great [at] this.

But for some time this has been abandoned. And I think the Holy Father — for this, I would really say, is one unique gift of Pope Francis — emphasiz[es] the proximity of the priest to the flock of Christ entrusted to his pastoral care.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Pope Francis has also said that the poor evangelize us, like in the developed world, in the rich countries, it’s becoming more secular. We’re in some cases losing the faith. Talk about that: how do the poor who have nothing but their faith many times evangelize to us?

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: I would say the poor don’t just have to evangelize you, they evangelize all of us, including myself. I was born and brought up in Malawi. So, nothing very new there. But imagine that I go as much as I can by car; in some cases I also have to get out of the car and walk.

But in most cases, I do reach a station where we’re going to have Mass. And in that Mass, you would have the faithful; some of them would have walked for four hours before, and some would have started walking the previous day to attend that Mass. And they will give me everything they can put their hands on. They’ll give me a chicken, they’ll give me a goat. And if you ask them, the last time they ate meat will be maybe six months or five months ago and they gave me their only chicken, they give me their only goat, and they don’t know when they will have the next.

And these are not young people only, these sometimes, those who walk for the whole day, five hours for Mass, are people over 70 years, older than me, walking for four hours, five hours, [in] one direction to go and attend Mass, and then four hours to go back, or walking the day before to sleep somewhere close to there.

So, three days to attend one Mass. This is a concept that here at this stage you can’t conceptualize, that people would need to spend three days to attend Mass, and there are people with nothing. And you will have people giving me a chicken, and they have not eaten meat for five months. I am not special.

I see that the only reason they do that is because I’m a pastor and I’m going there to celebrate Mass with them and also to encourage them in their faith. And they see me going there, as commissioned by Christ to pray with them.

But I tremble personally that maybe their trust in me … I hope I don’t betray them because it’s overwhelming. But also, the other thing is that they have far less than me and yet they’re full of hope and full of life.

Look at the liturgy. There’s a lot of singing, in the midst of absolute chaos, and yet, they are full of hope. And they’re still full of joy. And not that they celebrate that they are poor, but their faith really enriches their life in such a way that you can’t understand.

And so it is not just you, but for you here and just as I say this, the faith that you have, the faith that is propelling the poor out there, in the midst of a lot of problems, they’re still holding onto that faith. In the midst of all these problems, they are still full of joy. In the midst of all these problems, these people still have three Masses in a year or four Masses in a year. And they’re willing to sacrifice everything. So the message is, hold onto your faith. And do not forget Christ because of the material prosperity that is affecting not all of you, but most of you of the nations in general terms.

But it is true, Pope Francis is right — the poor do evangelize us, including myself, not just you. All of us are evangelized because they are strong in moments when some of us would really feel very much overwhelmed. They still remain very, very strong. And [they] even make us stronger ourselves, because sometimes we also feel overwhelmed. But when you look at them with nothing and with such a strong faith, you think, well, yeah, maybe I’m far better off and I should try to pull myself forward.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Finally, Bishop, last question. The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith as Catholics. Can you talk about how the Eucharist unites all Catholics, rich and poor, all around the world?

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: I would say yes, the Eucharist is what nurtures, feeds, and strengthens the Church. Christ did not want to leave us orphans. He left us with the sacrament of the Eucharist where he is fully present. We do not have another sacrament that unites us throughout the world more than the Blessed Sacrament. But it is also Christ himself coming into us to encourage us, to strengthen us, to keep us closer, not only to one another but also to him. And one of the things the Catholic Church is[, is] a very sacramental church, but particularly around the Sacrament of the Eucharist. So, the prayer is that we all need to be strengthened, nourished by the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist in our daily lives, which brings out in our context, and also here and everywhere, that we should do everything possible to assist all Catholics to access, to receive the Blessed Sacrament by having more priests but also untying the chains that [keep] some of the Christians from receiving the Blessed Sacrament.

So through the tribunals, untie those chains. Why? Well, let me be frank here. All of us who are believers pray that at the end of our journey in this world, we will see the face of God. But if for some reason some of our brothers and sisters, some of us, cannot receive Jesus because we have a strained relationship with his Church or with him, I tremble at this thought of a Christian dying out of sacramental life, I really tremble. Because if a Christian cannot meet Jesus here, if he dies in that, what next?

I don’t want to judge on behalf of Jesus. But it is a very threatening situation to think about. So I’m trying to say that we should do everything possible to free the faithful from the chains or from issues that prevent them from receiving the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Because this same Jesus who is in the Eucharist is the one that will judge us on the last day. And if we can’t approach him now, because we have strained our relationship with him, on what grounds do we convince ourselves that it will be easy to see him face-to-face when we breathe for the last time in this world?

So it makes me, and I always repeat this to the priests all the time, let us do everything possible to assist all the faithful to receive the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It goes hand in hand with the Sacrament of Penance because this same Jesus, whom some have to [shy] away [from] because of various issues, is the same one they will meet at the door into paradise.

And I don’t want to be blamed that we did not make this abundantly clear to the faithful. But otherwise, we have nothing in the Catholic Church that unites us together more than the Eucharist. But as the bread of the Eucharist is broken and shared, the same Eucharist invites us to participate in breaking, sharing out our life, and sharing our gifts to lead people to heaven.

But this sacrament, the Eucharist, is so unique. And we pray that we will do everything and for this, I would like to thank Cross Catholic again for the spiritual component of their assistance to us, because one of the areas that it will go into really is to help people receive the sacraments and particularly untie those who are tied up with different things that prevent them from receiving the sacrament.

And very finally, I have a friend of mine who is in Mission “Omnes Gentes,” and I like Mission Omnes Gentes; he is from Argentina. He is preaching in the peripherals of the diocese where no Catholic faith has been there before. And he goes there in the evening and sleeps there. And he preaches up to the late evening and he always begins with the ugliness of Hell and finishes with the beauty of Heaven.

And I remember he told me one story that he was preaching to these men, all of them polygamous, late at night. And then one man said, “Father,” after he taught them about paradise, he said, “Father, this Hell that you have described, is it really there?” He said, “Yes, it is.” “Oh, my goodness, I don’t want to go there. I want to go to the other side. But I know that you can’t baptize me. Look, this is my wife, this is my wife, that’s my wife, and this is my wife. So, you can’t baptize me but I don’t want to go to this place that you talked about that is so terrible. Now, Father, help me; I don’t want to go there. I want to go to the other side.”

I felt this was really touching. So, the spiritual part of the assistance that you are giving us is touching people in this kind of situation and helping us to lead people to God. But at the center of it all, the sacraments are [there] to nourish us. Of course, the one that opens our door into the Church is baptism, but the one that nourishes us on the journey toward our eternal home is no doubt the Eucharist, going hand in hand with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Cross Catholic Outreach: Bishop, we know you’ve traveled a great distance to be with us; your time with us is a great blessing. Thank you for your wisdom and thank you for your time today.

Bishop Martin Mtumbuka: Many thanks. And God bless you all.