The Holy Martyrs of Uganda

June 3

Today is the feast day of the Holy Martyrs of Uganda.  Orate pro nobis.

These Saints lived in the area of Central Africa called Uganda. Never had anyone spoken the name of God in that land, and the devil ruled there by means of slavery, sorcery and cannibalism. One day in 1879, Father Lourdel and Father Livinhac, two members of the White Fathers’ Society, arrived amid these poor natives. At once they introduced themselves to King Mutesa, who welcomed them peacefully and granted them permission to reside in his kingdom.

The dedicated missionaries were all to all, and they rendered service any way they could. Less than seven months after they opened a catechumenate, they selected some individuals worthy of preparation for Baptism. King Mutesa took an interest in what the Fathers were preaching, but before long their words aroused the anger of the jealous witch doctors and of the Arabs, who were engaging in slavery.

Anticipating a persecution, Fathers Lourdel and Livinhac baptized the natives who were already prepared and then withdrew south of Lake Victoria with a few young Blacks they had bought out of slavery. A smallpox epidemic decimated the population of that area, and the missionaries baptized great numbers of dying children.

After they had been three years in exile, King Mutesa passed away.  The newly ascended king—King Mwanga (the son of Mutesa, who had ruthlessly deposed his father)—was both violent and paranoid himself. He ruled his court through fear and coercion, and his pages—mostly youth—were under constant threat of his temper and sadistic tendencies. The Christians at Mwanga’s court struggled to protect the youth from their ruler, who began looking for opportunities to force them to renounce their faith (due to fears that the Church was gaining too much power, threatening his unstable monarchy).

Upon the martyrdom of the leader of the Christian community—Saint Joseph Mkasa—the instruction and safekeeping of the youth of the royal court fell to Charles Lwanga. Joseph had courageously stood up to the king, condemning his execution of a Protestant missionary. The king, who had previously considered Joseph a friend (after he had saved his life from a poisonous viper with his bare hands), ordered him bound and burnt alive. He was fueled by the advice of his trusted advisors, who repeatedly stated that Joseph’s allegiance lay with “another king”—the King God of the Christians. Prior to death, Joseph forgave the king, pleading the case of the children. He stated to the executioner, “A Christian who gives his life for God is not afraid to die. Tell Mwanga, that he has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart.” The executioner was so impressed with Mukasa that he beheaded him swiftly before tying him to the stake and burning his body. His powerful witness inspired what happened next.

Charles Lwanga picked up where Joseph had left off, organizing prayer meetings for the youth of the court, and generally keeping them out of the king’s hands. This, however, aroused the paranoia and suspicion of Mwanga, who after ruthless questioning of one of the pages, determined that religious instruction was poisoning the minds of the youth and preventing them from acquiescing to his orders. The youth, no more than 13, informed the king of his teacher’s name– Denis Ssebuggwawo—who the king promptly had executed by sticking a spear through his throat.

The same day Mwanga had young Honoratus mutilated and tortured, and a neophyte named James, who had once attempted to convert Mwanga to Christianity, had a yoke hung around his neck. Then Mwanga assembled all the Christian pages and gave orders for them to be led to the pyre in Namugongo and burned alive. James died in that fire along with the other martyrs on June 3, 1886, on the feast of the Ascension. Father Lourdel later wrote:

Those between 18 and 25 years old were tied together. The younger boys, bound tightly together, could hardly walk without jostling one another. I saw little Kizito laughing at all the scrimmaging as though it were some kind of a game he was playing with his friends. There were fifteen Catholics in all, three of whom were released at the last minute. There are twenty-two officially canonized Catholic martyrs, whose deaths occurred between 1885 and 1887.

Popular devotion to the Martyrs of Uganda took on a universal character after Saint Pius X proclaimed them Venerable on August 16, 1912. Their beatification occurred on June 6, 1920, and they received the honors of canonization on October 18, 1964.

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