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St. Charles Lwanga and twelve companions: first Martyrs of Africa

The story of the very young martyrs persecuted for their faith

Yesterday, June 3, Uganda and the Catholic Church more generally commemorated St. Charles Lwanga and twelve companions, Africa’s first Martyrs.

All very young, between the ages of 14 and 30, they were persecuted to the point of martyrdom because of their faith by King Mwanga II, king of Buganda, now part of Uganda.

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Who were these young people?

Their story takes place in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the time of the arrival in Uganda of the “white fathers” who came from the West to evangelize the local people. The white fathers and Charles Lwanga and companions, met between 1885 and 1886.

At the time, Charles Lwanga and his companions, were pages in the kingdom of Mutessa. Under this king, Christians had no particular hostility or pressure so much so that the white fathers also carried out their evangelizing mission in peace, bringing the Gospel and making Jesus known to as many people as possible. When King Mutessa was succeeded by his son Mwanga, however, real persecution began for the Christians.

Persecution under King Mwanga II

King Mwanga II, in fact, feared that the growing influence of Christian missionaries would threaten his authority and local traditions. Thus, in an attempt to consolidate his power, he ordered the execution of many of his pages and court officials who had converted to Christianity. Among them, Charles Lwanga and his companions, the youngest of whom, Kizito was only 14 years old, were burned, or pierced with swords, on Namugongo Hill for their faith and are remembered today as Africa’s first martyrs.

Charles Lwanga was killed separately from his other companions on June 3, 1886. As he was going to his death, he said to his executioner, “Please repent, and become a Christian like me.”

Each martyr is commemorated on the day of his or her death, but on June 3 they are all remembered together with St. Charles Lwanga being the best known among them.

Celebrations June 3

Witnesses of the faith

The martyrdom of these young men was a testimony and Namugongo became, every year, a destination for thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.

Charles Lwanga and the didodici companions, were beatified in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

In 1934 Charles Lwanga was proclaimed “Patron of the Youth of Christian Africa” by Pope Pius XI.

On Oct. 18, 1964, Pope Paul IV canonized Charles Lwanga and 12 companions, recognizing their sacrifice as a true example and witness of Christian faith.

In 1993 Pope St. John Paul II, during a pilgrimage to Namugongo, affirmed, “the heroic sacrifice of the martyrs helped bring Uganda and the whole of Africa closer to Christ, the true light that enlightens all men.”



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