June 2, 2017

St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Ugandan Martyrs

Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions

For many of us, practicing our Catholic faith is a relatively safe thing to do. We may suffer some types of persecution in the form of harsh words or the ridicule of others, but seldom are we called upon to expressly give up our lives rather than renounce our faith in Christ and His teachings. That is perhaps why the example of martyrs reminds us of what faith can cost, and helps us avoid being complacent or taking for granted our own freedom to worship God as we see fit.

Martyrdom is not something that ended with the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century; it is a fact even in modern times. One such story of a martyr’s courage comes to us from the country of Uganda, where 22 men and young boys suffered violent deaths rather than submit to a ruler whose demands were contrary to what they devoutly believed to be the will of God.

In the late 19th century, a group of priests from the Society of Missionaries of Africa—also known as the White Fathers because of the color of their robes—traveled to Uganda to work among the people there. Though they had built up a community of native converts within a relatively short period of time, there were places and people in more remote areas of the country that they couldn’t reach. Because of this, some of their early converts became catechists themselves, teaching other Ugandans the faith taught to them by the White Fathers.

Several of these converts lived and taught at the court of King Mwanga, a violent man and a pedophile who considered it his right to force himself on the pages and male aendants who served him. In response to this, one of the Christians, Joseph Mkasa, took it upon himself to protect these young men and boys from the king's advances. After the murder of a Protestant missionary, he confronted Mwanga about his lifestyle. In a rage, King Mwanga ordered that Joseph be killed.

After the death of Joseph Mkasa, Charles Lwanga, another convert, took over the leadership of the Christian community at the court of King Mwanga. Like Joseph, he protected the boys from the king. For six months, no one suffered as a result.

When the king asked of one of the young men what he was doing that kept him from court, the boy replied he had been receiving instruction in the new Christian faith. King Mwanga flew into a rage, killing the catechist, Denis Sebuggwawo, with his own hands. All Christians were rounded up and ordered to renounce their faith and return to their previous life at court. When they refused, all, including a 13-year-old boy, were condemned to death. These Christians, including the son of the chief executioner, were forced to march 37 miles to Namugongo, where the king ordered them to be burned. They passed the home of the White Fathers, who were overcome by the courage and joy of the men and boys who were on their way to martyrdom, which they suffered professing Christ on June 3, 1886.

The White Fathers were soon expelled from the country, however the Christian community they left behind continued. When King Mwanga died and the White Fathers were able to return, they found 500 Christians and over a thousand catechumens waiting for them. Charles Lwanga and the Ugandan martyrs were canonized in 1964 by Paul VI. Their feast day is June 3rd. O God, who have made the blood of Martyrs the seed of Christians, mercifully grant that the field which is your Church, watered by the blood shed by St. Charles Lwanga and companions, may be fertile and always yield you an abundant harvest. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.

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