60 years later, we sing with the martyrs of Uganda

Women holds banners of Pope Francis as the pope visits the Munyonyo shrine in Kampala, Uganda Nov. 27, 2015. The pope met with catechists and teachers at Munyonyo, the martyrdom spot of the Uganda Martyrs. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On the 3rd of June every year, the Uganda Martyrs Basilica in Namugongo, a town in the central part of Uganda, welcomes big numbers of pilgrims from all over the world. June 3 is the Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs. This year marks exactly 60 years since the 22 Martyrs of Uganda were canonized.

These brave young men and boys became our ancestors in faith by embracing the supreme form of witnessing to Christ: martyrdom. The king of Buganda, Mwanga II, ordered them to be put to death for their faith between 1885-1887; most of them were burned to death.

To this number we can add two other martyrs who were killed many years later in Paimol, near Kalongo in northern Uganda on Oct. 18, 1918: the two young catechists David Okello (age 16) and Jildo Irwa (age 12-14). They, too, had refused to renounce the new religion of which they were the catechists.

The devotion of all these martyrs is proof of the universality of the Church; veneration is due to saints of every age, nation, color and race.

By their canonization on Mission Sunday, Oct. 18, 1964, Pope Paul VI infallibly presented the saints of Uganda to the entire Church as examples of holiness and as role models. We honor them for their holiness and we pray that they may intercede for us to God; as role models, we strive to imitate them.

Father Léon Livinhac, one of the early missionaries in Uganda, wrote in his diary after he baptized the first Catholic Ugandans – many of whom were later to be martyred: “All of them are well aware [that they might be] put to death; but they declare that they are ready to die rather than abandon their faith” (“So Abundant a Harvest” by Yves Tourigny). Indeed, they were soon offered an opportunity to prove this willingness.

Our Christian vocation is a call to be witnesses – witnesses to hope and joy.

The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.” Martyrs are witnesses to us of the Truth of Christ and call us to that same commitment. If we strive for that same kind of faith, then we can truly be witnesses in our world today.

If we die to ourselves, live each day for Jesus and make him the most important part of our life, and love our neighbor, then our witness will be bountifully fruitful.

Our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and strangers will see in us what was so powerfully expressed in the death of each Ugandan Martyr – that Jesus Christ is King and to him be the glory!

In our daily lives, we will ever join in the song of the high priest in the Book of Judith. Together with men and women of faith, we sing to our martyrs: “You are the glory of Jerusalem! You are the great pride of Israel! You are the great boast of our nation!” (Jdt 15:9).


Father Alexander Ssentongo Muddu is pastor of St. Mary of the Annunciation, Ladysmith.


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