Earlier this month, thousands of Catholic pilgrims trekked across East Africa to Uganda to be part of the massive celebration of the feast of the Ugandan Martyrs on June 3. The feast day is observed annually at the Martyr Shrines in Namugongo, near the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
The Catholic faithful sang, danced, and prayed around the shrine, where religious leaders, diplomats, and government representatives, as well as ordinary citizens, converged in solidarity and celebration.
“It is an important event that has become a pillar of faith for Catholics in East Africa and other African countries, and beyond,” Father Chrisantus Ndaga, deputy general secretary of the East African bishops’ conference, told Catholic World Report. “We are happy to see the celebration grow each year. We hope the Namugongo shrine will become recognized as an international site for pilgrimage for Catholics and other Christians.”
The celebration brings Christians from across Africa and the world together to remember the 45 Catholic and Anglican martyrs who were burned to death between 1885 and 1887 for refusing to recant their Christian faith. They were executed by order of Kabaka Mwanga II, king of what was then known as Buganda. The youngest of the martyrs was St. Kitizo, age 13; many churches across the continent are dedicated to him.
On June 6, 1920, Pope Benedict XV beatified the 22 Catholic martyrs, some of them young boys—and recent converts—who were pages in Kabaka’s palace. They were canonized on October 18, 1964 by Pope Paul VI; he followed the canonization with a visit to Uganda in 1969, becoming the first Pontiff to visit Africa.
Also honored at the Namugongo shrine are two catechists from the town of Paimol, Blessed Daudi Okello and Blessed Jildo Irwa, who were killed in 1918 for their faith. Pope John Paul II beatified the catechists on October 20, 2002.
The shrine has attracted millions of pilgrims from around the world, with many from neighboring countries walking to the shrine as a demonstration of their faith.
“The walk is embraced as part of [their] prayer,” Father Ndaga said of these pilgrims.
Most of the pilgrims come from Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. European countries and the Americas also have representatives at the feast-day celebrations. The commemoration culminates with the celebration of Mass.
In recent years the Ugandan government has joined with the Catholic bishops to make the feast-day celebrations more successful by improving the area around the Namugongo shrine. The basilica, built in 1968, has undergone an expansion. Water and power services have been renovated, and new roads and a joint security base have been constructed. The Ministry of Tourism set aside the month of May to promote the activities leading up to the martyrs’ feast day.
“We want our friends from all over the world not only to come on June 3, but to arrive a month before and visit the birth places of these martyrs,” Godfrey Kiwanda, Uganda’s Minister for Tourism, said in a media release ahead of the celebrations. “We also have plans to promote our holy sites for visits after June 3, so that faith-based tourists can visit Uganda throughout the year,” added the minister.
Each year, these events have provided a financial boost for ordinary people in the East African nation; food vendors and those selling other wares eagerly await the last week of May and the feast day itself.
Each year a theme is chosen for the feast-day celebrations; this year’s theme was, “Stand firm in the faith that you have been taught.” The theme called on Catholics to be strong witnesses of faith as individuals, within their families and places of work, and in all their interactions.
The week before the celebrations, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga of the Catholic Archdiocese of Kampala urged Catholics to follow in the steps of the martyrs, who courageously stood for their faith under very difficult circumstances.
Archbishop Lwanga told a group of pilgrims walking to the Namugongo shrine to be strong in their faith and never be ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross in public.
“This spiritual journey has been organized to enable our Christians today to experience the martyrs’ pain and their last moments on Earth in a commemorative walk,” the archbishop told the Ugandan newspaper New Vision.
In Kampala, public prayers and events commemorating the martyrs began a week before the June 3 feast day. These included the second annual “Walk of Faith Pilgrimage” on May 27, which went from the Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine to St. Matia Mulumba Parish in old Kampala, both sites of martyrdom for some of the Ugandan saints.