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June 03 - St Charles Lwanga and Companions

Every year on June 3rd a large gathering of Ugandan Catholics travel for miles on foot to the city of Namugongo to celebrate the Festival of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions. They fondly call this day "Martyrs Day". It is estimated that today over 3 million Ugandans traveled from all over the country to join in the festivities.

But who is this St. Charles Lwanga and his companions? And why does this feast day attract so many people? 

The Church was received openly into the country of Uganda in the 1880s by King Mutesa. When the Catholic missionaries came into the country, they were accepted openly by many people, especially the lower class of Uganda. They liked the message of the Church, but they felt as though Jesus Christ was very much so alive in their work and in their stories. It was said that thousands were baptized at this time. 

But when you celebrate Martyrs, you know that somewhere the story goes south. King Mutesa eventually dies and his son succeeds him. King Mwanga tolerates, at least for a little while, the Catholic faith that was once accepted by his father. Once he sees the Catholic faith spreading, he begins to worry. Many of those in his court, especially the page boys were converting. King Mwanga favored these boys because of his pedophiliac tendencies. When the head page, a catholic, stood up to the  king to protect the boys, King Mwanga had him beheaded.

This is where Charles Lwanga prominently comes into the story. Charles became the head page after the beheading of the previous page. Charles was just as courageous as his predecessor, Joseph Mukasa. He convinces the missionaries to expedite the conversion process for about one hundred catechumens because they feared for their lives. The missionaries obliged and the catechumens were brought into the church. It wasn't too long after that when King Mwanga has the boys in his court separated into two groups: Catholic and non-Catholics. He asks the Catholic boys about their faithfulness to their new faith. The boys yelled in their native tongue: "'til death!"

It was shortly after that response that the death march began. It was a two day journey by foot to their eventual place of martyrdom. One of the eldest boys knew what was coming, but also wanted to help the younger boys to keep the faith. The boy, Matthias Kalemba, began to shout words of encouragement along the way. It was said that his final words to his executors were: “God will rescue me. But you will not see how he does it, because he will take my soul and leave you only my body.” Angry and annoyed with him, the executors decided to do away with Matthias early. They cut him up and left him along the way to die on the road.

Eventually the group made it to their place of martyrdom, Namugongo. Charles was separated from the rest of the group. As the head page and somewhat of a leader for the other boys he was asked to recant. When he refused, the executioners lit a torch and began to burn his feet. They stopped once his feet had become absolutely charred. They gave him one last chance to turn away from Jesus Christ, and when he refused, they lit the wood under his feet. The flames slowly engulfed the young man. Tradition holds that when the flames finally reached his heart, Charles exclaimed, "Katonda" ("My God") before he breathed his last breath. The others would die in a similar way on that same day.

It was from the blood and courage of these martyrs that millions of Ugandans would become Catholic. They proudly tell this story every year. They know that St Charles Lwanga and the other martyrs are indeed not dead; rather, they continue to watch over their beloved people in Uganda from their place in the Communion of Saints.

Watch Fr. Barron's Video about St Charles and Companions