Saint Charles Lwanga and his Companions, Martyrs

Note: In Ireland, because of the feast of St Kevin, this June 3 memorial is celebrated on June 4.

Charles Lwanga at a very early age was sent to Buddu in the south west of Uganda to be brought up by Kaddu, whom some believe to be his biological father, but who may have been an uncle. Charles was a Ganda who belonged to the Bush-Buck clan. Members of this clan were traditionally banned from the royal court, so when Lwanga took service at court he passed as a member of the Colobus Monkey clan, to which his former master and patron belonged. In 1878, Kaddu placed Lwanga (then aged about eighteen) in the service of Mawulugungu, the chief of Kirwanyi, mentioned by the explorer H M Stanley. The following year the chief was transferred to Ssingo County, accompanied by Lwanga. On a visit to the capital in 1880, Lwanga became interested in the teaching of the White Father missionaries and began taking instruction. When Mawugungu died in 1882, his court was dispersed and Lwanga joined a group of recently baptized Christians in Bulemezi County.

On the accession of King Mwanga in 1884, Lwanga entered the royal service. His personality was such that he was at once placed in charge of the royal pages in the great audience hall, immediately winning their confidence and affection. His immediate superior was Joseph Mukasa (Mkasa), chief steward of Mwanga’s court, a 25-year-old Catholic who was the leader of the small community of 200 Christians. He came to rely more and more completely on Lwanga for the instruction and guidance of the royal pages and for shielding them from the evil influences at court. King Mwanga was a violent ruler and a paedophile, who forced himself on the young boys and men who served in his court.

On 15 November, 1885, the day of Joseph Mukasa’s martyrdom, Lwanga and some other royal servants, whose lives were in danger because they were catechumens, went to the White Fathers’ Mission and were baptized by Fr Simeon Lourdel. The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded under pain of death that they confess their Christian allegiance. All of them, Catholic and Anglican, except for three, did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians, but hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. On one occasion, Lwanga exclaimed that, far from helping the white men take over the kingdom, he was ready to lay down his life for the king.

After a fire in the royal palace on 22 February, 1886, Mwanga moved the court temporarily to his hunting lodge on the shore of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages from the King’s sexual advances and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. By this time, Mwanga had obtained the consent of his chiefs for a massacre of the Christians. Meanwhile, Lwanga himself baptized five of the most promising catechumens. On May 26, the pages entered the royal courtyard to receive judgement and were once again called upon to confess their faith. This they did, declaring that they were ready to die rather than deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans, to be burnt alive at Namugongo. The cruelly-bound prisoners passed the home of the White Fathers on their way to execution. Fr Lourdel almost fainted at the courage and joy these condemned converts, his friends, showed on their way to martyrdom. He noted how tightly they were bound, but more especially their calmness and even joyful disposition in the face of death.

The martyrs were taken to the execution place of Namugongo where they were kept in confinement for a week. Preparations for the execution pyre were not completed until June 2. During this time the martyrs prayed and sang together, while the missionaries, both Catholic and Anglican, paid fruitless visits to the king to appeal for the lives of their young converts.

On June 3, before killing the main body of prisoners, Charles Lwanga was put to death on a small pyre on the hill above the execution place. He was wrapped in a reed mat, with a slave yoke on his neck but, was allowed to arrange the pyre himself. To make him suffer more, the fire was first lit under his feet and legs. These were burnt to charred bones before the flames were allowed to reach the rest of his body. Taunted by the executioner, Charles replied: “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” He then remained quietly praying. Just before the end, he cried out in a loud voice Katonda! “My God!” After his death, the rest were incinerated further down the hill.

When the White Fathers were expelled from the country, the new Christians continued to practice their faith. Without priests, they kept the Catholic Church alive and growing in Uganda. When the White Fathers returned after King Mwanga’s death, they found 500 Christians and 1,000 catchumens waiting for them.

Charles Lwanga was beatified along with 21 other martyrs by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. All 22 were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In 1969, Paul VI laid the foundation stone of the Catholic shrine at Namugongo, Uganda on the place of Saint Charles Lwanga’s martyrdom. This shrine was dedicated on 3 June 1975, by a specially appointed papal legate, Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli.

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