The Church marks the feast of the Uganda Martyrs in June, a day that in Uganda is a national holiday. Who were these martyrs, and what is their story?
It is one with a remarkable relevance for today. These martyrs were boys in their teens, and they died for their Christian faith—and, more specifically, because they refused to take part in homosexual activities. For their commitment to their faith and to its clear moral teachings, these 22 boys died in a particularly horrific manner: They were burned alive.
Today, Catholics have to stand with courage when speaking about homosexual activity. To affirm the Church’s teaching is to invite ridicule and insults—and, increasingly, to face legal difficulties. In Britain, new legislation has forced Catholic adoption agencies to choose between closure and agreeing to offer children to homosexual couples. A Catholic broadcaster received a visit from the police after she spoke against homosexual adoption on a radio program—she was warned that she might have committed a “homophobic” offense.
A few years ago the Church published a document (signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) that affirmed its teaching on homosexuality and offered some details concerning the pastoral care of people with homosexual tendencies. The date chosen for the announcement was June 3: the feast of the Ugandan Martyrs.
Faith Embraced—and Rejected
The story of the heroic young Ugandan martyrs begins with the arrival in the late 1880s of European missionaries, both Anglican and Catholic, in the territory then known as Buganda. They found a local culture and community that was warmly open to the Christian message and to news and information from the wider world. But as Christianity began to permeate local life, tensions arose. The ruler, the Kabacka, died, and a new one inherited the throne. King Mwanga, a dissolute and spoilt youth, felt threatened by the vigor and openness of mind shown by the young pages at his court who had converted to Christianity. Chief among these was Charles Lwanga, a tall and good-looking youth who was a natural leader, excelling in sports and hunting. He was also one whose life of prayer and evident integrity influenced his fellows and drew them to ask questions about what inspired him.
Fear of the political and military intentions of the European powers—especially Britain—also played a part in what was to come. A visiting Anglican missionary, Bishop James Hannington, was murdered on the orders of the Kabacka. Dying with courage and dignity, he showed a faith that impressed the local people. After his death one of King Mwanga’s subjects, Joseph Balikuddembe, rebuked the king. He was savagely beheaded. A wave of persecution was beginning.
In the martyrdom that followed, boys who had become Christians—Catholic and Anglican—found their faith tested to its keenest limits. The Catholics had been attending talks and catechism classes with the missionaries. Some had been baptized; others were still under instruction. A separate group of boys had for some while been attending the Anglican mission and had been baptized there. The atmosphere at court had been profoundly affected by all of this: The example of both Anglicans and Catholics influenced others.
A Thwarted King’s Fury
Initially, the young Kabacka also had been impressed by Christianity: He liked what he saw and heard of the Christian message, and he also recognized that his people would benefit from the education and skills that the missionaries had brought with them. But this was not enough to counter his other, stronger, commitment—to a dissolute lifestyle, and especially to the homosexual activities to which he had become increasingly addicted.
After some weeks of tension, which stretched over Eastertide, the young men at court sensed that a major drama was about to unfold. One afternoon, after an unsuccessful day’s hunting, King Mwanga sent for a young boy whom he wanted to make a sexual favorite. The boy could not be found, and the king, in a rage, started to shout about the disloyalty and insolence he found at court. He knew that the boy’s absence was almost certainly due to Christians hiding him so that he would not have to face the Kabacka’s advances. E knew that it was likely that the boy had absented himself because he was not prepared to engage in activity which HhhRounding up the boys known to be the keenest Christians, he ranted and hurled insults at them. He also demanded that they give up their ways of prayer and return to unstinting obedience to him in all things.
It became clear in the days that followed that homosexual activity and willingness to comply with immoral activities were the heart of the matter—the Kabacka’s rage had been fueled by the increasing reluctance of his young Christian subjects to indulge him in this. Death was the punishment for opposing the whims and wishes of this absolute sovereign.
But the boys stood firm. Arrested and bound, with ropes cutting into their wrists and feet, they prayed and sang hymns. The older boys, especially Charles Lwanga, taught and encouraged the younger ones, notably Kizito. The youngest of all, he was just 14, and alternated between radiant enthusiasm for Christ and a shaking fear of the death that now awaited them.
Death to “Those Who Pray”
The tribal ritual surrounding executions was grim. As the boys watched it begin, it must have struck terror into their hearts. The executioners, dressed in leopard skins and with their faces painted white in traditional designs, wove in long dances as they wailed a chant while the victims watched: “The mothers of these will weep today—O yes, they will weep today.”
Had any of the boys agreed to abandon their prayers and obey the Kabacka, their lives would have been saved. The Kabacka specifically referred to the Christian boys as “those who pray.” Any who chose to leave that category and renounce their Christian faith could walk back into favor with the ruler.
Namugongo, the site for executions, was some distance from the Kabacka’s court, and the journey there took several days. For some of the boys, tight bonds made walking difficult. On arrival, they were crammed into prison huts near a great funeral pyre that was being stacked—upon which they would be burned alive.
The many eyewitnesses to the martyrdom (the boys were killed in front of a large crowd of their own family members and friends) left a detailed account of the events.
It reads rather like those of the early martyrdoms of Christians in pagan Rome. Extraordinary scenes transpired. The boys prayed and sang hymns as they were rolled in rush matting and dragged to the fire. Young Kizito is said to have gone to his martyrdom singing and calling out that soon he would meet Christ in paradise. As the flames were lit, the prayers did not stop. The young boys’ voices could be heard, clear and unafraid, as the fire crackled up to meet them.
When all was over, the mound of burnt wood and ashes remained, to become one day the base of a great shrine which is now visited by thousands of people annually. Every year, on June 3, vast crowds arrive for an open-air Mass. Children are given the day off school. Kizito is a popular names for boys in Uganda, and his story is told to First Communion and confirmation groups.
An Urgent Witness Today
The Ugandan Martyrs were formally canonized in 1964, the first time that African drums were used in a ceremony at St. Peter’s in Rome. The emergence of Africa as a new stronghold of Christianity, the ecumenical dimension, the proximity of all this to the Second Vatican Council which was opening up a new chapter in the Church’s history—all gave the canonization a special sense of historic importance. But at that time no one thought to remark on the moral teachings at the center of it all: that the martyrs had witnessed with their lives to the truth that sexual communion is reserved to men and women in the lifelong bond of marriage and that homosexual activity is gravely sinful. In 1964, that was simply taken for granted by Anglicans and Catholics alike.
Today, however, we see the boys’ martyrdom as having an extra dimension of significance precisely because of this truth and their courageous witness to it. God speaks to us poignantly through the heroism of these youths. Their witness calls us to join them in courage and faith. We have been given their example at a time when we all need it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, affirming unchanging truths of the Catholic faith for a new century, quotes Scripture and Tradition in describing homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered and contrary to the moral law. It calls for respect, compassion, and sensitivity towards those who—like the young Kabacka—struggle with homosexual tendencies and calls them to chastity and Christian perfection. The Catechism also hails martyrdom as “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death” (CCC 2473). The Catechism notes “The Church has painstakingly collected the records of those who persevered to the end in witnessing to their faith. These are the acts of the martyrs. They form the archives of truth written in letters of blood” (2474).
Two Churches, One Martyrdom
A most touching.aspect to this story of martyrdom is that both Catholic and Anglican boys were caught up in this drama. The Catholic Church does not presume to impose its forms of canonization on those who are not members—but in the ceremony in Rome which was to write the Ugandan Martyrs into the Church’s calendar, special mention with honor was made of the boys of the Anglican Communion who met their deaths—and whose names, incidentally, are recorded on a great memorial in the Anglican Cathedral in Uganda’s capital.