Kalilombe, Patrick

Catholic Church

Patrick Kalilombe

Patrick Augustine Kalilombe, M. Afr., was a visionary and progressive Roman Catholic bishop from Malawi, and “one of the most respected theologians in Africa” at the time of his death.[1]

Kalilombe was born in 1933, the ninth of eleven children in the devoutly Roman Catholic family of Pierre Kalilombe and Helena Mzifei. Shortly before his birth, his parents had settled at the Mua Catholic Mission in central Malawi, which was the center of Catholic missionary activity to the surrounding Chewa people.[2] From an early age, Kalilombe had aspirations to the priesthood. Consequently, after primary school he entered Kasina Minor Seminary, which he attended from 1944 to 1949, and then Kachebere Major Seminary (from 1949 to 1954), where he excelled academically in philosophy, theology, and church history, and—by his own admission—fell in love with the Scriptures. It is significant that Kalilombe began training for the priesthood at a time of change in the Roman Catholic Church in Africa, specifically a transition from reliance on foreign missionaries, priests, and bishops to indigenous clergy and leaders. Of Kalilombe’s graduating class of eight students from Kachebere, six were ordained to the priesthood and three became bishops.

Toward the end of his seminary studies Kalilombe unexpectedly altered course from training for the diocesan priesthood to preparing for a missionary priesthood. This decision marked the beginning of what would become a truly pioneering career. Kalilombe was accepted by the Society of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), a missionary order founded in 1868 by the French bishop of Algiers, Charles Lavigerie (d. 1892) to evangelize the African continent, and began studies in Tunisia.[3] Ordained a deacon in 1957 and a priest in 1958, Kalilombe was among the first Africans admitted to the order and the very first Malawian. From 1958 to 1962 Kalilombe undertook studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, and although he was recalled to Malawi just before the Second Vatican Council opened, he had clearly soaked up some of the progressive theological and ecclesiastical currents that would stir the Council.

Kalilombe was a diocesan priest for only a few years before being called to be a lecturer at Kachebere Major Seminary in 1964. He was the first Malawian to serve on staff; in 1968 he became the first Malawian rector of the Seminary. Kalilombe later recalled with fondness his tenure at KBS in the mid 1960s, when his colleagues and students were absorbed with the question of how the Church in Africa could effectively renew itself in line with Vatican II.[4] Kalilombe took a leading role in implementing some of the ecclesiastical reforms unleashed by the Council, heading a team (at the request of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi) charged to translate the missal into Chichewa in order to allow the laity to fully take part in the liturgy and sacramental life of the church, and also taking responsibility to revise and expand a Chichewa version of the Bible for use in Catholic congregations. Kalilombe’s rising stature in the Roman Catholic Church in Africa seemed assured when he was appointed in 1972 as the very first Malawian bishop of Lilongwe. But circumstances soon changed.

As Malawi emerged in 1964 from the British colony of Nyasaland as an independent republic, it—like many African nations at that time—soon succumbed to one party rule. The Malawi Congress Party, lead by the elderly “Life President” Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, tightened its grip on power through the 1960s and early 1970s, repressing voices of protest and potential movements of dissent. Kalilombe’s Vatican II-inspired vision for the Roman Catholic Church in Malawi set him on a collision course with Banda’s regime. He saw a critical need for reform and change in order to reduce the dependency of Malawian Catholicism upon expatriate clergy and funding—when he took office as bishop, sixty-six of seventy-six priests in his diocese were foreign-born—and to further indigenize the Church among the grassroots.[5] Already in his first pastoral letter as bishop, Kalilombe called on the laity to take their rightful place in the Catholic Church’s life and mission, advocating for the establishment of small groups (Miphakati) of the faithful who could consider together how to improve the Church’s life and ministry, and work together to promote education, health, justice and general well-being in their communities. In this, Kalilombe was a leading African advocate of the ecclesiological model of “Small Christian Communities” [SCCs] (or “Basic Ecclesial Communities”), which was an idea widespread in many Majority World Catholic churches in the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s discovery of the “theology of the laity.” As a complement to traditional parish ministry, SCCs sought to be authentic incarnations of the gospel at the local level, whereby the gospel would be inculturated in the social, cultural, and religious life of the people. Kalilombe’s reforming ideas were not only unpopular with some of the Catholic church hierarchy in Malawi but more significantly with President Banda, who considered them potentially threatening to his own authority due to the possibility that they would mobilize communities that were not controlled by the government and which might foster seditious convictions. Against the backdrop of the African arena of the Cold War, Kalilombe was accused of being a communist and the emerging Miphakati were banned. In 1976, after a six-hour interrogation of Kalilombe by government officials, the MCP pressured the Catholic hierarchy to advise their colleague to leave the country. When Kalilombe departed the country to attend a conference, he was detained at Lilongwe airport upon his return and refused entry into Malawi. He would spend the next twenty years in exile.

After brief stops in Kenya and Ghana, Kalilombe went to Rome while awaiting a change in his situation. He studied in Jerusalem and then began doctoral studies at Graduate Theological Union in California, where he obtained a PhD in 1983 with a dissertation that analyzed his own attempt to promote SCCs in Malawi: “From ‘Outstation’ to ‘Small Christian Community’: A Comparison between Two Pastoral Methods in Lilongwe Diocese” (PhD Thesis, Graduate Theological Union, California, 1983). Having officially resigned as bishop in 1979, Kalilombe began teaching at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England in 1980, first as a fellow, then lecturer in Third World Theology. He is remembered as a popular and lively teacher. His final role was that of director of the Center for Black and White Christian Partnership until 1996. Given his credentials and background, as well as his own broad ecumenical horizons, Kalilombe was a good fit to lead the Center, which was an initiative to reach out to African and Afro-Caribbean independent churches in the West Midlands in Britain. Jack Thompson, a former colleague of Kalilombe’s at Birmingham, recalled:

Its main activities were an informal theological course, aimed mainly at members of independent churches with little or no formal theological training…The Center did a very worthwhile job in giving respect and acceptance to churches on the margins of formal ecumenical structures.[6]

During this period, Kalilombe also maintained his spiritual and theological connections with the Majority World through active involvement and leadership in the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians [EATWOT], which was founded in Dar es Salaam in 1976 as a forum for non-western theologians concerned with issues that were critically relevant to their contexts, such as theological inculturation, justice, and liberation, but were rarely priorities for western theologians and church leaders.[7] As a UK-based academic, Kalilombe could step into the role of spokesman and mediator for both African and “Third World” theologies to the West. It was in this context that he was asked to contribute the chapter on Black Theology to the first edition of the prestigious reference work edited by David Ford, The Modern Theologians.[8]

When Banda’s rule came to an ignominious end in 1994, a door opened for Kalilombe to return home. He lectured in biblical and theological studies in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Malawi, from 1998 to 2008, and took an active role in the Bible Society of Malawi’s ongoing work of translating and producing commentaries on the Scriptures. He also took on preaching and speaking duties around the country.

In Zomba, on September 24, 2012, Kalilombe died of complications following bowel obstruction surgery. At his funeral, the vice-president of Malawi, Khumbo Kachali, declared Kalilombe’s death “a loss not only to the Catholic Church, but to the nation.”[9]

Patrick Kalilombe’s legacy for Christianity in Malawi, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, is considerable. His creative and daring vision of the Catholic Church as a prophetic witness of God’s kingdom and a sacrament of justice and compassion, a vision he pursued as bishop at great personal cost, set a remarkable example for other Catholic bishops and Malawian church leaders of other denominations. Surely Kalilombe’s personal example and earlier attempts at reforms contributed to the leading role played by the Catholic bishops in the early 1990s in decrying the human and civil rights abuses of the Banda regime, and praying and petitioning for a peaceful transition to democracy.[10] Second, as a self-described “third world theologian” of international reputation, Kalilombe is arguably the most accomplished and important theologian yet produced by Malawi. His essays, many of which are collected in the volume Doing Theology at the Grassroots, all reflect his concern to see the gospel inculturated in the African context, even when and where aspects of the Catholic Church’s hierarchical ecclesiology and traditional western Christian doctrines might be challenged. He believed he was in step with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council when he wrote: “Doing theology demands encouraging and giving room for the constant look at and careful study of the situation within which the theologizing communities are immersed.”[11] For Kalilombe, this entailed the recovery of his own Chewa people’s traditions and history as foundation stones for an authentically African Christianity, and their situation as Malawians and “third world” Christians as the locus for theological reflection and praxis. He was convinced that the historic Catholic tenet of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) had a regrettable effect on traditional Catholic missions, lending missionaries “very little sympathy towards anything outside the ‘people of God.’”[12] As I have written elsewhere:

(Kalilombe) finds much to value in his people’s traditional worldview, and laments its rejection by western missionaries and subsequent demise under the pressure of colonialization and then globalisation. Referring to the advent of Christianity in central Africa in the late nineteenth century, he complains: “There was no real dialogue whereby missionaries would want to build Christianity on what may have been valid in the people’s traditional religion, or find out what was out of order in it so that Christianity could supply and correct it.”[13]

True to his concern for theology from the grassroots, some of Kalilombe’s final publications drew attention to the terrible spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and the miserable status of women in many traditional societies, both of which he believed urgently required an informed and faithful Christian response.[14] As Christian theology and church praxis in Malawi continues to develop in reference to its own African context, Kalilombe’s posthumous influence will only grow.

Todd Statham


  1. The citation is from the entry on Kalilombe in the Historical Dictionary of Malawi, edited by Owen Kalinga (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012), 219.

  2. Biographical information about Kalilombe is drawn from the press release issued by the Episcopal Conference of Malawi upon his death [http://www.ecmmw.org/new/2012/09/25/biography-of-bishop-patrick-kalilombe-missonaries-of-africa-m-afr/] as well as autobiographical information contained in his book Doing Theology at the Grassroots: Theological Essays from Malawi (Gweru: Mambo, 1999). I have also benefited greatly from information provided by Dr. T. Jack Thompson, a friend of Kalilombe’s and former colleague at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham (personal email, December 23, 2015).

  3. On the origins of the White Fathers see Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present (London: SPCK, 1995), 82-86.

  4. Patrick Kalilombe, Doing Theology at the Grassroots: Theological Essays from Malawi, (Gweru: Mambo, 1999), 33.

  5. Elizabeth Isichei, A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present, (London: SPCK, 1995), 314.

  6. Jack Thompson, personal communication with author, 23 December, 2015.

  7. Erhard Kamphausen, “Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians,” in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Bd. 2, edited by Hans Dieter Betz et. al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999), 1052-1054.

  8. Patrick Kalilombe, “Black Theology,” in The Modern Theologians, edited by David F. Ford, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 193-216.

  9. “Malawi Catholics Mourn Kalilombe, VP Kachali Pays Tribute,” Nyasa Times, September 29, 2012; http://www.nyasatimes.com/2012/09/29/malawi-catholics-mourn-bishop-kalilombe-vp-kachali-pays-tribute/.

  10. See further Kenneth R. Ross, “The Transformation of Power in Malawi 1992-94: the Role of the Christian Churches,” The Ecumenical Review 48 (1996): 38-52.

  11. Doing Theology at the Grassroots, 169.

  12. Doing Theology at the Grassroots, 111.

  13. Todd Statham, “‘Like Jairus I call you’: Two Theological Attempts to Recover the Malawian Past,” Journal of African Christian Thought 17 (2015): 45, citing Patrick Kalilombe, “Spirituality in Africa Today and Tomorrow,” Religion in Malawi 14 (2007), 10.

  14. Patrick Kalilombe, “The Contribution of Theology to the Struggle against HIV/AIDs,” Religion in Malawi 12 (2005): 5-6; “African Women’s Theologizing,” Religion in Malawi 13 (2006), 7-8.


Isichei, Elizabeth. A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to the Present. London: SPCK, 1995.

Kalilombe, Patrick. “African Women’s Theologizing.” Religion in Malawi 13 (2006): 7-8.

Kalilombe, Patrick. “Black Theology.” In The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Modern Theology Since 1918. 193-216. Edited by David F. Ford. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Kalilombe, Patrick. Doing Theology at the Grassroots: Theological Essays from Malawi. Gweru: Mambo, 1999.

Kalilombe, Patrick. “From ‘Outstation’ to ‘Small Christian Community’: A Comparison between Two Pastoral Methods in Lilongwe Diocese.” PhD Thesis, Graduate Theological Union, California, 1983.

Kalilombe, Patrick. “Spirituality in Africa Today and Tomorrow.” Religion in Malawi 14 (2007): 7-10.

Kalilombe, Patrick. “The Contribution of Theology to the Struggle against HIV/AIDS.” Religion in Malawi 12 (2005): 5-6.

Kalinga, Owen, ed. Historical Dictionary of Malawi, 4th ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2012.

Kamphausen, Erhard. “Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.” In Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Bd. 2, 1052-1054. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz et. al. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.

Ross, Kenneth R. “The Transformation of Power in Malawi 1992-94: the Role of the Christian Churches.” The Ecumenical Review 48 (1996): 38-52.

Statham, Todd. “‘Like Jairus I call you’: Two Theological Attempts to Recover the Malawian Past.” Journal of African Christian Thought 17 (2015): 40-49.

Thompson, T. Jack, friend and former colleague. Interview by author via email. December 23, 2015.

This article, received in 2016, was written by Todd Statham, a missionary of the Presbyterian Church in Canada from 2011 to 2015, seconded to the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Blantyre Synod as lecturer at Zomba Theological College in Malawi.