Today we celebrate the Memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions. In his Word on Fire blog, Bishop Robert Barron has written an excellent biography of Charles Lwanga and his Companions. I quote from that blog.
In 1879, the first Catholic missionaries arrived in the heart of Africa, in what is now the nation of Uganda. In a few years, they had made a number of converts, especially among the young. The most prominent of these were a group of men and boys who served as pages to King Mwanga. This king had initially been supportive of the missionaries, but his attitude quickly changed when he discovered how seriously his Christian pages took the moral demands of their new faith.
Accustomed to getting whatever he wanted, Mwanga demanded sexual favors from several of his pages. When they refused on the grounds that this was immoral behavior for a Christian, the king presented them with a terrible choice: either renounce their Christian faith or die. Though they were new converts and though they were very young, every single page refused to deny his Christianity. The king was so enraged that he became determined to stamp out Christianity. He ordered the leader, Charles, who was only 25 years old, and the other young Christian pages to be put to death. 22 young Ugandans were burned to death on June 3, 1886 at Namugongo.
Some who saw or heard of the executions at Namugongo were frightened and abandoned their faith. But many others were galvanized and inspired by the courage of those young witnesses and by their unshakable belief in God. The Catholic church in Africa didn’t die at Namugongo; it came to life there.
The number of Christians increased greatly. By 1890 (4 years after these deaths), it was estimated that there were 10,000 Christians in Uganda.
New research data from 2019 shows that, for the 1st time in human history, more Christians live in Africa than in any other continent. What this means is that there are more Christians in Africa than in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America combined. This statistic proves that the words of the Opening Prayer of today’s Mass are correct: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.
In all probability, you and I will not be called to shed our blood for our faith. However, like Charles Lwanga and his companions, we are called to lay down our lives in the service of the Gospel. If we take our calling to be faithful to the Gospel seriously, like these 22 young Ugandans, we will have to accept a hard truth. We will be required to surrender ourselves and let go of our very selves.
I know that I many of you are already doing this. There are people in our viewing audience who give up their day to care for a loved one at home who is seriously ill, or to care for a person suffering from cancer or dementia, or to care for a person with disabilities. In these cases, you have made the decision that your life is not your own.
Many of you are mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Parenting and grand parenting are genuine expressions of death to self.
During this pandemic, members of the Canadian Armed Forces are knowingly and willingly risking their lives to ensure the health and well-being of vulnerable residents in long-term care facilities. As of June 1, 40 members of the military have contracted COVID-19 while serving in this capacity. What great spiritual role models these men and women are! These individuals are showing beyond a shadow of a doubt that their life is for others.
Yes, Charles Lwanga and companions made the ultimate sacrifice. But we, too, when we are faced with obstacles and adversities and remain courageous and unwavering in our belief in God, become examples of Christian witness. When we reject immoral behavior of any kind or when we turn our back on worldly pleasures and attachments of any kind, we are firm and rock solid in our faith. Whenever we are instruments of compassion, forgiveness, and unselfishness, we, too, are making a gift of ourselves by doing good. We, too, experience a very real martyrdom, when we give our all and hold nothing back in reaching out to those who have any need.
The key message is that, in order to be true disciples, we need to lay down and lose our lives in love and service. This is the point St. Paul was emphasizing in the 1st Reading when he said, “Join with me in suffering for the Gospel”.
As our Mass continues, let us ask God to help us to be like Charles Lwanga and companions – to give away our lives in the service of the Gospel in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
June 3, 2020