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The legendary Bishop Pante of Maralal retires

The battles and thousands of stories of the great Italian priest in Kenya

22-07-2022 by Freddie del Curatolo

In the lands of the Samburu, Turkana and Pokot he will forever be remembered as "Bishop Pante", two words that in those parts are inseparable, also because no one had seen a bishop before him and no one will ever see a Pante again, a unique and merciful creature capable of bringing together Christianity and earthly mythology. 
Monsignor Virgilio Pante, a healthy bearer of peace, of the purest and lightest tidings of Jesus, and of words capable of uniting peoples who have always been at war with each other for one iota less of poverty.
Monsignor Virgilio Pante, 76 years old, from Belluno, is retiring and has been appointed 'bishop emeritus of Maralal' after half a century spent in Kenya, his adopted country where he has nevertheless decided to remain living.
Fifty years in Kenya among churches, hospitals, schools and missions. Fifty years in the saddle of a motorbike, the means by which he travelled everywhere and from Maralal to Nairobi, 350 kilometres of dirt road, with the Bible in his rucksack and the rifle over his shoulder, dodging buffaloes and bandits.
Fifty years of dialogue, meetings, negotiations, cooperation. Like when he managed to bring the three rival tribes of his diocese together in a weekly market where they sold their products and which still functions. 
'From shepherds of animals to shepherds of souls' was his first homily in Maralal, 21 years ago. 
It was he who created the Diocese of Maralal, established by Pope John Paul II, from nothing. He even designed the logo, a savannah lion lying with a kid. The idea of peaceful co-existence between different peoples, using two well-known symbols of that land and at the same time a biblical metaphor. 
There are a thousand and more anecdotes that could be told about 'Bishop Pante', between the battles he won and the youthful goliardia, dedication and seriousness of one of the least conventional churchmen one could encounter in Africa.
One of his funniest stories I heard in person and it was like watching a play.
So I reported it in the book 'Portraits of Italians in Kenya', published by the Institute of Italian Culture in Nairobi.

May 2015, Rome: at the Vatican an Italian bishop from an African diocese gives Pope Francis a special mitre.
"Holy Father, you said that a shepherd must smell like a sheep, so I brought you this gift from my land. Try to smell it."
The Pope thanks, brings his nose close to the headdress and exclaims, "But this is not sheep!"
"Indeed, it is made of Samburu goatskin."
November 2015, Nairobi: waiting for Jorge Mario Bergoglio at Jomo Kenyatta airport are all the bishops of Kenya on parade.
When the Pope approaches Bishop Virgilio Pante, he seems to recognise him.
"Holy Father, have you perhaps forgotten my gift from a few months ago?"
"Of course not...and tomorrow I will wear it for Holy Mass."
"Bravo, promoted!"

In Kenya too, Monsignor Virgilio Pante is recognised and honoured as a man who has always been personally committed to the good and interests of the communities in the Maralal region.
In announcing Pope Bergoglio's appointment of the new Bishop of 'his' diocese, Kenyan Father Hyeronimus Joya, the Daily Nation newspaper writes that 'Bishop Pante will be remembered as an icon of peace for his relentless efforts to reconcile warring communities in Samburu and other parts of northern Kenya.
The last time we crossed paths, he left me with what he said were the three key words of his life in Kenya.
"These words are: patience, patience and patience. But I will never lose hope that one day I will see an African Church that is self-governing and pursues the same goals to which I have dedicated my life'. 

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