Friends who knew Fr. Robert Kaggwa will be shocked and saddened to know that he died on the afternoon of Friday, 9th January. Robert had been taking medication for a heart condition for some time, but his death was sudden and unexpected. Many of us had spent time with him during the last few days and he was his lovely, laughing, generous self, which is how I shall always remember him.
Robert was the Catholic chaplain at the University of Roehampton – a priest who embraced the dynamic possibilities of the Catholic faith beyond all the regulations and strictures that would have restrained a lesser man. Supporter of women's ordination, vocal advocate of feminism and gay rights, he was also the most pastorally sensitive priest I know. He was a founding member and trustee of Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Cure (CAPS), which reflects his deep respect for people living with HIV/AIDS and the struggles they face. He was actively involved with The Passage, an organisation in London that ran a soup kitchen and provided support to homeless people.
Yet it was with students that Robert’s great pastoral gifts of communication and outreach were able to shine most brightly with all his natural spontaneity and enthusiasm. Students of all faiths and none loved Robert and I don't think any of us will ever know how many he guided, counselled and befriended during their time at Roehampton. Tributes flowing in to Facebook from family, friends, colleagues and past and present students from all around the world attest to how widely loved and respected he was.
Every year, he accompanied a group of students on the HCPT pilgrimage to Lourdes, and those many pilgrimages were wonderful experiences of loyal friendship, gentle leadership and quiet attentiveness to all in his care. Every Tuesday during term, he cooked a fairtrade lunch for students and staff which often attracted large numbers. It epitomised the spirit of warmth and welcome that he dedicated himself to creating in the chaplaincy. He was passionately committed to promoting interfaith dialogue among staff and students, including organising an annual interfaith day of music, dance, shared food and stories in collaboration with his Methodist, Anglican, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu chaplaincy colleagues. He was always eager for new teaching opportunities that would allow him to communicate with students something of the plurality and vision of global Christianity. He was impatient with religious boundaries that divide and alienate, trampling over them with cheery insouciance. To exclude anyone from the Eucharist would have been unthinkable to him.
But Robert was also a priest of deep faith and prayerful reflection, always looking for new ways to make Christ accessible to people who could not find him behind the rigid face that the Church so often presented to the world in the years before Pope Francis. His Masses combined quiet reverence with friendly warmth - informal, but never lacking in dignity. His homilies never droned on, but were always insightful, inspiring and to the point. He refused to adopt the new translation of the liturgy - oh, for more priests like him.
Robert was also a fine scholar, and I feel deep personal sadness that he never did write the books he was researching, or have the opportunity to make the most of his intellectual gifts. Born and raised in Kampala, Uganda, he had done doctoral and postdoctoral studies in Rome, France and Germany, as a result of which he was multilingual. He told me often that, whatever the shortcomings of British society, it was better to be black in Britain than in any other European country he had lived in. He had a keen interest in African theology. He was critical of those who romanticise African culture, and thought that the Rwandan genocide should have inspired African theologians to turn to Holocaust theology, instead of the uncritical celebration of African culture that he saw among some theologies from the continent.
His Facebook page tells us that the Sunday after he died, he would have been joining the 'Global Call to Prayer for Iraq and Syria'. His last Facebook post was a link to a New York Times article posted late on the night before he died, with a comment from him: “'Je suis Charlie' et 'Je suis Ahmed Merabet'”. I do not believe that Robert would ever have sanctioned the blatant mockery of others that the Charlie cartoons indulged in, but I do like to imagine that there is an improbable encounter beyond the horizons of our imagination, between the iconoclastic priest and the iconoclastic cartoonists who might recognize in one another something of the vitality and vocation to transgressive freedom that each in their different ways represented with such bravado.
I am writing this on a stormy morning on the Scottish coast, with the wind howling, the rain battering against the window panes and the sea churning outside. It is a reminder of the awesome mystery of the creator, and the smallness of our human ability to explain and understand. Dearest Robert, there must be much laughter in heaven today, for wherever you go you bring laughter and light. May you know the eternal peace and love of the God you served with such unflinching and inspiring grace.
January 10th, 2015