The martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and twenty-one companions in Uganda, Africa in 1885-86 was the start of a remarkable growth of Christianity on that continent. The White Fathers, Catholic missionaries who reached Uganda in 1879, succeeded in converting a number of native Africans who were servants of King Mwanga, a local Ugandan ruler. But in 1885 the king began persecuting Christians.
Charles Lwanga was in charge of the pages in the kingʼs court. The king wanted some of the pages as sexual partners. His Christian pages refused and he threatened them with torture and death. Led by Charles, they rejected the kingʼs advances and so the king, summoning them before him, asked if they were going to continue to deny him as Christians. “Till death!” they answered. “Then put them to death!” the king shouted.
Three pages died on the road to their execution at Namugonga. Many bystanders were amazed at the courage and calm of Charles and his companions. On Ascension Day, 1886, they were wrapped up in reed mats and set afire for their faith. The following year an extraordinary number of Ugandans became Christian.
The grace of God was working in them, the prayer for their feast on June 3 says: “Father, you have made the blood of martyrs the seed of Christians.””
Africa has a history of martyrs, Pope Paul VI recalled at their canonization; the early Christian martyrs St. Cyprian, Saints Felicity and Perpetua, the 4th century Martyrs of Sicilli, whose relics are venerated in the Passionist church of Saints John and Paul in Rome.
Charles Lwanga and his companions opened a new page in the history of holiness in Africa. Paying tribute to them, Pope Paul recommended not forgetting “ those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.” Pope Francis recently spoke of “an ecumenism of blood”, as Christians from different denominations suffer persecution today.
“These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age.”
Christian activity in Africa began in the 1st century in Alexandria in Egypt and other parts of Roman Africa, but the 7th century Islamic conquest caused a deep decline in Christianity there. In modern times Christianity reached south as the European powers colonized the continent. By 2005 Catholics numbered 135 million Africans out of a population of 809 million. By 2025, African Catholics are expected to be one-sixth of the world’s Catholic population. A new Christian Era has begun.
“Go out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”