Only in the nineteenth century did Christian missionaries begin to bring the Gospel to the hinterlands of the African continent. One of the most active missionary orders, the White Fathers, did pioneer work in equatorial Uganda.
When they began their apostolate in 1879, they found Mutesa, the kabaka (king) of the Buganda region, rather tolerant of their efforts. Not so, King Mwanga, the monarch who succeeded him.
Mwanga, despite his youth, was already morally corrupt. Arabs had introduced homosexual practices to Uganda, and the kabaka had adopted them. In 1885 Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic in his court, dared to rebuke Mwanga for cruelty (in his assassination of Anglican bishop James Harrington and his party), and for his debauchery. The king soon found a pretext for ordering Mukasa beheaded.
If King Mwanga had hoped to daunt Christian opposition to his evil ways, he was mistaken. Charles Lwanga took Mukasa’s place as a protector of the Christian pageboys whom the ruler constantly tried to victimize. Mwanga therefore launched a persecution against the Christians surrounding him.
As a result, 22 Catholics in all were executed on his order. Some were prominent people – one, a middle-aged judge; another, a tribal chieftain. But the largest group was the 17 pages, whose ages ran from 13 to 25. Thirteen of them were burned to death in a cruel mass execution. Nor were Catholic Christians the only objects of the wicked king’s fury. An equal number of Protestants were put to death because of their Christian faith. Thus the purge of the court Christians became a touching ecumenical event.
Non-Christian Ugandans thought better rather than worse of the Christian faith as a result of the executions. Within a year after the deaths of the martyrs, the number of Catholic baptisms rose from 200 to over 500; and the number of catechumens, from 800 to 3000. Today, Uganda is at least one-third Catholic. In 1939 it was given Joseph Kiwanuka, the first black African bishop of the Latin Rite in modern times. Bishop Kiwanuka was a kinsman of Achilles Kiwanuka, one of the martyrs of 1886.
Pope Benedict XV beatified these 22 martyrs in 1920. Pope Paul VI canonized them during the course of the Second Vatican council in 1964. When Msgr. Richard K. Burns, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle parish and builder of our beautiful church, consecrated the main altar on April 10, 1965, he sealed into it the relics of several saints, including some of the Martyrs of Uganda.
Today our American newspapers record an increasing number of cases of the sexual abuse of children. Merchants of flesh are promoting ever more boldly the prostitution of boys.
May the young martyrs of Uganda, who died rather than yield their purity to a pagan monarch, intercede on behalf of the integrity of our abused American youth. May our traditional American sense of decency win out against vices so ruinous to family life.
–Father Robert F. McNamara