Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Remembering the Uganda Martyrs

Icon of the martyrs at the Shrine
In graduate school I first became friends with students and priests from Uganda who greatly enriched my appreciation for the Uganda Martyrs. 22 Catholic martyrs of the late 19th century were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964. They are commemorated on June 3, the anniversary of the burning-to-death in 1886 of St. Charles Lwanga and eleven fellow Christian servants of the Ugandan Kabaka (King). There are ten other Catholic martyrs during this period who are also grouped into today's feast. Each one has an awesome story that was carefully recorded from eyewitness testimony for the beatification proceedings in the early twentieth century.

It is unfortunate that the stories and even the names of their Anglican companions in this dramatic ecumenical gesture of common witness have been lost, as the Anglicans didn't have the kind of rigorous investigative process for beatification or the emphasis on individual saints that is so prominent in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic martyrs, after the collection of the testimony of numerous still-living witnesses, were beatified in 1920. October 18 will mark the 50th anniversary of their canonization, and the Catholic Church in Uganda is dedicating the whole year to a renewal of faith for millions of people who stand today as the heritage of the martyrs.

St. Joseph Mukasa
Among the martyrs who were not in St. Charles Lwanga's group are several outstanding adults, including St. Mattias Mulumba and St. Andrew Kaggwa, both catechists and married men with families. Another of the martyrs who particularly inspires me is St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, who was the personal attendant of King Muteesa and his son King Mwanga II, and head of the royal household. He was able to obtain religious freedom for Christians (for a limited time prior to 1885), and his teaching and example led to a large number of conversions and strengthened the faith of many of the new Christians. But he also fearlessly rebuked King Mwanga for his superstitious and immoral life and in particular for the execution of a Protestant missionary bishop. The King saw this as a challenge to his absolute royal authority, and he turned against Christianity. Joseph Mukasa was brutally tortured and executed for teaching the Christian faith and for his defense of Christians on November 15, 1885. He is a patron saint of politicians.

This led to further executions of prominent Christians, and finally to the young men and boys who served the King. In addition to being pathologically obsessed with his own power, Mwanga was also a serial sex predator and pedophile. The Christians, led by Charles Lwanga, resisted the King's abuse and protected others from it. King Mwanga demanded that they renounce this faith that opposed his desire to turn his servants into a caged harem of boys subjected to his every lustful whim and brutal fantasy. Of course, they refused and were subjected instead to death for the glory of their newly found Lord, Jesus.

Bishops and pilgrims 2014 (from The Observer,
Online news and opinion journal from Uganda)
Today all these martyrs are the heroes of the Catholic people of East Africa. You can read each of their stories here on the website of the Uganda Martyrs Shrine, which is located at Namugongo, the sight of the torture and death of St. Charles Lwanga, 11 Catholic servants of the King (nearly all of them under 20 years of age), and a number of Anglicans as well. The Shrine is a place of pilgrimage all year round but especially on June 3, which is an official holiday in Uganda and is known as "Martyrs Day." This year a million pilgrims gathered at the Shrine from the region and the whole world to celebrate Martyrs Day.

The Shrine of the Uganda Martyrs
The story of the Catholic martyrs of Namugongo, including their final "death march," was preserved in great detail by Denis Kamyuka, one of the Catholic royal pages who was condemned to death with the others and taken all the way to the place where they were burned, only to be pardoned at the last moment because of the pleas of relatives who were associated with the King's family. It is because of his detailed testimony at the beatification process over thirty years later that we have a vivid narrative of their heroic sufferings and deaths.

Denis Kamyuka was present at the beatification of his companions and friends in 1920, and it is said that he wept for not being among them. But he was spared so that the whole world might know the story of the witness that was given on that day. You can read the story here. There is a litany of the Uganda Martyrs that is published by the Shrine; a profound and powerful prayer for the multitude of pilgrims who come from all over East Africa (and the world) to honor and seek help from these saints who are their forebearers in the faith. Click here for the litany and the invocations.