ONE frigid morning in July 1996, in a hotel room at the Lusaka Hotel, a Catholic priest told an eight-year-old boy in his care that he had a little secret to tell him.
“Young man,” the priest said, while helping the little boy to dress up, “there is something I need to tell you.”
“What is it uncle?” the boy said. He had always known the priest as a generous uncle who usually visited his home, bringing him gifts.
“I’m not your uncle, I’m your dad,” replied the priest.
“So can I call you dad?” the boy asked, bemused.
The priest said: “Okay, when the two of us are together like this, call me dad. But I’m still working for a church that says I cannot be dad, so in public don’t call me dad.”
Today, Dr Tarcisius Mukuka, who is no longer a priest, says he felt like a heavy load had been lifted off his shoulder when he made the confession to the little boy that morning.
“It was the most heart-wrenching thing I had ever done,” he says.
“Before I told him, I agonised.” He adds: “It was the most difficult thing I have ever told any human being.”
He still keeps a photograph taken that morning with his son in the hotel bathroom.
The shirtless priest has shaving cream on his face, and his son, Victor, is making faces into the camera.
That moment would change the priest’s life in a large way.
It also marked a turning point in his life, although truthfully speaking, Tarcisius’ life is marked by many turning points.
That July morning, the priest was escorting the little boy to go and see his mother in Botswana.
Victor’s mother, Christine Matanga, and the priest had been childhood sweethearts whose bond only grew stronger and stronger.
Tarcisius’ and Christine’s love story sound like a fairy love tale between a priest and a Catholic nun, and it also raises questions about the Roman Catholic Church’s law of celibacy – the law that bars priests and nuns from getting married.
Tarcisius and Christine met in the late 1960s in Lubuto in Ndola, on the Copperbelt. They lived in the same neighbourhood and attended the same parish.
Tarcisius was a naughty 13-year-old altar boy who dreamed of becoming a priest one day. Christine was 11, very shy and reserved.
Both Tarcisius and Christine admit they felt something for each other back then. They both think it was just childish infatuation.
“I felt something really strongly; I liked him, but I don’t think we could talk about love back then,” says Christine, sitting next to Tarcisius at the couple’s home in Highridge, Kabwe.
For Tarcisius, Christine was a “feel-good factor” who always lit up his world. He would always pick her face out in the pews, making passes at the little girl as he stood in front of the congregation during mass, and then he would escort her back home after mass.
“I was very shy and sometimes I would run away,” recalls Christine.
When Christine went to Ibenga Secondary School, which is run by the Catholic Church, she developed a deep admiration for the sisterhood.
She would usually watch a bunch of Franciscan sisters going about their business or playing netball. And when she had the opportunity to follow them on their missions, she was overpowered by their selflessness. To her, the nuns, especially the white sisters, were like angels.
A NUN AND PRIEST
When she was in Grade Nine, Christine decided she was going to become a Catholic nun.
For Tarcisius, his destiny had always pointed to the priesthood, although he had also entertained thoughts of becoming an astrophysicist. He was an “A+” student in sciences and mathematics.
They would both follow their spiritual calling.
Years later, when Christine was in the convent, and Tarcisius was at the seminary, their paths crossed again and their friendship was rekindled, but despite the fact that they were now adults, it was still wrapped in innocence.
“I didn’t see any contradiction between my calling and our relationship,” says Tarcisius.
He describes their friendship at that stage as “platonic”.
“What we had was not necessarily leading to sex or marriage. It was the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.
Tarcisius and Christine usually confided in each other, even about their challenges in keeping the celibacy vows.
Although Christine admits she would feel “a bit jealous” whenever Tarcisius would tell her about other girls that he got attracted to, his openness was also reassuring to her.
When she was 21, Christine made her vows to become a sister, and she had also qualified as a nurse and was sent to work at a rural outpost on the Copperbelt.
But as a young beautiful nun, she was usually the centre of attraction.
Christine had many men chasing after her.
“For me, the veil and the habit (distinctive set of religious clothing) do not protect you,” she says.
Tarcisius narrates how one Italian priest, who was much older, had fallen deeply in love with Christine.
“This priest just went berserk, he was infatuated. There is nothing he would not have done for Christine,” he says.
At 27 years old, Christine decided to leave the sisterhood.
“My reason for leaving was my own fears,” she says. “What if I fall?”
Christine says when she left the sisterhood, her fellow nuns were shocked.
“I didn’t trust myself, but they trusted me a lot,” she says.
Soon after leaving the convent, Christine fell in love with a medical doctor, but she still maintained her friendship with Tarcisius.
Looking back now, she admits she was naïve and had not realised that she was in love with Tarcisius, even when other people, including her boyfriends, would point it out to her.
“I was the bar by which she would measure other men, and she was the bar I would measure other girls,” says Tarcisius.
The priest was also torn between his love for the priesthood and his childhood sweetheart.
“There was still that underlying thing that if I didn’t follow this [the priesthood], this would be the kind of person I would marry,” he says.
Tarcisius recalls one weekend when he had visited Christine in Kitwe, she asked him to drop her off at her boyfriend’s place in Luanshya.
He did, and for the first time met her boyfriend. He said goodbye to Christine and drove off.
“It was the worst drive I ever had,” says Tarcisius. “I kept cursing myself.”
That night, instead of going to the priests’ quarters, Tarcisius went straight to the club house to drink.
At the time, the priest had also been battling an alcohol addiction.
He had grown in a home where both his mother and father were alcoholics and he took to the bottle quite early in life.
Tarcisius says his alcoholism had, as he puts it himself, “a career of its own”.
“For me it was an emotional thing, because I’m a very rational guy, the only way I could feel emotional is after taking a few drinks. So it was a way of connecting with my emotional side, and I was doing it the wrong way,” he says.
Soon, the relationship between the priest and a former nun had begun raising eyebrows, more so with Christine’s mother.
“My mother saw it as a very big problem,” says Christine.
She describes her mother as a staunch Catholic who was forthright and spoke her mind.
She could never approve of her daughter fraternising with a priest.
Now in retrospect, Christine believes in her mother’s instincts.
“She saw what I could not see,” she says.
One day in 1987, Christine’s mother had had enough and she summoned the priest and asked him to end the friendship with her daughter.
Tarcisius was defensive, but he decided to respect her.
Devastated, he drove to Kitwe, where Christine was working, in order to end the relationship.
“That was the first time I saw him cry,” says Christine.
But something else happened that day that would change Tarcisius’ life forever. They consummated their relationship.
“It wasn’t something we decided,” says Christine, “It was spontaneous, trying to talk about it and hugging each other. It just happened. It was like a desperate moment.”
However, after that experience, Christine says she hated herself.
“It was against what I believed in, my principles,” she says.
She says she had never thought she would double-cross her boyfriend.
But she had much more to worry about. She soon discovered that she was pregnant, and she was not sure by who. Was it the priest or was it the doctor?
“What really complicated it for us is that she had a boyfriend, and a former friend, and a former friend has had sex with her and the boyfriend was also having sex with her and she becomes pregnant. Whose child is it? That was a one million dollar question,” explains Tarcisius.
He is open-minded and candid.
Christine blamed herself for the situation, and she did not want to draw the priest into any social scandal and jeopardise his calling.
She decided not to tell him she was pregnant.
Instead, she owned up to her boyfriend and he took responsibility, even approaching her parents to discuss the matter.
But Tarcisius was still convinced that the child Christine was carrying was his, and he wanted to be part of his life.
“He kept asking me, ‘what if I’m the dad?’” says Christine.
The baby came in 1988 and they called him Victor.
Things never worked out between Christine and her doctor boyfriend after she discovered he had been cheating on her.
LETTER CHANGES EVERYTHING
In 1989, Tarcisius left for Rome, while Christine went to Botswana, where she worked as a nurse.
She had left her son in the care of her mother.
For some time, the two did not communicate.
Then one day in the mid-1990s, she wrote him a letter expressing, for the first time, how she felt about him. It was a huge step for Christine to finally admit something she had withheld for decades.
But for Tarcisius, the priesthood was still more attractive.
“I fell in love with the priesthood. In my 20s and 30s, it meant everything to me, and I wanted to give it my best shot,” he says.
“I did it for 15 years. I loved it, and I even loved the fact that I was a celibate, unmarried priest. Of course I did make my own mistakes, but I loved it because it gave me an opportunity to give myself wholeheartedly,” he says.
But he could never deny the fact that he had feelings for Christine.
In 1995, just before his 40th birthday, Tarcisius decided to deal with his alcohol addiction, which he says was getting out of hand.
His bishop, Dennis De Jong, decided to send him to a rehab centre in London for six months.
Tarcisius has never taken alcohol again since leaving rehab in 1996.
“I did it for two reasons: if I was going to remain a priest, I was going to be a better priest sober; if I was going to be a dad, and married man, I was going to be better sober,” he says.
Before he returned from rehab, he told his bishop that he still wanted to remain a priest and to continue lecturing, but that he found it difficult to live a double life of being a priest and a dad.
“By then I had convinced myself against all evidence that I was the dad,” says Tarcisius.
Besides, by this time, the doctor was out of the equation. He had died.
“The bishop was a very understanding guy,” says Tarcisius. “He said I will pray for you. I wasn’t fired.”
Tarcisius decided to go for counselling for a year after which he made up his mind to leave the priesthood.
He wrote his bishop a resignation letter, and shortly told Christine about his decision.
Christine says the prospect of living together with Tarcisius as her husband was scary, but also exciting.
“What if it doesn’t work, what if he won’t be happy. Then I will feel guilty for the rest of my life,” she thought.
By now, her mother had somehow accepted the reality that she could no longer stand between her daughter and Tarcisius, and that gave Christine more comfort.
Although she also learnt years after her mother’s passing that she had gone to confess her daughter’s sin before a priest.
In 1998, the former priest and former nun got married in Kitwe.
Tarcisius joined her wife in Botswana. The couple later relocated to the United Kingdom, where Christine continued working as a nurse, and Tarcisius taught at a Catholic university.
The former priest now lectures at Kwame Nkrumah University in Kabwe. He says he does not consider himself a failure because of what happened.
“I do not look at myself as a failure, I look at myself as somebody who was ill-prepared for the challenges of a celibate life. I didn’t know what was coming. I also think, personally, that to ordain somebody at 24 or 25 to be a celibate priest while the hormones haven’t quite kicked in yet is a bit too early,” says Tarcisius.
He adds: “I believed that this was an important part of what it means to be a priest, what I didn’t realise obviously is when the challenges begin, when the hormones begin to run riot I didn’t know how I would handle them.”
“Same for me,” says Christine.
“What I think in hindsight,” says Tarcisius “is that psychologically, and maybe spiritually I didn’t have enough preparation for it. And I also think that being ordained as a priest at 25, which I was, is far too young. If I was in another life, I would have loved to be ordained in my 30s.”
Tarcisius and Christine now see themselves as champions of something they failed to keep.
“I’m prepared to help priests who are having problems,” says Tarcisius.
“I know that even among Catholic bishops, there are a lot of bishops and priests who have secret children, it is the huge elephant in the room,” he says.
He suggests introducing psychosocial programmes to prepare young priests for a celibate life, as well as exposing them to a normal life while in training.
“They are trained away from normal human beings, and it’s possible for six or eight years to pretend that everything is okay. I think they ought to be trained in slightly different circumstances.
So maybe they can be trained sitting at a desk learning theology and next there is a young lady with a short skirt,” he says.
Both Tarcisius and Christine say celibacy is still a wonderful thing.
“If I had another life, would I be a priest again? And would I be a celibate priest? Yes,” says Tarcisius.
“I would still choose to be a nun,” says Christine.
“I found it very empowering that you are not totally given to a man. You have this power over your body.
Even today I respect the nuns because I know the challenges that are there,” she says.
If you had not met Christine, would you still be a priest? I ask Tarcisius.
“My suspicion is that I would be dead, because I would not have known how to deal with my alcoholism,” he says.
He says Christine helped him a lot to overcome his alcoholism.
He says of all six priests sent to London for rehab to do with alcohol abuse, he is the only one surviving.
Christine still visits the convent regularly, offering her service.
Last November, the couple attended their son’s wedding in the UK.