Celebration of Uganda Martyrs

Today, June 3, 2020 is the Feast of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, also known as the Ugandan Martyrs, a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka of Buganda.

The first of the Catholic missions at that time were White Fathers, a missionary society founded by the French cardinal Charles Lavigerie, the archbishop of Algiers and Carthage. The White Fathers took their name not from the color of their skin but from the color of their long tunic. Today this order has reverted back to its official name, Missionaries of Africa.

In January of 1885, Mwanga had three Baganda Anglicans— Joseph Rugarama, Mark Kakumba, and Noah Serwanga— dismembered and their bodies burned. In October of that same year the newly arrived Anglican bishop, James Hannington, was murdered along with his caravan on their way to the region.

In response, Joseph Mukasa, a senior adviser to the kabaka and a recent Catholic convert, reproached Mwanga for executing Bishop Hannington without having offered him the customary opportunity to defend himself. Mwanga, furious at what he saw as Mukasa’s insolence, had him beheaded on November 15, 1885. Mukasa became the first of the black Catholic martyrs on the continent.

Among those now in obvious danger was the head of the royal pages, Charles Lwanga, who had been instructed in Christianity by the White Fathers and who was now Mukasa’s successor in guiding the young converts.

The day of Joseph Mukasa’s death, Lwanga went to the Catholic mission with other catechumens (those who were receiving religious instruction), and together with them he was baptized by Siméon Lourdel, one of the White Fathers. Among the pages was Kizito, age fourteen.

In February, a fire in the royal palace impelled Mwanga to move his court to a lodge on the banks of Lake Victoria. While there, Charles Lwanga protected several of the pages against the king’s violent sexual advances. Mwanga by this point had already obtained the consent from his chiefs to kill the Baganda Christians. Around this time, Lwanga secretly baptized five of the catechumens.

They were marched to Namugongo, where, bound with ropes, shackles, iron rings, and slave yokes, they waited for one week. During that time the martyrs prayed and sang hymns; the Catholics among them recited morning and evening prayers, grace before and after meals, as well as the Angelus and the rosary, in preparation for their deaths.

On June 3, before the execution of the rest of the young men, Charles Lwanga was put to death by the king’s men. He was wrapped tightly in a reed mat, a yoke was hung on his neck, and he was thrown onto a pyre.

Taunting his executioners, Charles is said to have shouted, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body!” Before he died he cried out, “Katonda,” or “My God.” In all, forty-five Christians were martyred at Namugongo: twenty-two Catholics and twenty-three Anglicans.

For after the White Fathers were expelled from the region, the Baganda Christians continued with the process of evangelization, translating the catechism into Luganda, offering secret instruction in the faith, and encouraging one another to persevere.

Upon their return after Mwanga’s death, the White Fathers discovered five hundred Christians and more than a thousand catechumens awaiting further instruction.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized all twenty-two of the Catholic martyrs. Five years later, as the first pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa, he laid the foundation stone of the shrine to be built in Namugongo in honor of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions. The shrine was completed in 1975, on June 3, now the feast day of the Ugandan martyrs.

The first reading is taken from 2 Timothy 1:1-3, 6-12. The Gospel reading is taken from Mark 12:18-27, in which some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and put this question to him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, If someone’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.

Now there were seven brothers. The first married a woman and died, leaving no descendants. So the second brother married her and died, leaving no descendants and the third likewise. And the seven left no descendants. Last of all the woman also died.

At the resurrection when they arise whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her.” Jesus said to them, “Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?

When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven. As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly misled.”

Fr Joachim Omolo Ouko, AJ