WHO ARE THE UGANDA MARTYRS?
The Martyrs of Uganda are a source of pride for the universal Church in general but for Ugandans and Africa in particular.
Their blood is the seed of the faith and the growth of Christianity in Uganda. The work of evangelisation in Uganda began 137 years ago when the first group of Christian Missionaries, Shergold-Smith and the Rev. C.T. Wilson arrived at King Mutesa’s court in Rubaga on 30 June 1877. They were Anglicans of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). The Catholic group arrived on 17 February 1879 led by Fr Simeon Lourdel and Bro. Amans, of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers).
People say that Ugandans embraced Christianity quickly. Yes, it is true and it is not a surprise. When the Europeans arrived in Uganda, they found Ugandans different from other people of Africa. Winston Churchill named Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.” Churchill had passed through many African countries and when he arrived in Uganda, he was touched and impressed by the beauty of the environment, but above all he found the people very kind and welcoming. These people were ready to receive the Good News which they embraced with enthusiasm.
All the visitors coming to Uganda had to report to the king (Kabaka) of the Buganda Kingdom, who, eventually would give them permission to carry out their mission. When Kabaka Mutesa welcomed the Christian Missionaries, he allowed them to teach the new religion to the people who worked in the palace and the area surrounding it. The Uganda Martyrs were pages in the King’s palace. After these pages were instructed about Christianity and they learned to read the Bible, they realised that some of the practices they were used to were contrary to the teaching of the Bible and therefore they refused such practices. Kabaka Mwanga, who had replaced his father Kabaka Mutesa, considered this refusal a rebellion and so he ordered them to renounce the new religion or else they would be executed.
The Uganda Martyrs executed in Kampala at the orders of Kabaka Mwanga between 1885 and 1887 were forty five young men: twenty-two Roman Catholics and twenty-three Anglicans. To this number we can add other two: the two young catechists who were killed in Paimol near Kalongo in Northern Uganda on 18 October 1918. They too had refused to renounce the new religion of which they were the catechists. The Comboni Missionaries had arrived from Italy in Northern Uganda in 1911 and announced there the Good News of Christ.
God gave these young Christians a special grace to accept death rather than renounce the gift of faith they had just received. Pope Paul VI recognised and canonised them on 18 October 1964 as Holy Martyrs because they poured out their blood for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Each one of us should make some self-examination by asking: “How much do I know the Uganda Martyrs?” “How has this knowledge influenced the decisions I take in my life?” Together, let us now pray with, and to these Martyrs, who are our own martyrs, saints, brothers, and ancestors in the faith, to intercede for us so that we live the life of Christian witness and become Saints.
The Martyrs of Uganda, from the heart of Africa, are our own brothers and ancestors in the faith. However, they are not only for Uganda or Africa, but for the entire world, and for the whole universal Church of Jesus Christ, the King of Martyrs. Pope Paul VI was an intimate devotee of the Uganda Martyrs. In his homily at their canonisation on 18 October 1964 in Rome, during the Second Vatican Council, he said: “The African Martyrs add another page to the martyrology, a page worthy in every way to be added to the annals of that Africa of earlier times which we, living in this era and being men of little faith, never expected to be repeated.” Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to visit Uganda in 1969 in order to honour and pray with these brave men of faith, and set foot on the land bathed and blessed with the blood of martyrs.
The story of these heroic, gallant, brave young men is a story of faith, courage, tenacity, resiliency, perseverance, faithfully following Jesus: the way, the life, and the truth that sets humankind free.
This story can become our own story, the story of our journey of faith. In this small book, I am not going to tell this most fascinating story, but rather transform this powerful and inspiring story into prayer.
This story and journey of faith, began with the arrival of the first missionaries (White Fathers or Missionaries of Africa) to Uganda, Father Simon Lourdel and Brother Amans on 17 February 1879.1t reached its climax on 3 June 1886, when most of these brave young men, in barely 10 years of discipleship, became our ancestors in faith by embracing the supreme form of witnessing to Christ: the martyrdom.
By killing these young men of faith, King Kabaka Mwanga deluded himself. He thought that he could sweep away the Christian faith in the land. On the contrary, he sowed the seeds which would grow and whose branches would spread out to the whole world.
Tertullian, another African ancestor, noted: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith.” Clearly, the Kabaka was under a terrible delusion when he concluded that the only way to silence these passionate and zealous young men of faith was to put them to death.
What Archbishop Oscar Romero of EI Salvador said before he was martyred by a gunshot during Holy Mass, is applicable to the Martyrs of Uganda: “In my death I will speak louder than in my earthly life.” The Uganda Martyrs, as it is for all martyrs, never stop speaking, praying, and interceding for all including their executioners.
This is the challenge that they have left to us: to answer the call of our Christian life wholeheartedly and to live by the Christian virtues. There is no other way to honour those great heroes than to continue witnessing to our faith, as they did, with firmness, courage, determination and focus on the ultimate goal of our pilgrimage: heaven.