Gina Christian

Some 130 years before #MeToo became a global movement to counter sexual assault, a number of Ugandan youth fended off the unwanted advances of their king — emboldened by their faith in Christ, and at the cost of their lives.

Between 1885 and 1887, two dozen Ugandan Catholics (along with several Anglicans) were martyred under King (or “Kabaka”) Mwanga II. Most of them had been pages in the court of Mwanga, a practicing pedophile who was infuriated when his Christianized attendants courageously resisted his depraved demands. After a two-day march, thirteen of the court members were burned to death in 1886 at Namugongo (now the site of their shrine); the remainder were beheaded, speared or dismembered in other locations.

Months earlier, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, the king’s majordomo, had become Uganda’s first Catholic martyr, having been slain for imploring Mwanga not to assassinate Anglican missionary Bishop James Hannington.

This week, the church celebrated the feast of these witnesses, who were led by the example of both Mukasa and Charles Lwanga, officer of the court pages and, as scholar J. A. Rowe noted, “not the sort of man to back down in the face of a challenge.”  

Lwanga’s steadfast acceptance of excruciating suffering was particularly impressive. His executioners began by slowly burning his feet, then asking him if he wished to renounce his faith. His refusal was remarkable: “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” Set aflame, Lwanga prayed silently, and only at the end of his agony did he cry out “Katonda (my God)!” before expiring.

Significantly, not all Christians in what was then known as Buganda fell afoul of Mwanga. A number were able to go into hiding, or to diplomatically navigate the temperamental monarch’s moods and preserve their lives. Lwanga and his court companions were too close to throne to evade Mwanga’s wrath, but even if the option had existed, it’s highly doubtful the martyrs would have availed themselves of the chance to flee. As Rowe points out, Lwanga “probably did not entertain the idea of escape, so intent was he upon the issues which he saw at stake — the necessity not to compromise the purity of the Christian religion, nor to recognize an allegiance greater than that owed to the Christian God.”

And the youth Lwanga shielded and shepherded weren’t simply victims of dreadful circumstances, or blind followers of their inspiring mentor. Asked by Mwanga if they were willing to maintain their faith, they answered as one, “Until death!” So too did the remaining martyrs decide that, compelled to choose, eternity with Christ was greater than any temporal existence.

But eyes focused only on the here and now are unable to peer into heaven. During the march to Namugongo, Matthias Kalemba (one of the older members of the group) told his captors, “God will rescue me. But you will not see how he does it, because he will take my soul and leave you only my body.” He was hacked to pieces and left to die on the roadside, while his spirit journeyed to a land unfathomed by the earthbound.

Reflecting on the martyrs after a 2010 visit to Namugongo, then-Father (and now Bishop) Robert Barron wondered if a dying Lwanga could have envisioned that one day some half a million faithful would joyfully celebrate Mass at the site’s basilica, the shape of which recalls the funeral pyre on which the martyrs died. 

Father Barron concluded that church father and apologist Tertullian “had it right — the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. … The very thing that we would think would destroy the faith, in fact invigorates the faith.”

The blood of the martyrs continues to drench the soil in African and other nations. According to a recent report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), 5.2 billion people live in countries where religious freedom is gravely threatened. In sub-Saharan Africa alone — where more than four in 10 of the world’s Christians are projected to live by 2060 — extremist ideologies, fueled by poverty, corruption and ineffective governments, have already killed hundreds of thousands, while displacing millions.

As we contemplate St. Charles Lwanga and his companions, may we stand with our sisters and brothers for whom faith in Christ all too often demands their very breath. Though thousands of miles away, may we set their sufferings before our eyes, raise our voices in their defense, and — should the Lord require it of us — imitate their love in laying down our lives for the One in whom we believe.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.