Friday, June 3, 2011

St Charles Lwanga and his companions, Martyrs of Uganda

Painting at the Namugongo Seminary
which is part of the Anglican Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs.

Charles Lwanga (also known as Karoli Lwanga) was born in 1860 and was martyred on 3rd June, 1886.

In 1875 the explorer Henry Stanley reached Buganda (earlier name for Uganda). Very shortly afterwards the first missionaries came to Buganda, the Anglicans in 1877 and the Roman Catholics in 1879. The arrival of missionaries set the stage for a marked turning point in the religious life of the people of Buganda.

King Mutesa, who never converted and died a tribal traditionalist, dealt astutely with the various forces of Islam, tribal religions and Christianity that were vying for the souls of the Bugandans. However, upon his death in 1884, eighteen year old Mwanga II ascended to the Bugandan throne. His reign would prove extremely hostile to the new religions, especially Christianity.

One of the first Christians to be martyred under his reign was James Hannington, the initial Anglican Archbishop sent to Buganda. Shortly before arriving at the court of Mwanga, he and his party were intercepted. Archbishop Hannington and his entire party were killed in 1885.

King Mwanga began to insist Christian converts abandon their new faith and executed many Anglican and Roman Catholics between 1885 and 1887. After the first three martyrs were executed, Joseph Mukasa, a senior advisor to the king and a Roman Catholic convert, condemned the king for ordering the death of Archbishop Hannington without being given a chance for him to defend himself which was a Bugandan custom. Mwamba, annoyed that his rulings would be questioned, had him beheaded in November 1885. He was the fourth martyr and the first Roman Catholic.

On a visit to the capital in 1880, Charles Lwanga became interested in the teachings of the missionaries and began to attend their instruction. On accession of King Mwanga, Lwanga went to the court and entered royal service. His leadership qualities were such that he was placed in charge of the royal pages (lowest of the servants) and he immediately won the confidence and affection of his charges.

His immediate leader was the future martyr, Joseph Mukasa, who relied more and more completely on Lwanga for the instruction and guidance of the royal pages. He also shielded them from homosexual advances at court, especially those of the king.

Upon Mukasa's martyrdom, Lwanga and many other pages went to the Roman Catholic Mission and were baptized. The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded that they confess their Christian belief. All but three did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians and hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. Several times near the end of 1885, the king tried to intimidate his pages in spite of visits from both Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries.

After the fire in the royal palace in February 1886, Mwanga moved the royal court to the shores of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages from the king's sexual advances and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. Lwanga baptized some of the pages himself.

On 26th May, 1886, the pages were once again called before the king to receive their judgment, declaring they were ready to die for their faith rather than to deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, ten Anglicans and sixteen Roman Catholics to be burnt alive. As they were being led to their execution an eyewitness commented on how tightly they were bound, but more especially their calmness and even joyful disposition on their faces.

The martyrs were marched eight miles to their execution site and kept in confinement for a week because the execution pyres were not completed until 2nd June. During that time the martyrs prayed and sang together, while the missionaries, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, paid fruitless visits to the king to appeal for their young neophytes.

On June 3rd, before killing the main body of prisoners, Charles Lwanga was put to death on a small pyre on a hill above the execution place. He was wrapped in a reed mat, with a slave yoke on his neck, but he was allowed to arrange the pyre himself. To make him suffer the more, the fire was lit under his feet and legs first. These were burnt to charred bones before the flames were allowed to reach the rest of his body. Taunted by his 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 burnt further down the hill.

Charles Lwanga and the other Roman Catholic martyrs were declared "blessed" by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. All twenty-two were canonized (The Ugandan Martyrs) by Pope Paul VI in 1964, who spoke also of the Anglicans as "worthy of mention for enduring death for the name of Christ." Among those who were martyred, was also an Anglican page by the same name Charles Lwanga.

Rather than halting the spread of Christianity, these early believers seem to have sparked growth. Following the executions, many were seen carrying their Bibles in public. These seeds of faith became the impulse that eventually sparked the Great East African Revival in the Twentieth Century which has led to Uganda being one of the most Christian nations in the world. A third of the population is Anglican, a third Roman Catholic and the remaining third made up of Protestants, Muslims and atheists.


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