Today is the feast day of St. Charles Lwanga and companions, the Martyrs of Uganda. Millions of pilgrims come on this day to the Ugandan Marytrs’ Shrine in Namugongo, in the diocese of Kampala. Pilgrims come on foot and by bus from as far away as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pilgrims walk for weeks in the heat, as a way of honoring the young martyrs who gave their lives rather than renounce their faith in Christ. From May 25th through June 2nd pilgrims pray a novena to the Ugandan Marytrs. As they journey, they pray to God through the intercession of the twenty-two saints, asking for their prayers on their behalf. This a joyous day in East Africa, with many vendors selling things to eat, choirs, dancers, processions, and a High Mass. It is even a national holiday.
The Ugandan Marytrs were a group of Catholic and Anglican men between the ages of 24 and 14 who were murdered by King Mwanga II of Buganda for questioning his killings of missionaries, refusing to renounce their Christian faith, and rejecting his sexual advances. King Mwanga was a violent leader and practicing pedophile who saw the young Christian men in his court as a threat to his power.
In 1885 Mwanga had three Anglican missionaries Joseph Rugarama, Mark Kakumba and Noah Serwanga and one Catholic Bishop, James Hannington, dismembered and burned.
Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic convert and member of the King’s court, openly questioned the killings. He was burned alive and beheaded. Joseph Mukasa, the first black African martyr said, “A Christian who gives his life for God is not afraid to die. He has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart.”
Charles Lwanga, was ordered to take over Mukasa’s duties as the King’s page. Lwanga was a 25 year-old leader of a small community of 200 Christians. Knowing they were in danger, he secretly baptized his catechumens. Eventually, the King ordered all the Christians in his court to come before him and renounce their Christianity saying, “Those who do not pray stand by me, those who do pray stand over there.” He demanded of the boys and young men if they were Christians and intended to remain Christians. When they answered yes he condemned them to death. They were marched to Namugongo. One martyr, Matthias, was cut up on the road and left to die. The ones who survived the journey were burned alive. As they died they sang hymns and called on the name of Jesus. 22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans were martyred at Namugongo, but despite their unimaginable fate, the faith continued to grow and be practiced in secret.
On Ugandan Marytrs’ Day we remember the lives of these saints, pray for their intercession, and pray for all the people around the world who suffer religious persecution.