Today we celebrate the Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs. Charles Lwanga is an Ugandan Catholic martyred in Namungongo in 1886 by burning at the stake along with 21 other recently baptized Catholic boys and young men. They are the protomartyrs of Uganda.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
3 June 2019
The collect for today’s Holy Mass opens with this prayer:
O God, who have made the blood of the Martyrs the seed of Christians, mercifully grant that the filed which is your Church, watered by the blood shed by Saints Charles Lwanga and his companions, may be fertile and always yield you an abundant harvest. (Roman Missal, 871)
Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) is known for writing, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians.” In his time, the word “Christian” was synonymous with the word “Catholic” since all Christians were members of the one Church Christ founded on St. Peter (Mt 16:17-19)—unless they were heretics. Thus, one can say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
That is certainly the case with the blood of St. Charles and his companions. They were among the very first baptized Catholics in Uganda. Today, there are about 13.4 million Catholics who reside there. But why is the blood of the martyrs the seed of the Christians? How is it possible that death leads to increase and new growth, especially such a terrifying death? In simple terms, it’s because death by Christian martyrdom brings eternal life. The shedding of one’s blood for Christ is the highest sign of love for him. It’s an unmistakable and undeniable sign of the human person who is caught up in and moved by supernatural love. It’s the human response to Christ’s voluntary, saving and redeeming death on the cross. It points to and leads to something beyond the world: the transcendent reality of God who is Love.
Christian martyrdom cannot go unnoticed. Nor can it go without response. When people witness that depth of love for Christ, they instinctively realize they have witnessed a privileged moment in time rooted in God. It puts the power of God’s love on display, for no man would sacrifice himself and endure such tortures for anything less than divine love.
It’s often said that being a Christian is more about dying than it is about living. The Christian religion transmitted in its full purity by the Church is the home of many paradoxes. And that is one of them. St. Charles teaches us that same concept by his life and death. As our Lord himself said:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. (Mt 16:25-27)
Not every Christian is called to shed his blood for the faith in “red martyrdom.” However, every Christian is called to self-sacrifice, chosen by the Son of God to follow in the way of the cross. Every Christian must die to self and experience the effects of this love-induced death, something often termed “white martyrdom.” It’s not possible to be a Christian in its absence.
The Martyrdom of St. Charles and His Companions
St. Charles was a member of the Baganda tribe, born in the kingdom of Buganda, which is located in the central, southern portion of modern Uganda. His story really begins in about the year 1879, when missionary priests known as the White Fathers received a favorable welcome from the Ugandan King Mutesa. These priests promptly began catechizing a group of boys who were soon to become catechumens. Many were baptized as Catholics and became pages (assistants) in the king’s royal court. Things were going quite well until King Mutesa died, leaving his throne to his morally corrupt and barbaric son, Mwanga.
When Mwanga took the throne, he began to display a vehement hate for the divine faith of the Church. It is suggested that, in order to resist foreign colonialization, Mwanga required Christians to abandon their faith. It seems, however, his angst for Christianity ran far deeper. Further, he frequently engaged in forced homosexual and pedophilic practices with the boys who were his pages. The head page, Joseph Mukasa, who was a Catholic, did everything he could to protect the boys from Mwanga’s homosexual predation. When Mwanga murdered a visiting Anglican bishop, Joseph admonished the king, fearlessly living out his duty as a Christian in charity and truth. Mwanga reacted by beheading him.
Upon witnessing Joseph’s horrific martyrdom, many of the young pages sought out the priests and received the sacrament of baptism. Within a week, about one-hundred catechumens were baptized. At this time, Charles was about twenty-five years old. In Joseph’s absence, Mwanga elevated him to head page—a highly dangerous and likely unwanted promotion. That same day Charles was baptized by Pere Giraud on 15 November 1885. Risking certain death, Charles was a dedicated catechist and leader of the boys. He too did what he could to protect the others from Mwanga’s evil lusts.
When Mwanga learned that Charles was teaching the pages the Catholic faith, he became enraged, primarily because the baptized refused his sexual advances. He assembled the boys and ordered those who were Christian to step forward. After they did so, he asked them if they would hold to their faith in Christ. All answered in unison, “Until death!”—a response that sealed their martyrdom.
The boys were bound and sent on a two-day march to Namungongo, a common location for executions, where they would be burned to death. On the way there, their executioners marched them past one of the priests’ homes who had catechized and perhaps baptized them earlier.
Along the road, the oldest boy, Matthias Kalemba, said to his companions, “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.” In response, he was sliced by sword and left on the road to die.
When the boys arrived at Namungongo, they were bound in place for about seven days while their killers gathered wood for the pyres. As they watched the piles grow larger, the boys silently prayed. Charles asked his captors if he could gather the wood for his own pyre. They agreed.
After the wood was collected, Charles was the first to be tortured. His feet were slowly roasted until they were but black, charred clumps of flesh. During this unimaginable torture, Charles remained silent—he uttered not a single outcry. He did not curse his captors. He did not shout at them. He remained meek as a lamb led to slaughter.
His killers proposed to him this opportunity: “If you will renounce your faith, you may go free.”
“It is as if you are pouring water on me. Please repent and become a Christian like me,” said Charles.
With that, they positioned him on the pyre and lit the fire.
When the flames reached his heart, Charles looked to heaven and exclaimed, “Katonda!” which means, “My God!,” and died. It was June 3, 1886.
Sources: Catholic News Agency. “St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs of Uganda.” https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/saint/st-charles-lwanga-and-companions-martyrs-of-uganda-488
Wikipedia. “Charles Lwanga.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lwanga
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.