Bringing Missionary Zeal to the Seminary | Father Maina Waithaka

Posted on July 27, 2020

By Matthew Ockinga, Diocese of Yakima

The young seminarian held the letter tenderly in his hands. At 3 a.m., he had prayed with the note in the seminary’s chapel in Kenya for two hours before the Blessed Sacrament. The handwritten message came from Father Thomas McQuaid, a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Father McQuaid, the young man’s former pastor in Kenya, wrote to ask the seminarian to consider coming to the United States.

“I never even thought about it, never even knew where Chicago was,” Father Maina Waithaka said. “I remember staying a long time in the chapel.”

Father McQuaid’s note triggered memories of another letter. Desperately wanting to be a priest, a sixth-grade Father Waithaka, terrified of approaching his pastor at the time, had written to him expressing his desire, even though the post office sat one block away from the rectory. Days later, one of the boys in the village gave Father Waithaka the corresponding letter at the beginning of Mass. Opening the letter, his heart sank. His pastor’s reply: No, you cannot be a priest now. You must attend university first.

The young boy furiously tore up the note and tossed it outside, watching as the wind blew it away piece by piece.

Reflecting on that memory while reading Father McQuaid’s note in the seminary chapel, Father Waithaka became overwhelmed that his dreams of becoming a missionary priest were starting to become reality.

“I always thought I wanted to be a missionary,” Father Waithaka said. “I was fascinated by people who left their countries to go serve people of different cultures. So, I grew up just knowing priests who don’t know my language. They had to learn my language. They didn’t look like me. They ate the food I ate. I wanted to be like that.”

Mission accomplished. Decades later, Father Waithaka is living out his priesthood in missionary style. Now, he has returned to Mundelein Seminary as dean of formation and director of the Tolton Teaching Parish Program (TTPP), playing a key role in the formation of seminarians looking to live out their own priestly vocations.

Back to Seminary
“There’s a difference between being in the seminary and at the seminary,” Father Waithaka said, recalling the advice a friend once gave him. Little did he know, he would one day be able to confirm that statement.

After serving at St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Glenview, Illinois, for eight years, Father Waithaka had established himself as a loving and devoted pastor. Yet all priests know there are vocations within vocations. In 2018, he talked with a notable classmate who was ordained alongside him in 2002.

“Have you ever thought of coming to Mundelein?” Mundelein Seminary rector Father John Kartje asked him.

In the midst of demanding parish duties, Father Waithaka declined, telling Father Kartje to ask him again in a year.

“I didn’t feel like I was ready to leave,” Father Waithaka said. “I was doing well at SCL, still had some other ideas.”

After the earth had completed an orbit around the sun, Father Kartje asked his classmate again. Memorable words from the man who ordained him echoed through Father Waithaka’s mind. “‘Priests have to feel called to be a pastor. … It’s a call’,” Father Waithaka remembered Cardinal Francis George saying. “‘He has to feel called to go to this ministry. I always kept that in mind. So, I took it as a calling.’”

By answering this calling, he has been adjusting to a different pace of life than that of the parish. He now serves as a formator at Mundelein with 20 advisees. These men meet monthly with him to discuss both the joys and challenges of formation. While he served at St. Catherine’s, there was a lot of alone time, even amidst the busy schedule of a parish and school. He has been enjoying the community aspects of seminary, especially the meals. While admitting it is a different pace of life, Father Waithaka has particularly enjoyed seeing the community move and grow together.

“I see myself at the seminary in that sense that I’m not being formed, but I am helping in the formation process. I am the one who is actually feeling more benefits,” he said.

“I feel myself being formed at the same time as I sit down and talk to people in the formation session because it brings back the memories of my own formation, and it helps me to think I missed that, so what can I provide in this case for this man?”

- Father Maina Waithaka -

“I feel myself being formed at the same time as I sit down and talk to people in the formation session because it brings back the memories of my own formation, and it helps me to think I missed that, so what can I provide in this case for this man?”

Father Kartje has been impressed by how quickly Father Waithaka has gained the trust of the seminarians and his willingness to walk with them on their journeys.

“He treats them as a true mentor would, and he cares deeply for them and their formation,” Father Kartje said. “I am delighted by how he has combined the practical experience of a parish pastor with the eye and heart of a seminary formator.”

Fruitful Ministry
Father Waithaka has seen the benefits of seminarians spending time in the parish, outside of the classroom setting. When Mundelein’s Augustus Tolton Teaching Parish Program began in 2017, three seminarians were sent to St. Catherine’s to engage in various parish ministries. He supervised them and provided mentoring and feedback throughout the school year. Elliot Zak, a third-year theologian studying for the Diocese of Lafayette in Indiana, has been able to see Father Maina’s gifts both at St. Catherine’s and at the seminary.

“Father Maina was particularly supportive of the seminarians at St. Catherine’s. He was always supportive of initiatives that we had in terms of starting something at the parish or getting involved with a particular group at the parish,” Zak said. “He brings a wealth of experience from the parish to the seminary. He also is very in-tune with the life and challenges of a seminarian, which is very helpful in setting expectations of the men.”

Little did Father Waithaka know that he would later become the director of the program that involves more than 70 parishes in four dioceses. After participating in the program as a pastor, he enters his new position with plenty of experience and perspective.

“The program is a very important aspect in the formation process of a seminarian because it comprises the pastoral dimension,” Father Waithaka said. “The man who is studying to be a priest is not just getting the theories, but he’s actually having his hands on the process. Having served from that side, I kind of understand the expectations of the seminary, what was expected of the pastor.”

Father Waithaka is being thorough in his review of the program, looking for both its strengths and areas of improvement. Serving at both St. Sylvester’s in Chicago and St. Catherine’s, he knows that each parish is unique, with its own heartbeat and environment in which the seminarians minister. As he assesses the program, he is looking at the areas that may be lagging and making sure that each seminarian experiences a fruitful ministry. This applies not only to seminarians but for teaching parish pastors and the faculty and staff of Mundelein as well.

“I’ll take it with grace, and I’ll just provide my own experience,” Father Waithaka said. “I think the most important thing is to help the guys have a fruitful experience engaging in ministry.”

This article originally ran in the Winter-Spring 2020 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.