The martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and his twenty-one companions in Uganda, Africa in 1885-86 was a major factor behind the remarkable spread of Christianity on that continent. The White Fathers, Catholic missionaries, reached that remote part of the world in 1879. They succeeded in converting a number of native Africans who were servants of King Mwanga, a local Ugandan ruler. In 1885 King Mwanga began to persecute Christians.
Charles Lwanga was in charge of the pages in the kingʼs court. The king wanted some of the pages as sexual partners. The Christian pages refused and he threatened them with torture and death.
Led by Charles, they rejected the kingʼs advances, and so the king summoned them to appear before him and asked if they were going to continue to deny what he asked 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 in their final trials. 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 prayer for their feast explains the grace of God at work in them: “Father, you have made the blood of martyrs the seed of Christians.””
Africa has a history of martyrs, Pope Paul VI recalled at the canonization of the Ugandan martyrs, like 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. In his tribute to them Pope Paul added: “Nor must we forget 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. If only our minds might be directed not toward persecutions and religious conflicts but toward a rebirth of Christianity and civilization!”