Millions celebrate Uganda Martyrs Day

At the Catholic Shrine of the Uganda Martyrs in Namugongo, 16 kilometres northwest of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, the traditional pilgrimage held on June 3 saw a massive turnout, with local authorities estimating more than 3.5 million attendees. Pilgrims came from various dioceses across the country,

Jun 15, 2024

Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine - Namugongo/ Facebook Uganda Episcopal Conference


UGANDA: At the Catholic Shrine of the Uganda Martyrs in Namugongo, 16 kilometres northwest of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, the traditional pilgrimage held on June 3 saw a massive turnout, with local authorities estimating more than 3.5 million attendees. Pilgrims came from various dioceses across the country, as well as from numerous African countries, Europe, and America.

For Archbishop Raphael p’Mony Wokorach of Gulu (north), who presided over the Mass, this celebration is “very important for Ugandan Christians and the Church as a whole.” He compared it to a new Pentecost, a moment where people from all corners of the world gather in prayer as one family of God, united in faith.

The archbishop urged the faithful to be inspired and transformed by the martyrs’ testimony, whose courage should also inspire the country's authorities in the fight against corruption. In this East African country, ranked 140th out of 180 by the latest Transparency International report, “corruption has now penetrated most sectors of society,” noted Archbishop Wokorach.

As the guest of honour at the celebration, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni responded to this call. “Some of the speakers have talked about corruption. I agree that corruption is becoming a problem in Uganda, and when I address the state of the nation, I’ll talk about it in detail,” he promised before the millions of attendees.

While the event typically gathers millions of Catholic faithful, this year it had a special significance: the 60th anniversary of the canonisation of the Uganda martyrs, with the remains of two of them expected to be repatriated “probably in September this year.” The year 2024 also marks 145 years of evangelisation in this country by the White Fathers.

The evangelisation of Buganda (southern present-day Uganda) began in 1879 with the arrival in Entebbe (former capital) of Simon Lourdel and Léon Livinhac, two Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). They were peacefully welcomed and received by King Mutesa, who allowed them to open a catechumenate, preparing a few locals for baptism. Frs Lourdel and Livinhac baptised a few catechumens and also children dying from a smallpox epidemic. They then left Entebbe from 1882 to 1885, already sensing the persecution.

Upon King Mutesa’s death, his son Mwanga initially appeared favourable to Christianity and asked the missionaries to return after three years of exile. Assisted by new converts, notably Joseph Mukasa, the king’s steward, the missionaries continued their evangelisation. However, their activities began to disturb the Prime Minister and local dignitaries. They eventually convinced the king that the Christians were plotting to overthrow him.

Joseph Mukasa was the first victim of King Mwanga’s persecution of Catholics. He was beheaded, and his body burned on November 15, 1885. The tyrant hoped to discourage all new converts by killing their leader. But it was to no avail. The day after Joseph’s martyrdom, 12 catechumens requested baptism, and 500 others were baptised that same week. Twenty-one of Joseph Mukasa’s companions, including 12-year-old Kizito, were also killed for their faith.

In addition to the 22 Catholic martyrs, 23 Anglicans were killed during the same period. Like the Catholics, these Anglicans denounced King Mwanga’s homosexual relationships with some of his pages and encouraged them to no longer submit to him. This fact was recalled by Cardinal Ambongo in January, justifying the refusal of African bishops to bless homosexual couples.

In Uganda, June 3 being a public holiday, Anglicans also organised a celebration for their martyrs in Namugongo, where they also have a shrine. --LCI 

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