The martyrs, first African priests and first African bishop make Uganda a truly blessed country, writes Robert Mugagga.
Last week’s confirmation that Pope Francis will visit Uganda later this year makes the country the only one in Africa so far to have been visited by three different reigning pontiffs after Paul VI and John Paul II.
Kenya and Ivory Coast were visited three times each but by Pope John Paul II.
Meanwhile, Benin was visited twice by John Paul II and once by Benedict XVI, while John Paul II twice went to Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Cameroon and Nigeria. So, why do popes love Uganda?
Four factors stand out: the Uganda martyrs and their shrine at Namugongo, the country having one of the largest Catholic populations in the world, and having produced the first indigenous (black) priest and bishop on the continent.
First of all, the canonization of the 22 Uganda martyrs will for many years prove a blessing for this country. They were proclaimed saints by Pope Paul VI on Mission Sunday, October 18, 1964, in Rome.
The impressive ceremony was rendered more spectacular by the presence of the majority of cardinals, patriarchs and bishops of the Catholic Church gathered in Rome for the second Vatican council. During the canonization ceremony, the pope spoke of the respect and honour always accorded to martyrs from the earliest ages of the church.
The Namugongo martyrs shrine is probably the most attractive Catholic shrine on the continent. Such recognized shrines not only attract ordinary Catholics but also top religious leaders.
For instance, during his reign, Pope John Paul II visited France and the Virgin Mary’s shrine at Lourdes nine times, including that occasion in 1981 when he specifically went there to thank Mother Mary for having saved his life from a Turkish assassin.
June 29, 1913 was a very important day for the Catholic Church in Africa. Ugandans Victoro Mukasa Womeraka and Bazilio Lumu became the first black African priests – ordained by the missionary bishop of Masaka, Henry Streicher, at Villa Maria. Bishop Streicher, locally known as “Sitenseera”, had all along wanted Ugandans to stop depending on missionary priests from abroad.
“To get one indigenous priest is far more important than to convert 10,000 people,” the bishop was once quoted as saying.
On the ordination day, Bishop Streicher broke down in tears of joy and in his homily thanked God for having allowed him to witness such a day on which the roots of the church in Uganda and the whole of Africa had been planted. Like the biblical Simeon, the bishop voiced his nunc dimittis (“Now Lord you may allow your servant to go in peace”).
The appointment and consecration of Bishop Joseph Kiwanuka, the first sub-Saharan (black) bishop in the history of the Catholic Church, was historic too. During the consecration on October 29, 1939 in St Peter Basilica, Rome, Pope Pius XII told the new bishop: “The people who today celebrate your being raised to this office, are most eagerly awaiting the results of your work.”
The pope reminded Bishop Kiwanuka that his failure would automatically close the door for future indigenous bishops. Kiwanuka went on to replace Bishop Streicher at Masaka diocese before heading to Lubaga in the sixties to succeed Archbishop Joseph Cabana, a Canadian missionary.
Besides Kiwanuka, Africa’s first cardinal, Laurent Cardinal Rugambwa of Tanzania, and Kenya’s first cardinal, Maurice Cardinal Otunga, studied at Katigondo major seminary in Masaka and at Ggaba seminary in Kampala respectively.
With an estimated 11,219,000 Catholics, Uganda is ranked third in Africa, after DR Congo and Nigeria. Catholics constitute 42 per cent of the Ugandan population. Worldwide, Uganda is at number 19th on the list of countries with the most Catholics. With 145 million (78%), Brazil has more Catholics than any other country, and 11.7 per cent of the world’s Catholic population.
Mexico comes second with 123 million (86%), Philippines has 69 million (81%), USA 64 million (22%), Italy 57 million (96%) and France 44 million (75%). In Africa, DR Congo boasts of the most Catholics at 29, 500,000 (49%), Nigeria is in second position with 17,906,000 (14%), Uganda in third with 11,219,000 (42%), Tanzania 10,465,000 (26%), Angola 10,302,000 (50%), Kenya 8,018,000 (24%) and Madagascar 4,701,000 (23%).
Others are Burundi 4,567,000 (65%), Mozambique 4,314,000 (23%), Cameroon 4,287,000 (25%) and Rwanda 4,124,000 (47%).
Globally, Latin America and the Caribbean region boast of the highest number of Catholics at 425, 490,000 (39%), Europe at 251,100,000 (24%), Asia-Pacific 130,520,000 (12%), sub-Saharan Africa 171,480,000 (16%) and North America 88,550,000 (8%).
According to a 2013 report, over the past century, the number of Catholics around the world has tripled from an estimated 291 million in 1910 to 1.1 billion in 2010.