Massive crowds flock to Uganda Martyrs shrine for celebrations of their feast

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Uganda martyrs
Faithful pray at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine in Namugongo, Uganda, April 22, 2021. Pilgrims from across Uganda mark Martyrs Day June 3, with a journey to the shrine near the capital of Kampala to remember Christians killed in the 1880s. (CNS photo/Tonny Onyulo)

KAMPALA, Uganda (OSV News) — Christian pilgrims from all walks of life flocked to the Uganda Catholic Martyrs Shrine of Namugongo in the suburbs of Kampala, the country’s capital, seeking divine healing through prayers, holy water and soil during the June 3 central celebrations of the Uganda Martyrs’ feast.

Catholic agency Fides, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, reported there may have been 4 million people in the shrine celebrating the martyrs canonized exactly 60 years ago St. Pope Paul VI in 1964.

The Uganda Martyrs

The Uganda Martyrs were a group of 22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans martyred when they refused to denounce their faith and were killed on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II, then king of Buganda, between 1885 and 1887.

Their feast day witnessed rivers of pilgrims, including religious sisters from across the world walking to reach the shrine, where the sick, people living with disabilities, those with prayer requests and political leaders, including Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, participated in the central celebration.

Basilica Church of the Uganda Martyrs, Namugongo. Philipp Jakob, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Namugongo shrine is where St. Charles Lwanga, a Ugandan convert to the Catholic Church, and his companions were burned to death on June 3, 1886.

Some martyrs were dragged from their houses to Namugongo and other locations and were killed by beheading. Others were slaughtered and cut into pieces for their faith.

Ugandan Catholics flock to Namugongo every year in early June.

Personal stories of faith and sacrifice

Lucy Lubega from the Diocese of Lira in northern Uganda walked for more than 240 miles, spending nights on the way, to reach Namugongo to pray through the intercession of the martyrs to help her get a child.

“I have been praying for a child but have never gotten one. It’s why I sacrificed to walk this long journey to Namugongo so that the martyrs can intervene in my situation,” said the 45-year-old woman as she drank “holy water” from the martyrs’ lake at the Catholic shrine. It’s called “holy water” because people believe that murderers sent by King Mwanga washed their weapons at spring wells at Namugongo.

Christians believe that besides praying, “holy water” can cure all illnesses and bring blessings to a person or family.

“I leave this place with faith, knowing I will become pregnant soon,” Lubega said. “I believe in the powers of the martyrs, and that they will answer my prayers soon. I want to thank God for enabling me to arrive here safely, and I have delivered my prayers through the saints.”

Diocese of Nebbi leads celebrations

The Ugandan Diocese of Nebbi was in charge of celebrations this year. On May 15, a delegation of about 700 pilgrims from Nebbi set out on foot in the rain to reach Namugongo, Fides reported. They covered over 300 miles before reaching the Catholic pilgrimage site, accompanied by Archbishop Raphael Wokorach, who since 2021 had been bishop of Nebbi but was appointed by the pope March 22 as archbishop of Gulu, though he has not yet been installed.

The archbishop led the procession of 20 bishops to the altar in a pavilion in the middle of an artificial lake, just a few hundred meters from the basilica built on the spot where St. Lwanga was killed.

Archbishop Wokorach said the journey of faith that Christians had undertaken to reach Namugongo would bear fruit through martyrs’ blessings.

“I am happy to celebrate the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the love of God. It was a bold decision, and it’s significant in our lives,” Archbishop Wokorach told OSV News. “I pray to everyone that God answers your prayers and petitions. We believe everything is possible through the power of faith.”

During the June 3 celebration, he told congregants that “the story of the Uganda Martyrs, St. Lwanga and his companions, is a story of those who trust in the Lord. It is a story of those who choose the way of the Lord. It is a story of those who abandoned the way of idolatry.”

“May the Uganda Martyrs, through their gift of faith and love for their vocation as Christians,” the archbishop prayed, “bless all our pilgrims here gathered today in Namugongo, that the grace that fortified their faith reaches every one of us, touches every one of us. May our pilgrimage and work to this holy ground not be in vain. May God bless all of us.”

Father Anthony Kizito, assistant priest at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Mukono in central Uganda, said he and other pilgrims from his church had trekked to the shrine in search of spiritual nourishment, and they got it.

“These saints sacrificed their lives and sowed a seed of faith, and so we come to Namugongo, where they were burned, to offer our personal prayers, novena prayers and Mass intentions so that our problems are solved and souls saved,” the priest told OSV News.

Reflection on the martyrs’ legacy

Meanwhile, Archbishop Luigi Bianco, apostolic nuncio to Uganda, reflected on the martyrs’ sacrifice to save the souls and give hope to all Christians.

“The Christian faith is strengthened by the example and intercession of the martyrs. The solemnity of the Ugandan Martyrs represents a special moment of faith and grace for the church and the Christians in our beloved Uganda,” he said.

“Martyr means witness. For this reason, we are called to be witnesses of Christ in our life and actions,” Archbishop Bianco emphasized.

Tonny Onyuolo

Tonny Onyuolo writes for OSV News from Kampala, Uganda.