60th anniversary of the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs

Namungongo 2019

Canonisation: “Be holy as your heavenly Father is holy” (1 Pt. 1:15-17)

This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs. They were canonised by Pope Paul VI on the 18th October 1964 in St. Peter’s, Rome. We thank and praise the Lord for the gift of our Martyrs and the many fruits that we have received and are still receiving from the story of their lives, martyrdom and canonisation, especially the spiritual and moral fruits.

The Catholic Church in Uganda, led by Nebbi Diocese, will celebrate this anniversary on the 3rd June 2024, under the theme: “As for me and my household, we shall serve the Lord.(Joshua 24: 15). Some dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces have their respective arrangements to celebrate this anniversary. For example, Kampala Ecclesiastical Province (Masaka, Kiyinda-Mityana, Kasana-Luweero, Lugazi and Kampala), will celebrate it on the 15th November 2024 at Munyonyo. The Archdiocese itself has organised a peregrination of the relics of Charles Lwanga and Matia Mulumba in all the parishes in the Archdiocese, under the theme: “We, the baptised, let us journey together in communion, participation and mission, following in the footsteps of the Ugandan Martyrs.”

Saints in the Church remind us of our common vocation as human beings created in the image of God (Gn. 1: 27) and as baptised: “To be holy as our heavenly Father is holy.” (Leviticus 11: 44; 1 Peter 1: 15-17). And the visibility of this holiness is in the works of mercy: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6: 36)

The canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs reminds us of the universality (catholicity) of the Church and Sainthood. It reminds us that ‘holiness’ is not a monopoly of any race, tribe or nationality. It confirms St. Peter’s teaching that: “God does not have favourites; but anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10: 34-35; Romans 2: 11)

The day of 18th October, therefore, is to be annually celebrated as a day of hope that we too can be holy as our heavenly Father is holy. The Ugandan Martyrs are a sign of that hope.

The Martyrs’ journey to Canonisation

The Ugandan Martyrs were beatified in 1920, 34 years after of the holocaust at Namugongo. It took another 44 years before they were canonised in 1964. These 44 years between their beatification and canonisation was a big test and trial to the faith of the believers but especially of those who had been entrusted with the ministry of promoting the Martyrs’ devotion and to pray for miracles through their intercession.

Then, out of blue, God brought in Pope John XXIII! He was Pope from 28th October 1958 to 3rd June 1963. It is thanks to him that the file of the beatified martyrs which had been shelved for almost forty years was re-opened in 1958 and within six years the martyrs were canonised by his successor, Pope Paul VI, the first Pope to visit Africa south of the Sahara in 1969. This visit was made to Uganda from 31st July to 2nd August.

The timing of the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs was God-chosen. It was during the Vatican II Council. It was also the time when many of the African countries were becoming independent. Uganda itself got its independence in 1962. In his homily during the canonisation, Pope Paul VI said: “Africa has been re-born free.” That message echoed the spirit of Vatican II which was considered to have been an occasion of a rebirth of the church, the “opening of the windows of the Church to let in fresh air!” As we celebrate the diamond jubilee of the canonisation of these Martyrs, we have to ask ourselves, how much the African continent has been truly reborn-free in these past sixty years. How have the Ugandan/African Martyrs been a source of inspiration and challenge for Christian men and women in promoting that freedom dreamt of by Pope Paul VI? Realising that that dream is far from being a reality in many parts of Africa, how can we take this 60th anniversary of their canonisation as an opportune time to once again dream together with the late Pope Paul VI, now a saint, of a true rebirth and freedom of Africa?

Uganda: Pearl of Africa and Land of the Martyrs

Ugandans often proudly refer to their Motherland as “the Pearl of Africa”, an attribute which was given to it by Winston Churchill (1874-1965; a former prime minster of the United Kingdom) when he visited Africa in 1907. Those who have widely travelled and visited other African countries will agree with Churchill’s appreciation of the beauty of our country. The challenge Ugandans have today is to make our country more beautiful. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing the contrary on many fronts!

In 1963, the year before the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs, Sr. Marie André du Sacré Coeur (MSOLA) wrote a book with the title: “Uganda, the Land of the Martyrs” (Uganda, terre de martyrs, 1963). Another precious attribute given to our Motherland Uganda!

Uganda as “the Pearl of Africa” annually attracts thousands of tourists and tourism is one of the major sources of our national income. However, there is no doubt that Uganda is mostly known to the outside world because of its Black Martyrs! Three Popes have come to this country not as tourists, but as pilgrims to the Land of the Black Martyrs or the African Martyrs as they also called them. Each one of these three popes, has “kissed the soil of our motherland to plant a special kiss of peace” in it, because of the blood of the Martyrs which watered it! Today, there is no feast or event in this country which brings together a crowd as big and as international as that on the Martyrs’ Day of 3rd June!

Meditating on Uganda as “the Pearl of Africa and Land of the Martyrs”, Pope Francis had this to say:

“Uganda was watered with the blood of martyrs, of witnesses. Today it is necessary to continue watering it for new challenges, new testimonies, new missions. If not, you’re going to lose the great richness that you have. And the “Pearl of Africa” will end up being on display in a museum.” (Lubaga, 28th November 2015)

This observation of the Holy Father is for us real food for thought and prayer!

Uganda Martyrs’ Guild

The Uganda Martyrs’ Guild (Association), founded by Bishop Henry Streicher (M.Afr.), was officially recognised by Rome in 1930. It is one of the very few associations of Catholic Action born on the soil of Uganda. Its objective was to continue the evangelising mission of the Ugandan Martyrs, aiming especially at strengthening Catholic family life and rehabilitating social morals and values.

Unfortunately, this guild has been dormant for many years and is unknown to many Ugandan Catholics of today! However, we also note with joy that in these past years, there has been a desire among some church leaders and lay faithful to revive this association as one of the means of involving the Christians in the ‘New-Evangelization’. We are even more challenged and encouraged by the Knights of St. Matia Mulumba in Nigeria, a very vibrant and active association getting its inspiration from its patron saint.

Annually, around 3rd June, there is “A BIG SPIRITUAL FIRE” of the Ugandan Martyrs burning in our country and outside. During this time, televisions, radios, newspapers, homilies, etc., loudly remind us of the story of the Ugandan Martyrs. But what happens to this big fire after 3rd June? Isn’t it sad to note that that fire burns out immediately after 3rd June?

In Luganda we have a proverb which says that: “Oguliko omuseesa, teguzikira.” (Fire that has a poker [stirrer] does not go out). Part of the mission of the revived Ugandan Martyrs’ Guild would be to ensure that this fire lit around 3rd June is kept burning till the next 3rd June. Its members would be the “pokers” (abaseesa) of this annual big fire of 3rd June. Revival of this guild / association in all our dioceses would be not only a very significant souvenir of this 60th anniversary of the canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs, but also a precious gift given to those we proudly call our Ancestors in Faith.

Canonisation: a source of joy, inspiration and challenge

The key message from the reflections made by the different Missionaries of Africa about the Ugandan Martyrs, their martyrdom, beatification and canonisation, is well expressed in this Luganda proverb which says that: “Ne gw’ozaala akukubira eηηoma n’ozina”. (Even your child might beat the drum for you while you dance). The canonisation of the Ugandan Martyrs is for us, and for the Church in Africa, a source of joy and inspiration, but also a challenge.

Fr. Simeon Lourdel Mapeera, who knew well these martyrs, baptised half of them, and blessed them as they were leaving Munyonyo for Namugongo, wrote these words when he received the remains of Charles Lwanga, five months after the holocaust:

“We pray that these precious relics of one of the first Ugandan Martyrs, inspire and instill in us new courage and enthusiasm to work for the conversion of these people and also remind us that God, if He wills, can raise  children for Abraham out of stones (Mt. 3: 9).” (Nalukolongo – 4th November 1886)

Our Founder Cardinal Lavigerie, even before the cause of their beatification was presented to Rome, invited our predecessors to “admire and imitate their courage”. At the occasion of their beatification in 1920, the Superior General, Msgr Leon Livinhac, also the founding father of the Catholic Church in Uganda wrote: “The beatification of the Uganda Martyrs will herald a notable spiritual renewal in the supernatural life of our Society; the beginning, so to speak, of a new era of piety, zeal, generosity and regularity, remarkable, therefore, for saintly labours which will give great glory to God and bring Him thousands of souls.”  Then, at the occasion of their canonisation in 1964, the Superior General, Fr. Leo Volker, wrote: “Few events have been loaded with such significance for the Society and all the African Missions…..” And, in the same letter, he quoted word by word the above quotation from Msgr Livinhac. Speaking about the joy that this canonisation was going to bring to the missionaries and to the Church in Africa, he said:

“Nevertheless, this joy will abound especially in the African Church, and particularly in the Church in Uganda. Rightly, also, we White Fathers will have our part in it, being in all humility legitimately proud that divine Providence chose to use our Society to bring forth in the Faith the souls of these Martyrs. Our joy will bring us renewed courage, and increased confidence in the future of the African Church. If the Christians of the first generation, less than seven years after the arrival of the first missionaries were able with the grace of God to shed their blood for the Christian Faith, who will doubt of the wonders that the same grace can operate today in the souls of their brethren?”

The above reflections of our predecessors, invite us together with the Church in Africa to make the martyrs the source of our joy and inspiration but also to see in them the challenge to be more courageous and zealous in our missionary work. On the eve of the canonisation, Fr. Leo Volker noted that: “in all humility it is legitimate to be proud that divine Providence chose to use our Society to bring forth in the Faith the souls of these Martyrs.” What does this remark imply today for our Society and Mission?

The Missionaries of Africa in Uganda are privileged to be the guardian of two key sites related to the Ugandan Martyrs: Nabulagala where a majority of the martyrs started their catechism instructions and four of them were baptised: Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, Andrew Kaggwa, Mathias Mulumba and Luka Baanabakintu; and it is also the resting place of their spiritual fathers, the pioneer missionaries in Uganda. Then Namugongo where the leader of the “Abasomi” (Christians), Charles Lwanga, was martyred and which has also become the sign and symbol par excellence of all the Ugandan Martyrs. In the Church, privilege comes with the burden of service and responsibility. What specific service and responsibility does this privilege give to our Society in general and to those confreres appointed there?

By: Richard Nnyombi, M.Afr.

Namungongo 2019

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