Thursday, June 3, 2021

Uganda "Martyrs Day": A Time to Grow in Faith

Since the feast of Corpus Christi is moved to Sunday on the USA's calendar, we deferred to the weekday liturgical texts and their particular feasts. Thus we shared once again in what is a very special holiday for Catholics in East Africa. 

The Uganda Martyrs are commemorated today, the anniversary of the burning-to-death of Saint Charles Lwanga and his fellow royal pages on June 3, 1886. There are also other martyrs during this period who are grouped into today's feast. Each one has an awesome story that was carefully recorded from eyewitness testimony for the Beatification proceedings in the 1920s. 

(The image here is the official icon from the canonization of 1962.)

These martyrs are the heroes of the new Catholic churches and peoples of East Africa who have emerged within the past 150 years. Ordinarily, millions of pilgrims come to the Shrine at Namugongo (build on the place where the young martyrs gave their lives). But for the second consecutive year, the live, in-person celebration was drastically limited by public gathering restrictions related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Only 200 representative pilgrims were present at the Shrine for this years celebration, while millions more participated via television or internet-streaming. Uganda has (for Africa) a relatively sophisticated communications infrastructure. I myself participated in the Martyrs Day celebration "in real time" in 2019 from my home in the USA by way of Uganda NewsTV's YouTube channel. See this post HERE for an account of that experience, which seemed quite remarkable at the time; little did I imagine how crucial these media connections would soon become for Ugandans and everyone else, not only for holidays but for every day - for months and months at a time - to facilitate even our sense of local ecclesial unity in a time of crisis.

For Ugandans, who are so close to the memory of these martyrs, being confined to a mediated celebration "from a distance" was probably a deeper suffering than anything I can imagine. As a first-worlder who grew up in comfort and is well-accustomed to "watching life on television," I wonder if my own humanity is sufficiently vital and focused to really appreciate this kind of enforced remoteness from a sacred celebration so interwoven with one's own life and Christian identity (such as Martyrs Day is for Ugandan Catholics). Still, whatever the difficulty, the media resources clearly were a help for them this year.

In his homily, the bishop who celebrated the liturgy this year at Namugongo expressed the sorrow and also the meaning and value of bearing the burdens of what is (let us first-worlders not forget) still an ongoing global epidemic:

"This year, we assemble under exceptional circumstances. A slim number of the faithful are here physically. The multitudes are at home in virtual attendance. Not that they wished to stay away and watch television or listen to radios or indeed switch on social media platforms. No, it is because the Covid-19 pandemic has dictated and forced us into this terrible situation. We look like the dismembered body of Christ. We are scattered, but it would not be right to say we are in disarray." Rather, "in faith let us embrace this opportunity as guidance from the Holy Spirit that we should all spiritually internalise the example set for us by the Uganda Martyrs, that is, their deep faith, deep charity and of loving God to the point of shedding blood" (Bishop Silverus Jjumba of the Diocese of Masaka, presiding at the liturgy at the Namugongo Shrine, June 3, 2021).

Here is the Collect Prayer for the feast day: