Today, over half a million Christians in Uganda will attend commemorations for those whose blood was the seed of the Church.
Christianity was very new to Uganda in 1885 when the first of 22 young Catholic converts gave his life as a martyr for his faith. Catholic Missionaries led by French White Fathers (called White Fathers because of the long white robes worn by the missionaries), taught that both slavery and polygamy were wrong. King Mutesa had tolerated these teachings. When his son, King Mwanga, took the throne at 18, these same teachings led to the persecution and martyrdom of Christians.
To be baptized it was necessary to reject many traditional practices and many Ugandans looked on the young Catholic converts as rebels. The new King, who had, as a prince loved the missionaries, now feared the new religion and hated their admonishment of his behavior.
Joseph Mukasa Balekuddembe was the first Catholic convert to be martyred. Joseph had been a chief advisor to the King and had spoken out, condemning the King's order for Anglican Bishop Hannington's death. The King would not tolerate this criticism from his advisors and ordered Joseph beheaded on November 15, 1885. Joseph proclaimed "Mwanga has condemned me without cause, but tell him I forgive him in my heart."
King Mwanga may have believed that by killing Joseph he would convince other converts to give up their new faith. However, others in the King's service responded not with fear, but faith.
Charles Lwanga was the chief of the 400 pages who were the young men in the service of the King. When Charles learned of Joseph's death he went together with Bruno Sserunkuma, James Buzabalyawo and several others to the White Fathers and asked to be baptized. They escaped from the confines of the palace grounds at night to be instructed, knowing that they were putting their lives in God's hands.
Denis Sebuggwago, who was a servant of the king, was found teaching catechism and was killed on May 26, 1886. Andrew Kagwa who was the bandmaster to the King was also a catechist who had converted his wife and gathered many others to the new faith. Andrew and Ponsiano Ngondwe were beheaded the same day.
As the chief of the pages, Charles Lwanga also tried to keep the young men safe from the King's behavior and this angered the king further. The King's anger and distrust of Catholics grew and he announced that it would be necessary for the pages to choose between their faith and life. He ordered that all the "who prayed" stand aside. Charles Lwanga led the way and was followed by others, all knew what their fate would be.
Tied up, the next day they were forced to walk 12 miles to the hill that would be their place of execution at Namugongo. Gonzaga Gonza collapsed and he and Antanansio Bazzekuketta were killed on the road.
One of the pages, Mbaga Tuzinde, was the son of the chief executioner who tried to hide him. He escaped from his family and joined the others.
Once they arrived at Namugongo, the place of their death was not ready, and they waited for seven days. They were cold and hungry, but despite this they were filled with joy and kept praying the Our Father and Hail Mary. On Ascension Thursday, the drums alerted them that their execution was about to take place. Charles Lwanga was first; then the others were brought out and tied in bundles of three and thrown into the fire, where they kept singing and praising God until they perished.
June 3 is remembered as the Martyrs Day in Uganda, and today Christians travel to Namungongo for celebrations.
The King's intention had been to deter the growth of Christianity, but the martyrdom of these early believers sparked its growth instead. It has been observed in many other instances, that the blood of the martyrs proved to be the seed of faith. Christianity is now the dominant faith in Buganda and Uganda as a whole. The 22 known Catholic martyrs were declared "Blessed" by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. On October 18, 1964 Pope Paul VI canonised the 22 Catholic martyrs during the Vatican II conference. These 22 young men are recognised for their sacrifice and witness of faith.
Rev Dr Steve Noll, vice-chancellor of Uganda Christian University writes: “The Uganda Martyrs were not really “page-boys,” but rather royal courtiers, the king’s elite officers. When many of these courtiers embraced Christianity, Kabaka (King) Mwanga came to feel his absolute authority was being threatened. He had learned the practice of homosexuality from the Arab traders and used it as a way of lording it over his inferiors. When the Christians refused, he saw it as one more sign of their treason. So, like the young men of Nebuchadnezzar’s court, he decided to put them to the test: renounce the Christian God or die.
And their response was the same: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Dan 3:17-18)”
Dear Lord, the Uganda Martyrs were willing to give their lives as witness of their faith in You. Help us to have the same courage and bestow upon us the faith of these martyrs - that we too may live our lives as witness to Your Love for us, and our love of You.