Recently, thousands of people on social media congratulated Dr. Sr. Noelina Nakato for winning the 2019 World Championship in Theology (Ecumenism).*
The annual event is organized by the International Agency for Standards and Ratings. According to the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, or AMECEA, the award aims to "identify brilliant scientists and academicians around the world through their research works," and "selection of champions is usually based on international meritorious competition."
The award recognized Nakato's research work on ecumenism "as a breakthrough in the field," AMECEA reported.
"It's a great honor, and I thank God," Nakato, 56, told Global Sisters Report. "This will make me work all the harder to advocate ecumenical studies in the church."
She is an expert in thesis and dissertations on theology, and a role model for researchers, entrepreneurs, policymakers, scientists and academicians.
Nakato is a sister of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary (Bannabikira Sisters) of Uganda's Masaka Diocese. She was born in Rakia District, Bikira Parish in the central region of Uganda.
Nakato is currently a senior lecturer at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, or CUEA, in Kenya. She has a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the Queen of Apostles Philosophy Center in Jinja, Uganda.
She also holds a bachelor's degree in theology and a licentiate and doctorate in canon law from CUEA.
According to AMECEA, Nakato joined CUEA in 2005 as a tutorial fellow in the Institute of Canon Law. From there, she worked to become a senior lecturer. But the journey wasn't easy.
"I had to publish articles, do presentations in different conferences, seminars and interdisciplinary sessions as well as being diligent in community services," she said.
GSR: What is theology?
Nakato: Theology is a manifestation or reflection on how God relates to human beings and other living creatures. There are major branches in theology, including: church history, which is related to canon law; dogmatic theology; biblical theology; pastoral theology; moral theology; spiritual theology; and sacred liturgy.
What inspires you?
It is a desire to propagate faith through my profession as a religious, canonist and theologian.
What has been your journey in theological studies?
I started teaching after completing my master's in canon law. I served at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa as a tutorial fellow, then as an assistant lecturer between 2005 and 2010. After my doctorate, some constituent colleges of CUEA and nearby seminaries sometimes requested me to teach their students due to urgent needs brought about by transfers of their canon law lecturers. This I did for a limited period of time.
How has this experience of working outside your country affected you and your work?
I can say that according to Canon 783, there is no single moment when a religious is not a missionary, whether in one's home land or abroad. What I can say about this question is the significance of working outside my country among the people of different cultures. This has shown me the universality of the church. It has exposed me to the riches embedded in different cultures and the need to learn and respect the cultures of all people. This has also shown me the necessity of learning inculturation, which is so much emphasized in the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, for better evangelization.
What has been your greatest challenge in this path?
My greatest challenge is that we are very few religious who are engaged in theological studies. Our consumer society, which emphasizes security and self-reliance, causes many more religious sisters to be drawn to professional training in secular matters than in spiritual formation. This is the reason why Pope Francis commented that it is no use to be scattered in so many secondary and superfluous things, but to concentrate on fundamental reality, which is the encounter with Christ with his mercy and love.
How do you respond in your moments of defeat?
First of all, as a religious, I rely much on prayers throughout my life, whether moments are favorable or not. I believe in the lessons that come along with difficulties. When they come my way, I persevere and intensify my prayers. At the end of the day, I come out of those difficulties with much strength and firmness, just as Peter puts it.
Secondary, I get support from my community members.
What is your message or motivation to religious men and women on theology?
My challenge to my fellow religious brothers and sisters is that our prophetic mission in the intellectual world is so minimal. We barely extend pastoral care to Christ's faithful who are categorized as professionals and intellectuals. The reason might be that we feel inadequate to teach the word of God to people of such caliber due to lack of enough theological formation.
We should become aware that it is from intellectual circles that skepticism and fundamental theological questions arise. Therefore, we should not stop on catechizing children and common people only, but we should also extend our frontiers to the intellectual world. I say like St. Augustine that God allows this section of people to grow bigger in the church so that we (the ministers) would not nourish ourselves only with milk and stay in a state of rude childhood.
We need proper theological formation because the people we evangelize today are rapidly moving beyond the stage of simple believing to a more intelligible faith that can give answers to their problems.
To fellow theologians: We should always be equipped with adequate formation in sacred sciences according to Canon 660, in order to be able to respond confidently to the theological questions concerning the problems and difficulties by which people of today are burdened and anguished.
Anything else you would like to share?
We can evangelize and make the divine message reach all people in every age in every land ,according to Canon 211, through writing and publishing our works.
We religious who are referred to as experts in communion should always and everywhere be advocating ecumenical endeavors as stated by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life: "Religious are, therefore, called to be an ecclesial community in the Church and in the world, witnesses and architects of the plan for unity which is the crowning point of human history in God's design."
*This Q&A has been updated to more accurately reflect Nakato's title and work.
[Doreen Ajiambo is the Africa/Middle East correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Nairobi, Kenya.]