In the Service of The King: St. Charles Lwanga and Companions
Catholicism, since the early days of the Church, has been no stranger on the continent of Africa. St. Augustine himself called northern Africa home and being part of the Roman empire, he was privileged to hear about The Good News. However, the Gospel did not spread to every part of the African continent. As late as the 1880s, parts of Africa had not yet heard about Christ. With the story of St. Charles Lwanga, the Church was to gain witnesses of the joy and peace one obtains upon receiving the sacraments.
During the 1880s, Cardinal Lavigerie began sending a group of priests to central Africa, in present-day Uganda. The priests were members of the Missionaries of Africa. They traveled on foot from Zanzibar through treacherous jungle for fifteen months until they reached a kingdom within Uganda known at that time as Buganda.
The king, or Kabaka of Buganda at the time of their arrival was Mukabya. Initially, Mukabya welcomed the priests into his kingdom. As time passed the Word of God began to spread throughout the region and the priests began to effect change on the court system and way of life in the kingdom, which caused tension between Mukabya and his European visitors.
Within Buganda, the only way to obtain any position of status or authority was to enter court as a royal Page. Only young men became royal Pages, women at this time were seen more alike to second class citizens. The French fathers learned with time the intricacies of the kingdom but also discovered the treatment of these young men. The Kabaka would often abuse them and request sexual favors from his Royal Pages. When the Catholic priests spoke out against this to Mukabya he banished them from Buganda.
This would be the first of many times that Catholic priests were forced into exile from Buganda. The Kabaka was very temperamental and when in a rage he could be very dangerous. However, given time, his passions would subside and Catholic priests would once again be allowed into the region.
This trend continued after Mukabya’s death when his son, Mwanga, took over rule of Buganda as its Kabaka. Mwanga had similar vices as his father. He had a sporadic, quick temper. He also abused the Royal Pages in a similar fashion.
Just as with his father, he continued exiling Christians and then allowing them back. Things would not stay as they were forever. In November of 1885, everything began to intensify when Mwanga began to take Christian lives. The overseer of the palace, Joseph Balikuddembe, a baptized Catholic, rebuked Mwanga for killing a protestant bishop who did not ask permission to enter the kingdom. Joseph, the most senior of Mwanga’s household staff, had been instructing younger pages to remain pure in body and spirit, especially regarding the demands from Mwanga.
After he rebuked the Kabaka, Joseph went to the mission church and received Holy Communion. He was then summoned by Mwanga back to the palace and executed. Mwanga charged him with teaching the Catholic faith and therefore teaching his servants not to do as they were told. He also trumped up charges that Joseph was plotting to kill him. In his anger and paranoia, he had Joseph beheaded and burned. Joseph Balikuddembe is considered Uganda’s first Catholic martyr. The blood of martyrs helped to embolden the young men, including St. Charles Lwanga, who at that time became the lead catechist.
Surely, Mwanga was taken aback by Christianity because he saw more and more evidence of its followers abiding by a moral authority, God, instead of himself, as the political authority. This troubled him greatly. Things came to a head when in May 1886 Mwanga went hippopotamus hunting and was supposed to be gone for many days. Not finding any, the Kabaka came back later that day to discover his servants were nowhere to be found. Needless to say, Mwanga became very irate. One of his baptized servants came back, Dennis Ssebuggwawo. Mwanga demanded to know where his pages were. The Kabaka said to Dennis “You are going to take all of them away from me, aren’t you?” He then took a spear and pinned him to the wall.
Mwanga called all the servants in and said “All you who pray, stand on this side.” Courageously, 22 of the young men admitted to praying. All of them were thrown in jail for the night. At this time, half of them were not baptized but became baptized that very evening. What faith did these young men have? Before they had received any sacramental graces they were already so self-assured that what they believed was true.
St. Charles Lwanga was the one to perform the baptisms and had become the leader of the young men. The next day they were marched 12 miles to Nemegongo. This was a special execution site, usually reserved for those with royal blood. (One could imagine that Mwanga’s rage would extend to those who could challenge his right to the throne.) Each time they came to a crossroads, one of the young men were slaughtered and left there as a message to other citizens and other Christians in the area.
If we were one of the young men about to be executed how might we conduct ourselves on our way? Local tradition at this time would say that the convicted must wail and yell in agony en route to their execution. The young men, wishing to show their conviction, their peace, and their trust in Christ, walked in silence.
Once the young men arrived at Nemegongo, the executioners set to killing St. Charles Lwanga, their leader, first. They hoped to deter the other young men and have them apostatize. The sentence was for them to be burnt on a funeral pyre after being dismembered slowly. St. Charles Lwanga chose to arrange his own funeral pyre before it was lit. Amidst his suffering he didn’t say a word. The other young men with him did not lose their faith. The head executioner, a man named Mukajanga, was systematic in his business. He even executed his own nephew that day, who had been a companion of St. Charles Lwanga. After completing what he had come to do, Mukajanga cleaned his blades in the well nearby and went home. This place was for royalty, every young man who came to Nemegongo with St. Charles Lwanga accepted the martyr’s crown.
Mwanga had sent for witnesses from each district to observe what had happened that Ascension Thursday in 1886. He wanted them to report how horrific things were in hopes that it would deter others from becoming Catholic. Today, hundreds of thousands of witnesses walk to the Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine Basilica to celebrate the feast day of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions.
The silence in which St. Charles Lwanga observed is contrasted today by joyous, beautiful music sung by choirs as big as 400 people. Amidst the crowd, worshipers dance and sing to remember the courage of the Ugandan Martyrs. The basilica itself is situated on the same exact site where the execution took place. In order to reach the outdoor altar, one must cross a bridge suspended over a small pool of water. This water is the original well where the blood of the martyrs was washed off the executioner’s weapons 136 years ago. Even the executioner himself before his death in 1900, wished to wash himself in Christ’s mercy and became Christian. The basilica, constructed in the shape of a funeral pyre, helps to transcend what was an ominous image and reminds us of the gifts of The Holy Spirit, which allow us to withstand such persecution.
Learning about St. Charles Lwanga, his companions, and those who became martyrs before him help us to better understand how we may use positions of authority. These young men, as Royal Pages had the ability to speak as a member of the Kabaka’s household. They always kept in mind, who their real King is and who they were really serving. Especially for those in public office today, may we have the courage to build up the true kingdom of God, for this will be the source of our true joy.